Charabanc Fever

Main image above: ‘Sebastopol Inn, Ladies Outing, Preston’, from Preston Digital Archive on Flickr.

A few weeks ago Doreen (@londondear) made us pause and think when she said she had been puzzled by the mention of ‘charabancs’ in our recent book, 20th Century Pub, and had to look up what it meant.

Somehow, we’ve always known about charabancs, though they’ve been effectively extinct for more than half a century and the word is now only used as a deliberate archaism. While researching the book charabancs became a kind of running joke for us as trying to find historic photographs of pubs without charabancs parked in front of them was often a challenge.

But Doreen is quite right – we probably ought to have given a few words of explanation, but now those few words have turned into this rather long blog post. We’re grateful to Patreon subscribers like Harley Goldsmith and Peter Sidwell for giving us an excuse to spend quite so much time on it.

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Vintage illustration.
A wagonette. (SOURCE: The Book of the Horse, 1880, via the Internet Archive.)

The word charabanc comes from the French char-à-bancs (literally a carriage with benches) and became attached in Britain to large six- or eight-seater carriages previously known as wagonettes, probably because it sounded fancier.

The popularity of charabancs among working class people arose alongside the very concept of leisure time. An account from 1872 describes how shop assistants in Devon celebrated the introduction of early closing on Thursday afternoons by taking a charabanc trip to Babbacombe. [1]

Hiring a charabanc was an indulgence but an affordable one and clubbing together to pay for it, then travelling in a merry group, was half the fun. By the 1880s there were charabancs pulled by four horses capable of carrying 21 passengers, or even 35. [2]

Pubs were natural hubs for clubs, societies and teams, and an equally obvious centre for the organisation of charabanc trips, and for the pick-up and drop of daytrippers. Thus charabancs came to be strongly associated with pubs. (But not exclusively — church groups were also big charabanc fans.)

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