Camp Mattresses

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Scouts have learnt, in wisdom from those who went before or in folly from their own mistakes, that what you sleep on has more bearing on a good night’s sleep than what you sleep under.

The following alternatives have been adopted and if they are presented as they have appeared over time the overlap is significant.  Cowboy bedrolls predate Scouting and were a cross between blankets and sleeping bags; sleeping bags (flea bags or flea pits) were in use in the Great War by those who could afford them; a pile of leaves was used by babes in the woods and may be still at need.

From Patrol Books No. 5 The Patrol goes to Camp 1956

Camp blankets still double as an additional layer under or over.

5th Cambridge blankets
Wet 5th Cambridge blankets
60th asleep in the hay

It is the only the second of this list of these that might be associated with Scouting ahead of any other group.

  • Skins were a traditional base to sleep on but expensive, heavy and not long enough. I have known a Scouter use a reindeer skin at camp to supplement his roll mat.
  • The woven straw mattress on a camp loom is well known from the days when straw was a loose commodity likely to be available in most rural campsites.  I have yet to come across a Cambridge based account of the use of a loom outside demonstrations. Camp bed making was demonstrated at the 1936 Ely Rally by the 11th and in the 1957 Midsummer Common camp. (See Local History/ Special Events/ Ely Rally)
  • The palliasse is a variant, straw stuffed into a sack, as below in a 23rd Cambridge camp the late 1920’s.
  • Blankets were the precursor to sleeping bags, held together with blanket pins; large safety pins akin to a kilt pin if generally slightly less well finished.   The folding of the blankets made a flattened tube of layers of which two were underneath for every one on top.
  • Biscuits A term I only know from 1920’s – 30’s. Used indoors, generally, these were three or four firm rectangular pads which when laid out made a mattress. See ‘The Mint’ T E Lawrence
12th Cambridge entitled ‘Airing the blankets’
2nd Cambridge 1950’s
  • Photographs exist in the Cambridgeshire Collection of an inflatable mattress on a 23rd Cambridge camp at Brynbac in 1939. Around the same time Claude Perry, T/L Linton scouts, was invited to the 11th camp and brought a Lilo. This was both unusual and out of keeping with the standards and image of the 11th at that time. Tales of his re-inflating during the night, the dog chewing the inflation tube and ‘someone’ deflating the mattress are depicted and described in the camp log.
  • Metal framed camp beds (seen below) were heavy and too wide to pack in a rucksack – definitely for static camps not hikes.
  • Roll Mats: The first Karrimatt was made in 1968. They were suggested as an optional extra in 1974 by the 5th Cambridge (Perse)
1950’s model camp bed
1930s 23rd Cambridge A J Covell album Cambridgeshire Collection
Patrol Series Scouts Guide to Gilwell 1951

I recall my first experience of a foam roll mat in about 1975; half length on frozen ground in Snowdonia.  They were not cheap items and so scaled down versions were provided.  We slept the second night in exhaustion, we barely slept the first – half a mat does not do it. JWR

The 1980 edition of the Scout handbook listed a blanket (for the underlayer) and a sleeping bag, or three blankets and blanket pins in the kit list.

Labelled ‘Filling Palliasses’ 23rd Cambridge 1929 Cambridgeshire Collection
Paillasses on a cart 23rd Cambridge 1930’s Cambridgeshire Collection

District Archives

1911 Cambridge Rally ‘Camp loom, mattresses making and camp beds’ by 7th Cambridge Barnwell Abbey

1912 1st Cambridge Summer camp ‘Unpacking and filling paillasses’ which suggests hire or ownership of the covers. They were later refilled, one of the tents having been flooded.

1917    Impington Fruit picking           ‘We had glorious palliasses with a ground sheet under each’

1918    Fortheringhay flax camp        ‘the army blankets and groundsheets were the best in existence.’

1932    Rules for camping Abington   No.15.  Blankets may be hired at the rate of 2d. Per night per blanket.

1932 13th Cambridge magazine P/L Cox advises that ‘an extra blanket underneath is better than an extra one on top. Newspaper spread on your groundsheet will also add to your warmth and comfort.’


55th Cambridge SMs tent with camp bed 1933

Undated but probably 1930s, Abington with a pile of mattresses for indoor use.

1935      Biscuits One reference to this form of mattress has been found. Used indoors, generally, these were three or four firm rectangular pads which when laid out made a mattress.

1942 60th Cambridge camp (in Scotland) Groundsheets are provided. Campers ‘require two blankets or rugs’

1945 13th Cambridge records the PLs training course , the first act of which was ‘Issue of blankets’.

1946 7th Cambridge ‘We put our tent up, and put in our groundsheets after carefully clearing the ground inside the tent, and spreading bracken leaves over the top, to give a more comfortable surface to lie on.’ J Woolfenden (Flea)

1948 60th report of a camp ‘using Hovey’s Lilo pillow as a ball’.

1950    Six mattresses were purchased for Grafton Street HQ, and six blankets obtained for impromptu visitors.

POR 1952 339 Enough sleeping bags or blankets must be provided to enable each Scout to make up a separate bed.

1969    Sleeping bag or 3 blankets and pins (are required)

This last would give six layers under and three over.

How to carry blankets when Hiking (book without a cover – date unknown)

Some kit lists specify dark blankets.

1974 The Perse trip tot he lakes suggested a Karrimat as an optional extra. It did not suggest blankets or any other form of mattress; however, the kit list also omitted sleeping bag and they were to sleep in tents.

JWR Archivist Jan 2020