Camp and Sports Co-operators
Camtors - Camping operators of Grenville Street, London.
1901 August. Formed by thirteen people as the “Association of Cycle Campers” at a camping meet held at Wantage, Berkshire. It was organized by T. H. Holding (founder of the C.T.C.) and E. C. Pitt-Johnson (later, to become a Rev.)
At this time, some tents and various items of camping equipment were available, but this was mostly for 19th century Emigrants, Missionaries and Explorers. Camping for pleasure in lightweight tents using lightweight or minimal equipment was a new phenomenon, and it soon became clear early in the life of the Camping Club, that there were no lightweight tents or any suitable camping equipment available to meet the club’s purposes.
c1902 A few members got together to make their own - mostly tents and small items. This same group would subsequently take orders from those members not skilled enough to make their own - thus, the beginning. Holding was a tailor by trade, who helped with the creation of the early tents, the “A” and the small “Gypsy” being the most popular standard tents at this time.
During these early years the club office was at 11, St. Martin’s Court, London, W.C.
1906 March. Holding resigned from the A.C.C. and subsequently formed another club called the “National Cycle-Camping Club”, later to be amended to the “National Camping Club”. In the meantime, the “A.C.C.” spawned another Club to widen the scope of activities.
In subsequent years all these clubs would amalgamate to form one club during the Presidency of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott R.N.
In the spring of 1906 an official “Supplies Department” was started, and a notice to this effect appeared in the May issue of the club magazine. By this time activities had grown to require larger premises, which were now at 6, Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. Throughout the early years, camping displays were held at various exhibitions to advertise and expand the work of the club.
1911 Following the amalgamation of the various camping groups, the Supplies Department became a separate entity both in finance and organization with a new title, “Amateur Camping Club Supplies Department”. It had its own committee consisting of three members, plus two from the club council, but it was all part of the Club. The first premises of the newly amalgamated club and separate ‘Supplies Department’ were at 4, New Union Street, Moorgate, London E.C.2.
In the run-up to the First World War, the Supplies Department had grown to become a sizeable business, issuing its own price lists and it required a lot of voluntary effort on behalf of members to keep both the Club and the Supplies Department going. During the period of hostilities, of course, it became increasingly difficult to keep this show on the road with reduced supplies and volunteers, but it was greatly helped by a member, R. B. Searle who, during this period became the linchpin of the organization.
In 1916, James H. Wood (brother of H. Winton Wood - Hon secretary of the club up to the outbreak of the war)) designed the original Itisa tent - the first single pole tent, as well as a number of other gadgets, which subsequently became available through the Supplies Department.
By the end of 1917, however, there were severe cutbacks in supplies and repairs, while the Hire Department was closed down.
The Club had always favoured the use of special lightweight equipment and had always made it one of their obligations to ensure that it should be obtainable in the best qualities of material and workmanship. There was growing disquiet, however, that there was, or could be, a conflict of interest between the ‘Club’ and ‘Supplies’. At a reconstruction committee meeting held in the Spring of 1919, it was decided that it would be in the best interests of all if the ‘Supplies’ became a separate entity and run independently from the Club. There were also those who wanted the ‘sporting’ side of the club to be separated from the ‘trade’ side. This same committee, therefore, decided to accept an offer by R. B. Searle to take over the business of the Supplies Department and form a co-operative.
R. B. Searle tendered his resignation from the position of Hon Secretary of the Club in March 1919, to take effect from May, but he was still acting as secretary in June. The Council recorded in its minutes of the meeting, and also in the Club’s magazine, Camping, its high appreciation of Mr Searle’s services to the club during the difficult period of the war, and accepts his resignation with very great regret.
A year later the Club again asked R. B. Searle if he would take up the secretaries post to help them out, which he did for another three full years. There was amongst the membership some disquiet over Searle being the Club Secretary at the same time as being Managing Trustee of Camp and Sports Co-operators Ltd.
1919 November. At a special General Meeting of club members the separation of ‘Supplies’ from the Club was effected, with the department becoming, Camp & Sports Co-operators Ltd.
By April 1920, this new independent supplies facility was fully fledged and operating from 4, New Union Street, Moorgate, London - the same address as the Club. At the same meeting, the Club became a legal entity and changed its name from the Amateur Camping Club, to the Camping Club of Great Britain & Ireland. The idea was to more closely reflect the distribution of members, anticipated expansion and to fulfil the general aspiration of the post-war club.
From 1920 to 1940, the business of Camp and Sports Co-operators Ltd., grew dramatically with sales to the public as well as to Club members, who also enjoyed a discount. Most of the shareholders were club members, who had an additional discount if holding shares. R. B. Searle though, was always asking through the pages of Camping for more members to take out shares so that he could keep the business healthy and well capitalized. However, the number of shareholders were never enough to achieve this, which resulted in Camp & Sports Co-operators being under capitalized for much of its independent existence.
1924 Branch showroom opened in January at Princeton Street, London. Catalogues were issued - 8 in total, with the occasional supplement from time to time, usually with a lower case ‘a’ or ‘b’ added. The first four were classed as price lists, while the last four were classed as catalogues.
1926 New work rooms were opened in Grays Inn Road to cope with expansion.
1928 The Princeton Street branch was closed and the business transferred to 2-3, Greville Street, Holborn, E.C.1.
By 1929, the trust’s trade mark “Camtors” was now generally regarded as the hallmark and very best in outdoor equipment, and a branch office was opened at 9, Mosley Street, Manchester.
Throughout this period a large increase in business was reported year on year, which resulted in a steady declaration of dividends to the satisfaction of shareholders (mostly club members).
