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Fifty Years Ago
The Story Of The Caravan Club
Fifty Years Ago

FIFTY years ago twelve men met at an inconspicuous house in West London—72 Stamford Brook Road—and decided to form a club. They called it the Caravan Club of Great Britain and Ireland, and today it is the most famous caravan organisation in the world, with some 20,000 members in Britain, links with Continental Europe, and affiliated clubs in Africa and New Zealand.

Apart from the Caravan Club of Southern Africa, it is still the only club in the world which is national, exclusive to caravanners, and independent of any camping or motor club. Yet even in 1907 caravanning was out of its infancy.
Private recreational caravanning can be traced back to the 1860s, and by the 1880s it was attracting some notice as a pastime for eccentric noblemen, gentlemen of leisure and enthusiasts for the simple life.
This was the period of "The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer”, by Dr. W. Gordon Stables, RN, the first book on caravanning. Wanderer was a two-ton, two-horse van built at Bristol, and in it Gordon Stables travelled over much of England and Scotland. It is still in existence, in the possession of his daughter Miss RN Gordon Stables, now a Vice-President.
By the early years of this century there were quite a number of lone tourists in horse caravans, and there were fleets of vans for hire, but an organiser for the movement was necessary. He appeared in the person of J. Harris Stone, editor of H ealth Resort, who is justly called the founder of the Club. He it was who, inspired by the caravan section at the Travel Exhibition held in May-June 1907 at the Royal Horticultural Hall, London, called the historic meeting. For twenty-eight years, with only one small break, he remained its Hon. Secretary.
Literary talent was strong in the Club at that time. In addition to Harris Stone there were other
writers such as Bertram Smith, author of "The Whole Art of Caravanning", 1907, a classic of touring humour, L. A. D. Cameron, author of “The Book of the Caravan”, 1909
(published by a business absorbed in Link House, the home of The Caravan), and of course Gordon Stables, whose vast output of boys’ books, still read sometimes by the young, was written mostly in his caravan on his travels, on which he was accompanied by his coachman, valet-cook, and sometimes his children.
The caravans of these pioneers, among whom the ladies were active, were for the most part horse caravans. But let no one pity them for their primitive outfits . The larger vans of 1907 were equipped with things not seen in tr ailer caravans, if at all, until recent years—running water, flush, sanitation, bureaux, libraries, pianos, and built-in dog kennels and aviaries.

True, they lacked speed. Two miles an hour or twenty in the day was the popular pace. But strolling alongside the horse, or strolling behind and catching up by quickening to four miles an hour, or skirmishing on ahead on the fun. A plague on the stinking motor caravans, hurtling along at 10 mph in a cloud of dust, which were then appearing.
One member of the Club boasted that when he set off on a tour he forgot the calendar, left no addresses, made no plans and stopped his watch. How could there be freedom, he argued, without leisure and absence of worry?
Yet Caravan Club members were not unpractical. The objects adopted at the inaugural meeting were:
“To bring together those interested in van life as a pastime, camping out in connection with caravans; and to improve and supply suitable vans and other appliances in connection therewith. To develop the pastime for the benefit of members by collecting, publishing and supplying to members books and periodicals and lists of camp sites, etc.

"To further and protect the interests of amateur caravanists and to do all other lawful things as may be conducive to the attainment of the above objects or any of them”
Harris Stone had had some training in the law, and his hand can be detected in this statement, which is still clearly echoed in the objects stated in the present constitution.
The Club has not gone in for building, and selling caravans to its members, but lists of sites were compiled -the number had reached 450 in 1912 insurance was effected with, companies won over to this new "risk”, a member was defended in a North Wales court on a charge of obstruction because he had camped on the grass verge of a road, and the Hon. Secretary gave evidence in September 1909 before a House of Lords Committee studying a movable dwellings bill, thus beginning what has since become one of the most important sides of the Club’s protective work.

