Scout camps – and the others

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Camping as a leisure activity started in the UK in the very early 20th century.  Reviews can be found on Wikipedia and elsewhere and the name of Thomas Hiram Holding, the founder of what was to become the still excellent Camping and Caravanning Club, is to the fore.  Prior to this camping was a military activity or with heavy equipment requiring boats or carts. 

The following is a review, from Cambridge Scout Archive sources, of other organizations that held youth camps and occasional evidence of how they differed.

Camping Movement

Scouting came along in the first wave of the new enthusiasm.  At the same time an increasing awareness of the unhealthy nature of the slums and the general benefits of ‘fresh air’ within society made getting into the countryside a parental aspiration for their children.

BP did not consciously elect to hitch a lift on this popular moment, his choices were all of a whole in his central vision of what works, nor do his pared down core works expand on the wider growth of the activity.  However, without the growing take up of camping as a leisure activity the outdoor element of Scouting may have been a handicap to the growth of the movement rather than a positive opportunity.

Camping Skills

The wider adult experience of camping may be assumed to be through military service, often in the Territorial Army, and expanding widely from 1914.  This was not an experience that everyone wished to repeat but the skill base increased greatly.  Many ‘had enough (camping) in the army’ not to wish to camp with Scouts or anyone else ever again and some ex military men still echo this feeling.

The skill base to camp and to run a camp grew within Scouts, as elsewhere, but was specifically taught within Scouts.  Cyril Phillips of the 41st recalled the first Pembroke College Choir camp as a Scout Troop in 1930 and contrasted it to the previous, pre Scout, ‘holiday camps’ of the Choir.  It was ‘too much of a training camp’ an observation that highlights the change in emphasis.  As he remained with the Troop after he moved on from the Choir we can assume that, for some, the transition was appropriately judged. It is of note that choristers were allowed to attend camp whether a member of the |Troop or not. Previous camps had required campers to act as ‘camp orderlies’.

One time CM of the 13th, A J (John) Covell was a teacher and peripatetic Head Master during WW2.  He ran a series of summer camps for children from the schools to which he was seconded, specifically to give the adoptive families a break from the children and presumably for the benefit of the boys. These were run along Scout lines but outside formal Scout Troops or registration.  He relates a boy, a Scout ‘but only an Air Scout’ (an observation that dates the event even closer) asking if there would be discipline on his camp.  The Air Scout understood the difference, and that what he perceived as discipline was training in how to camp – and the answer was yes.


Early camps used Army style equipment, the tents static and reassuringly robust, and if no other forms had become available such camping would have continued to work well within Scouting.  Many groups still use Patrol tents, alongside light weight kit, for these reasons.

The wider development and availability of new, personal and lightweight camping equipment and techniques began to alter this.  T H Holding also popularised Cycle camping and with the strong bushcraft element Scouts learnt to construct tents from staff, cord and tarps.  Cycling for the first class badge was part of Scouting from the very first and cycling camps not far behind.  The following specific quotes from Cambridge Archives are the earliest we can offer but hike camps predated these examples.

1926    ‘w/e camps at Quy and Bottisham cycling with tents and other gear

1931    ‘Dusty and I had a couple of bivouac sheets which buttoned along the top and used our staffs as poles’  Ken North


The first commercial campsite opened in the UK in 1894 but most sites were private land without facilities other than access to water, often enough just a stream or well.  Toilet facilities were constructed on the spot with pick and shovel. 

Negotiating for a gang of boys to camp on your land became easier when the gang was a Troop and came with a positive image.  Increasingly the collective power of Scouting opened dedicated campsites.  Some supporters were always generous with money or land use, as with the Pemberton family in Trumpington, supporters of scouting to this day.  Some purchased land specifically, as MacFarlene Grieve of the 5th who not only permitted camping at his home Toft Manor, but also purchased a piece of land on the North Norfolk Coast for the purpose.  C T Wood (9th Cambridge, DC, CC) purchased most of the original land for Abington County Scout site.

