I urge you to get a copy of November’s month’s Bee Craft magazine – the Berkshire bee van is in it!
20 months ago I received an email from Richard of BeeCraft: he had visited my website – ‘could I write an article?’ Snapping-up this golden opportunity, I posed an idea: the Berkshire bee van.
Berkshire bee van back story (2014 to 2022)
In 2014, I stumbled on an article in the British Bee Journal (BBJ) about a bee-expert who visited rural places in this vehicle. He extolled the benefits of modern beekeeping to curious country folk with the aid of the latest apicultural paraphernalia, borrowed bees, and magic lantern slides.
My research then led me to the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). Their ‘Flood Collection’, named after Thomas Flood, one of Berkshire Beekeepers’ Association’s travelling bee-experts. The archive even has his tour notebooks: date of each village visited and name of each person present. More intriguing, AD Woodley, gave a lecture (in 1896) about the Berkshire bee van – BBJ transcribed it in extraordinarily detail!
In 2016, I decided to share the information via a display board and submit it as an entry in a local honey show. Entitled the ‘bee man and his bee van’ and contained images and text mounted on A1-sized card. The result: ‘Class 13 photography – First Prize’. Michael Blackburn wrote: ‘not judged a similar item of interest before’. Sadly the project got parked. The award winning board about the Berkshire bee van was carefully packed away: never seeing daylight and languishing in a portfolio case behind my bookcase.
Berkshire bee van project revival
In 2022, the research recommenced thanks to Bee Craft. Trawling through the BBJ and Bee-keepers Record (BKR) was the easy part. Yet, there were still key pieces of information still missing about the Berkshire Bee Van. Who built it? How much did it cost? What happened to it? Were there other bee vans?
Contacting various beekeeping associations is a fruitless task – it turns out that much of their primary source material (ledgers, yearbooks, minutes etc.) is lost, and Berkshire Beekeepers Association, like its bee van, no longer exists. Interestingly, websites of two of the beekeepers associations (BKAs) I emailed – Herefordshire and Buckinghamshire – both mention their bee van. Both sadly lack depth on the subject.
Who built the Berkshire bee van? – A trip to purgatory
In 2016 Reading Beekeepers Association’s open day had a speaker who I wanted to meet. Will Messenger is a beekeeping history expert, famous for re-manufacturing the Stewarton Hive. He knew the whereabouts of beekeeping historical gems and pointed me to the Northamptonshire Archive; they hold the county beekeepers association yearbooks. Subsequently, I checked their online catalogue – nothing!
Sarah from the archive informed me they were off-catalogue. It’s a kind of no mans land: not loved enough to be recorded yet too significant to be binned. This is not uncommon: during my research of William Woodley’s car, the Berkshire Record Office held crucial source material in this form of purgatory. I visited Northamptonshire last February and discovered a series of bound AGMs from various BKAs – Berkshire’s were present from 1891 to 1895. As for the Berkshire bee van: Jones built it.
Smith and Jones; gone for a Burton
A small red book provided more detail. Go to any shop in a provincial museum in England and you will find a revolving stand containing both a creaking noise and a series of Shire books. I found one on ‘gypsy caravans’ by DJ Smith. Hereford had a famous wheelwright, H. Jones and son, who made Burton style vans. It was designed for showmen; more with fairground folk in mind rather than itinerant bee-experts. The book contains a drawing of the Burton, whose form is a dead-ringer of the famous Herefordshire bee van – Berkshire’s is modelled on theirs.
More bee vans
Unlike many associations, Surrey BKA’s historic records are in the care of the Surrey History Centre. Back in the 1890s Surrey BKA was in the doldrums and the Berkshire bee van came to their aid; two tours of the county led to interest in beekeeping and the revival of county BKA. The reconstituted organisation promptly dispensed with the services of the Berkshire bee van. Yet in 1898 they purchased a vehicle from the Conservatives which they refurbished. Interestingly, Surrey BKA sold it to the Liberals in 1906. Ironically, the education policies of the latter party contributed to the demise bee vans.
Based on the bee journals, I recon there were probably five depending how you count them. First Herefordshire’s, then Berkshire’s bee van; one could argue that the latter had the idea first but failed to implement quickly. After that there is Surrey’s; followed by Hampshire’s; then late in the game Buckinghamshire’s – assuming it wasn’t rebadged from one of the others.
Berkshire bee van: what happened to it?
Information after the 19th century is scant. The Berkshire BKA considered disposing of the bee van after losing funding from the county. A newspaper article in 1908, mentions the receipts of the bee van being £20 – it is not clear whether this was for its sale or hire. Coincidentally, Bucks BKA started their bee van tours in the same year.
I used my 15 minutes of fame in Bee Craft magazine to make an appeal for information. Solving the puzzle about what happened to the bee van all hinges on either someone possessing the primary source material relating to either the Berkshire or Buckinghamshire associations, or at least knowing where to find it. Seems a long shot but you never know!
I am proud and humbled to get my article in print. I recognise my good fortune at finding those critical off-catalogue documents, as well as the little red book on gypsy caravans. But most of all, I am grateful to our Victorian forebears who described the world of British apiculture in journals and newspapers.
Next year is the 150th anniversary of the British Beekeepers Association, yet it saddens me to know how much beekeeping heritage has slipped through the fingers of our local associations. And what better stories we could have told about our nation’s bee craft if they had kept their records. Nonetheless, I will celebrate this beekeeping milestone with glee in 2024.