Scout Knots

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Knots are a traditional scouting activity.  A means to an end they are rarely recorded in detail as standalone activities. 

References to knots and knotting are few within the Cambridge District archives.  Knotting was part of 1st Class and 2nd Class Scout tests and Cub stars and by extension competitions.  Knot books and posters on knots exist in the archives but very few descriptions of training activities in practice are found.  Proof of more than basic skills can only be assumed from the pioneering projects and camp gadgets that are mentioned and photographed.

1908 Second Class Test
Tie four of the following knots in less than thirty seconds each knot: Bowline, fisherman’s bend, reef knot, clove hitch, and sheet bend.

13th Cambridge Margin of Patrol log

1908 First Class Test                                                                                             

Show that he has brought a recruit to the Boy scouts and taught him to tie the six principle knots.  

Cambridge Archives

‘Back to 1917 when we passed our tenderfoot tests and tied our six knots, then our second class’                                    W T Thurbon ‘Archaeology of Scouting’

1918    Fotheringhay Flax camp         ‘ when you have a bundle six inches in diameter you bind it with a few stalks, using the corn binders knot’.              C T Woods’ album

1920    ‘REMARKS ON SOME BADGE TESTS.  Tenderfoot. There are still a few people in Cambridge who can’t tie a bowline!’        

‘Fireman’s Badge        They must also be able to tie a bow-line, slip-knot, and chair-knot’                                                                                                                     from Reveille

1922    Wolf Cub Totem Competition – one of the tests was to complete ‘1st Star knots’

1926    Morley Trophy                        – knotting and splicing  

1932 Rover Moot A report of 1932 records knotting and plaiting at a Cambridge Rover Moot. This is the only known reference to plaiting known in the local archives.

Teaching the Middleman’s knot CT Wood album

The Rope spinning badge was available from 1934 and involved lasso work and the necessary whipping to secure the Honda; here a metal insert rather than the Honda Knot (ABoK 227) or eye splice (ABoK 229) used elsewhere.  A lariat could be purchased from the Scout shop.  The 1930’s were, perhaps, the heyday of ‘The Western’ film.

1930 23rd were displaying their Ropework skills at the District Jamborette in the Guildhall. It is not clear if this was rope spinning or knots. They were recorded as displaying Rope Spinning at a District Weekend camp in 1932.

WW2 Littleton House school A school for ‘Mentally deficient boys’ was run by inexperienced leaders from Girton College. ‘I gathered up 8 or 10 little boys and taught them knots. Fortunately being mentally deficient, they had forgotten each week what they had learned the week before so it was not very taxing.’ From D R de Lacey’s ‘Girton’s War’.

1930’s logbook from 13th Cambridge

1955    Wolf Cub Totem Competition   – one of the tests was to ‘Tie four knots’     

1965    John Sweet spoke at the Cambridge AGM.  Author of Scout Pioneering he is considered by Geoffrey Budworth, co founder of the International Guild of Knot tyers, to be the best writer on scouting knots.

1974    The Scout and Guide Alert trophy was based on ‘Local History and Knotting’

1975    County Gauntlet Trophy – basic scout skills, knots, lashing, compass and camp-craft

Cambridge Knot boards

Knot boards are a traditional demonstration of an individual’s skill and a training tool.  They tend to be found in Groups with their own hut.  An example sits in the 57th Cambridge Fulbourn hut and the 28th Cambridge has two complementary boards, the first with 40 detachable boards.

Knot boards are occasionally useful as an educational aid for a whole pack.  They are also helpful in inspiring an individual and as a standing demonstration of a fuller range of available knots.  And they are a most satisfactory way of dressing a scout hut.

Knot board of unknown lineage in District Collection
Complementary, contemporary knot boards at the 28th Cambridge
Knot board that once hung in the Scout Shop demonstrating first and second class knots
Knotboard held by the 13th Cambridge

‘Scouting’ knots

Knotting is a long standing craft taken up by Scouts as an aid to Scouting and generally ‘being prepared’.  Few if any knots are scouting specific.  The vast and intelligent Ashley’s Book of Knots lists two knots with scouting names.

Girl Scout Hitch           (ABoK No.429)             a twist in the slack stocking top that takes in the slack and when tucked back in acts in place of a lost garter or broken elastic.

Scout coil                     (ABoK No.427)             a variation on the hangman’s noose that holds a length of rope in a neat coil and was carried on the belt by scouts

Ashley also suggests that every Scout should know the ‘Fisherman’s litter’ (ABoK 283) which requires two poles, a coil of rope and a bunch of seaweed.  It appears that the seaweed is optional.

All knot names should be thoroughly investigated before any definitive statement about origins are made.  It is unlikely that either of the examples above were not used before 1908.  Similarly a knot that has been claimed as being uniquely used by Guides exists with other names and indeed other functions.

John Sweet relates the origin of the name Japanese lashing. It was introduced as the Japanese lashing because John Thurman picked it up in that country on one of his world tours. He may just as easily found it in India or China, Malaysia or Indonesia. It is of interest that the knot appears to have been introduced into the west through Scouting, at least under that name.

Knots in scarves

Before woggle, ring, slide or ‘slip on’, scarves were tied with a knot.  In photographs these are usually a loose untucked necktie knot.  The ‘Friendship knot’ is a recent reintroduction. Tied in the bottom of a scout scarf by another person it makes a neat and safe knot in lieu of a woggle.  It is not a Scouting invention and is also known as a square knot, a Chinese cross knot, a Chinese Loop (ABoK 1032), Timber rustlers knot and many other names.  As a scarf knot it predates January 1945 when it appeared in a series of articles on knots in The Scouter. 

The Advance Report 1967 recommended sea scouts wore a scarf, no woggle, but tied.  By 1989 POR a woggle was uniform for Sea Scouts.

Symbols and Allegorical references

The importance of knots within scouting is reflected by their use as symbols.

 The rope around the World Membership Badge is tied with a reef knot ‘which can’t be undone no matter how hard it is pulled, (and) is symbolic of the strength of world scouting’s unity and family’                                                               FS 260016

‘Many congratulations to Mr. Green … but we miss him sadly in Cambridge.  He was quite unique: he could cut the hardest knots with his cheering smile and his shrewd common-sense.’                   Reveille 1920

Capt Gidney, Gilwell Camp Chief, on a talk in Cambridge in 1920 ‘Scouts are either very similar to a reef knot – could always be relied upon, or to a thief or robber knot which could not be trusted.’ ‘… but if they were true Scouts – square or reef knots – the harder the trial was to carry out the scout Law the tighter they would stick.’

 In early POR the holder of an All Round Cord could place a Stafford knot after his signature.

Such symbolism has a long history from Alexander and the Gordian knot c. 333 BCE to John Masefield ‘The tale of Jimmy Hicks’.   An article in The Scouter, 1965, uses knots to illustrate religious ideas.   The symbolism of knots is gradually being lost as the general understanding of their uses declines. 

The Bitter End

Good knot work is a reflection of overall skills.  They are a focal point in small projects and the mechanical centre in pioneering work large or small.  Knots require knowledge, preparation, application and concentration.  Well finished knots advertise these skills, to which all scouts should aspire. (I like knots)

‘Lord Baden-Powell with pieces of string,

Was proving that reef knots honour the King’.       

W H Auden

JWR Archivist Jan 2019