The subscription was fixed at 5s. a year. Dr. Gordon Stables was elected Vice-President, and President in 1909. He died in 1910. The first chairman was another naval doctor, Dr. J. Alfred Corri, RN.
When the first AGM was held, on February 19, 1908, a membership of eighty was announced, and a pennant was adopted with a red ground and white device consisting of a CVC monogram (Caravan Club), the Cs embracing the arms of the V. Curiously enough, a horseshoe emblem was suggested but rejected on the advice of the Committee, which concluded that caravans might not always be drawn by horses.
The CVC pennant was replaced by the present horseshoe pennant by F. L. M. Harris in 1935, by which time the horse caravan was obsolescent and Harris was busy re-organising the Club for trailer caravanners. Time has shown that he was right. The horseshoe, though no longer applicable, is a treasured reminder of the origins of the Club and has aroused great affection among members.

Priceless documents

In 1938 the Club had lost touch with Harris Stone, and I made it my business to track him down and call on him. He was then over eighty, and had long since ceased caravanning, but he lived in a house at Finchley called “Caravan Cottage”. He gave me the original minute book of the Club, the first newspaper cuttings album, photos, dinner menus and other irreplaceable and priceless documents. Not long afterwards he died.
Among this original material is a record of a talk to members in 1908. They were advised to get rid of “superfluities” before taking the road. Today advice to sporting tourists is still frequently given by The Caravan and its contributors in the sense “Make sure that your baggage is cut down to the absolute minimum—and then throw half of that out".
They were advised to use a van light enough to avoid the complications of two horses, not to have too many windows, because they weakened the construction (we seem to have read that again in the last year or two), and to have the interior as bare and free from clutter as possible. Double panelling was discussed; not until 1939 were all standard trailer caravans double panelled.

The first rally

The first meet or rally of the Club was held at the Hautboy Hotel, Ockham, Surrey, on May 15-18, 1908. One hopes that the South London Centre will hold a commemorative rally on the same spot if it has not been built on or ploughed up. Only one rally a year was held up to 1914, but it sometimes lasted a week, and it took most of the members a week or so each way in travelling.
The 1909 rally was in a field by the Berkeley Arms Hotel, Cranford Bridge, near Hounslow, Middlesex, and both the 1910 and 1911 rallies were at Cane Hill, Coulsdon, Surrey, near a large mental asylum, but perhaps there was no significance in that, whatever onlookers may have thought. The 1911 event was a celebration of the Coronation of King George V, and two Indian princes who had come over for that bought caravans to take back to India and attended the rally. Photographs of these rallies show the Hon. Secretary and Hon. Treasurer conducting business from the office van in frock coats and bowler hats.
Just as the Club provided tractors to help members over the mud at the 1955 National Rally at Worcester, so the Club provided a trace horse to help members with heavy vans up the sharp rise near Cane Hill Asylum.
In 1912 the rally was held in the grounds of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, and in 1913 the Club was invited by the Ipswich Corporation to use its Christchurch Park. The Corporation even produced a magnificent printed souvenir programme.
Public interest in these events was immense. The East AnglianDaily Times alone gave 234 column inches of space to the Rally. It occupied the entire front page of the Daily Mirror, the Daily Mail gave it 21in. and the London Star 20in. Not bad for a club of fewer than 200 members.
Another major publicity stroke was an exhibit of caravans by the Club at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, in 1909. The Daily Mail thought highly enough of them as an attraction to give the floor space free.
Administrative problems were not without their difficulties at this period. In 1907 the Caravan Club had joined with the Camping Club (founded 1906) and the Association of Cycle Campers (founded 1901) to form the Camping Union with an office to serve all of them and Harris Stone as Chairman, but in 1909 the Camping Club and the ACC merged (becoming the Camping Club of Great Britain and Ireland in 1919) and the Camping Union was dissolved.

