The vision of Pioneer Camp started with the Lord guiding his servants to see a need and to take small steps of faith to help meet that need.

At the start of the 1950s Chris and May Barnett attended the Angel Baptist Church, London and worked in a poor area of London where children were not always well cared for and some were from broken homes. One of the Sunday school boys was caught stealing by the Police and the case went to court. Chris went to court and spoke up as a character witness on the boy’s behalf. The court recommended that the boy be taken into foster care.

So with much thought and prayer Chris felt the need to get boys and girls away from London during part of the school holiday. He rang his friend Pastor Moelwyn Howells and much discussion took place. They felt that a camping holiday would be the answer with Bible teaching each evening. Two other friends were brought together, John Appleby who was then the Pastor of the Wood Green Chapel, London and Phil Jennings then at the Belvedere Chapel, Kent, who had organised and led a Bible Class camping holiday a year or two earlier. A committee was formed in the home of Chris and May, which drew in other people to expand the vision.

A council run campsite was located in East Mersea, Essex. Later various responsibilities were assigned for the first camp in 1952:

  • Pastor Moelwyn Howells – Camp Leader
  • Ethel Howells – Tent Leader
  • Chris Barnett – Treasurer and Sports Organiser
  • May Barnett – Cook and Tent Leader
  • Mary Field – Nurse and Tent Leader
  • Stanley Knight – Quartermaster
  • Phil Jennings – Tent Leader
  • Ethel Jennings – Tent Leader
  • Paul Ballard – Tent Leader

The council set a limit, which only allowed approximately 50 boys and girls to attend. This number included a party from Bury, Lancashire who stopped overnight in London. The following day they met with the majority of the campers from churches in Wood Green, Chadwell Street, Walthamstow and New Cross, and travelled by train from Liverpool Street station, London to Colchester. They were met at Colchester station by a group of 12 from the Ipswich area. The journey then continued by train to West Mersea station where buses took them to the campsite.

A camper recalls “the conditions on the campsite were very Spartan and on one occasion a storm blew some of the tents down.” There were no sleeping bags so some made do with a blanket stitched down the sides.

The camp had the encouragement and fellowship of Pastor Hammond of the Union Church, West Mersea. The whole camp attended his church on Sunday evening and he also spoke at the campfire.

May Barnett writes, “It is only with God’s help were we able to carry on and have so much blessing on that Camp, with many children coming to know the Lord as their Saviour. We came away as workers praising the Lord for his goodness to us.

The result of the first camp was a general desire to plan another camp in 1953.

The campsite at Seasalter, near Whitstable was flooded, with the field coated with Thames estuary mud, but it was the only one the committee had available.

Some of the workers slept in two Church Army (CA) huts with the children, while others slept in wooden caravans which looked like converted Victorian bathing machines with steps down the front. This was the only camp in the 50-year history not to be held in tents. There was another hut used for meals, meetings and games. The CA provided and cooked all the food.

May Barnett recalls, “It was a good camp but a bit restrictive with all our activities. Again we felt the Lord had been with us and children were brought to realise that they needed their sins forgiven.”

As a result of some of the experiences at Seasalter, the committee decided that in 1954 it would go it alone.

Planning for a camp on a not already established campsite, in Whitecliffe Bay, Isle of Wight brought a new challenge of faith for the committee to overcome. (Incidentally this is not as easy as it sounds for thousands of miles have been travelled by train, car and foot on this task over the years). It involves:

  • Finding and hiring a suitable site
  • Hiring tents, including large and small marquees
  • Hiring equipment e.g. blankets.
  • Buying and cooking all the food
  • Planning activities in the surrounding countryside

The committee put Stanley Knight in charge of the catering. As Quartermaster he assisted the Cook in preparing the menu for Camp and ordering the food from local retailers, e.g. dairies, bakeries and fishmongers.

The ‘Advance Party’ became an even more essential part of the planning for camp, with the need to:

  • Set up all the tents/ marquees
  • Dig a ‘pit’ by hand
  • Set up the toilets, which consisted of a series of boxes with a lid one-yard apart, over a trench.
  • Laying out tables and chairs
  • Arranging the cookhouse and storage of any food supplies
  • Distribute campers’ spare blankets and ground sheets

May Barnett writes “This was a wonderful holiday, where God’s presence was felt and many young people came to know the Lord as their Saviour.

Apart from the camp that had to be cancelled in 1956, when a storm destroyed the campsite, thankfully before the children arrived. The camps have continued to flourish, to the extent that by 1962 the numbers had grown to require two camps, which have been maintained ever since.

For a number of years the Pioneer Camp committee had felt a need to cater for campers that became too old for Pioneer Camp (i.e. those 18 and over). Grace Baptist Mission had also been looking to provide a holiday for young people to try and encourage interest in mission at this age group. To that end, joint discussions began in 1992 and in the summer of 1994 the first Senior Camp was held at Athelington, jointly run by Pioneer Camp and Grace Baptist Mission

The current committee, as I’m sure many before, can continue to testify to the Lords grace. The youngest camp has been oversubscribed regularly for many years, with the number of applicants always exceeding the ceiling set at 100. It is always disappointing having to turn applications down, even when the numbers have crept up to 110 plus.

The older camp has similarly been blessed, as the numbers were at a low of 33 in 1994, but are now between 80-90 in recent years. Even the Senior Camp introduced in 1994, is now oversubscribed.

The one thing that we can be certain of is that the principles established by the co-founders of Pioneer Camp, to provide a holiday for young people, where they can be presented with the truth of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, remain the same today.

To answer the question, ‘Why do people get involved in serving at Pioneer Camp?’, it is appropriate to turn to the words of the first Skipper, Pastor M.M Howells, “Those who organise the camps do so in response to the call of the Lord, which in many cases means sacrificing their holiday, but they do it gladly. The fellowship experienced in such a grand work is a rich reward and the writer would give praise to the Lord for the share he was privileged to have in the work.”