The Birth of the Camping Holiday – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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The Birth of the Camping Holiday

Following on from our look at the history of hiking, and how it became phenomenally popular in the 1930s, in this blog we will look at the birth of the camping holiday.

Bank Holiday Under Canvas – Newquay, Cornwall | The Sphere | 19 August 1933

So read on to discover when and how the camping holiday became popular, and what it was like to camp in the early twentieth century, at a time when camping represented a new found sense of freedom. We will also look at how the car revolutionised camping forever, and how the love of camping endured after the Second World War.

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‘The Efficacy of The Open Air’

In August 1908 The Sphere published an article entitled ‘The Art of Camping Out.’ It began:

With the increased belief in the efficacy of the open air it is not astonishing that camping out should have increased.

Indeed, it reports that camping had become so popular in the early twentieth century that a Mr. T.H. Holding had written a book called The Camper’s Handbook, ‘a closely-printed volume of more than 400 pages.’ Mr. Holding had started the National Camping Club in 1906, and ‘within four months 150 people joined it.’

A collapsible tent designed by Mr. F.H. Gotsche of San Francisco | The Sphere | 30 June 1906

The article also relates how ‘Women have taken up camping with great vigour,’ Mr. Holding’s book containing a chapter authored by one Mrs. Horsfield, ‘who has camped out with her son of twelve and a baby of as many months on a farm at Chesham.’ Mrs. Horsfield also relates her experiences of camping on the continent, having camped in the Bois de Boulogne and in Rome.

But from where did this appetite for camping come? For that, we have to look across the Atlantic to the United States. Indeed, author of The Camper’s Handbook Mr. Holding had taken to camping ‘in the fifties on the American prairies,’ and The Sphere article also features photographs taken at a camp in New York’s Orange County.

‘A New York Shop Girl Camping Out’ | The Sphere | 1 August 1908

This camp was established ‘by the Downtown Ethical Society of New York for the benefit of the New York shop girl’ in Mountainville. Each week, a different ‘party of women’ would take up residence at the camp, to take advantage of the fresh air and to enjoy a break from city life.

Meanwhile, a camp was established in a slightly less rural environment, namely on the roof of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. The Sketch in November 1907 describes this ‘simple life on the tiles,’ with tents actually erected on the hotel roof.

The camp on the hotel roof, Philadelphia | The Sketch | 13 November 1907

One resident described their experience:

‘There is a distant hum from the city far below that is inexpressibly soothing to the nerves; one is lulled to sleep by the subdued music of the streets, which up there comes blended into a harmony that suggests soft music on a grand organ.’

These campers were hardly roughing it, however, their tents had electricity and a ‘waiter [was] always within call, and any of the hotel luxuries [could] be obtained at short notice.’

A hotel camper has his breakfast | The Sketch | 13 November 1907

And so the United States were leading the way in the ‘art of camping.’ For example, Mr. F.H. Gotsche of San Francisco had designed a new tent, ‘made up of four wooden sections held together by metal socket pieces,’ as relates The Sphere in June 1906.

Camping, therefore, was becoming more and more mainstream, and was gaining a foothold back in Britain.

‘Good Weather and a Cheerful Disposition’

In August 1912 The Sphere published another article on camping, this time entitled ‘The Open Air Life.’ It considers the contrast of the ‘benefits of our modern civilisation’ with ‘our boyish Robinson Crusoe feeling,’ and how camping appeals to the latter. Indeed, with the almost complete industrialisation of society, camping allowed city dwellers to get back to nature, and enjoy a sense of adventure alien to them in their day to day lives.

But the camping experience described in this article does sound rather luxurious:

Too much has been made of the discomforts of camp life. There is little roughing it in the river camps of to-day with their double roof, boarded floor, well-ventilated sleeping-room, with separate cooker or kitchen with stoves capable of cooking a complete five course dinner. A piano is quite a common piece of furniture to find – gramophones are everywhere – there are comfortable beds with wire mattresses, arm chairs, cushions, gate-legged tea tables, and bridge tables.

‘An Ideal Spot for a Riverside Camp’ | The Sphere | 10 August 1912

The writer explains how you could find a ‘second-hand outfit, including tent, fittings, furniture, and boat, at prices from £30 upwards,’ roughly over £2,300 today. But prices had gone up, ‘with the growing popularity of this method of spending a holiday and week-ends, and the exceptional heat of last year’s summer…without question [being] responsible for a revived interest in camping and river life.’

