Jersey horse van

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Jersey horse van


This article by Richard Stevens was first published in the 1965 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

The original Jersey hay-cart (hernais à éclon) which was the symbol of the Island's mixed farming during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, has been admirably written up by Mr F Le Maistre, and the time has come to supplement his fine article with one on the subject of the Jersey horse-van, the symbol of the early potato trade of the late 19th and the 20th centuries,

Eclon replacement

The four-wheeled van was the immediate successor to the éclon, and put it into the background because of its greater efficiency. For instance, it was customary, up until about 1885, to take loose potatoes down to the quay in an éclon, fitted as a box-cart, and tip them straight down a chute into the ship's hold.

But when the English importers demanded potatoes in barrels, it was found that the éclon could only take 18, whereas the new van could hold 28, or even 32 with the tail-board down, though two horses were required to pull such a lead uphill.

For hay and cereals too, the van was found to be more convenient to load and unload, when fitted with hay-ladders, although it had the same capacity as the éclon.

The van was never intended as an all-purpose vehicle, as the éclon had become; it merely relieved the éclon of potato and hay carting, leaving all the dirty field johs to ordinary box-carts or converted éclons.

The basic character of the van is that it is a sprung road vehicle (which English hay-wains were not) and that it is a very elegant piece of equipment. Having fine paintwork and carriage-like detailing, the van could be fitted with benches for Sunday driving. In a sense the van was the status symbol of a new type of farmer, who, for the first time, could become comfortably rich through the successful new potato trade.

A 1909 advert for Devenish, one of the builders of Jersey horse vans

The horse van probably first existed in the Island in about 1875 and was subsequently made by the well-known coach and cart builders; Trachy, Huelin, Lane, Underhill, Rabasse, Briggs, Devenish, Vautier, Jeune and Le Miere, Colback, Ward etc., all of whom had their signatures in the form of individual templates for the foot-rest or the shaped beam-ends (Ies conettes) or the shape of the bevel on the stanchions (les epées) and the hub-caps.

Originally all van and carriage parts were made locally, even the intricate ironwork, which was made by blacksmiths, and sometimes the wheelwright himself (le charron). By about 1900 most of the ironwork was ordered from England, and by 1914 most of the wood also.

Origin uncertain

It is very difficult to know whether the van was introduced into the Island, or evolved here. For just as the éclon has similar counterparts in other places, so also the van is similar to English game-carts, military vans, rag and bone carts, railway station carts of the 19th century, and English sprung farm carts. I shall not write about similarities and dissimilarities, but I hope that these will arise out of this essay.

The most likely answer to this problem is that the van was not imported into Jersey as such, nor that it developed directly from any English vehicle. I think that the local wheelwrights, who had by that time some knowledge of English carriage-building, and of the existence of English hay waggons on four wheels, just invented a road waggon for the Island by a peerless combination of carriage building, waggon building, and the wheelwright's very good sense. The result was a van whose design needed little improvement.

It should be mentioned in the first place that none of this would have happened without the Island's increased communication with the mainland through shipping in the 19th century; and also that, whereas the banne and the éclon developed through Norman contacts, the van and its inspiration came directly from England, and not from France.

Three types

There are three kinds of van in the Island today; the four-panelled van, the cob-van, and the five-panelled van. The four-panelled van was the first to be built, and the cob-van, which is smaller, and the five-panelled van, which is stronger, both stem from it.

The van in general consists of a rectangular box (Ie corps de la vainne) which rests at the back on springs, and at the front on a turntable. The back springs are fixed to the axle of the back wheels, and the front wheels, axle, and springs, are fixed to the turntable. The shafts are shackled to the splinter-bar of the turn¬table, and the hay-ladders fit inside the corps de la vainne.

The body of a four-panel van is constructed in this way; a floor (Ie solais) of deal boards is nailed across the side-rails (les roulons) and the inside rails or ‘summers’ (les timons). The four stanchions (les epées) are tenoned and bolted to the roulons, and also to the top of the side rail (Ie relle), but they are proud of both.

There are two cross-beams fixed to the solais; the back one (Ie tchian de driethe) on which the tail-board (Ie driethe) rests, is joined to the timons and the roulons, whose tenons project right through it.

The front one (Ie tchian de d'vant) rests on the roulons and the timons. The long bolt, which for visual and structural reasons takes the place of a final front stanchion, passes through the head-rail, the top side rail, then passes beside the side panelling, and finally passes through the tchian de d'vant and the roulon, thus tying the whole lot together.

In front of this tchian, the footboard, which rests on the ends of the timons and the roulons, supports the footrest at an angle with angle-irons. The name and parish of the owner is ornately painted on the offside front panel, that is behind the screw brake lever.

The head-rail spans the side of the van, and rests on the top side rail and the outer side rail. Between the headrail and the tchian are stanchions, which are not proud of either, and a panel behind them.

Underneath the projecting ends of the head rail, the outer side rail goes the length of the van, supported on the stanchions by triangulated irons, which form a rack for hay-forks, and also have little twisted hooks (les diables) round which to attach ropes.

Between the two parallel top rails there are metal dowels (des g'vil'yes en fe) as in English hay-waggons. The overhang which this detail forms is usually covered by an even wider board, for supporting potato barrels.

The panelling and the floor are both of white deal, which sustains knocks better than hardwoods do. The front ends of the side panels and the ends of the tail-board have a finial called a violin (violon).

The hay-ladders (les eclons) have on the bottom ends of their main beams hooks which fit into rings in the floor, but the main weight of them rests on the head¬rail and tail-rail (the beam at the top of the tail-board).

