Clasp Knives and Sheath Knives

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Cambridge Archives

In gathering pictures to illustrate articles for the Cambridge Scout archives one photograph caught my attention, a Scout wearing a sheath knife at his belt.  The photo stood out because it was unusual.  Relatively few photos show a sheath knife at the belt. 

The photograph

This piece of equipment has become a talisman of how Scouts used to be.  However, starting from the photographic evidence it is useful to consider if they were ever uniformly worn.

In much of what follows the term used is knife.  This covers both folding knife (a clasp knife, jack knife or penknife) and a fixed blade knife or sheath knife.   If a sheath knife was the aspiration, more often the penknife the reality.

Uniform

1908                A knife was not part of B-P’s first description of what a Scout should wear and it did not appear on the Brownsea Island kit list.  A Skean Dhu was a permitted accessory in early uniform charts, and specifically for Rover Scouts.

1919, 1938 and 1952 POR’s a knife was included as an ‘optional article’ for Scouts.  In 1938 this was depicted as a penknife.  The lanyard was described as an optional item for carrying a whistle or knife.  This is only safe for a folding knife.

1963                The Scoutmasters Guide A-Z a sheath knife was described as ‘often carried by Scouts and indeed if a Scout is really going to carry out his ‘Good Samaritan ‘ role…is an essential tool for him.

1966                Advance Party Report recommended that “With the exception of a knife, no present optional items of uniform (e.g. staff, thumb stick, haversack… ) may in future be worn”.

1974                ‘Knives may no longer be worn on Uniform’                 CC 37.9 

At the time there was no restriction on the proper use in camp and CSG advised that there was ‘no advantage (other than as a status symbol) of wearing a sheath knife rather than a properly maintained clasp knife.’

‘Clasp knives have not been worn since the introduction of the present uniform…the belt does not have suitable attachments for this purpose’

Cambridge Archives

1920’s               ‘We carried whistles on lanyards, and our knives, two blades and the famous “spike to take stones out of horse’s hoofs”. I well remember mine; my uncle had used it in the army, it was large and heavy, and as I ran it would swing on its swivel and crump my elbow.’ Archaeology of Scouting          WTT 1978

A leaders clasp knife 1921 C T Wood’s album

1945                Attention was drawn to Cubs wearing lanyards and sheath knives against POR in the District Minutes.  It was considered that any Cub injured whilst paying games wearing a sheath knife would render the CM liable to blame.

1948                ‘On Friday afternoon outside Styles cake shop an unknown Boy Scout was kind enough to help a lady with some parcels.  In doing this ‘Good Turn’ he lost his sheath knife.  He can recover this from…’  
GG&AA In some eras a sheath knife was worn in public and without disapproval 

1955                55th Cambridge Court of honour        ‘As far as knives are concerned second class scouts can wear clasp knives and first class scouts sheath knives’

1960’s              Scout H Till of the 54th                        ‘received the Skippers prize of a sheath knife’for ‘good conduct, attendance and tidiness’.

1970’s              A Cambridge Scouter recalls wearing a sheath knife as an item of uniform when in Scout Uniform on St Georges Day in the early ‘70’s.  He remembers having someone attempt to unship it from its sheath during assembly.

Leaders Guidance Outside of badge requirements (and these are minimal) references to sheath knives are infrequent.  The Cub Scout Leaders handbook of 1967 observed ‘Boys delight in wearing a sheath knife beneath a jersey, but this must be firmly discouraged, and they must, at all costs, be removed before games start.’. 

Time and Place Many photos are formal groups at a function where a knife would not have been worn.  It was a tool not an inevitable part of the uniform.  Even in photos of Scouts in action there are proportionately very few clear depictions of a sheath knife. Some photos show a clasp knife, penknife or jack knife at the belt or in a leather pocket.  See quote above

W T Wood’s album 1922

Costs A knife costs money and even the cheapest was an extra cost that pushed some finances.  At Scouting’s 50th anniversary in 1957 the average wage, proportionately, was half what it was in 2010.  Spare money was scarce and many, like W T Thurbon quoted above,would have borrowed ex army gear from a relative.   Not every Scout or child, then or now, starts a new ‘club’ with all the peripheral gear.

Parents

The holder of the family purse had a say in the purchase of a knife.  Their fears or their knowledge of their child dictated when a sheath knife was permitted.

Tests Sheath knives a century ago were as sharp and dangerous to the unwary as they are now.  They were not uniform requirement for Cubs and if all Scouts were once trusted to carry one ahead of the skills necessary to pass the tests this changed before my time.

In the 1960’s the view was ‘a scout can be judged by the condition in which he keeps his knife and axe’.  This observation from the Gilcraft 2nd Class Book was not explicit permission but certainly an expectation that knife ownership was an aim.   As seen above the term knife encompassed both folding (penknives) and fixed blade knives (sheath knives).

In the 1970’s permission to carry a knife was dependent on demonstrating that you knew how to use it safely.  It is almost certain that this was not applied evenly across Scouting, but in 1978 the Scout Standard required ‘Explain how to use and care for a knife and an axe.  Use a knife to whittle a tent peg (or other object) from a piece of wood and an axe to prepare wood for a fire.’   

Badges Some badges required the use of knives and axes; Woodsman, Forester and Pioneer. Many others required the use of other specialist sharp tool; Leatherworker, Bookbinder, Handyman and Joiner.  

Many early badges were associated with trades and work life often started at fourteen. Confidence in handling sharp tools was a useful skill for many a boy looking for a job.  The very ubiquity of crafts using sharp tools would have given a widespread understanding of the true danger of a knife and the need for training.  

Memory Having a knife remains in the memory of most who worked through Cubs and Scouts to the point where they were trusted to own and use one; a jealously guarded right and a rite of passage.  I do not recall the occasions when a knife was not to be worn; I do remember when I did and what happened when Andy melted his plastic handle, and when Tom lost his knife throwing it into sand.  Having permission to carry a knife was a point of pride and carried boasting rights.


Three knives in use: only one clearly a sheath knife (Not Cambridge)

In 2001 the District Camp and Cooking Competition restricted knives to ‘Swiss Army’ style penknives or fixed blade knife of less than 7.5cm with no serrated edges.

Conclusion

A sheath knife remains part of the image of Scouting.  In some eras a Scout uniform carried a trust that legitimised carrying a knife.  Scouts are not now nor were ever exempt from knife laws.

Since the tightening of knife laws the visualisation of every Scout with a sheath knife at his belt has gained strength.   It was never quite so.

John Chambers’ sheath knives

JWR Archivist Feb 2019