25 August 2018

Boy Scouts gone primitive - Kibbo Kift

The origins of the boy scout movement have been well documented and well read. Col. Robert Baden-Powell (1857–1941) had long been very familiar with the organis­ation called The Boys' Brigade, founded by his Scottish friend William Alexander Smith back in 1883. Members of the Boys’ Brigade were encouraged to combine drill and fun activities with Christian values.

And during the Boer War in South Africa, Col Robert Baden-Powell was clearly very impressed by the 16 volunteer British adolescents in The Mafeking Cadet Corps. Later, back home in Britain, he used them in his military books as an example of bravery during the Boer War.

Baden-Powell wrote a small military manual, Aids to Scouting 1903, and found it useful for adults as well. With encouragement from William Alexander Smith, Baden-Powell decided to re-write Aids to Scouting to suit a younger market. This new book de­scribed outdoor activities, character development, citizenship and per­sonal fit­ness as the core values of boy scouts. And it omitted all military content. Scouting for Boys - A Handbook for Instruction on Good Citizenship sold very well indeed.

In 1907 Baden-Powell organised a small camp on an island in Poole Harbour in Dorset to test out his ideas for a Boy Scout Movement. The next year, 1908, scout packs were being establ­ish­ed across the country, all following the principles laid out in the new book. The first national Scout Rally was held at Crystal Palace in 1909.

Most people will recognise the work of Lord Baden-Powell but they may not recognise the name John Hargrave (1894-1982). Nor will readers know why Hargrave felt the need to modify or replace the Boy Scout Movement.

Kibbo Kift kinsmen, 
Touching of the Totems rite, 1925
Photo credit: Whitechapel Gallery Exhibition in 2015-6.

John Hargrave, from a Quaker family in Sussex, joined the Boy Scouts in 1910 and became very enthus­ias­­tic about sitting around campfires, erecting tents and running through forests. He renamed these activities as Wood­craft. Whereas Baden Powell had been concerned about paramilitary drill, preparedness, empire-building and Christianity, Hargrave want­ed primitive training for boys, mod­elled on a mythical ideal of a heroic Native American and infused with fantasy and romance. Hargrave was almost 40 years younger than Baden Powell; for the younger man, the bugle-blowing and military parades were terribly Victorian.

Hargrave set up a youth organisation designed to offer outdoor experiences without the militarism and imperialism that they perceived in the Boy Scouts, and called the group the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. This marked the start of a larger movement, spread across a range of organisations that emerged during and after the war years.

When WWI broke out, Hargrave may not have expected to enlist because of his Quaker beliefs. But he did, as long as he was given a non-combatant posit­ion. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a st­ret­cher bearer and saw action at Gallipoli. If anything, Hargrave's Quaker pacifism was even further reinforced by the horrors of war.

He was invalided out of the army in 1917 and having already worked his way up to a senior position in the Boy Scout movement, he quickly rejoin­ed. But he argued with Baden-Powell over what he saw was the Scouts’ militarisation of the nation’s youth and was kicked out of the movement.

John Hargrave/White Fox Spirit Chief with children at tribal training, 1928.
Photo credit: Whitechapel Gallery Exhibition in 2015-6.

So Hargrave founded a new movement based on pacifist ideals and a mystical understanding of the natural world. His youth groups, based on his woodcraft principles, sought radical alternat­ives to so-called civilisation through camping and ceremony, hiking and handicraft. His call to action was to all groups concerned with the health and character of future generations! He embraced Darwinian evolution, holding that appropriate training would produce morally upright and healthy ind­ividuals, through whom the human race as a whole would evolve. Har­grave wanted a new national scheme for character-building and phys­ical training, and the result was the foundation of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift in August 1920.

By 1920, Hargrave was known as White Fox. Kibbo Kift members dressed in tunics and hooded cloaks, and practised the Indian meditative prac­tice of yoga together! They were organised in tribes, trained with long bows and carried staffs mounted with animal heads. All very romantic.

Ross and Bennett (reference below) say Hargrave and his followers creat­ed a strange form of mod­ern­ism; it looked forward to a futuristic Utopia when mankind would be freed from the tyranny of work and war. A product of his tur­bulent times, Hargrave be­lieved in ritual, ceremony, symb­­ology and the resolute imag­in­ation of the creative individual as the keys to a better world.

In joining the movement, a new boy had to made a declaration in front of his new group of kinsmen:
I wish to be Kibbo Kift and to:
Camp out and keep fit
Help others
Learn how to make things and
Work for world peace and brotherhood".

Running in primitive costumes around campfires caught on. So did the ideas of world peace and the regeneration of urban man, replacing the nationalism and militarism that Hargrave protested against in the Boy Scouts after WW1. It must have worked. These woodcraft organisations attract­ed thousands of British adult and child members in the interwar years. Clearly Hargrave had the support of impressive high-profile figures in politics, arts and science, from suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence to novelist HG Wells and biologist Julian Huxley. Art teachers in particular were attracted by the movement's educational aspirations.