Strong wheels

The wheels of the van are like carriage wheels, though much stronger, and are consequently fixed through the hub to the revolving axle-plate with three long bolts.

The axle (l'esseu) is bolted to the springs (les ressorts) and with a block separating them, by means of an axle clip and two half-round clips (Robbins 101 and 102). The back springs, which are half-elliptic, are fixed at the front end to a large bridge-scroll, and at the back end to a Jew's harp. (R 93 and 92).

Both of these fittings are bolted up to the roulons. On most four-panel vans there is an additional transverse spring fixed to a cross-beam under the body, with its tips resting on the main back springs. This was originally due to the lesser resilience and strength of blacksmiths' springs, and the later five-panel vans consequently did not need this extra spring.

The front springs are elliptical and are held to the axle in the same way as the back springs, and held to the outside iron futchell with the same half-round clip. This iron futchell is fixed at its front end to the splinter bar and holds the shafts, at its middle to the springs and the turn-table bed, and at its back end it returns in a curve and bolts to the end of the wooden futchell.

The two wooden futchells are joined with a tenon and an iron plate to the splinter-bar, pass right through the turn-table bed, and bolt to the returns of the iron futchells.

The two curved wooden sweeps which revolve against the actual turntable (a ring of quarter-inch tyring iron) are fixed on top of the futchells. The turntable is bolted to the main and the back van beds (ie cross-pieces) and to two wooden balls attached to two small futchells passing through the beds. The beds are bolted up to the timons and the roulons and the main van bed is bolted to the turntable bed by the ‘perch bolt’ which forms the axis of the lock.

There is a screw-brake on four-panel vans, attached to a fitting on the projecting end of the head rail, and operating levers and a drag-shoe (Ie chabot).

Slim shafts

The shafts are much slimmer than cart shafts, not being load bearing, and the shaft-frame hinges on to the ends of the iron futchells. A pole (le timon) for double harness, fitted with a pole-head (R 105) is pinned into a staple under the splinter bar and rests in a similar staple under the turntable bed. There are steps on each end of the splinter-bar.

The hay-ladders have the same structure as the ladder of the eclon; two main beams are pierced by thinner cross-rails, held by dowels (des g'vil'yes) and even thinner slats (des madelles) are nailed to these cross-pieces. The main beams are usually shaped, but sometimes straight.

Benches (les banes) were sometimes fitted to the van body facing inwards, for parties and excursions.

Originally local wood was used by wheelwrights, the trees being auctioned, or personally chosen, and later sawn up by sawyers such as Esnouf, de la Taste, Huelin and Le Feuvre; but since the first World War nearly all the wood was imported.

The cob van is in most measurements three-quarters of the size of a four-panel van, and its object was to be used on small farms, or as an extra on large ones. I only know of about nine cob vans in existence, and probably few were ever made, and may date between 1915 and 1930 approximately.

Apart from the dimensions, the cob van only differs from the four-panel van in that it had Warner wheels (with iron casting to the hub), and that the shafts are much larger in proportion to the van itself.

The back springs are supported at their back end by an 'L' flap scroll (R 91) as opposed to a Jew's harp (R 92), and it has no supplementary back spring. The cob van has one van-bed in front of the main bed, as opposed to one behind. Some cob vans and four-panel vans have three van-beds, an alteration effected to give extra stability. In such cases the beds do not match up with the bevels on the roulons. In all other respects it is just a smaller kind of four-panel van. I have never seen hay-ladders for a cob van, though they probably existed.

Larger model

The five-panel van was first made in about 1910, and last made in about 1950, and it plays the part of a technical improvement on its prototype. It is slightly bigger, and most of the thickness dimensions are slightly stronger, thus giving the van a stronger but less classical appearance.

It differs from its original in that it has five stanchions, and five panels, which strengthens the whole body; it has three van-beds and a strengthened turntable, since the turntable, which is subjected to the most malicious stresses, was not found to be quite adequate on the four-panel van. It has no extra back spring, but nine leaves together instead of seven.

It has a foot-brake, which by cranks and levers operates a drag-shoe on the back edge of the back wheel; the screw-brake is held by a shaped iron column between the end of the tchian de d'vant and the end of the head-rail, whereas the older van just had a bracket on the end of the head-rail to hold the brake handle. The original paintwork is usually less graceful and more ornate than that on the four-panel vans.

Four innovations on the four-panel van were tried by various makers in 1918, but soon afterwards discontinued. They were, hubs with ball-bearings, which were an unnecessary sophistication; a van with six panels which was over strong and looked too complicated; vans with half elliptical front springs on a strong, flat turntable frame, which must have had very satisfactory turntables, but too little resilience in the front; and one ton vans, a cross between a cob van and a four panel van. All of these were very rare.

The usual load, in potatoes or hay, of a cob van is three-quarters of a ton, of a four-panel van one-and-a-half tons, and of a five-panel van two tons, although they can all take a much heavier load without wincing, but not with one horse in control.

The cost of a van in 1880 was about £15, and during the Occupation it was £130; today a van would cost more than £250. The elaborate paintwork, striping and varnishing of a van is also an expensive item nowadays; it costs about £45 to paint, stripe and varnish a ralli-trap, and about £70 to do the same to a van.

I should like to extend my thanks to Mr F Le Maistre, who checked this article, and made many useful comments upon it. In particular, also, I am grateful to Mr J C Vautier, the well-known wheelwright in St Peter, who in his recent retirement has spent countless hours answering my questions, and explaining to me the secrets and intricacies of his trade. I would also like to add that I should be very grateful to hear of any stories, or further information connected with this subject.

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