Modern camping is usually thought of as a land-based activity that occurs in campsites or is associated with certain clubs, like the boy scout movement. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is often assumed that the activity became popular in that form. H. J. Walker’s study of the outdoor movement, for example, traced the pastime to the Boys’ Brigade (founded in 1883), which ran summer camps that were first held in 1886 – initially in barns and halls – before soon being held under canvas. In 1907, one of them inspired Robert Baden-Powell to set up the Boy Scout movement on similar lines, which soon outgrew the Brigade.
Another development was the creation of the first holiday camps. Joseph Cunningham, the superintendent of the Florence Working Lads’ Institute in Toxteth, took groups on excursions in the early 1890s, which led to the rental of a permanent site on the Isle of Man. Between 1900 and 1939 it became ‘by far the largest single provider of camping holidays’ and one visitor was Billy Butlin, who was looking for ideas to develop his own business empire.
The most influential account of how camping developed has been propagated by the Camping and Caravanning Club, which traces its history back to the Association of Cycle Campers (founded in 1901). The pioneer was said to be Thomas Hiram Holding, a tailor, who was inspired by a childhood trip across the American prairies in 1853. He developed a number of lightweight tents that he used on camping trips across the country (some undertaken by canoe). In 1898, he wrote a book about a trip he took to Ireland in which he utilized a kit designed to be carried on a bicycle. The work encouraged other enthusiasts to contact him, which led to the Association being formed and the membership subsequently reaching several hundred by 1906.
Although these were three important types of the activity, ‘camping out’, which was a term that had previously been associated with the military, was first popularized as a recreational pastime on the river Thames. The pastime was part of the wider trend of travelling on the waterway, which became highly fashionable from the mid-Victorian period onwards. Indeed, the end of the century (from around c. 1880 onwards) has sometimes been described as the ‘golden age of the Thames’, when the river between Oxford and London was transformed from a working waterway into a ‘vast pleasure stream’. Between 1879 and 1887, the receipts for small pleasure craft travelling through the locks above Staines more than doubled from £1,647 per annum to £3,805 per annum. The reasons for the Thames’ popularity have been covered in more detail elsewhere, but they include the expansion of the capital, the development of waterside resorts, new leisure tastes and the growth of the railway. Destinations closest to London became particularly busy, like Hampton Court and Maidenhead, while some of the more rural sections of the river remained relatively quiet. The part above Oxford was especially quieter, partly because it was not only less easy to travel on because of the antiquated locks, but the area was not as accessible by public transport from the capital.
While many Londoners took a day-trip to riverside resorts, it became popular to take longer trips on the waterway, which sometimes involved camping out along the way. The Oxford boat business of Salter Bros was particularly important for encouraging this, as it offered a service that allowed customers to take a one-way downstream journey to the capital after which the craft was collected and returned free of charge. Many customers used the firm, which expanded its delivery and retrieval service to any location on the Thames and then, incredibly, to any location in Britain or continental Europe (for an additional charge). By the early 1890s, 800-900 parties were travelling to London per year with Salters, but there were large numbers of firms offering similar arrangements on the river, many of which utilized the cartage service offered by the Oxford business.
Although some opted to stay in hotels in towns or cities along the way, a burgeoning number of people opted to sleep under canvas. As well as the Thames being a fashionable destination at this time, there were a number of reasons why camping was first popularized in this form. One prosaic reason was that the early equipment was very heavy and therefore it was ideal for transportation by boat. Although some lightweight tents were developed, in 1878, the Saturday Review noted that those undertaking such a trip tended to require kit ‘on a scale sufficiently elaborate for a protracted exploration of the Red River to the Congo’. Camping also had the advantage of providing cheap accommodation, it gave voyagers a greater flexibility on their journey, and there were also different options when it came to how someone chose to sleep. In his A New Map of the River Thames (1872) Henry Taunt noted that the pastime could be done by the river or on the boat itself. The latter initially involved a cover being draped over the vessel, such as over a line between the mast and seat (see image), but boat-letters like Salters soon developed wider bespoke craft with a series of hoops over which a canvas could be placed. Although there were differences of opinion as to which arrangement was best, sleeping on the water in a floating tent ensured that appropriate land to camp on did not have to be found, which became more desirable, as the river got busier.
The growing popularity of the activity was recorded in various publications. In 1878, for example, The Saturday Review noted that a new idea had ‘lately arisen’ that ‘Thames travelling is spiritless and incomplete unless what is known as “camping out” forms part of the programme.’ Similarly, John Salter wrote in his guidebook to the river of 1881 that the pastime had greatly increased and that a return to good weather would likely mean that the activity became an ‘almost necessary accompaniment to a boating excursion’. Indeed, an early guidebook (1886) on camping noted that the activity ‘as usually indulged in’ meant ‘a boating trip on one of our beautiful rivers’ and by far the greatest favourite is of course the Thames’. Four years later, another confirmed that this was the case as it was an ideal waterway for beginners, although it acknowledged that there were also a ‘comparatively small number’ who preferred gypsy caravanning with a horse-drawn trap or caravan. As that suggests, the activity as a whole was seen as being connected with the river.
Another poignant indication of how many people were camping was the rising tension between landowners and those using their property. In 1876 The Graphic complained about ‘unscrupulous picnickners’ that had led to places on the river being close off to campers. Indeed, in 1880, Young England reminded its readers that ‘up-river excursion parties are held in abhorrence’ because of the damage they caused. Various reports document some of their crimes, such as people cutting down ornamental shrubs, climbing garden walls, stealing fruit and eggs, and surreptitiously milking cows at unholy hours. The situation was particularly bad in certain spots and, in 1884, some tenants on islands near Marlow were even demanding lower rent because of the number of people using their land. The heightened tensions led to the Thames Preservation Act being passed the following year, which sought to define more clearly the rights of both river users and landowners. Nevertheless, the river was so overrun by that point that some were already recommending avoiding it altogether.
Unsurprisingly camping on the waterway fell out of favour as boating became less popular on the river in the early twentieth century. There were some notable resurgences, however, such as in the Second World War, when many took ‘holidays at home’ on the Thames with the tent punt becoming a favoured craft. There are still a few firms offering traditional skiff hire in the twenty-first century, but many boat-letters sold off their camping fleets in the 1970s, as most customers preferred the more luxurious motorized cabin cruisers. Although many people enjoy the activity in different forms today, it is good to remember the aquatic roots of this popular British pastime.
(For more information about the subject, see S. Wenham ‘The River
Thames and the Popularisation of Camping, 1860–1980’, Oxoniensia LXXX (2015)).