Scouting in the Blackout

Cambridge District Scout Archive

Numbers

The war time requirement for a blackout was one of the many stresses on wartime numbers.  As many of the older boys moved to pre service units (Sea Cadets, Air Cadets, OTC) and Home Guards etc. the younger scouts were left to get to the meetings in the dark. 

The limiting factors of the blackout repeated those of the Great War. In 1915 the 5th Cambridge “Influenza, measles and lighting restrictions prevented more frequent meetings”

Much of the following comes from the 13th Cambridge which was and is based in a residential area well known to most of the scouts.  The 13th did absorb large numbers of evacuees for which this was less true, but the blackout cannot be the only reason for the steep fall in attendance during the winter months.  Not every night is cloud covered and few are pitch black.  A letter survives inviting parents to a meeting to discuss the plans to get scouts to a shelter during an alert.  The provision of shelters increased through the early years – it maybe that a limited provision of public shelters locally was a concern.

Unlike Tracey Hall where meetings were held before the 13th moved, the new HQ did have electric light.  It was heated by gas but during the winter months strenuous games were as much for warming everyone up as for strengthening.  Even with the heating on one occasion the temperature did not reach above freezing.

Blackout material

It is evident that the blackout in the hall was removable, but not readily so.  Records exist of a meeting which was curtailed and held outdoors whilst the light lasted as the blackout was not in place.

It may be assumed that some damage also occurred to the blackout during scout meetings.  It is recorded that windows were broken during the playing of British Bulldog; if the blackout was in place it is unlikely that this survived.

Camping

At camp the evenings were limited by the need to have all lights and fires out before dark.  Whilst the main meal was at midday evening cocoa required some planning and campfires, for conviviality or warmth, not permitted.  Getting around a campsite at night was not significantly different from doing so in peace time, but night time visits to the lats (latrines) which, being holes in the ground with only a thin screen for decency, were not light proof may have been trickier.

Observations on the blackout declines as the war goes on.  The system was in place, the air raid alerts diminished.

Activities

I have not unpicked any activities that were directly facilitated by the blackout. Indeed the odd behaviour of some scout activities may have been curtailed by the general watchfulness of the population.  Nearer the end of the war one Scouter, posing as suspicious person to be tracked by his troop, was stopped and questioned by the local police.  In June 1940 an exercise to map the area around HQ included identifying all the ARP shelters. In 1940 Snowy (Oliver) and Ken Metcalfe ‘went on an all night hike and were nearly run in by a suspicious policeman’ From the Evercircular letters

Cambridge Archives

Concerns about a war started at the Munich Crisis in 1938 and many plans were put in place. In July 1939 the Scouts were invited to take part in ‘Black Out exercise’. Later many were to enroll in the Scout Messenger Service. See WW1 and WW2/ WW2/ Scout ARP Messengers.

5th September 1939                ‘First meeting back after camp and first since the outbreak of war – owing to no blackout having been accomplished the meeting was started and held out of doors in the open air.’

Contemporary sketch

13th Cambridge from October 1939

19th March 1940                     ‘Some of the younger brethren who had slipped away because of the blackout are now attending again’.

Whitsun Camp                                    ‘All tents must be camouflaged and spread out. No lights or fires must be seen after dark and all sorts of things’

September 1942                     ‘Got dark early and we had not fixed up blackout so did Scouts pace.’

JWR Archivist Oct 2021