Cambridge Connections: Order of Woodcraft Chivalry 1

Cambridge District Scout Archive

References to the foundation of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry refer to ‘A group of Cambridge Scoutmasters’ (Redskins in Epping, J F C Craven)  and ‘Several leading members of Scouting in the Cambridge area also broke away from the perceived militarisation of the movement’ (The Ragged University: Education in the wild). 

Other sources also claim Cambridge to have been the birth place of the order; or to have involved several scoutmasters from Cambridge (sometimes leading scoutmasters); or just to have been where Aubrey Westlake, a co founder, was at University when the order was founded.

The Order

The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry was founded in 1916 as a woodcraft based organisation.  Some of the founders had experience as Scoutmasters.  Taking boys, girls and adults the Order peaked in 1926 with 1200 members.  Although small it is often discussed as one of the early influences on alternative approaches in education and ecology.   The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry remains in existence today. It is not directly connected today with the Woodcraft Folk although WF came out of KKK which came out of OWC.

Order of Woodcraft Chivalry > Kindred of the Kibbo Kift > Woodcraft Folk

Audrey Westlake said to have become a scoutmaster whilst Ernest (1855 – 1922) was in Tasmania in the years 1908 – 1910. 


From 70 Years of Scouting      ‘There were later troubles I might mention now. In 1916 a group of leaders, including Ernest Westlake, a Cambridge Natural Scientist, and his son, who had been a scoutmaster while an undergraduate at Trinity, thought scouting “too military” (the same old criticism) and broke away to form the order of Woodcraft Chivalry; after a somewhat chequered career it split up and still existed a few years ago about 400 members.’  Ken North 1978

Ken was writing of events years before his involvement in Scouting.  There is no indication from this report as to whether this was a topic spoken of by older Scouters or from Ken’s inclusive historical research.  It does read as if the ‘troubles’ were reports from older Scouters involved in the event.  Quite how these manifested themselves within the district is not recorded.

Terms used

Most of the literature closest to the Order describes concern at the underlying military influences but do not quote specific local incidents or individuals.  The terms used are not extreme. 

In some reports the scouters involved are ‘leading’ but no further details of their roles are given.  It can be observed that some able young Scouters were given district wide roles at this time although generally as internal coordinators rather than ‘top management’.

The term ‘the Cambridge area’ is equally vague; although this may be no more than ignorance of Scouting boundaries or a wish to include one or two members over the border it brings an unhelpful lack of clarity.

Aubrey Westlake

Aubrey Westlake was a Quaker and in training as a Doctor.  He came up to St John’s in 1914 aged 21.  A Conscientious Objector he ‘made himself available for youth work’.   From Derek Edgell’s book ‘The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry’ “Over the months he was to become ‘to one degree or another’ involved in the running of the first and fifth Cambridge Scout Troops”.   The list of warrants held at Gilwell does not record either Aubrey or his friend Robert Parker as holding a warrant in Cambridge.  The war time records are very probably incomplete. The term ‘one degree or another’ is similarly vague.  A Scoutmaster Westlake is recorded in ‘5th Cambridge Scouts: The first 50 years’ not as working with the 5th Cambridge but running a scheme at Trumpington, around March 1915, in which they participated. Trumpington Scout Troop was the 5th Cambridge District, a Scout Troop outside the town boundary. The 5th Cambridge was the Perse school troop, inside the town boundary.

Cambridge Scouters

It is from Edgell’s book ‘The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry’ that we have the only source of names of Cambridge Scouters involved.   Other names from Cambridge Scouting may have been unclear in the records or ignored in this work as playing of no role beyond the initial move. Edgell comments that the records of the Order were vast and without order.  Many early notes were unsigned and some, clearly by a Westlake, may have been by Aubrey, Ernest or Margaret.

  • Robert Parker            A ‘Parker’, one of several university men helping the 5th Cambridge, is recorded in the ‘5th Cambridge Scouts: The first 50 years’.   An Assistant Scoutmaster Parker is later thanked in March 1915.  He is otherwise unknown as a Scouter in Cambridge.  Robert Parker was Aubrey’s friend at Cambridge; ASM Parker may be the same man.
  • John Murrish The one name that is known within Cambridge Scouting is John Murrish.  Founder of the 12th Cambridge he was a major figure, working largely at troop level he built a strong troop and later group that flourishes today.

Aubrey Westlake was introduced to John Murrish and described him as a friend and ‘a remarkable individual’.  It is Murrish who introduced Westlake to the ideas of Ernest Thompson Seton.

