William Wheeler of Weybridge - The Van Man

 Although not strictly an Oatlands oddity, the very last entry for the Weybridge 11 Registration District of the 1911 Census is worth recording here.

William Wheeler - 1911-1William Wheeler, a single man aged 40, has his address on the night of 2nd April 1911 recorded for posterity as "Found by Police in a van at Urban District Council Depot, Walton Lane, Weybridge" and in the Summary book, the numerator, Thomas William Mathews, has duly entered "Van" in the 'Kind of Building' column, as per the "Examples of the manner in which this Summary Book is to be filled up".

To us, with our modern thinking, the terms "vagrant" or "dosser" might readily spring to mind - but this was 1911, the world was a very different place and it is necessary to have a grasp of the situation as it was then to understand the census and what it actually is telling us.

When the Household Schedule is viewed in its entirety, it reveals that, for Personal Occupation, Mr Wheeler is recorded as "Engine Driver, Urban District Council Steam Roller (Weybridge)" and, therefore, the 'van' being referred to is undoubtedly a "living van" which was hitched to the back of the steam roller.

With a steam roller managing a maximum speed of around 3MPH, you didn't have to travel far from the depot to mean that getting back home at night would severely shorten the working day and most drivers were 'very attached' to their engines anyway and preferred to be with them almost all the time, except when they were in the nearest pub -  anyone who has seen the late Fred Dibnah on tv will recognise that scenario and understand why most engine drivers were single if they were involved in any long distance work.

Typical Roller and Living Van (a 'posed' photo)      Roller and van in Ashover, Derbyshire (photograph courtesy of Derbyshire photo-historian Dr John Bradley of Ashover)

The living van provided accommodation not only for the driver (in our case, William Wheeler) but for all the paraphernalia that went with the job - shovels, pick-axe, rakes, "patching pots" and the tools and other items necessary to keep the roller going, like oil cans, spanners, wheel chocks and, of course, that other vital item extra coal in sacks. It was also not unusual to have a "boy" when actually out on a job - note that the photograph shown above is a 'posed' situation and "the boy" would not have been a girl, and most certainly not in a clean white blouse!

The roller shown is an Aveling and Porter (the "prancing horse" emblem is very easy to identify) and from one of my earliest childhood memories, Walton and Weybridge UDC were using an Aveling and Porter steam roller for repairs on the roads of Oatlands (though whether of this particular type I know not) before switching to the use of a diesel roller.

As mentioned earlier, engine drivers were fond of frequenting the local pub (it was, after all, a very hot, dirty, dusty job that involved long hours) so, given that the household schedule for William Wheeler has been completed by Police Constable Edgar Green (number 154) of Weybridge Police Station and, with the address for Mr Wheeler given as "Found by Police....", it is maybe not stretching imagination too much to wonder if, having returned to the depot, William had spent a very relaxing evening in The Old Crown...

The image of the roller and living van was located on a website named Photo Sleuth created by Brett Payne and the page for this picture is an absolutely wonderful example of how to get the most out of an old photograph. The entire Photo Sleuth website is a fascinating, informative and very adictive look at photographs and photographers - well worth a visit...

Thanks are due to Brett Payne for contacting the owner of the image on our behalf and to Dr. John Bradley for granting us permission to use it here.

Webpage for the roller and living van here (opens in new window)
Photo Sleuth website
here (opens in new window)
Dr John Bradley's website,
"Alfred Seaman and the Photographic Convention of the United Kingdom", is available here (opens in new window)