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Organised outdoor activity in the UK- Arthur Leonard and the Co-operative Holidays Association

There are some movers and shakers from the earliest days of organised outdoor activity that are barely known today. Mention their name to anyone on the hills and and only a handful would know who you are referring to and how connected they are to the activity that they are enjoying. One such individual is T. A. Leonard.

T.A. Leonard, a Congregational Church minister from Colne, Lancashire

T.A. Leonard, a Congregational Church minister from Colne, Lancashire

Thomas Arthur Leonard, OBE, 1864-1948, was born in London. His father, a watchmaker, died when he was five and his mother raised him almost alone. She ran a boarding house and, being the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, it is not surprising that this influenced the young Thomas enrolling as a student at the Congregational Institute in 1884.

Marrying in 1888, he took pastoral roles in Barrow-in-Furness and Colne. It wasn’t long before another influence guided his movements and energies for the remainder of his life. In June 1891 he arranged for 32 male members of his Young Men’s Social Guild to holiday in the English Lake District. Just four days long, this was a great success and he believed that encouraging working males to holiday together in the countryside, with no alcohol and enjoying simple, spartan pleasures, daily walks and, most importantly, group singing, was the way forward.

Factory workers in the north of England, in common with the lower paid workers elsewhere had only recently had conditions slightly improved by the various Factory Acts, a series of UK labour law Acts, that sought to improve the conditions of industrial employment. Workers sought to escape the confines of still dangerous and unpleasant work environments. Rambling became a respite and popular recreation amongst the working class. In addition to this, mills and factories would close down on an annual basis for maintenance. ‘Wakes weeks’ had their roots in the Industrial Revolution and were particularly prevalent in the north of England and industrialised areas of the Midlands. They started as unpaid holiday and poorly paid workers had little choice on how to spend their newly found leisure time. There was little or no work to be had elsewhere as almost all industrial works within a locality coincided their closure period. This was the root of the annual summer holiday and entire families would decamp to spend their wakes week elsewhere, such as at the increasingly popular large coastal towns as sea bathing was held in high regard for its perceived health benefits.

CHA pin badge

CHA pin badge

In 1893 Leonard introduced the Co-operative Holidays Association (CHA). His holidays provided cheap, simple accommodation and an itinerary of walks, singing and evening lectures. Experts would instruct on geology, wildlife and botany. Later, painting, climbing and other pursuits were introduced. Leonard believed that the holidays that he provided were not an indulgence, but a necessity. A holiday was subject to strict itinerary however, communal activities were not only provided but participation was a requirement.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, those fortunate enough to reside in the towns and villages of the Lakes, regarded with suspicion those who sought simply to visit and ramble in ‘their’ hills. Any such influx was resisted. John Ruskin, amongst others, penned numerous letters to the local press decrying any influx of working class holiday makers. But, obviously, this was a tide that could not be stemmed.

By 1907, workers in the Lancashire mills were guaranteed 12 days annual leave, including Bank Holidays. This had increased to 15 days by 1915. Many would take time off in Blackpool and Morecambe, drink too much, party too hard and generally get up to various activities that Leonard and his fellow ministers frowned upon. Leonard believed that a simple communal life, with compulsory daily walks was far preferable.

At first, holidays were mostly based in the Lake District but quickly spread further afield. The Co-operative Holidays Association moved beyond the English Lakes, beyond Snowdonia and the Peak District, in to Europe, to bring travel, exploration, camaraderie across ethnic, social and class barriers, an ethos, and singing, to thousands. This was an entirely new form of ‘holiday movement’ that led the way for other similar businesses and organisations. Near derelict buildings were rebuilt and restored. This was also an era where large country mansions were put on the market and some were purchased at relatively low cost. However, modest income struggled to meet the upkeep of large houses and grounds.

Daily walks of 18-20 miles were compulsory. Sing-alongs were encouraged, both on the walks and each evening. An official songbook was produced. At first these were mostly psalms but over time became more secular. Everyone would join in and rounds were part of the routine. Despite the best efforts of the organisation however, such group singing had become less popular by the inter-war years. Alcohol was only permitted from the 1960s though no doubt there were those who flaunted such restriction prior.There were many walking and cycling groups and societies starting up and the social and physical aspect of these was invigorated by those who had just returned from a week’s rambling with the CHA in the company of like-minded souls. The idea of escaping to the hills once escaped from the collieries, factories and  dark satanic mills had been propagated.

Postcard showing the Moor Gate guest house owned and operated by the Co-operative Holiday Association

Postcard showing the Moor Gate guest house in Derbyshire, owned and operated by the Co-operative Holidays Association

By 1913 the Co-operative Holidays Association had 13 British holiday centres which catered for over 13,000 guests annually. This increased to 30 centres attracting 30,000 guests by the 1960s. However Leonard had long before become disaffected with the organisation. Leonard was an idealist who quickly became disillusioned with projects and his life choices when he felt that outward influences were compromising his ethics. He took up and resigned his position as a congregational minister three times, serving as a minister for just eight years in all. He dismayed at improper dress and attitudes on the fells. Anything that smacked of elitism and excluded the working classes was, he believed, to be resisted. Middle class workers expected the comforts of home, hot water, boots polished for them and no chores to perform while on holiday, however such things came at a price. Both figuratively and practically. This did not hold with other practices such as the offering of free or subsidised holidays to people who could not afford the fees that were still out of reach of those most disadvantaged.

The Co-operative Holidays Association committee began to aim its advertising at the middle-class rather than the working-class. The advertisement at the head of this post dates from 1927. Believing that the Co-operative Holidays Association was heading away from his ideals and wanting to spread his vision still further on the international stage, Leonard distanced himself from it to start another, back-to-basics, organisation- The Holiday Fellowship.

A group photograph of a happy bunch of people enjoying a weeks holiday with the Co-operative Holiday Association at Grasmere in 1958

A group photograph of a happy bunch of people enjoying a weeks holiday with the Co-operative Holidays Association at Grasmere in 1958. Few, if any, of these would have been working class and the organisation had by this time moved away from its roots

Referred to simply as the ‘CHA’, there were now as many women as men attending their holidays and despite fraternising between the sexes being slightly frowned upon, particularly amongst unmarried youngsters, there were those who referred to the organisation as the ‘Catch a Husband Association’!

The Co-operative Holidays Association was renamed Countrywide Holidays Association in 1964, operated independently until 2002 and stopped providing holidays the same year.

Leonard himself wasn’t finished with organised outdoors activity. The CHA had been encouraging youngsters in to the outdoors from early on, decades before the Youth Hostel Association and Leonard was involved in the formation of the YHA, standing as its first vice-president. He was president of the Ramblers Association from 1935-46. He founded the Friends of the Lake District in 1934 and worked with a number of different organisations increasing access to the outdoors and holidays for the poor or disadvantaged. He was made an OBE in 1937 and died in Conway in 1965. There is a memorial plaque, now by-passed by a redirected path, on Catbells, near Keswick in the Lake District. On this, Leonard is hailed as the-

founder of co-operative and communal holidays


“father” of the open-air movement in this country

There is a timeline of many of the most important or influential UK outdoor organisations over on my main website. I will occasionally write on a few more of these over the coming months.

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