Caravan Dwellers: The Birds & Turners

Caravan belonging to the Bird or Turner family c1900s

The two groups of Needham’s residents who currently live in caravans at the East and West ends of the village respectively are continuing a tradition which dates back over 160 years. In the 1851 census only a Mat Maker named Robert Bird, aged 60, was listed as living in the neighbourhood in a van with his wife of the same age, Mary – both originally hailing from Ipswich.

But a decade later a full tribe of caravan dwellers were in residence – Alice (43) was matriarch of the Bird contingent, listed as wife of a horse dealer, and squeezed into her tiny home on wheels with 3 sons Ben, Fred and William aged 20, 18 & 12 years, (the two older lads being ‘assistant’ dealers), plus their sisters Matilda (16), Louisa (17) and Martha (12) all described as ‘hawkers’ selling items door to door. Pitched alongside was Elias Turner, also a horse dealer, aged 32, plus wife Louisa (34), sons Elias (25), James (10), and Robert (6) with sisters Emily and Priscilla, aged 12 and 8 respectively. Their peripatetic lifestyle is clearly illustrated by the fact that each of their children had been born in a different location!

It appears the travelling community were being uncooperative when the Census Enumerator called in 1871 and no individual names were entered in the records, although there were now five families in residence, including 13 individuals crammed into a single caravan. Although there is no indication as to where they are based in the village, we do know they were later camped next door to what is now Holly Cottage, almost opposite Brook Lane, since we have a photo dating to the Edwardian era showing one of their charming, traditional, decorated wooden vans parked there. In 1914, Robert Turner, aged 20, was called up to serve in France and Flanders initially as a Private in the Essex Regiment, befre being transferred to the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. He was killed in action on 16th January 1917 and his name is listed at the Étaples cemetery.

A feature article in the Norwich Mercury on 29th August 1936 entitled ‘In a Caravan VillageWaveney Valley Community Who Dwell in Houses on Wheels’ gave considerable background information on the Needham travelling folk:

The village of Needham in the Waveney Valley has retained part of its own peculiar, old-world atmosphere. Here there are still several caravan sites, of which, with others which have now passed out of existence, much could be written… Drawing towards the centre of the village is, perhaps, the oldest caravan site that exists there. Two caravans are occupied by Mrs Turner and her son and daughter-in-law, and their family. Mrs Turner was quite talkative until she caught sight of a camera. That was sufficient for her immediate retirement! ‘Not on her life’ was she going to be included in any picture.

A daughter of a former well-known horse dealer, Mrs Turner’s family have used the same site for nearly a century. Mr Bird, her father, travelled extensively by caravan, and was one of the most prominent dealers in the district. It was not unusual to see his purchase of at least 50 to 60 welsh ponies being driven into Needham. Visitors to the district in those days often witnessed the uncommon sight, seldom seen nowadays, of some fifty odd ponies taking a bath in the mill pool at Needham. Many of the older inhabitants remember the burning of one of their caravans in accordance with the gypsy custom following the death of its owner.

Mrs Turner, a familiar figure in the neighbourhood, still trades in the district, but the day of the long journey affords little pleasure to her now. Most of her family are buried in Needham churchyard. At the rear of the pitch stands a small orchard on which the ‘trade horses’ roam on off-days. Having a chat did not necessarily mean the cessation of work for Mrs Turner, who continued cooking in the open air. Outside, of course, there was the usual paraphernalia associated with a caravan dwellers life.”

The status of these families in the community was clearly illustrated by the published obituaries in the local press of the last two surviving members of the Turner dynasty: Martha (87) and her son William (69) in 1948 and 1956 respectively.