But whatever camping kit you could afford, second hand or not, or whether or not you had a piano at your camp, there were still two items of absolute necessity for the early twentieth century camper: ‘good weather and a cheerful disposition.’

The Royal Society for the Propagation of Camping Out

And the camper of the early twentieth century had become such a fixture of society that they were beginning to be parodied. The Bystander in August 1908 published a satirical piece authored by Max Rittenberg, in which he ‘interviews’ the supposed President of the RSPCO, or the ‘Royal Society for the Propagation of Camping Out.’

During the course of this imaginary interview, the President shows Rittenberg a small bundle which he holds in the palm of his hand. It is meant to be:

 A tent to hold three people, with an annexe for cooking purposes and a shelter for bicycles.

‘The Joys of Camping Out’ | The Bystander | 5 August 1914

Meanwhile, the President keeps a fountain pen in his waistcoat pocket, which ‘is in reality a telescopic tent-pole.’ Hollow in the centre, it also contains a ‘set of knives, forks, spoons, and corkscrews.’

The President goes on to rhapsodise about the ‘joys of camping out,’ and going to ‘sleep under the vault of heaven…the night wind gently fanning the temples,’ a ‘revelation to the jaded town-dweller.’

Rittenberg has one final question for the President of the Royal Society for the Propagation of Camping Out, namely, ‘What do you do it it rains?’ Here is his reply:

 ‘We stay at home,’ replied the President. ‘Camping out is, of course, only for fine weather. Do you remember the glorious summer of 1895? Ah, then it was camping-out weather! That was my last expedition.’ 

‘The Free and Easy Vacation’

By the 1920s and 1930s, camping had become something of a mainstream holiday option. In June 1930, Phillida, writing for the Daily Mirror, advises her readers to choose camping as ‘the free and easy vacation for fun,’ writing how:

Each year the camping holiday becomes more popular. There are people, of course, who prefer the small hotel or boarding-house vacation, where everything is done for them and all they have to do is to find amusement from morning till night. But tastes seem to be changing.

She continues:

The Camping Club has more members than it ever had before. That is a sure sign that the summer holiday of this type, besides being cheaper in the majority of cases, is far more enjoyable. Perhaps the girl guide movement has had something to do with this love of the go-as-you-please and do-as-you-like holiday.

Daily Mirror | 18 June 1930

Camping, therefore, had two main reasons for being popular: its low cost, and the freedom it afforded. Again, like The Sphere reported some twenty years before, this appeal of freedom was taken up and enjoyed by women, as it released them from the drudgery of their daily routines:

It may be also that the general run of women work hard most of their days and like to be free from the tyranny of the clock and the deadline routine of catching the 8.30 train every morning for at least one or two weeks in the year.

How jolly to be able to have the midday meal when you like. It need not be from one till two or from twelve to one. Tea can be a hearty meal at six, seven, or eight, instead of an anaemic half-cold cup of liquid and a couple of biscuits eaten over the desk in a dismal office. You can go to bed and get up when you like and you can eat when you like.

To this end, Phillida provides practical advice to women campers, suggesting what to wear (‘a tweed skirt and thin wool jumper and golf coat’) and how to pack: ‘Underclothes are now so light there is no difficulty over them.’

The Bystander | 1 August 1929

Indeed, Sylvia Dampney writing for The Bystander in August 1929 echoes this sentiment of the benefits of camping for women:

Many thousands of girls, whose various occupations keep them indoors for the greater part of the year, get very little sunshine. The most should be made of the golden opportunities camp life offers to remedy this deficiency.

Sylvia advises that ‘Only the lightest of clothing should be worn’ whilst camping, with ‘an open-necked sleeveless jumper worn over shorts [being] the ideal costume for actual camp wear.’

‘Necessary Impedimenta’

So, say you are going on a camping holiday in the late 1920s or early 1930s. What should you bring? Well, Ruth Ward for The Sphere in July 1928 was on hand with her advice for going on a camping holiday, for, according to her, ‘no holiday is more fun.’ She echoes the advantages of such a holiday being ‘fluid and cheap,’ although she says that it ‘pays in the long run to buy an expensive tent.’

