Willerby Heritage: Their holiday homes history
From beehives to holiday homes - We trace the evolution of Willerby holiday homes from humble – or should we say bumble? – beginnings to its status today as the UK’s largest manufacturer of holiday homes and lodge.
Words by Val Chapman
Willerby is the UK’s largest manufacturer of holiday homes and lodges – and it has a history going back over 70 years. This now-giant manufacturer started in a very tiny way, the brainchild of one man, Walter Allen, who made beehives.
This is the story of how Willerby grew from an embryonic company in a small village to the 90-acre site it occupies today.
A timeline of innovation
Walter Allen had a thriving business making beehives. In 1946 he saw an opportunity at the time when the concept of holidays and leisure time was just beginning to emerge. He switched from beehives to caravans.
The company takes its name from the village where Walter Allen began manufacturing caravans. The beehive element of the heritage lives on, too – today in the form of the emblem for the company and, in particular, for the Willerby Owners’ Club.
The transition from beehives to caravans came after Walter’s beehive manufacturing company, the Yorkshire Apiary Company, was commissioned to produce temporary buildings for use following the Second World War. He added chassis to the ‘buildings’ – and the concept of Willerby caravans was born.
Walter Allen and his business partner, John Richardson, then began manufacturing caravans in the village of Willerby. They started in 1946, with a caravan to sleep two, on a steel frame and with a roof of stretched waterproof canvas. And the price? £150! This caravan was called the York, after the Yorkshire Apiary Company.
In 1947, 1,000 York caravans were sold. After the York came the Willerby Junior, at £279. A deluxe version had two beds and, for an extra £27, buyers could have a two-radiator heating system. Willerby was now established as a founding member of the caravan industry in Hull.
Walter Allen seized an opportunity in the market for caravans that were not intended to move and, in the early 1950s, produced the first of what he called ‘living caravans’, with a lounge, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. This paved the way for Willerby’s success over the following decade.
Exports began; by the mid 1950s more than 20% of Willerby’s production was exported.
From canvas to glass-fibre
After canvas roofs came glass fibre roofs. Walter Allen pioneered the use of glass-fibre not
only for roofs but for a one-piece moulded caravan called the Vista. It was 17ft 8in long and 7ft 6in wide. In its day, its size limited its appeal and so the tiny glass-fibre Vogue was created, just 14 feet long and sleeping four.
Willerby the pioneer
Then came Willerby’s first residential home, with central heating, built for a park in Devon. This model established Willerby as a pioneer in the developing mobile home industry.
In 1962 the New Home, 28ft by 8ft, arrived, capable of sleeping six.
For an extra £21 buyers could get a flush toilet; for £12 a gas water heater could be installed and £20 bought electrical installations; with those options, the New Home cost £575.
Europe’ largest manufacturer
By the end of the 1960s Willerby was moving away from touring caravan manufacture and steadily introduced more holiday homes.
By 1987 Willerby had a portfolio of 18 models, and had 23% of the UK market. The company outgrew its site in Willerby and moved to its present site in Hedon Road, Hull. Factory expansion in the late 1990s saw Willerby become Europe’s largest holiday home manufacturer.
Today, with a 70-year celebration under its belt, Willerby continues to be at the forefront of innovation, with holiday homes in all price brackets and three residential park homes, too. The company makes seven lodges, 15 holiday homes, of which the Vogue is one, plus bespoke lodges.
Back through the archives
So what were the early Willerbys like? They were of course built long before such basic amenities as running water and heating entered the caravan world. The earliest image in Willerby’s archive shows a 1946 ‘holiday home on wheels’ with angular lines. It was a big, chunky beast – and the image shows it being towed by an equally big beast of a car.
Then, though, came something totally different. The Willerby Vogue. This was a tiny tourer, with sleek, rounded body lines, large windows (considering the small size of the caravan) and really cute looks. The images on this page show one of the original Vogues before and after its restoration – the restored Vogue is on display at Willerby’s Hull showground alongside new holiday homes.
The forerunner of the new Vogue Classique
One of the early Willerby models was a tiny touring caravan called the Vogue. One of these survived and was discovered, in need of serious renovation – which was meticulously carried out, in time for, and in celebration of, the launch of the 2019 Vogue Classique holiday home. This sophisticated and elegant holiday home is reviewed in this issue.
Also in the 1950s, Willerby made larger touring caravans; another image from Willerby’s archives shows a family tourer with a front window style typical of this era – a wide central window and small windows on each side of it. Still long before heating and showers.
Larger models came along, too; this was before the distinction between touring and static caravans segmented the market. These big tourers were designed to be all-purpose, but touring caravans of this era didn’t enjoy the best of reputations for tow manners!
Then came the start of the lodge era, with the wood-clad Willerby pictured. And more statics, in the 1960s, and, in the 1970s, with the bright orange that was then fashionable in caravan fabrics being introduced for exterior panels, too! Interior wooden- clad walls mirrored house décor fashion in that era – and so did the boldly-patterned carpets!
Above: The design statements of the 70s: wooden cladding as a wall décor feature – and boldly patterned carpets!
By the 1980s exterior styling had moved on in leaps and bounds, and shades of green looked smart. Still very angular in the 1990s, though… And with what we’d now consider to be overbearingly floral fabrics.
Looking back at these archive images is a fascinating insight into the origins of today’s Willerby portfolio of super-modern holiday homes. Willerby is one of the largest employers in Hull.
Down the years of development and expansion it hasn’t only been the factory that has grown in size. Holiday homes were once made to a maximum size of 10ft by 36ft, restricted by park pitch size and transport considerations.
Then came the advent of making holiday homes in two halves, joined together once on a park, so that larger units could be transported – a huge leap forward in holiday home development. The concept of the holiday lodge was born.
Hull Showground, Greatfield Lane, Marfleet Lane, Hull, East Yorkshire HU9 5WA
T 01482 717599