Order of Woodcraft Chivalry: Cambridge Connections

Cambridge District Scout Archive

References to the foundation of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry mention ‘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 http://www.raggeduniversity.co.uk.)  This page records those Cambridge Scouters we can identify.

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 discussed in 1915 and formerly founded in 1916 as a woodcraft based organization.  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.  As late as 1959 it was referenced in ‘The Way to Camp’ as a camping and hiking organization alongside far larger bodies. The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry remains in existence today. It is not directly connected with the Woodcraft Folk which came out of Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a separate body founded a year later.

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

Cambridge Archive

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.

The one commentary known is in Reveille, a single issue magazine of 1920. It gives names, most not get identified, of those with ‘Woodcraft’ inclinations. It does not add details of any specific breakaway.

(See Local History/ Order of Woodcraft Chivalry: Cambridge Connections/ The White Fox Stunt)

Terms used

Most of the literature closest to the Order describe concern at the general underlying military influences and do not quote or imply specific local incidents or individuals in Cambridge.  The terms used by these sources are not extreme or damning of Scouting and acknowledge the many good aspects of Scouting which they widely borrowed.

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.  It may be that I have missed some Scouters; not recognising the names coming from outside my Cambridge centric sphere of knowledge.

Aubrey Westlake

Aubrey Westlake was a Quaker and in training as a Doctor.  He came to Cambridge 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 term ‘one degree or another’ is similarly vague. 

ASM A T Westlake is recorded in 1913 with the 5th Cambridge District, Trumpington and Grantchester as is R T Parker. In ‘5th Cambridge Scouts: The first 50 years’ Westlake is recorded, not as working with the 5th Cambridge but running a scheme at Trumpington, c March 1915, in which they participated.  At this time ‘Cambridge District’ indicates a Troop outside the town boundaries.  5th Cambridge was the Perse, 5th Cambridge District was Trumpington and Grantchester. In 1916 SM J Murrish, who was leaving for war, gave him the role of coordinating boys from the 12th to help on the farm at Wimpole Hall.

The involvement with the 1st is not yet unwrapped. It too may relate to either 1st Cambridge or the 1st Cambridge District.

Clearly enthusiastic the younger Westlake instigated Scouting at his old school Sidcot. His father, mentioned by K North, above, was not Cambridge based during this period.

Cambridge Scouters

It is from Edgell’s book ‘The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry’ that we have the only names of Cambridge Scouters involved.  Edgell comments that the records of the Order were vast and unordered.  Other names may have been lost as having of no major part beyond the initial move.

  • Robert Parker            Robert Parker is clearly named as a Scouter and student at Cambridge alongside Aubrey.  An R T Parker is working with 5th Cambridge District and 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.  The second link is likely but not certain.
  • 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. Letters from Seton to Westlake (Junior and Senior) are held in donations to the Cambridgeshire Collection from Murrish. They largely consist of Seton deploring hasty adaptations of his work in the proposals for OWC.

From Edgell we have this concerning an invitation to talk to the Central Educational Committee of the Society of Friends 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”.’ 

‘Meanwhile away from Sidcot the Westlake’s 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.’

‘Whilst the executive “gained” … it also lost a great deal by the departure of other people, particularly Murrish.  Indeed the Westlakes’ 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.’

In 1915 John Murrish was fully involved in the Cambridge Scouts and with SM Copplestone of the 6th Cambridge co-founded and coordinated the Cambridge Scouts Defence Corps (Red Feather Brigade). John later received his own Red Feather. None of the records comment on the disconnect between the view of the OWC that Scouting was over militaristic and the very active participation of one of the leading thinkers of the movement in a voluntary step into direct military training, ahead of his own planned move into the forces.

Murrish joined the army in 1916. This was the year conscription started, in January for single men, July for married men. He organised his own sign up. As a school master he may have been encouraged initially to remain in his civilian role. He was back in Cambridge in 1919/1920 and continued to be involved and supportive of the 12th Cambridge and active at District level.   He left the District in 1921 to take up a Head masters role.

See also John Murrish and Ernest Thompson Seton under Individuals and Elsewhere

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 not specifically connected by those handing in or 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.

Conversely the number of students at University and available for Scout work during the war were very few.  Any loss in bulk would be noticed. 

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 concerning these closures from the available information.

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 – and he continued occasional involvement alongside his brother who was still engaged in Cambridge Scouting activities. 

