Cambridge District Scout Archive

The use of an axe has been part of Scout training from the first.  In Scouting for Boys Camp Fire Yarn No. 8 describes the how and the why of axemanship.

An axe is a necessary tool for processing firewood and as a shaping tool in pioneering.  Many tasks around a camp or as neighbourly good turns require an axe.

As a skill that can lead to a trade it was part of the Forestry badge and was in use in war service works in forestry camps.  Sharp hand tools were part of many trades and most boys were in work at 14.  Any boy who had some competence with sharp tools was better equipped in a very direct way when looking for a job.

BP viewing ‘Carpentering’ at the 1911 Cambridge Rally (with axes at the belt)

Not all Scouts or Scouters were competent; then as now training is vital.  Cambridge Archives do not hold records of injuries but one with indirect and unclear links to Cambridge has been identified from the Headquarters Gazette of 1912.  The Rev. Ernest Arthur Edghill, possibly a graduate of Kings College, Cambridge, struck his foot with an axe whilst camping with St Saviours Troop (a London Church Troop).  Whilst he lost a fair amount of blood the cause of his death a few days later was blood poisoning.

The majority of photographs available show campsite processing of firewood. Several from the 1920’s to the 1940’s show the use of felling axes and the felling of large trees.

Cambridge Archives

C T Wood’s album 1920’s  
2nd Cambridge Christmas camp 1920’s

1922 – 1939 7th Cambridge (County School) During this period the account book lists regular fees for regrinding axes e g 1928 ‘Grinding 2 axes – 2/4’. The purchase of a new haft and the rehafting of an axe is also listed.

Pulling down branches 1930’s 13th Cambridge

1936    5th Cambridge (Perse)             ‘A tree was felled by scouts who were being examined for their axemanship’    

An unorthodox use of equipment by the 12th Cambridge 1930’s

1936    ‘A course of Forestry has taken place for South Cambs. Troops owing to the kindness of Mr Curtis, The Moors, Whittlesford, who put his plantations at our disposal.’ County Gazette

7th Cambridge 1937

1938    5th Cambridge (Perse) Chippenham Park, ‘we practiced tree felling…’

            Annual Display            involving inter-patrol …’Tree Felling Competitions…’

1939    5th Cambridge             Tree felling at Toft

1940    5th Cambridge (Perse) ‘A forestry camp was held at Thetford during the summer holidays.’

1941    The Scouter     Norfolk Forestry Camp for 11 – 15 year old’s.  This entry lists 1 5’ crosscut saw, 1 bush saw, 1 4lb felling axe, 2 hand axes and a peeling tool as necessary equipment.

1942 and 1943            5th Cambridge Axemanship at Toft ‘at which most of the senior members are now proficient.’

1944    P/L training camp including ‘less usual work such as felling and limbing a 50’ ash’

7th Cambridge 1946
7th Cambridge 1946
7th Cambridge 1947
7th Cambridge 1947
The tree felling party on the stump

1949 60th Cambridge ‘More recently the Troop was able to assist in the felling of a 50-ft. dead oak near our H.Q., when the theory of tree felling was found to work out surprisingly well in practice.’

1951 7th Cambridge ‘allowed to cut down sycamore saplings’

1977    PL camp          ‘a neighbourly tree felling job that provided much fuel for future camp cooking’

1978    Forester Badge           Cambridge and Newmarket district sent 32 scouts to a day with the Wandlebury ranger.  Late in the year tree recognition may have been a problem.

Axe types

Two axes are evident in the photograph above – on the left hand what looks like a carpenters axe, on the right hand a style I would associate with a fireman’s axe but being similar to the style advertised (below) for Scouts.  I do not know the specific purpose of the spike and, as it is no longer seen on scouting axes, presumably it was not useful. The Fireman badge was available and the axe may have been intended as a wrecking tool in that role.

H Q Gazette 1921 (see axe style above)

From The Way to Camp by S H Walker 1946

Never buy one of those comic-opera contraptions known as boy scout axes, with a pick, nail extractor, corkscrew, and what not at the back. In addition to being no use as an axe, they are a positive danger by reason of the pick, with which the user is apt to dig a bigger hole in the back of his head or back than in a tree.’

Carpenters axes are quite useless in the woods as they are not heavy enough in the head, being designed to do another job, that is splitting wood along the grain, rather than cutting at an angle like a felling axe’

Gamages catalogue 1913

28th Cambridge           1961    Walesby          showing a standard Scout axe

Personal recollection   c 1972         I recall using a hand axe and a felling axe whilst at Scout camp in a field adjacent to the site of Maria Marten’s Red barn.  I have fuller recollection of the anticipatory lectures ahead of the event and using a two man cross cut saw, the only occasion I have ever used one.  It was very satisfying to work with another, get into a rhythm and ripping through the log. 

13th Cambridge Abington 1938

JWR Archivist Feb 2019