The First Camper — Thomas Hiram Holding Holds Forth
By Farwell Forrest
July 23, 2013
A note to the reader: This is the fifth in a series of columns exploring noteworthy landmarks in paddlesport's literary backwaters. Links to the earlier articles can be found below.
Thomas Hiram Holding. It's not a name that springs readily to mind. Not, at least, to the mind of a North American. But Holding should be better known than he is, for he can lay fair claim to being the first camper. This isn't to say that he was the first person to spend a night under canvas. That would be absurd. Yet in the three decades preceding the First World War, Holding did much to persuade otherwise sane Britons to abandon their comfortable beds and cozy hearths for sleeping bags and clammy, unheated tents. And in so doing he helped nurture a social movement whose effects can still be felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
It's tempting to see Holding as a British Nessmuk, a popularizer who caught the public imagination at a time when change was in the air. The two men did indeed have much in common. They were near contemporaries — Holding was born in 1844, when Nessmuk was in his early twenties — and both were artisans, men whose livelihoods depended on their skill with their hands. Nessmuk was a cobbler by trade; Holding, a tailor. They shared a belief in the restorative power of nature, as well. But there the likeness ends. Nessmuk often abandoned his family for months at a time, leaving his destitute wife and hungry children to shift for themselves, whereas Holding was a more conventional (not to say more responsible) husband and father. And Nessmuk, while never adverse to enjoying a convivial evening in a wilderness hostelry — as long as someone else was buying the drinks — was at heart a solitary wanderer, who freely admitted to "a strange fondness for being in deep forests by myself." Holding, on the other hand, delighted in company. To borrow Samuel ("Dictionary") Johnson's singularly apt turn of phrase, he was a very clubbable man, a man who believed that a pleasure shared was a pleasure doubled. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that he was forever organizing associations of like‑minded souls. He also had a wider range of interests than Nessmuk, who (apart from his statutory allegiance to those two staples of American backwoods life, hunting and fishing) was a canoeist first, last, and always. Not so Holding. He was equally happy whether he was paddling, sailing, or cycling. He even embraced caravanning — this was back when camping caravans were drawn by horses, not 4WD pickups — and one of his legacies is the present‑day Camping and Caravanning Club, a British institution whose roster of past presidents includes both Robert Falcon Scott (aka Scott of the Antarctic) and Scouting's own Baden‑Powell.
More to the point, though, Nessmuk was something that Holding was not: a gifted storyteller. His magnum opus, the aptly named and much‑reprinted Woodcraft, is as much a collection of anecdotes as it is a how‑to book. A whole chapter — one of the longest — is given over to his tale of a ten‑day trek through the Michigan woods between Saginaw Bay and the Muskegon River, following a trail that "branched off to right and left, grew dimmer and slimmer, degenerated to a deer path, petered out to squirrel track, ran up a tree, and ended in a knot hole." It's easy to see how such a yarn‑spinner could hold an audience. Of course, Holding may also have had some knack for storytelling. He published several accounts of his travels by canoe and bicycle, including Watery Wanderings 'mid Western Lochs and Cycle and Camp in Connemara. But they didn't sell many copies, and I've been unable to find any of them online. It's obvious that they didn't capture the imagination of readers in the way that Nessmuk's Woodcraft did.
None of which really matters. Holding's legacy rests, not on his gifts as a raconteur (if any), but on his zeal as a popularizer. And his great work — available in a recent reprint, as well as online — is as plain‑spoken as its title: The Camper's Handbook. I won't pretend that it's a compelling read. It isn't. For the most part, it's as dry and matter‑of‑fact as a textbook. Which is exactly what it is: a textbook for would‑be Campers. (Holding almost always capitalizes the word, presumably to emphasize that Camping is no ordinary pastime.) And by that standard it's very good indeed.
But make no mistake. Though Holding's Handbook is lightened from time to time by occasional (and unexpected) jeux d'esprit, it is not a book you'll read for pleasure. That said, you'll find something of practical interest on almost every page, and much of Holding's advice is as pertinent today as it was when the Handbook went to press. Do you think that lightweight, portable stoves are the products of late 20th‑century technology? Think again. Holding devotes a chapter to a detailed critique of camping stoves, including two of his own design and another (the "vapour stove") which bears a very close resemblance to the deservedly popular Trangia cookers. It's clear that campers — sorry, Campers — had almost as many types of stove to choose from in 1908 as they do today. Only stoves fueled by pressurized gas (butane, propane, and various mixtures of the two) are missing from Holding's roster.
As interesting as it is to see how little has changed in camp kitchens over more than a century, however, there are many other surprises in store for modern readers of the Handbook. Take the subject of ultralight camping, in which Holding was clearly a pioneer. To be sure, Nessmuk also articulated the gospel of go‑light, but he depended in no small measure on living off the land. (He also wasn't averse to putting up overnight in a backcountry hotel — the Adirondacks had many of these in the last decades of the 19th century — whenever a meal and a bed were offered gratis.) Holding was cut from very different cloth. He prided himself on paying his way, while studiously avoiding inns and hotels. Yet he didn't believe in weighing himself down, and when giving examples of gear lists worth emulating he quotes one G. D. Matthews, who reports that his "pedestrian kit" for a hiking holiday comes to less than 10 pounds a person, including tent, stove, and down quilt. It's no coincidence that Matthews' stove and cooker were both made to Holding's design, and it seems likely that his tent was, as well. Holding designed many tents, in fact, and improved others' creations, too. If you're intrigued by a two‑man tent weighing only 1 pound, 12 ounces (3 pounds, 4 ounces with the jointed ridgepole), you'll want to study the Handbook's chapter on tents carefully.)
