What was Caravanning in the 1940’s like? Many people can’t imagine what it would be like with no powered sites, no solar panels, no GPS, no mobile phones or internet! So, let us take you back to 1944…
It was the end of WW2, Harry and his wife Isobel decided to hit the road with their two children – Barbara, aged 12 and Richard (Dick) aged 11 – they also packed up their cocker spaniel “Punch”…
For the next 18 months, they went on a caravanning adventure from Melbourne, up the east coast to Cairns and back down again. They travelled in a 4 tonne Ford Truck and towed a custom built 18 ft caravan.
Dick was 11 at the time. He is now 85 years young and smiling from ear to ear as he answers some of our questions about what life was like on the road!
What kind of caravan did you have? – Before the trip we owned a Don Caravan in the early 1940s. Don Caravans were built in a factory in Neerim Rd Oakleigh (Victoria) near where we lived (see photo of Don Caravan). Don Caravans were pioneers in the industry. But the caravan we had was too small for the trip and not ‘tough’ enough to take the kind of distance we were travelling and the rough roads.
The caravan we took with us was made specifically for the trip by Mr Theo Nelson (Snr), a funeral director from Williamstown. The caravan was made of plywood. It was strongly built to be able to handle the rough roads and long distances that the trip was going to involve. It had a strengthened chassis with strong springs. The back of the van also included custom made ‘skids’ which was designed to protect the stabilising legs attached to the underside of the van. This was to make sure we didn’t rip the legs off when coming up out of steep creek crossings.
Did you travel in convoy? We didn’t plan to travel in convoy but we met up with folk along the way. It was a pretty rare thing, to be caravanning for an extended time, right at the end of the war. So we kind of joined up to share experiences and equipment too.
At this time, people had caravans but they would usually just tow them down to the coast to stay for a week or during summer. Not many hit the road for extended time. So we did attract a fair bit of attention when we arrived in a country town, parking along the main street. People used to think the circus was coming to town!
And our dog also attracted attention. People in far northern Queensland had never seen a cocker spaniel. They didn’t know what he was.
What did people use to tow their vans? Most people were using large sedans, older, mostly 6 cylinder 1930s American cars. And they were usually up to the job on the flat. But climbing up steep inclines sometimes posed a huge problem. There was this one time climbing the Gogango Range inland from Rockhampton. I think the coast road was impassable due to floods so we had to travel inland and had to drive over the range. None of the cars in the convoy were powerful enough to tow the caravans up the hill. So everyone unhooked and my father’s truck towed six vans (including his own) one at a time up to the top of the hill. Then everyone hooked back up again to tow back down the other side.
What were the roads like? WW2 had a huge influence on the quality of the Australian road network. Much work was done in the north of Australia to improve access for military vehicles. On many occasions we were travelling on newly graded roads (though not necessarily bitumened) and crossing over rivers on bridges especially built to support heavy army traffic. In particular I remember that after Rockhampton we had to head inland on the Clermont to Charters Towers road. It was still a dirt road, but it had been graded and improved by the US military when they constructed an airfield at Charters Towers. Charters Towers was used as a base for strikes against the Japanese bases in the south west pacific.
However we spent a lot of time off the main roads, and these were mostly in pretty poor condition, heavily pot-holed and not surfaced. The main streets of most country towns were dirt.
How did you manage fuel? During WW2 fuel rationing was introduced. Shortages caused by the war meant supplies had to be controlled. Rationing of fuel was fiercely contested but was introduced from June 1940 though not strictly enforced until 1942, remaining in place until early 1950. So petrol rationing was still in place when we made our trip, although conditions had eased a little by the time we left in 1944. Also my father owned a wood yard (which was considered an essential service during the war) so he was entitled to additional rations.
All drivers had to apply for a petrol licence from which we received ration tickets (see pic). The ration tickets were issued by post offices, a new batch every two months… so we had to check into post offices, every second month to collect our tickets. Also petrol stations were not anywhere near as numerous as they are today and we were travelling on some pretty remote roads. Carrying fuel with us at all times was essential. Some folk in our group were carrying up to 5 x 44 gallons drums of fuel.
How did you keep in touch with people? Well we certainly didn’t have mobile phones, no computers, not even any CB radios while we were on the road. People could write letters and post them and you could also send telegrams if you had to send an urgent message. And we all carried a bag of coins around to use in public phones.
Where did you stay? Caravan Parks were pretty thin on the ground. Those that existed were little more than designated areas to camp, often just a paddock or beside a river. Sometimes they had rough pit toilets maybe cold showers. On the trip we stayed in a few caravan parks, but we mostly free camped. We also stayed with family along the way and made good use of the many abandoned American army bases located along the coast in Queensland. These bases had been built for US forces stationed in northern Australia during the war in the Pacific. The bases had loads of readily accessible toilets and showers to use.
How did you power the van? I can’t recall us ever plugging in. All caravans had their own batteries to run lighting but we also used kerosene lamps. We had a two burner gas stove in the caravan but we did a lot of cooking over fires outside. There was just no such thing as a refrigerator. The van came with a built in ice chest but bulk ice was hard to come by a lot of the time… so we used things like powered milk. My father had a shot gun that he used to shoot rabbits to supplement our fresh meat supply.
How were you able to afford to travel for so long? My father, Harry owned a wood yard and house in Melbourne. We rented the house out to one of his drivers who also managed the business while we were away. So there was a steady income coming in from the house rental and business. As far as I am aware, that was the only source of income. Like today, the main costs were fuel and food. We mostly free camped, didn’t do anything that cost money (ie attractions) because there weren’t any, really. And my father did all the repairs on the vehicles.
Thanks to Kate Anderson (our PR Guru) for sharing her dad’s story and photos with us. We wondered if Kate also went caravanning as a kid? Yes! Of course. Caravanning was well and truly in my dad’s blood. All our family holidays in the 1970s and 80s were in our caravan (though sometimes we camped in a tent). We bought our first family caravan before I started school, a big 25 foot, tandem Franklin (see the photo above), purchased in about 1974. We never spent extended time on the road with the van but we took it all over the place usually for 2-3 weeks at a time. A road trip to Sydney in that first year with the van, annual trips to Adelaide to stay with family friends, the Grampians, Flinders Ranges, trips along the Murray are some of my favourite memories. And every Christmas holidays until I was about 8 we spent three weeks at Fraser National Park (now called Lake Eildon National Park) and then after that (until long after I left home) Christmas holidays were spent at the Kingsway Caravan Park in Metung on the Gippsland Lakes, Victoria.