From Edgell we have this concerning an invitation to talk to the Central Educational Committee of the Society of Friend in November 1915.

‘In fact Aubrey was apprehensive about the invitation and the paper he read before the gathered assembly was actually written for him by Murrish.  A few years later he was to admit that Murrish at this moment in time had been ’the inspiring force’ and that without him ‘I should have done nothing’.  He was to go on to say that “I was Aaron to his Moses”.’  from Edgell

‘Meanwhile away from Sidcot the Westlakes were busy organising an Executive Council to help facilitate the expansion of the movement elsewhere.  In the first instance the Council consisted of Ernest (Westlake), Aubrey (Westlake), Robert Parker, (Aubrey’s old Cambridge colleague), John Murrish and Spencer Smith.’ from Edgell

‘Whilst the executive “gained” … it also lost a great deal by the departure of other people, particularly Murrish.  Indeed the Westlake’s worried were so worried for a time that the OWC might not survive the loss of Murrish that they spoke to the order having to await his return before things could progress in the manner they wanted.  As it turned out this was never to happen, although quite why it did not is difficult to say.  Whilst there is some record of Murrish engaging in woodcraft activities with the OWC in 1919, that is the last that is known of him.’ from Edgell

Murrish was called up in 1916, when conscription started, in January for single men, July for married men.  He was back in Cambridge in 1919/1920 and continued to be involved and supportive of the 12th Cambridge and was welcomed back into active roles at District level.

See also John Murrish under Individuals

Cambridge Archives

The Cambridge Scout records from this period are very limited.  The one major review printed in the form of a district newsletter in 1920 does not mention any mass defection.  The many dislocations caused by the war are clear and the departure of ‘several’ in an unspecified Cambridge area may have gone unnoticed.  The departure may have been gradual and reasons not given by those handing in warrants and the connection not made by those receiving the cancelled warrants.  It should be remembered that students were and are a significant part of the Cambridge leadership base but that they generally have a three year life span.  Students go as all students go, valued but rarely especially noted.

During the war many of the District based troops (here meaning those outside town boundaries) closed.  These troops were always vulnerable, generally having small leadership teams and being less likely to have students as leaders because of the distance to the villages.  No clear conclusions can be made from the available information.

Considering ‘Military Influences’ during these years, Cambridge District hosted a Scouts Defence Corps, a scout initiative to prepare Scouts for military service, which was increasingly likely for most young men.  For over 16’s only, it was voluntary within scouting and in this large District only 28 joined of whom 12 completed the training. (See separate page – Scout Defence League)

Cambridge Scouts became involved in many aspects of civil defence, in the early months of the war guarding bridges and railway lines against invasion and later acting as Coast watchers.  Later some were involved in working in aid stations in Dunkirk or at military hospitals as orderlies.   Two camps to harvest fruit and flax are recorded.

No evidence exists of the Cambridge Scouts experience of war being more militaristic than any other district or out of step with the fluctuating attitude of the country. 

The list of Officers of the District remains largely incomplete for the war years. The only clear resignation is Mowll, in 1916, who had completed his studies. 

Cambridge, as a University town, is invoked as shorthand for intelligent and considered thought and implies that this is not just another breakaway group. The notion carries greater weight than ‘at or from Cambridge University’ which suggests students who may be bright and able but are not yet proven. The ‘Cambridge Area’ connection is proven in one very influential man, John Murrish, and without further names nowhere else.

Cambridge Connections: Kindred of the Kibbo Kift

Cambridge District Scout Archive

The Kindred had some roots in Cambridge with H Rolf Gardiner, editor of ‘Youth’, as a centre of thought.  He was at University four years after the foundation of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and involved in both OWC and KKK.  Like Aubrey Westlake he was a Scout, he founded a troop in his school and was active for seven years before stepping away from active involvement. 

A study of the papers available at the University Library does not reveal any names that I have been able to connect with Cambridge Scouting.  He does correspond with Arthur Heffer on Morris Dancing.  Arthur, of the Cambridge bookshop dynasty, was at the Perse School and Oxford University, but he has not been linked with the school troop the 5th Cambridge.

Cambridge Connections: Woodcraft Folk

Cambridge District Scout Archive

No Cambridge specific links have been claimed or identified in the early history of the Woodcraft Folk.  Leslie Paul, often identified as the leading founder, had been heavily involved in scouting prior to joining the KKK.  Woodcraft Folk are still active and growing and a number of groups are running in the Cambridge area.