The 10‑pound weight of Matthews' "pedestrian kit" is somewhat misleading, however, since it included neither food nor water bottle (Matthews claimed that he "never carried one," while admitting it would be "most advisable" in a few places), but in 1908 the makings of a substantial meal were usually as close as the nearest farmhouse. And Campers were seldom far from a farm in Britain — or on the Continent, for that matter. In the (unlikely) event that there was no farmhouse in the offing when it came time to make camp, though, Holding invented a portable milk can for cyclists. He called it the CAMPO milk tin, and it was offered in two sizes: "Small, for single‑handed Camping" and "Large, for double‑handed Camping." He also had an even larger can made to meet the needs of canoeists. He named it the Cruising Milk Tin and promised his readers that "it is very steady, a good article, and may be used for boiling."
What with every farmhouse acting as a convenience store, where passers‑by could be sure of finding real "farm‑fresh" milk, eggs, and meat for sale at better than city prices, Camping was truly a moveable feast in the early years of the 20th century. And to prove the point, here's Holding holding forth on the vital subject of Lunch:
This looms rather largely in the imagination of the camper. … The make‑shift lunch of the very light order may be all very well, but let us bear in mind that we breakfasted at 7 o'clock. We have been hard at work the whole morning and have had no food meanwhile, except a pear, an apple, or a biscuit, and as it will, in the course of things, be at earliest 7.30 before the next meal comes along, a too light lunch is inadequate. … I propose here to give a little menu to start with which, say, composes our mid‑day meal by cycle or boat, for ten out of every twelve days.
COLD LUNCH A LA LITTLE BASKET
- Half a chicken. York Ham — "York" of course, but not guaranteed.
- Potatoes — cold.
- Chicken all gone, second helping of unguaranteed No. 1.
- Bread ad lib
- Fruit, peaches, a la tin.
- Gorgonzola — two helpings, with thin biscuits. Butter and bread.
- Dessert: pears and French plums or figs.
- Strong tobacco, taken in a reclining position, head on luncheon basket, peak of cap over eyes. No one to move or speak.
It's easy to see why Holding thought the lunch hour to be "the most enjoyable time of all in Camping life," what with "the chat, the chaff, the eating, the little rest afterwards, [and] the homely pipe." Some paddlers may quibble with his menu, however. I'm not sure about the wisdom of taking "strong tobacco" as a second dessert, myself, but then I've never smoked. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I had. This much is certain, at any rate: After such a lunch, no one in the party would be at all inclined to "move or speak" for some considerable time.
Holding was conscious of the need for creature comforts, too. In concluding his short essay on the ideal lunch stop, he cautions Campers to ensure that they have the sun in front of them as they eat, and that ("particularly in coldish weather") a hedge lies between their backs and the wind. That's very good advice, I'd say.
OK. I think you've tasted enough of the dish to whet your appetite. If you like what you've sampled — or if you're just curious about Camping's early years — I'd suggest you go to the source. But I don't want to leave you with the wrong impression. There's a bit more to Holding than didactic pronouncements and occasional witty asides. Here, for example, he holds forth on why he wrote and what he liked most:The mission of this book is to initiate the inexperienced, and to inspire them with a desire to learn. That should be the object of those who aspire to teach others. … What Camping gives most pleasure? … No concise answer can be given. Each has its own delight, and each appeals most to the sympathies of one particular person. … My own preference … is in descending rivers in a Canadian canoe* and Camping by the way.
And that, I suspect, means that many of us will find ourselves in the same boat. I can't wait for lunch, can you?
Camping was a way of life for the human species for most of our shared history. But by the first years of the 20th century it had been transformed into a casual recreation throughout much of the western world. How did this come to pass? Part of the explanation can be found in the work of a handful of tireless enthusiasts, popularizers who preached the gospel of go‑light camping. Most North American paddlers will have heard of Nessmuk, yet not many of us on this side of the Atlantic recognize the equally important contributions of Thomas Hiram Holding. It's time this changed, don't you think?
* A "Canadian canoe" isn't necessarily a canoe made in Canada. When Holding wrote (in 1908), it was the accepted name — in British English — for any open canoe. A "canoe" without the qualifying adjective "Canadian" was a decked boat pretty much indistinguishable from a modern touring kayak. This distinction survived until the closing years of the 20th century, and it isn't entirely dead yet.
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A note on the illustrations: The header is taken from the cloth cover of the 1908 Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, Ltd. edition of The Camper's Handbook. The tailpiece is a photo of a youngish Holding on a canoeing holiday, reproduced through the courtesy of The (UK) Camping and Caravanning Club.
The Latest Book From the Backwaters
- Thomas Hiram Holding, The Camper's Handbook
NB Many of the illustrations are missing from this online facsimile, and these illustrations are a vital part of the text. If you want to read the book, therefore, I'd recommend downloading the PDF from the Open Library page, which you can reach by clicking the link in the upper left corner of the Archive.org reader.
And the Earlier Articles in the Series
- "Three Men in Three Boats on the Danube"
- "Treasure for the Taking"
- "To Say Nothing About the Dog"
- "The World of The Wind in the Willows"
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