1931 The British Arctic Air Expedition was fully equipped by Camtors. Many more such commissions were to follow. This year the Registered Office at 4, New Union Street was closed and new premises opened at 24, Gorst Road, North Acton, London. The operations at Gray’s Inn Road were closed and transferred to the showrooms at 2-3 Greville Street, Holborn. Both put their respective address labels on the products each supplied.
1932 saw the first decline in business, due to the general depression. To off-set this position, the budget priced “Chase” range of tents were introduced. These were made in bulk without the normal refinements associated with the brand, and were available right through to the early 1950s. They were still very well made however, and were exceedingly good value for money.
1932 The Manchester showroom moved to 2a, China lane, Piccadilly.
Throughout the 1930s, Camtors exhibited regularly at all exhibitions relating to the outdoor life.
In late 1937, the Showroom at 2 & 3 Greville Street was closed, followed almost immediately by 24, Gorst Road. The Registered Office and showroom, together with communications and repairs moved to 21, Newgate Street, London, E.C.1., while the factory moved to 1 & 2 Hardwick Street, Finsbury, E.C.1.
In 1939, an experiment was undertaken to see if folding canoes could be part of the business. This was a ‘one-off’ arrangement consisting of ten folding canoes being built. It was not pursued, the outbreak of war possibly having something to do with it.
During the war years, various tasks were carried out on behalf of the government, which rather overshadowed the business of tent and camp equipment making.
In the post war period of 1946, Searle was now around the age of 76 and finding it difficult to keep the business going. With no support from the Club and the trust lacking the capital to re-energize itself, the position looked bleak. It was necessary therefore, if the trust was to continue, to find somebody, or some other firm who could help the trust to survive. W. R. Henderson, who was a member of the Camping Club, but also a director of Black's of Greenock, heard about the situation and after consultation, arranged to take Camtors under Blacks wing. Due to the nature of Camtors products and their particular clientele, the business was allowed to continue trading as before.
Sometime between 1939 and 1949, 21, Newgate Street premises were closed down, while showrooms at 38, Grosvenor Gardens, S.W.1. were opened in the forties. Shop and showrooms now at 16, Buckingham Palace Road, London, S.W.1.
1955 Searle aged 84. It is doubtful whether there would have been a successor to the original “Supplies Department” in the shape of Camp & Sports Co-operators, had it not been for the devotion and enthusiasm of Searle. In bringing Camtors into existence, he ensured that members had access to quality tents and products, which were never bettered by any other firm. He also gave a large part of his life to the Club, and kept the Amateur Camping Club alive during the first world war - without which, the Club might not have survived. His death brought about the loss of one of the Club’s most devoted, loyal and important members.
In 1956, the Buckingham Palace Road premises were closed and a new shop and showroom opened at 51, Cannon Street, London, E.C.4.
While in 1962, Blacks acquired the camping, Mountaineering and Ski-ing business of Jackson and Warr Ltd. The London office of this firm was grouped with Camtors, to become: Camtors, Jackson and Warr Ltd.
1962 The Cannon Street showrooms closed and a new showroom opened at the Jackson and Warr premises of 33, Ludgate Hill, E.C.4.
At the end of the 1966 camping season, Camtors, Jackson and Warr discontinued trading, with all residual business being absorbed by Blacks.
Camp and Sports Co-operators (trademark - Camtors), which grew out of the A.C.C. Supplies Department, came about because a significant number of Club members only wanted to be associated with the sporting aspect of camping and not the business of producing tents and equipment. This also had the knock-on effect of reducing the number of members who would buy shares in the independent venture. Camp & Sports Co-operators Ltd, became the FIRST commercial organization to provide lightweight tentage and camping equipment to the public in any organized and meaningful way. Given their genesis, they were principally interested in producing the finest quality tents and equipment for members of the Camping Club, and those who would buy their products. The price of their goods was, a consideration and not to be ignored, but it was never the sole or governing factor controlling quality and production. This philosophy was a ‘carry-over’ from the ‘committee’ days of quality and attention to detail, and pertained right through to the late 1950’s before we see ‘options and modifications’ in specification creeping in, by which time, of course, Searle was dead and they were part of another company. Camtors was a well-run business, but as the majority of its shareholders were members of the Camping Club, it meant that in some respects, the management was always looking over its shoulder at the Club and how it might react to its decisions, and whether those decisions were being taken in consideration of the business, or the Club. In a way, therefore, it was not totally a normal business in the conventional sense.
Following the ‘take-over’ by Blacks of Greenock in 1946, Camtors continued to trade as an independent business for about 20 years with its own factory and shops. This suggests that the unique nature of this business, the design and quality of its products, and the particular market that it served was different and valued by Blacks. By the early nineteen sixties, however, there were currency restrictions and other State legislation affecting British firms, not to mention the large scale import of cheap foreign goods and the changes taking place in the public’s leisure requirements. All these difficulties forced Blacks to reorganize with a view to consolidating its position, which meant that independent trading for Camtors was no longer viable. The reason given by Blacks directors at the time was that, the quality, design and tailoring excellence which had been the hallmark of Camtors products was no longer economically viable. This position, in time, would extend to almost all the other British companies similarly engaged in the outdoor leisure trade. Blacks merged with Benjamin Edgington in 1967, as well as buying up many other businesses to try and consolidate market share, but in the end, it was all to no avail.
Sources of Information
- Sources: Early Camping Club Magazines. Camping Catalogues. Camp & Sports Co-operators Rule Book and paperwork. Compiled by Charles Alexander, Axminster, Devon. November 2014