‘Gypsy’ dads life full of colour

BASIL Smith is a craftsman, a cabinet maker, old school, and has a bundle of other tricks and skills in his kit of life.

He’s also a puppeteer; he’s a Punch and Judy Professor, and at various points in his life he’s been a minister, a prison officer, an occupational therapist.

And some people think he’s a Gypsy, the 13 or so Gypsy caravans he’s made in his life no doubt lending fuel to that belief.

One thing’s for sure, he’s a character.

An inspiration, to his daughter, well-known food scientist Dr Hazel MacTavish-West.

Basil is now 83, he lives in Kingston and spends more time looking at his caravans than plotting plans to make new ones or planning trips around Australia in them, with his wife Janet.

A cabinet maker by training, Basil served his apprenticeship making beautiful curved handrails for stairs in Binns department store, Middlesborough, and fitting out cabins on oil tankers at Smiths Dock Co. Ltd, South Bank, Teesside, England and getting a lung full of asbestos as a result.

Birthdays and Christmases were marked for his daughter not with gifts of iPhone or new clothes, but treasured handcrafted Huon pine jewellery boxes with the finest dovetailing and carvings.

“Some of my favourite memories are of being in dad’s shed working on the lathe, made from an old washing machine motor, making a bowl, the smell of Huon pine sawdust and linseed oil soaking my senses. I went into his new shed last weekend, in the house they now live in, and it still smelled the same,” Hazel said.

Basil made his first puppets and performed shows for his friends in Eston, Cleveland, England, at the age of 11.

And he made his first Gypsy-style caravan in the 1980s when living in Kingston.

He travelled around Tasmania with that one, performing puppet shows and Punch and Judy shows at festivals, fairs, schools and markets.

“Now when we go for a drive, he points out churches he’s given sermons in, and grassy areas where he and Janet performed puppet shows.

Basil took that caravan back to the UK with him and it now resides at Kirkleatham Museum.

“When my daughters were young, Dad and Janet built a 24-foot showman’s wagon, Toad Haul, on an old chassis from the Antarctic Division, and they lived in that for many years.

“Janet’s skills also add value to the caravans, as she paints articles like jugs and wheelbarrows with folk art, crafts leadlight windows, and makes curtains and upholsters seats for them.

“A few years ago, Dad and Janet moved into the house in Margate that they had lived in Toad Haul in the garden of for many years, and I took ownership of Toad Haul. It was used as a studio for art, a study, and a cosy retreat for visitors when they came to stay. Eye candy for the garden.”

There are only so many Gypsy caravans one can make though, and Basil’s collection numbered four when he and Janet “downsized” to the smaller house they now live in, in Kingston.

Most of the “downsizing” was done by Janet, because the huge puppet collection and all the Gypsy caravans came too, much to the neighbours’ amusement.

“Dad has realised, much as we all value having the many things he has made in his life, there are only so many Gypsy caravans one can hold on to.

They also require maintenance in the form of painting because they are made from wood, and much of it recycled and upcycled.”

So Basil has been selling his Gypsy caravans to people who want something special in their garden for children to play in, sleep out in, or as a studio and retreat.

There are just two left, and they are currently available for purchase.

They are unique, complete with leadlight windows, electrics, towable and watertight.

If the canary yellow briar rose, or the deep red rambling rose Gypsy-style caravan takes your fancy, contact hazel@seedlabtasmania.com. au .