The River Thames and the Popularisation of Camping, 1860-1980
This academic article by Simon Wenham reconsiders the history of (recreational) camping in Britain. It challenges the prevailing idea that the pastime was first popularised by the likes of the Association of Cycle Campers (founded in 1901) and the Boy Scout movement (1907). Instead, it argues that the activity was already fashionable on the river Thames between Oxford and London by the 1880s, as part of the late Victorian craze for pleasure boating.
The article is published in Oxoniensia LXXX (2015).
Abstract: Recreational camping is usually thought to have been popularised by organisations such as the Association of Cycle Campers (founded in 1901) and the Boy Scout movement (1907). This article argues that ‘camping out’ was already fashionable on the Thames between Oxford and London by the 1880s, as part of the late Victorian craze for pleasure boating. Greater restrictions imposed on water-based camping by landowners then contributed to its reduced appeal by the end of the century. Records from one of the river’s largest rental companies, Salter Bros of Oxford, are used to show that there was a revival in the activity during the interwar period and spectacular growth during the Second World War (followed by a subsequent decline). This was partly due to the popularity of the tent punt, as well as greater numbers of women boating, although one-way trips and long-distance journeys in manually powered craft slowly fell out of favour. Motorised vessels proliferated on the river after the Second World War and the firm disposed of its ageing camping fleet in the 1970s, at a time when the number of cabin cruisers on the waterway was nearing its peak.