The story of the Kibbo Kift was a story about English youth adapting to a new century, new ideologies and a new sense of possibilities in a global world. And it may have strong echoes in C21st debates about art, politics, nature and the environment, ind­iv­idualism and anti-capitalism. Nonetheless my interest in Hargrave focused only on the Boy Scout Movement and its successor.

Design­ing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift 
written by Cathy Ross and Oliver Bennett

The Public Order Act 1936, which banned the wearing of uniforms by  ALL political groups, distressed Kibbo Kift, a movement that relied on propaganda. But worse was to come. WW2 saw the collapse of the movement which was formally ended in 1951.

65 years later there has been new activity about Kibbo Kift. An exhibition called Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, was put on at Whitechapel Gallery in London during 2015-16, displaying the inter-war clothes, sculptures, furniture, paintings and photographs. The exhibition launched the first full-length book to examine Kibbo Kift's visual style and occult beliefs. The book, Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians was written by exhibition curator Annebella Pollen (Donlon Books, 2015). Design­ing Utopia: John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift is a book written by Cathy Ross and Oliver Bennett (Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015). This book draws on the exten­sive visual archive of the Kibbo Kift, held at the Museum of London.


Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Fascinating, Hels. I had no idea about the Kibbo Kift until fairly recently and had forgotten the tiny amount I took in. So your post filled some major gaps. Even so, what is it about the human race that makes it want to belong to a club - religious, paramilitary, whatever? Insecurity?

Hels said...


I imagine that boys, who normally lived in crowded city conditions, couldn't wait to get into the open air, greenery, tent building, building camp fires and swimming.

Joining a scouting group must have been the best decision the boys made.

Andrew said...

I am surprised that I've not even heard of the organisation. By the time I was a cub scout, any military aspect was history.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am sure that this group was fine and wholesome, but those three K's in the organization's name are a bit disturbing, and I admit that that was my first thought upon seeing the top photograph. Incidentally, groups that are intended to be uplifting can rapidly morph into different agendas before anyone realizes it (again, I am not saying anything about this particular instance).

Hels said...


I too went on a camping holiday every summer in the 1960s, and could build a camp fire as well as any of the boys:)

But I didn't know about Robert Baden-Powell and his theory-base for scouting until it was set reading at uni. John Hargrave was never mentioned.

Hels said...


Not only can organisations be taken over and given a brand new agenda by the group taking over. Sometimes a nation moved on ... and agendas gradually change for all of that society.

Boy scout-type youth movements became very popular in Germany prior to WW1. It was only in the 1920s and 1930s that the Hitler Youth Movements kept all the scouting activities and added an important political component as well. The boys' parents would not have even noticed the changes, at least in the first years.

Joseph said...

"Intellectual barbarians" is a harsh label to use. What did the gallery mean?

Hels said...


The gallery's press release says the title explores the creative output of Kibbo Kift, with 100 examples of the group's accomplished art and design. It notes that the group's members and supporters included suffragettes, social reformers, scientists, novelists and artists.

It doesn't explain "barbarian", but it notes the ancient Egyptian, Celtic and Native American styles in craft, dress and language. Cultish and esoteric, but barbaric?

Jenny Woolf said...

The Kibbo Kift has echoes these days of Lord of the Flies, etc. - those pictures are really strange, aren't they? but I have known several families who send their kids to the Woodcraft Folk and seem happy with it.

Hels said...


The Kibbo Kift was definitely of its time. In rebuilding Britain after WW1, John Hargrave encouraged magical rituals, outdoor living and a bohemian, utopian vision.

The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry was originally a pacifist organisation, excited by a mystical understanding of the natural world and woodcraft principles eg camping. Today Woodcraft Folk's activities and camps help to: 1] understand the environment, world debt and global conflict; 2] focus on sustainable development and c] encourage children to build a peaceful, fairer world. So families are indeed happy with it.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - this is certainly interesting ... I'm sure I knew the Baden-Powell connection re the Boer War ... but had forgotten it - so thanks for reminding us ... and introducing us to John Hargrave ... we live and learn - cheers Hilary

Hels said...


I suspect schools and universities don't put enough focus on history. But even when students are exposed to analysis of historical events, I am not sure that we do live and learn.

nwlorax said...

Hargrave didn't invent this movement though he took it in a decidedly British direction.

He based it on Ernest Thompson Seton's "Woodcraft", which predates the Scouts by some years. Baden-Powell based the Scouts on Woodcraft, and borrowed almost all of the first Scout manuals from Seton's "Book of Woodcraft". Seton was a pacifist, and was kicked out of the BSA in WWI over this. Although forgotten today, the Woodcraft Movement was lively and important in its time, including many luminaries and Native Americans in its leadership.

Hargrave published "Lonecraft" c. 1919. Hargrave was in talks to be a member in leadership role in the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, but this fell through. They too are a Quaker inspired group, with Findhorn being one of their offshoots.

Gordon Cooper

Hels said...


thank you! I didn't know about Ernest Thompson Seton and I didn't remember The Woodcraft Indians. Perhaps because I was reading only British and British Empire literature whereas the Woodcraft Indians started in Connecticut.

I feel a new blog post coming on :)