Literacy and Group Libraries

Cambridge District Scout Archives

Whilst Scouting has had a Readers badge no part of Scout training was directly concerned with teaching literacy.  Passing messages was. On superficial level the passing of individual letters by Morse or semaphore does not require detailed analysis of the content.   However, on receiving the letters an ability to spell and translate the letters into words and to generate a meaningful sentence is very important for clear communications.  The role of Scouts as signallers and messengers was frequently emphasised in early badge reports and training.

1908    The earliest requirement from the 1908 First Class Test is that Scouts ‘Be able to read and write’.  All the elements of the previous step of the Second Class badge are skills that could be remembered or learnt without the ability to read.

The need to state this requirement may come from dated experience of military recruits, a lack of appreciation of the improvements in the educational system or from a clear understanding of the difference between an academic ‘is literate’ and a practical working literacy.   British literacy rates in 1912 were given as 98% or ‘universal literacy’. 

1909    Whatever the reason it was dropped in 1909 and the when the Second Class Test required ‘Signalling, elementary knowledge of semaphore or Morse alphabet’.  No other aspects of these early tests other than map reading required literacy but many required strong skills of memory and reporting.

1921    Headquarters Gazette            noted ‘lots of occasions where Cubs cannot read the time.’

It should be recalled that digital timepieces were not, as now, omnipresent; all clocks were analogue, and required a separate skill.

The function of Troop libraries, encouraged from the start, is superficially to provide a body of specialist reading.  They also act as non academic source of books for Scouts who would not enter the formidable institutions that were libraries. 

Public lending libraries were daunting places; fusty brown and green, looks that disapproved of children in anticipation of the fact, and SILENCE.  Even avid young readers required some support to enter let alone find a section and a book. 

A Scout Group library was encouraged to enable learning generally and to specifically provide specialist information. 

Scouting for Boys        (Yarn 15) advises ‘Build a library of well illustrated books for recognizing animals, bird, reptiles fish and insects.’

H Q Gazette & The Scouter                From the third edition of the HQ Gazette ‘Bookshelf’ was a review of books for the Scout and Scouter.  The relative cost of books was high and the content was generally expected to be solid – few were easy readers.   One week’s books in 1942, taken at random, covered nature, things to make, stories, international issues and Christmas.

The Rover                    This short lived periodical (1934 – 1936) had a similar feature ‘Books for the Den.’

A Boy Scouts Library 6d. Eg Saving Life No 7 1910

Cambridge Archives

1916    5th Cambridge (Perse)                         ‘The library has been increased and books have been more fully borrowed than in the past.’

1918    Senior Scout Club                                ‘The DSM …announced that the nucleus of a library and a piano had been promised’.         

1931 13th Cambridge ‘Library from 5th November‘ start of revitalised troop

1932+  55th Cambridge                                   The account book lists a number of books for a library alongside the badge books and stationary.  They were expensive purchases, some the equivalent of two Gilwell axes.

1935 56th Cambridge/ 1st Harston Troop library started. The Group had been running a year.

1939 13th Cambridge Occasional entries of ‘Library, five minutes’

1939    5th Cambridge (Perse)                         ‘The Scout and Scouting for Boys should be circulated so that everyone in the troop had the opportunity…’

1939    5th Cambridge (Perse)                         ‘…in restoring to practical usefulness the much neglected Scout Library was the most useful achievement of an eventful term.’  ‘…providing such excellent facility for our leisure reading’

1948    5th Cambridge (Perse)                         ‘The Scout Library has increased considerably in size – probably because it has not yet been re-opened.’        ‘The Troop Library has been completely reorganised and began to function again shortly after half term.’

1948    ‘Cambridge Public Library has agreed to take ’Jamboree’ and ‘The Scouter’ as periodicals.’

1955    54th Cambridge           Court of Honour          ‘General fund 16/8’  ‘we decided to buy three books’  The new librarian is PL R Patman’ 

1955    CUSAGC Library          Mostly leant by members recent editions in April of 1953 were ‘Your God is too small’, ‘Down East’, concerning Roland House, and ‘The Cairngorms’.

1958    54th Cambridge           Court of Honour          ‘Get B-Ps life in pictures’

1958    54th Cambridge Court of Honour                    ‘Terry Smith is to be appointed new librarian’

            ‘The Den is to be completely decorated; also that Terry should make a new library’

1967    54th Cambridge                                               ‘It was decided to start a Library of Books relevant to the New Scouting from Scout Funds.’

Personal Recollection

As a Wolf Cub around 1966 I recall borrowing books from the Cub library.  One book on the identification of the constellations stands out.  It was winter and a very clear night and I stood in the garden at home attempting to match the book and the stars.  I was cold before my mother ushered me in. The Scouts met elsewhere and I cannot recall a library during my time in the troop.

JWR Archivist Mar 2019