Scout Beacons

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Mafeking                    1901                Midsummer Common

A Beacon built in celebration of the relief of Mafeking

Another on Market Hill was built to celebrate the relief of Ladysmith.

Jubilee Beacons                     1935

George V          Silver jubilee

In 1935 the Boy Scouts built a chain of 1775 Beacons running across the Country to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V.  George V was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, from 6 May 1910 until his death in 1936.

1,775 beacons blazed in the UK and more throughout the Commonwealth.  B-P lit the beacon in Winnipeg.

Cambridge Archive

In Cambridge the Beacon at Madingley Hill was built by the 26th Cambridge.  It was lighted on May 6th at 10.00 pm along with all the others in the country (from 26th Cambridge Wolf Cub log) 50 gallons of oil was poured on the beacon. It is also claimed by the 12th (see below). University Rovers were asked to support the building. The response is not recorded.

Messer’s. Cadbury offered Cocoa to the those lighting the beacon              District Minutes

12th Cambridge scrapbook Cambridgeshire Collection 1935 Beacon Madingley Hill
Labelled ‘Jubilee Camp fire Gogs 1935’ this was photographed by Covell of the 23rd Cambridge. From Cambridgeshire Collection.

T H White, author of the Once and Future King – later the Disney film Sword in the Stone, studied ancient beacon sites and provided a list of 465 traditional locations to the Scouts.  Beacons were six to eight miles apart where the terrain allowed.

The King lit the first beacon in Hyde Park on 6th May at 10 pm.  This started the chain of beacons across the country.  The 12th report is clear that all beacons were lit at 22.00, not as each sighted the previous beacon. Some reports suggest that as each beacon was lit rockets were discharged in the Scout colours, red, green and yellow. The newspaper report above suggest one was lit as local signal.

The 12th Cambridge Beacon was placed on Madingley Hill (see photo above). The faded map below also highlights other beacons around Cambridge.

The Grafton Street Gazette referred to ‘all Scouts should have the opportunity to do there bit building beacons’ but the locations were on ‘details previously circulated’ but are listed in the newspaper article above. Following the event C T Woods, CC was drawn to comment on the poor turnout of Scouts in building the beacons, which was largely left to the Rovers.

The 7th Cambridge record purchasing ‘Fireworks for the Beacon – 2/6’

Coronation Fires                    1936/7                        Edward VIII    

It was anticipated that at the Coronation of King Edward VIII Scouts would hold rallies and listen to the event through loud speakers.  The plan was to broadcast camp fire songs to give the lead across the Empire.  He abdicated in Dec 1936.           Cambridgeshire County Gazette 1936

Victory Bonfire                      1945   

DC said he had received no communication from the Borough Authorities about Victory Day Bonfires.   25th April 1945 The 5th Cambridge (Perse) record ‘a huge bonfire with the effigy of Emperor Hirohito’ on VJ Day. The Cambridgeshire Regiment was sent to the Far East and many had connections with ‘the forgotten war’.

Coronation Beacons             1953                Queen Elizabeth II Coronation

The Madingley site was reviewed and considered ‘hemmed in’.

The proposed sites for the Coronation Beacons in Cambridgeshire were:

  • Cambridge District               Gog Magog Hills                     Madingley
  • Newmarket District              Newmarket                             Dalham
  • South Cambridgeshire         Stapleford                               Haslingfield
  • Ely                                       Sutton                                     Little Downham
  • March                                   March
  • Wisbech                               Wisbech St Mary

The Madingley site was recorded as a failure as the Scouters attempted to light it with paper and matches, in half a gale, after a day of rain. The Gogs site above Cherry Hinton went well ‘as the Scouter in charge, Mr. Pugh of Shelford and Stapleford, had a hellbrew of petrol, paraffin etc. which poured over the wood gave instant ignition’. Beacon guards had been placed between the building and burning to prevent premature arson.

Local Scouts erected and fired two beacons along with Shelford Scouts (then in another District).  An undated sketch map from the 44th gives map references of 489556 (water tower directly north of Linton) and ?389582 (North of Comberton/ Barton and South of A428). These may have been the final sites chosen in South Cambridgeshire.

Letters also refer to the Norman Cement Company off Coldhams Lane, who agreed that a beacon could be built on their site.  They also offered junk cotton sacks for burning.

Sourcing fuel for the Coronation Beacons was difficult.  Mr Gingell gave permission for wood to be taken from Quy Fen.  Cambridgeshire is not heavily wooded and the country had depleted its woodland during two world wars.  The availability of small stuff may have been further depleted by a thrifty return to traditional fuels in this period of post war austerity.  Tyres and used engine oil was added to some beacons.

Cambridge Scouts were involved in selling Coronation programmes and some attended a Coronation camp at Sandringham.

The 1935 and 1953 beacons have references and records in the Cambridge District Archive. Scouts have participated in building Beacons at other events. 

1952 44th Cambridge (Trumpington) Court of Honour recorded having the responsibility of building a bonfire for the Coronation Celebrations in the Pemberton Grounds. It had earlier been planned on the recreation ground.

Enterprise Neptune               1965                National Trust Scheme

1965    The National Trust Enterprise Neptune Scheme was launched on St. George’s Day, 23rd April, 1965 with the lighting of bonfires on the sites of the Armada Beacons.

Two beacons were allocated, one to the Scout and Guide Troop and one to District seniors.  Only one was completed at Castle Camps, the District Minutes calling it a spectacular success.

Jubilee Beacon                       1977                Queen Elizabeth   Silver jubilee

Lantern lit parade to Castle Hill headed by the 26th Cambridge for lighting at 10 PM following the Queens lighting of the first at Snow Hill, Windsor.   Some hours later the last beacon was lit somewhere in Scotland.  A prize was awarded for the best lantern. 

The Silver Jubilee celebrates 25 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign which predated the Coronation (see above)   She ascended to the throne: February 6, 1952 .

JWR Archivist July 2019