Camp as a row of tents

Cunningham's Holiday Camp Escalator, Douglas, Isle of Man (2009)

Cunningham’s Holiday Camp Escalator, Douglas, Isle of Man (2009)

Margaret, one of the guests on the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, asked me out of the blue what I knew about Dodd’s holiday camp at Caister, Norfolk.  Absolutely nothing, I had to admit.

I promised to check it out, and found that I’d missed an important landmark in the history of twentieth-century British holidays.

John Fletcher Dodd was a 44-year-old grocer and magistrate and a founder-member of the Independent Labour Party who bought a couple of acres of land on the Norfolk coast to set up the Caister Socialist Holiday Camp in 1906.

This was by any standards a spartan affair – teetotal, segregated and entirely tented (though wooden chalets appeared from 1912, and a later picture shows fifteen Great Yarmouth tram bodies lined up on the cliffs, open-toppers which must have been ideal for sunbathing).

The entertainment consisted of camp-fire sing-songs and lectures from such figures as Keir Hardie and George Bernard Shaw.  There were blanket bans on alcohol, mixed bathing, swearing and children under two.

Over the years, the regime softened and the socialist ethic was moderated.  John Fletcher Dodd stayed firmly in charge until he died, aged ninety, in 1952, the year after the camp reopened post-war.  It’s still in business as Caister Caravan Holiday Park:

Its centenary produced a plethora of celebratory news features in the Daily Express [], the Daily Mail [], the Daily Mirror [], The Sun [] and the Black Country Bugle [], among others.

Though Dodd claimed to be the founder of the British holiday camp, there was an earlier pioneer in the Isle of Man.  Joseph Cunningham was a Presbyterian baker from Liverpool who established a tented camp for single men only at Howstrake, on the newly-opened electric railway line, in 1894.

After a devastating storm in 1903 Joseph Cunningham relocated to a five-acre site in Little Switzerland, in Upper Douglas, where he provided 1,500 eight-man tents and a dining pavilion.  The regime was teetotal and the camp was largely self-sufficient, growing its own fruit and vegetables and maintaining its own herds of cows and pigs.

To the annoyance of Douglas hotel and boarding-house proprietors, the tented camp was rated as agricultural land, so the entire property was valued at only one-seventh the value of a forty-room boarding house.  Joseph Cunningham justified this by arguing that his thousands of visitors could not otherwise afford to visit the island and yet contributed significantly to the summer-season economy.

Cunningham himself could afford to fly his own monoplane between the wars, taking off and landing at a field near the camp.

Cunningham’s Camp survived into the post-war period, but the site is now redeveloped.

A long-lasting relic and curiosity of this piece of holiday history is the Cunningham’s Douglas Holiday Camp Escalator, installed in 1920, duplicated in 1938, and abandoned in 1968.  To practical purposes a sedentary paternoster, this noisy device to give campers a lift from the promenade operated free of charge until 1963.  It remained in position, and is illustrated in Charles Guard’s video/DVD, More Curiosities of the Isle of Man (Manx Heritage Foundation 2004) [].

Update:  A press-release in February 2013 announced the imminent demolition of the chairlift:

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

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