2nd July 2020

All Aboard – a Brief History of the Charabanc

Long before we got to grips with the idea of going on package holidays, early tourists were transported across the country by ‘wagons with benches’. However, this was a far cry from the high-class patrons who championed their early use.

Originally horse-drawn, the name charabanc is a corruption of the French char à bancs. These long, four-wheeled carriages were popular at race meetings and for hunting or shooting parties in the early 19th century.

Being the privilege of the well-to-do, they generally ferried the wealthy around on private estates, and the first char à bancs in Britain is believed to be the one presented to Queen Victoria by the King of France, Louis Philippe, in the 1840s.

However, it was the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century that allowed the British to evolve the original concept into the charabanc as it became better known.

Retaining the original formula, these long motorised vehicles kept the basic elements of the originals: an open carriage with five or more rows of seats facing forward and access either from the rear or via doors along the side. A bench for a driver at the front and space for luggage at the rear completed the package.

Weather protection was minimal, however, and some only featured a folding canvas pram-style hood to keep out the elements. Later models did eventually include side screens and even rudimentary windows but, in reality, these didn’t work well. The hood was heavy to manoeuvre into place and did a poor job of keeping the elements out.

Not that a charabanc was a comfortable way in which to travel, anyway. The unpadded seats, wooden wheels with solid tyres, primitive cart suspension and a top speed of 15mph all made journeys ponderous. This probably helps to explain why charabancs and their passengers fell into disrepute.

The operators of horse-drawn charabanc were quick to adopt these mechanised coaches and, following the First World War, the numbers on the road swelled. Many well-known names, including Daimler, Dennis and Leyland manufactured the basic chassis, and it was usual for the body to be built separately so that a second goods body would be fitted in its place over the winter, and keep the vehicle busy.

Although charabancs did drive from one end of the UK to the other, the limited comfort and speed meant that they were better suited to sight-seeing excursions and annual factory outings. This included jaunts to the countryside, major towns or the seaside, but the menace of day-trippers became an issue as charabanc parties began invading posh seaside and spa towns.

The speed and nature of the journeys meant that many tours became mechanised pub-crawls, with the coaches conveying drunken rabbles across the country. Contemporary reports mention bawdy behaviour, the flinging of beer bottles and raucous singing.

Rapid growth in the number of these vehicles on the road, their impact on other road users, as well as public safety and the safety of the passenger was such that the requirement for new emergency regulations and long-term legislation was discussed in Parliament in 1920.

This fear wasn’t without foundation and the safety record of charabancs wasn’t great, as there were many fatal crashes. Some were little more than lorries crudely converted by adding deck chairs or even wooden boxes for sit passengers on. Overloading was also a problem at a time where many rural roads were narrow and the quality of roads poor.

Ultimately the charabanc was a short-lived sight on our roads, and towards the end of the 1920s they started to disappear in favour of the more sophisticated motor buses (which included fixed roofs and far greater comfort.

Interestingly, the term charabanc lived on and came to denote coaches in general – especially if the journey was more important than the destination.