One hundred years ago, as the nations of Europe feared an impending war, a new British organisation was preparing to launch its first holidays. The man behind this fledgling group was the Reverend Thomas Arthur Leonard, the father of the British outdoor holiday movement, fondly remembered as ‘T.A.’, who dedicated himself to providing healthy refreshing breaks for northern workers, away from the grime and daily grind of their working lives.
The organisation was the Holiday Fellowship, now titled HF Holidays and still going strong, which Leonard founded in 1913 because he felt his previous venture, the Co-operative Holidays Association he had founded while a Congregational minister in Colne, had become too middle-class. Born in Finsbury, London, in 1864, T A Leonard was brought up by his widowed mother, a Congregational minister’s daughter, and in his twenties he trained for the clergy, serving at Barrow then Colne, which he described as a ‘bleak upland township’ in his memoirs.
While at Colne in the 1890s, as pastor of Dockray Square Congregational Church – site of the town’s modern library and car park – he decided to offer the workers an alternative to the usual destinations of Blackpool and Morecambe for their usual Wakes Week holidays. He felt they would benefit from the fresh air, exercise and companionship a walking holiday would offer. He formed a rambling club in 1891 and took 30 people on a four-night break to Ambleside. His walks became an annual event and their popularity grew.
In his book, Adventures in Holiday Making, Leonard reflected that: “In those days we were content with very primitive arrangements, so long as they gave us the joy and freedom of the open fells.” His group became the Co-operative Holiday Association, which grew quickly. By 1913 there were 18 holiday centres around the UK and 16,000 guests took a holiday every year. Leonard, by now living in Marple Bridge, Cheshire, felt the CHA had become too middle class and in an amicable break-away he set up the Holiday Fellowship with headquarters in Conwy, North Wales. The new organisation had a simpler ethos and aimed to provide an all-inclusive holiday for the price of an average weekly wage. It also had a greater emphasis on internationalism, as Leonard had spent some of his schooldays studying in South-West Germany. The first British holidays operated in 1914 at Conwy, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, and the first holidays abroad were to Germany – in hindsight not the best choice of location in 1914. Two Holiday Fellowship customers found themselves stranded in Kerkheim, Germany, when the First World War broke out, and spent the rest of the war interned there. Nevertheless, the Holiday Fellowship had established itself as a pioneering provider of foreign holidays. After the war ended, the Holiday Fellowship continued to prosper and extended the number of destinations at home and abroad.
By the end of the 1920s it had 23 houses in the UK and nearly 30,000 guests. At this time the society responded to queries from female guests and produced a pamphlet on ‘Dress Hints for Ladies’. It advised lady walkers to “wear strong, low-heeled boots, woollen stockings, short skirt, close fitting hat or cap, and in summer a light scarf or handkerchief for the head, a woollen jumper and light macintosh or poncho”. It added that “complete changes of underwear, and plenty of woollen stockings are essential”.
Leonard continued as General Secretary of the Holiday Fellowship until 1934. In the 1930’s he also helped create the Youth Hostels Association and was one of the founders of the Friends of the Lake District. He also chaired the first national meeting of the Ramblers’ Association in 1935 and helped set up the National Trust.
Ever the unorthodox radical, he tried to buy Mount Snowdon for the nation to commemorate George V’s Jubilee in 1935 – a plan that was rejected by the locals. In July 1948, T A Leonard died aged 84 at his home in Conwy, but his legacy remains.
Today HF Holidays, a co-operative society with almost 35,000 members, is the UK’s largest walking holiday company. Accommodation is single-sex dormitories, with the requirement to make one’s own bed, was acceptable in 1914, but times have changed and HF Holidays’ 19 country houses have evolved to offer comfortable en-suite bedrooms that guests expect today. Currently 700 dedicated volunteer leaders follow in Leonard’s footsteps guiding their guests in 113 destinations in 46 countries all over the world from the Cotswolds to Tuscany and the Alps, and from the Scottish Highlands to Nepal and New Zealand.
Would this former minister in old Colne have foreseen that his brainchild would still be growing and evolving more than a century later, moving with the times, becoming more modern, but still maintaining the ethos that inspired him back then?
Roz Hughes, of HF Holidays, says: “T A Leonard knew the secret of a happy life and passed this on to tens of thousands of people. He was in the truest sense a crusader and citizen of the world.”