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The International Young Men's Holiday Camp - 1897


The area on the seaward side of the King Edward Road, to the south of Groudle Beach, was the site of the first holiday camp in the British Isles. It was established by Joseph Cunningham of Liverpool as the "International Young Men's Holiday Camp". Cunningham had been the superintendent of a working lads' organisation, known as The Florence Institute, of Toxteth in Liverpool, and one of his responsibilities was the organising of an annual week-long Summer camp for the boys which in 1892 and 1893 had been held, for the first time in the Isle of Man, at Laxey. In 1894 he and his wife found a new site for the annual summer camp and in that year it was held on the headland overlooking Groudle beach.

However, it appears that these annual Summer camps did not pay their way and the deficits were made up by the institute. The relationship between Cunningham and the institute was beginning to deteriorate and in November 1894, following the Summer camp at Howstrake, they parted company. The Cunninghams decided to organise any future camping holidays at Howstrake on their own account.

During the Winter of 1894, the estate company began work on laying out a scenic park overlooking Groudle and this opened to the public in July 1895. The main entrance was marked by the still-existing iron gates and railings opposite to the tram shelter at Lag Birragh. What was described as a North Entrance was at the junction of the King Edward Road and the track down to the beach at Groudle. The park occupied the land on both sides of the road between these entrances and the two sections were connected by a tunnel running under the road and railway. On the left as one entered the park by the main entrance, was a corrugated iron clad structure which served as a bungalow and an entrance-fee kiosk. On the lower portion of the park, below the highway, a pavilion, again clad in corrugated iron, served as a restaurant and for performances by a string band. The park is thought to have operated for the 1895 and 1896 seasons only. It is unlikely that the Howstrake Park undertaking could have co-existed with the holiday camp and it would appear that it was in 1897 that the land became available for Cunningham to rent as the site of his camp.

Within a few years he was attracting sufficient numbers to keep the camp open from May to October. He was no longer tied to the working lads' institute and his clientele began increasingly to comprise the general public rather than being limited to boys from an often deprived background. At the turn of the century Cunningham offered a week's holiday for 17/6d. On arrival at Douglas, guests made their way to the camp by means of horse tramcar to Derby Castle and by the Electric Railway which had been opened as far as Groudle in September 1893, the year before he first used the Howstrake site for a camp. The camp took male guests only and was strictly tee-total. It featured in an article in The Tourist Magazine in 1899.

A post card of the period, which featured also in an advertisement of 1903, depicts the pavilion of the former scenic park and a collection of other buildings, built of stone, and of up to two storeys in height. These contained kitchens and other camp functions.  Around this were orderly lines of bell tents which formed the greater part of the sleeping facilities. However, the accommodation was not entirely tented as an advertisement for the season of 1899 refers to "..Comfortable sleeping arrangements in tents or indoors..". Because of the limitations imposed by the size of the kitchen areas, the camp could accommodate only six hundred guests at a time.

The campers obviously enjoyed themselves and a photograph of a group of them outside a tent with a placard which read  "HOTEL DE DOSS" was used in an advertisement for the 1901 season. This piece of Howstrake horseplay was probably the origin of designating holiday camp tents and chalets with amusing names. This became a custom not only at Cunningham's future Douglas site but also at other holiday camps in the United Kingdom.

Although the camp was financially a success, Cunningham could not plough back his profits in the form of improved facilities as he had no security of tenure over the site. It was this factor, combined with an exceptionally wet and stormy Summer in 1903 when 65 tents were damaged in one day, which decided him to seek another site. By 1904 the operation had moved to the site more commonly associated with him near Little Switzerland, in Douglas, where it came to be known as Cunningham's Camp. During the war it became H.M.S. St. George, a boy sailors' training establishment. At the end of the war in 1945 the Cunningham family sold out. The site is now occupied by the Shoprite Group.