Mission Camps, School Camps, Choir camps, Red Cross camps

Youth organisations used camping to get children away from the slums, as rewards and as holidays. As with the Red Cross they could be opportunities for intensive training as well as a reward.

Ken North records the Boys Brigade and the Red Cross camping pre WW2.

The University Missions in London started Troops and camped.  Rev C T Wood, Dean of Queens’ College and SM 9th Cambridge, was involved in the Queens’ Mission.  He organised and participated in what his photo album labels ‘Mission camps’.  The photographs show Scout or Scout-like uniforms so whether this was purely his naming system is unclear.  His later funding of Abington Scout camp came with the direct requirement that poor Scout Troops from London were given free access once a year.

Council Schools, too, camped outside the structure of Scouting.  The Higher Grade School, hosts of the very successful and active 6th Cambridge, continued to organise camps after the decline of the Troop.  The Troop declined rapidly following the loss of the founding SM’s in WW1 who, following enlistment, moved or were killed.  The in-house memory of how and the benefits of why outlived the charismatic Scout Masters and the equipment remained.  Camps, however, declined to an annual summer event.

1919 Higher Grade School ‘Received a Marquee, 5 Bell tents, a patrol tent, 32 Ground sheets, pillowcases, latrine screens, a cooler, canvas buckets and other camp equipment‘. This was the home of the 6th Cambridge but the gear was specifically school equipment. ‘Presented by the managers and committee with a view to weekend and other school camps.’ Later that week 19 boys went camping under the HM and later school camps are also listed. This was possibly in the gap in the 6th being active.

Teacher’s expectations and the expectations of teachers were different.  Less time was required in ever changing lesson plans and they embodied a wider educational remit within society.  Some did so through Scouting and camping.  F E Isaacson of the 28th Cambridge was teacher and Lady Cub Master for over 39 years, living in the community and following the progress of her pupils/ Wolf Cubs well beyond the pack. 

See People/ Leaders/Leaders Occupations    for numbers pre 1940

In Cambridge a number of College Choirs started Troops, some through the attached College school, some, with no attached school, through the choir.  As seen above some camped before they were Troops and the camping with Scouts was found to be something more.

Council Sponsorship

The formal move to take a wider responsibility for older children (school leavers to eighteen) came during WW2 when many children, shifted from the family settings, were seen to have significant needs.  Directly offering services to this age group the Council appeared to be ‘in competition’ for older Scouts.  Some of these services offered camping. 

The ‘Welfare State’, however, had started to grow in the UK from 1900’s and Cambridge Council distributed funds through a Juvenile Organisations Committee.  The 55th Cambridge received what reads as a general grant for £1/10/0 in 1933/4, in other years grants were made specifically for equipment for each child camping. In 1955 ‘Camp Grants’ from the City to the District were £34/5/0.   Scouts were only one of several organisations

See: Structure/ Trends/ Children’s Leisure time and the State

Unemployment camps

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, right up to the start of WW2, Rover Scouts offered Training camps for the unemployed.  These were generally ‘camps’ under canvas and the camp itself was generally under the oversight of a Scout Master whilst the training was overseen by Rovers.  In Cambridge the local campsite at Abington hosted Training camps and the campsite was overseen for a week at a time by a local Scouter.  The University based Rovers were able to spend longer.  That living under canvas was seen as an appropriate thing to offer is an indication of a widespread familiarity, if not everyone was willing to sign up to the conditions. 

It is, however, seen that a camp leader was deemed necessary and that a Scout Master was an acceptable choice.


That Scouts were not the only group to camp but that maybe their rigour gained a reputation above that of many other bodies. It was often to the Scouts that others looked to oversee their camps.

Camping as a leisure activity grew independently of Scouting, but it was seen to be part of Scouting in a way that was not true of other youth organizations.

JWR Archivist Sept 2020