Two letters are found in John Murrish’s scrapbook held in the Cambridgeshire Collection. The one pictured below is from the Seton to Aubrey Westlake, another to his father of the same basic response to their proposals, that is, this is hasty and I have spent 30 years on my version of Woodcraft – any other versions would be unwise.

Cambridge Military Influences

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 Cambridge District only 28 joined of whom 12 completed the training. It is of note that John Murrish was one of the two local Scouters who initiated this in Cambridge.

See also Scouts Defence Corps under Local History WW1/WW2

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 major District camps to harvest fruit and flax are recorded.

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

Dunkirk Scouts

A small number of Scouts went from Cambridge to work for the Red Cross and Friends Ambulance service. This was not a Scout initiative and the suggestion that it was, through photograph’s in full uniform in the press, generated a response from the Scout District, not necessarily in objection to the enterprise but certainly to prevent future, less welcome abuse. One Scout went from Aubrey’s and Parker’s the 5th Cambridge District, and others from John Murrish’s troop.

See WW1 & WW2/ The Great War/ Cambridge Scouts in Dunkirk

In summary

That this event was ‘trouble’ is reported by Ken North in 1978.  It was before his direct experience and Ken uses terminology that was gently dated even in 1978.  It may suggest little more than lots of talk, a concern that it would be bigger than it actually was and a few premature returns of warrants or stepping away of unwarranted roles.  No records have come to light suggesting that it was more than this. 

The link with John Murrish is the only clearly identified as a ‘leading member of Scouting in the Cambridge area’ and he was a major Scouter.  However, John appears to have been working with both OWC and Scouting at the same time and his involvement did not debar him from being asked to take on a District role immediately on his demobilisation.  He continued with the 12th until he moved to a new job as Headmaster in Birmingham.  The other identified scouters in Cambridge that were involved in the OWC were students. 

 ‘Cambridge’ here also stands as shorthand for ‘serious intellectual thought’ and gave worth to the new movement.  In John Murrish the OWC had one Cambridge graduate, a rising teacher and experienced Scouter who clearly brought this to the Order and did much of the early practical thinking.   No other ‘leading’ Cambridge Scouter has been identified.

It is recognised that naming of Scouters, obscure outside the Cambridge area, is not something that is likely to be repeated in later accounts, but no clear evidence of a significant crisis in Cambridge Scouting at this time has been found.


Kindred of the Kibbo Kift:  Cambridge Connections

Cambridge District Scout Archive

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was founded in 1920 by John Hargrave, an active Scouter involved in Woodcraft at Gilwell.

The Kindred had some roots in Cambridge with H Rolf Gardiner, editor of ‘Youth’, a magazine that acted as a centre of thought for the movement.  He was at University four years after the foundation of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and involved in both OWC and Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.  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.  It is likely that he stopped scouting before coming to Cambridge.

From ‘Social Movements and their Supporters: Green Shirts in England’ by M Drakeford we have the following:

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 after school.  He does correspond with Arthur Heffer on Morris Dancing.  Arthur, of the bookshop dynasty, was at the Perse School and Oxford. A ‘A Heffer’ was in the school troop, the 5th Cambridge amnd was a member of the Perse Association of Old Scouts.   Arthur died in his early 30’s and whilst many friends from his interest groups attended no members of the Scouting Association were listed at his funeral. 

See also Roland Philipps under Elsewhere

Woodcraft Folk:  Cambridge Connections

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 Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, but not in Cambridge.  Woodcraft Folk are still active and growing and a number of groups are running in the Cambridge area.

Whatever the lines drawn between the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift and the Woodcraft Folk some, such as Rolf Gardiner, were engaged in some or all of them at the same time. 

Many years later Aubrey Westlake, John Hargrave of Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, Rolf Gardiner and Leslie Paul were in correspondence.  Proposed plans for a reunion are found in the letters of Rolf Gardiner held by the University Library Cambridge.

Cumulative Summary

The ‘Cambridge connection’, claimed directly or indirectly, rest on one man and the University.

The man was clearly a very influential part of the early OWC, but did not maintain his OWC connections beyond 1919.  He retained his Scouting role and links for many years, funding in 1944 a major piece of stained glass in All Saints, Cambridge, depicting a Scout in the colours of his old Troop and being a significant financial contributor to 12th Cambridge activities beyond this date.

See also

  • Stained glass Scout under Local History
  • Boats on the Cam

The University, as a major centre of thought, generates new ideas and enthusiasms.  There was some vocal exploration of ‘Woodcraft’ ideas within Cambridge Scouting but little evidence that this was close to precipitating significant defections from wider scouting circles in Cambridge town.

JWR Archivist July 2019