Setting up office

In 1908 there was one of those domestic upheavals to which all clubs are liable, and a vote of confidence in Harris Stone was passed only by the casting vote of the Chairman, whereupon Stone resigned. But he was voted back into office the next year, and was allowed the magnificent sum of £4 from Club funds with which to employ a clerk to help him.
A later attempt to find a home was made through a friendly tie-up with the Selborne Society, an organisation of nature and country lovers, whose journal became the official organ of the Club. Club offices were moved from 358 Strand to 42 Bloomsbury Square, which is just round the corner from the Club's present offices.
Present - day caravanners will learn with ironic amusement that in 1909 the Surrey Landowners Protection Society decided to try and stop caravanning. The Club replied with propaganda.
A problem familiar to members in the 1930s and onwards is the Club attitude to trade members. In 1909 the Committee decided that a Mr. Nicholson, a caravan builder of Worksop, was very welcome as a member but must not fly the pennant except when he was travelling personally and privately in a van.
The series of annual dinners started with one at the Cafe Monico, London, on March 31, 1909, the scene of Club dinners for many years after. Tickets were 5s.

Caravans at war

The first world war unhappily brought Club activity to a standstill, and members, then some 200 strong, did not meet again until 1919. But Harris Stone kept the organisation intact, and when in 1918 Field Marshal Haig sent the War Office an SOS for fifty caravans to be used as mobile operations rooms and headquarters during the follow-up of the rapid German retreat, the Club collected them and despatched them with commendable speed.
By 1919 road transport had changed greatly. The age of the motor car had arrived. Roads were being surfaced in a manner unkind to horses. The first trailer caravans made their appearance. The horse caravanners of the Club must have known that theirs was a lost cause, but they clung to it loyally, and the veterans continued to fulminate against motor caravans and trailers, even though quite a number of users of these types were then in the Club. Sir Harry Brittain, now a Vice-President of the Club, was one of the pioneers of the trailer caravan in the early 1920s.

The pace quickens

The veterans were growing older, and the times did not seem favourable for rallies. Life was too fast now, and the Club services were confined to a site service, insurance, the arranging of hiring for members, and an annual dinner, still held regularly at the Cafe Monico.
The presiding genius at these dinners was the genial Chairman, Lord Ailesbury, who had been caravanning since the beginning of the century. As a stalwart of the horse van he was allowed to drop out when the Club was re-organised in 1935, but in 1938 he willingly accepted an invitation to become President. In this office he showed a keen interest in the newer carvanning, and attended many Club functions, including National Rallies, until age led him to resign after more than ten years as President, when he became a Vice-President.
At the dinners between 1919 and 1932 many interesting guests were entertained, including Rudyard Kipling, the caravanning judge Mr. Justice Eve, and the trade unionist Ben Tillett, who was born in a caravan.

o the years passed, with the Club unfortunately falling behind in the march of progress and badly needing new blood. Several members who joined the Club in the early 1930s are still with it, including Mr. W. H. Rickinson and Major H. R. Presland, but new members could do little against the tremendous prestige of the grand old pilot Harris Stone, who as late as 1933 published a new edition of his book "Caravanning and Camping Out", devoted almost wholly to horse caravanning. At last a new and powerful influence appeared on the scene—another Editor and a caravan magazine. The Caravan was founded in 1933 by the late F. L. M. (Mit) Harris, ex-motoring journalist, active in sporting clubs, ardent advocate of the trailer caravan. Its birth coincided with a surge of caravanning among motorists. How great was the need for a revitalisation of the old Club was shown by the fact that the first trailer caravan rallies were left to be organised by the Autocar, in 1932, and the RAC, in 1933. They were well attended. The Junior Car Club formed a caravan section and started rallies.
Harris drew the threads together. He saw that the great traditions of the Caravan Club were too good to be lost, that the time had come to re-organise it for the new caravanners. Under the impact of his eagerness Harris Stone saw a new vision of the Club, resigned its care into these new and capable hands, and gave it his blessing.
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