A charabanc or "char-à-banc" (pronounced /ˈʃærəbæŋ/) is a type of horse-drawn vehicle or early motor coach, usually open-topped, common in Britain during the early part of the 20th century. It was especially popular for sight-seeing or "works outings" to the country or the seaside, organised by businesses once a year. The name derives from the French char à bancs ("carriage with wooden benches"), the vehicle having originated in France in the early 19th century.
Although the vehicle has not been common on the roads since the 1920s, a few signs survive from the era; a notable example at Wookey Hole in Somerset warns that the road to the neighbouring village of Easton is unsuitable for charabancs.
Introduced in the 1840s as a French sporting vehicle, the char à bancs was popular at race meetings and for hunting or shooting parties. It could be pulled by a four-in-hand team of horses or a pair in pole gear. It had two or more rows of crosswise bench seats, plus a slightly lower rear seat for a groom, and most also had a slatted trunk for luggage. Initially used by the wealthy, they were later enlarged with more seats for school or works excursions and tourist transport, as a cheaper version of the tourist coach. The first charabanc in Britain was presented to Queen Victoria by Louis Philippe of France and is preserved in the Royal Mews.
Before World War I, motor charabancs were used mainly for day trips, as they were not comfortable enough for longer journeys, and were largely replaced by motor buses in the 1920s.
The charabanc of the 1920s tended to last only a few years. It was normal at the time for the body to be built separately to the motor chassis, and a number were fitted in summer only, a second goods body would be fitted in its place in winter to keep the vehicle occupied.
Charabancs normally were open, with a large canvas folding hood stowed at the rear in case of rain, like a convertible motor car. If rain started, this had to be pulled into position, a very heavy task, and it was considered honourable for the male members of the touring party to assist in getting it into position. The side windows would be of mica (A layer of thin quartz like stone).
The charabanc offered little or no protection to the passengers in the event of an overturning accident, along with a high centre of gravity when loaded (and particularly if overloaded), which combined with the popularity of excursions to tourist attractions at coastal villages, etc. approached down steep and winding roads led to a number of unfortunate fatal accidents which contributed to their early demise.
The word charabanc pronounced (Shar-a-bang) was still being used even into the 1950s and even into the very early 1960s. Factory day outings (Annual Works Trips) during these times were quite common for workers, especially for those from the northern weaving mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The 1950s were relatively hard times due to national recovery being slow after the second world war; rationing was still evident and annual holidays (i.e., wakes weeks) had not really become established for poorer workers such as weavers and spinners, so a days outing to the seaside was a rare treat and all that some of the workers with large families could afford. "Charabanc trips" were usually only for adults, again due to finance. Occasionally the mill owner would help to pay for these outings; however this was not always the case. The charabancs, or coaches, were pretty basic vehicles, noisy, uncomfortable and often poorly upholstered with low backed seats and used mainly for short journeys to the nearest resort town or the races. Some working men's clubs also organized days out and these trips were often subsidized by the clubs themselves from membership subscriptions that had been paid throughout the year. A few pennies (pence) a week would be paid in to a club or mill trip organizer and marked down in a notebook. This would be paid out to the saver on the day of the trip for spending money on the day. This day out would often be the highlight of the year for some workers and the only chance to get away from the smog and grime of the busy mill towns. Later in the late 1960s and 1970s as the mills prospered and things improved financially, annual "Wakes Week" took over and a one week mass exodus from northern mill towns during the summer months took precedence over the charabanc trips, and a full weeks' holiday at a holiday camp or in a seaside boarding house for the full family became the norm, instead of a single day out.
The charabanc is mentioned in Ian Anderson's song, "Wond'ring Again" from the Jethro Tull compilation Living in the Past: "Incestuous ancestry's charabanc ride, spawning new millions, throws the world on its side. Supporting their far-flung illusion, the national curse, and those with no sandwiches please get off the bus." The Decemberists' song "The Legionnaire's Lament" from the album Castaways and Cutouts invokes the French origin of this vehicle and its use for sight-seeing, as recalled wistfully by a soldier far from home: "On the old left bank/ my baby in a charabanc/ riding up the width and length/ of the Champs Elysees."  It is also mentioned in the Stranglers song "Peaches": "Oh shit! There goes the charabanc. Looks like I'm gonna be stuck here the whole summer. Well what a bummer."
A charabanc is humorously mentioned in George Formby's song "Riding In The T.T. Races" depicting a motorcycle race in the Isle of Man, where George sings "Once my bike was hard to ride, but I didn't mind, Until I found they'd hitched a charabanc on behind."
The charabanc tour is also the (admittedly vague — see The Beatles Anthology, episode 6) premise of The Beatles 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour, in which a group of characters (Spotlight 'oddities', 'lovelies' and The Beatles themselves) toured Southern England in a mix of music hall tunes/comedy, contemporary psychedelia, and musical set pieces by the Fab Four.
The charabanc is also notably mentioned in Dylan Thomas's short story "A Story", also known as "The Outing". In this piece the young Thomas unintentionally finds himself on the annual men's charabanc outing to Porthcawl. Within the story the charabanc is referred to as a 'chara' in colloquial Welsh English.
The book Magnolia Street, a 1932 novel by Louis Golding, notes that the family went off on their holiday in their char-à-bancs.
One chapter in the book Cider with Rosie (1959), by Laurie Lee, focuses on the annual Slad village outing. The villagers took a particularly bumpy ride in a convoy of charabancs to Weston-super-Mare, which was young Laurie's first visit to the seaside.
The Charabanc Theatre Company was co-founded in 1983 by Belfast native and playwright Marie Jones (b. 1955), who went on to write Stones in His Pockets, an Ireland-based play with a two-man cast that ran successfully locally and in London, and reasonably successfully on Broadway.
A charabanc is mentioned in the lyrics of the 'The Stranglers' song "Peaches" from their 1977 album Rattus Norvegicus.
References / sources
- "char-à-banc". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd ed. 1989.
- World Wide Words: Charabanc
- charabanc - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
- Flickr (2008-04-28). "This road is not suitable for charabancs". Retrieved on 2008-10-25.
- Smith, D. J. (1994). Discovering Horse-drawn Vehicles. Osprey Publishing, 85–86. ISBN 0747802084.
- Decemberists - Legionnaire's Lament Lyrics. TheLyricArchive.
- Stranglers - Peaches Lyrics. TheLyricArchive.
- The Collected Stories, by Dylan Thomas. New Directions Publishing, 1984.
- Image of a charabanc from the 1920s
- Photo of horse-drawn charabanc presented to Queen Victoria in the early 1840s. The official web site of the British Monarchy.
- Rockin' Down the Highway with Paul Grushkin: April 2007.
- Seabrook Coaching Stable Dispersal Auction: Roof-seat Break. The Carriage Association of America, Inc.
- Wookie Hole Charabanc sign.
- Lyrics for "Riding In The T.T. Races" mentioning a charabanc