‘Economising on a tent is false economy,’ she proclaims, whilst providing her readers with examples of tents that were on the market at the time:

You can get a little light-weight single-room tent, that you could carry (when folded up) quite comfortably on a bicycle for 30s. 6d… A very serviceable, modern, stout, reliable tent, 8 ft, by 7 by 7 (in other words, high enough in the centre to stand upright in – a great boon) costs £7. But you can get a less elaborate and equally reliable tent, capable of holding six people for less than £7. And a waterproof tent without flysheet runs around £3. A boy-scout or girl-guide equipment depot is definitely the best place to make a selection.

The Sphere | 14 July 1928

So, at the very cheapest you would be able to buy a small tent for £64, with the larger model costing just under £300 in today’s prices.

You have your tent now, but what to put in it? Ruth Ward is on hand for that too:

If you will take my advice, the thing to do is to buy sleeping-bags. They are made of rot-proof canvas lined with fleece wool or blanket, and range from 20s to 32s 6d. You sleep in them on the ground itself, buttoned up as if you were a human bolster. I have always found them warm, comfortable, and oh, how practical.

Finally, you will need ‘a set of enamel plates and mugs,’ cutlery, an ‘enamel teapot,’ ‘a pair of threepenny salt and pepper pots’ and a ‘small set of first-aid equipment.’ For when ‘you are prepared nothing serious ever happens.’

The Bystander | 1 August 1919

Meanwhile, Sylvia Dampney for The Bystander provides advice on how to cook whilst camping, by creating a brick fireplace. She warns against eating tinned foods, and lying on the ground ‘for any length of time’ unless you are on a groundsheet.

Camping Out by Motor Car

And by the late 1920s and early 1930s another revolution was afoot: a petrol one. As the population of Britain began to own more and more cars, the car gave campers more and more opportunities.

In May 1925 The Sphere pictures a ‘complete camping outfit,’ which consisted of 30 pieces and weighed ‘a little over 100lb.’ All of this could be packed ‘in the canvas container…on the running board of the car.’ With your car, you could now be more mobile and take your equipment with you.

The Sphere | 2 May 1925

Your car could also become part of your tent. The Sphere shows how this could be achieved:

The flap, which is here spread as a canopy, may be drawn over the top of the car, bringing the tent alongside the car and converting it into the type of tent which is known in America as the ‘Leanto.’ This novel camping outfit has been patented and introduced by a New York firm.


The Sphere | 2 May 1925

Meanwhile, motoring brought about another option for campers – the caravan. In March 1930 the Illustrated London News describes the joys of an Eccles caravan:

 It is remarkable how comfortable they are to live and sleep in… and the gadgets contrived to store the food, drink, clothing, and necessary paraphernalia of the housewife are wonderful. But one must be tidy and put things back in their places, or else one is soon in a muddle.

Illustrated London News | 15 March 1930

In 1932 H. Thornton Rutter for the Illustrated London News writes how the caravan ‘has brought camping and caravanning to thousands of motorists,’ with the Eccles caravan representing ‘miniature houses on wheels.’ A lightweight Eccles caravan would set you back £35, or just over £1,600 today.

An Eccles caravan | Illustrated London News | 16 April 1932

Carry On Camping

With the onset of the Second World War, many men found themselves camping as part of their military service. But that did not stop their appetite for camping.

In 1947 Robert Crawley, for the ‘Open-Air Page’ in the Daily Mirror included this letter from a reader:

After five years in the Army, with a lot of outdoor life, I would like to carry on camping. Can you tell me how to obtain information about camping sites, and whether I have to obtain a permit to camp in this country?’

Daily Mirror | 8 September 1941

Crawley writes how he has received many such letters, and advises his readers to join the Camping Club of Great Britain and Ireland, with its annual subscription of 15s (£26 today). But what did you get with your subscription?

1. Year Book and Sites List of more than 1,000 camp sites, many of them reserved for members.
2. Handbook of Camping and Caravanning – the most informative book on modern light-weight camping.
3. Free kit insurance to the value of £30, from April to September.
4. Use of Club’s permanent sites.
5. Information service. Technical questions are referred to volunteer experts on sites, camping, touring, cycle camping, canoeing, caravanning, mountaineering, photography.
6. Magazine and news sheet.

Daily Mirror | 5 May 1947

He advises his readers that they will not need a permit to camp, but how could they source a tent? The Second World War meant there were plenty of ‘ex-Army tents’ available, with ‘U.S. Army bivouac tents’ being available to buy.

So camping flourished even after the end of the Second World War, remaining a cheap and flexible holiday option for many. And it flourishes to this day, in all its different forms, from glamping to wild camping. It is still enjoyed by many thousands of people, just as it was nearly a century ago.

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