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Joseph Cunningham

Epithet: MHK, MLC, CP, founder of Cunningham's Young Men's Holiday Camp (1853-1924)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Joseph Cunningham, although of Scottish extraction, came from Liverpool; he lived with his mother in Great Howard Street, running a baker's shop and post office and supplying the various steamships with bread. On Sundays the young man could be seen going to St Sylvester's Church, carrying his bible in his hand and wearing a sombre black suit and top hat. He was respected because of the help he provided for the young men of the area. He had opened a reading room in Vauxhall Road providing books, magazines, newspapers, washing bowls, soap and towels; everything was stolen as quickly as he bought it, but he persevered. He was one of the founders of the Gospel Hall in Commercial and Vauxhall Road, and a Sunday School superintendent.

Joseph was never happier than when planning other people's pleasure. On one occasion he took 500 scholars into the country by hiring canal boats, taking off the hatches and loading up the holds with young people; pulled by horses, they proceeded down the Leeds-Liverpool Canal to Lydiate where, in a field loaned by a sympathetic farmer, they had sports for which he provided the prizes, and a picnic. The cost averaged out at tuppence-ha'penny per person!

He organised a fife and drum band, providing the instruments and a bandmaster. Later on he provided the instruments for a brass band and engaged a noted army bandmaster as instructor. The band practised in a top room in his house. Also on the musical side, his Cunningham Juvenile Choristers sang at religious gatherings all over Liverpool.

He played a major part in persuading William Cliff, a noted Liverpool ship-owner, to build the Gordon Institute, where youths learned trades and enjoyed sporting activities. In 1889 a similar mission, the Florence Institute, was built in Toxteth; Joseph was persuaded to go there as superintendent, but after five years was given notice because the committee disapproved of his methods.

The family bakery business had expanded during the mid-1880s and had been trading from four different addresses, but whilst he had been at the Florence Institute he allowed it to wind down to a single shop.

He had been taking parties of youths on holiday each August, and in the previous two years had taken them to Laxey. He conceived the idea of establishing a holiday camp on the Isle of Man where lads could stay on cheap terms and be provided with liberal facilities whilst being unobtrusively supervised in a manner which would reassure their parents. In 1895 he and his wife Elizabeth began on a hired site at Howstrake which was to be a place where 'the greatest possible amount of health and enjoyment may be obtained for the least possible expenditure of cash'. The venture almost brought financial ruin, as Joseph was subsidising it with family savings. Elizabeth issued an ultimatum: if the venture was to continue it had to make a profit. Joseph agreed and the cost to the campers went up in stages. By her action Mrs Cunningham had turned what promised to be a disaster into a concern so successful that in 1904 they acquired a site in Victoria Road large enough to allow for considerable expansion. Here they built fine dining-rooms, a concert room, cinema, billiard room, indoor heated swimming pool, laundry and bakehouse. They generated their own electricity. Outside they had tennis courts, bowling green, miniature golf and a sports field. The accommodation, in bell-tents and bungalows, continued to expand until it could cater for 3400 young men. It was one of the foremost business concerns on the Island, and it was a temperance establishment!

When war broke out in 1914, of the 2800 young men in the camp, 2000 immediately left to join the armed forces, along with 153 of the 200 staff. The premises were taken over by the military as an internment camp.

The Boy Scout movement was started in the Isle of Man in early 1908 and in 1911 Joseph Cunningham became Eastern District Commissioner. When Baden-Powell visited the Island that April, he was presented with a 'Thanks Badge', one of the first of this award on record. In 1912 he became Island Commissioner.

Empire Day (24th May) was always celebrated by a Boy Scouts' rally and in 1914 a weekend camp was held in a field adjoining Victoria Road. An exhibition of Scout-craft had been arranged, inter-troop sports and a bugle competition took place, and tea was provided by the ever-generous Cunningham family.

In December 1915 Joseph Cunningham was elected to the House of Keys for North Douglas, being re-elected in 1919 and immediately afterwards as one of the first four representative members of the Legislative Council.

He was a strong Liberal and a fervent temperance advocate. President of the Manx Temperance Federation, he had also identified wholeheartedly with the Local Option and Sunday-closing Movement. So militant was he in these causes that in certain circles he was mockingly described as a 'killjoy'. He was widely but not universally respected. Some obituarists remarked that he had made a fortune during the war. He left an £82,000 personal estate - all of it to his family.

Besides his help to the Scout and Guide movements in the Island, he gave a cup for annual competition among the school swimming clubs; indeed no institution which had for its object the welfare of young people had to appeal to him twice. Devoutly religious, he was one of the pillars of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Finch Road.

Joseph Cunningham bought Ellerslie, Marown, probably the largest single agricultural holding on the Island, where he erected 'model' farm buildings. From there he ran a large dairy business, to supply both his camp and the resident population. In this connection he tried to popularise the Friesian strain of cattle. He was appointed Captain of the Parish in 1919.

Although in failing health he continued with his various duties, and his sudden death on 4th September 1924, at the age of 71, came as a great shock. A crowd including several hundred Boy Scouts and Girl Guides followed his cortege from St Andrew's Church to the Douglas Borough Cemetery.

Biography written by Victor Kneale.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.154-5.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1853

Date of death: 4 September 1924

Name Variant: J. Cunningham


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