The Simple Things
BUILDING SKILL SETS AND MOULDING YOUNG MINDS IS AT THE HEART OF MOST YOUTH GROUPS. BUT WHERE DID THESE MOVEMENTS FIND THEIR MOMENTUM?
‘‘ Living out in God’s open air among the hills and the trees and the birds and the beasts, and the sea and the rivers – that is, living with nature, having your own little canvas home, doing your own cooking and exploration – all this brings health and happiness such as you could never get among the bricks and smoke of the towns.” Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? This description comes from
Scouting for Boys, the book that laid the foundations for the Scouts. Appealing now, in 1908 it epitomised the spirit of the time, when “adventures in the great outdoors” were viewed as a way to tame, mould or – in the language of the Scouts – “prepare” Britain’s youth.
THE PROBLEM OF YOUTH
Youth, in general, were considered a problem. There were lots of them – in 1901, 50% of Britain’s population were under 25. Those in cities and town were thought too fond of urban vices such as beer and brothels. The calibre of volunteers during the Boer War (1899–1902) also showed they were unhealthy.
The answer was thought to lie with organisations such as the Boys’ Brigade, who had blended religious teaching with military drill. They led rural camping expeditions to counter the toxic effects of urbanisation. Pondering how to engage Britain’s youth, Boys’ Brigade founder William Smith challenged Robert Baden-Powell to “rewrite the army scouting book to suit boys”.
Baden-Powell, who made his name in the cavalry in the Boer War, drew on his experience of the military and Empire in South Africa, India and Afghanistan and blended them – thanks to another youth leader, Ernest Thompson Seton of the American Woodcraft Indians – with an interpretation of Native American culture.
Seton’s version of “woodcraft” covered any outdoor experience giving physical and spiritual reinvigoration –
from swimming to storytelling. This, plus Seton’s framing of ‘Indians’ as symbols of individuality in a rapidly industrialising world, combined with a system of rank, rules and ritual, were key influences on Baden-Powell. His vision of scouting echoed the likes of the
Wandervogel (‘wandering bird’) in Germany, a small but influential movement that – in response to industrialisation – embraced an outdoor, folksy lifestyle.
SCOUTING FOR BOYS… AND GIRLS
Following a test camp on Brownsea Island with 20 boys aged between nine and 17, a deliberate mix of public school and working class, Baden-Powell felt confident of his thinking. In 1908, Scouting for Boys was published. An immediate sensation, today it’s the fourth biggest selling book of all time*. Its ‘Camp Fire Yarns’ cover everything from making signal fires to assembling your own tent. Although resolutely Christian, it drew on Japanese and African cultures, as well as children’s stories, referencing pirates (Baden-Powell admired Peter
Pan particularly) and Robin Hood. In short, it directly appealed to its readers’ thirst for excitement. The object was “to seize the boy’s character in its red-hot stage of enthusiasm and to weld it into the right shape,” wrote Baden-Powell, “so that the boy may become a good man and a valuable citizen for our country.”
The first Rally, in 1909, was attended by 11,000 Scouts, as well as girls dressed as Scouts, who wanted to join. Agnes Baden-Powell – Robert’s sister – founded the Girl Guides the following year, with a programme that combined physical fitness and survival skills with domestic skills. (Girls were not admitted to Scouts until 1976.) Momentum grew: from 1914 younger girls could join Rosebuds ( later Brownies), and Cubs began two years later. By 1910, Scouts were Britain’s biggest youth group with more than 100,000 members, a figure that doubled by 1925, and rapidly expanded worldwide. However, costs for subscriptions and uniforms meant the “unemployed hoards” Baden-Powell originally hoped to inspire largely remained uninvolved.
FROM KIBBO KIFT TO WOODCRAFT FOLK
If Baden-Powell used nature as preparation for the battlefield, other groups – such as the short-lived Order of Woodcraft Chivalry – started consciously linking
“Studies have shown a strong link between scouting and guiding and better mental health”
nature to peace. Following the First World War, it was felt that the way forward for this new generation would be found looking to the past. John Hargrave had devoured Scouting for Boys aged 14, quickly advancing through Scout ranks . In 1919, he wrote The Great War
Brings It Home in which he explained that Western society had gone badly wrong. The solution was a radical reconnection with nature – too radical for Scouts.
Hargrave founded his own group, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, its name taken from archaic English. Mixing mysticism and rituals, symbols taken from everything from English folklore to Eastern religions, it was a curious mix of costume, craft and camping. Addressing “First the Body, then the Mind, then the Spirit”, kinsmen and women would don robes and parade through the countryside, perhaps singing or chanting, with beautiful handcrafted banners and artefacts. Membership was only in the hundreds, but it was influential: 42,000 people visited 1929’s Kibbo Kift Art Exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery.
RETURN TO WOODCRAFT
Like “a new wind blowing through our young country” was how member, Leslie Paul, described the Kibbo Kift. However, their lack of political direction inspired Paul to found his own group, The Woodcraft Folk. Once again, “mental and physical health” were linked to “camping out and living in close physical contact with nature.” Paul targeted working class youths, believing that the “open-air life that we promoted…worked wonders for undersized children from the slums.” It found a footing in industrial towns and cities, such as London, Coventry and Sheffield.
The Woodcraft Folk pitched themselves for “the revolution…the reorganisation of the economic system that will mark the rebirth of the human race.” For its grandiose words, the key aim of The Woodcraft Folk, then and now, was peace – a tenet accounting for its growth in the ‘hippy’ period of the 1960s and 70s. Today, the focus on the outdoors is used to look at issues such as the environment and sustainability.
With a combined worldwide membership of around 42 million, the Scouts and Guides have also adapted to 21st-century concerns. Scouts can now gain badges for “media relations” or “world faiths”, as well as outdoor pursuits. Other youth groups continue to emerge. In California, the Radical Brownies, for example, focus on social justice, proving that youth groups reflect our times, as well as shaping it. But it’s not just a sense of independence and adventure youth groups give us – studies have shown a strong link between participating in Scouting and Guiding and better mental health. Turns out those early founders were spot on when they promoted the great outdoors as being good for us.