‘The most curious’ of all ‘queer societies’? Sexuality and Gender in British Woodcraft Camps, 1916-2016

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In the years during and after the Great War, disaffected with the apparent militarism and imperialism of Boy Scouts, British pacifists established rival outdoor youth organisations. These new organisations returned to some of the founding ideas of Scouting in the form of the ‘woodcraft’ system of outdoor education pioneered at the turn of the twentieth century by Ernest Thompson Seton and latterly absorbed into Baden-Powell’s organisation. To these ideas each of the new organisations--the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, and Woodcraft Folk--added their own distinctive philosophies, drawing on psychology, spirituality, art and politics, to provide idiosyncratic camping experiences across genders and ages. Camp in this context was more than leisure, and more than an escape from encroaching industrialisation--it was a personally and socially transformative space, rich with utopian possibility.
The British woodcraft movement’s subversions represent a distinctive and elaborate queering of the Boy Scout ideal. Through their futurist visions and revivalist performances, members acted out their radical ideals for a hybrid new/old world. Alongside these activities, each group developed detailed and sometimes unorthodox ideas about “sex instruction” and “sex equality” interlinked with complex theories of camping. As such, new ideas about social relationships ran through woodcraft organisations’ vision and were played out under canvas. In the temporary worlds of primitivist camps in the heady period of change after the Great War, alternatives to so-called civilised life could be tried on for size. Gender and sexuality became prime sites where the limits of experimental practices were tested and contested, and aspects of these challenges continue in the organisations’ twenty-first century manifestations.

Through an investigation of woodcraft theories and practices, this essay examines the movement as a case study of oppositional ideals in the interwar period, when camping and experiments in living intertwined. While woodcraft organisations in Britain have always been much smaller in scale than numbers of Scouts and Guides, and their founding ideas were far from mainstream, their position as aspiring cultural revolutionaries meant that they inhabited a space--literally and figuratively--as outsiders. This essay presents views from the three most prominent woodcraft organisations, each founded during or shortly after the Great War. The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry was the first pacifist coeducational breakaway from Scouts. Founded in 1916, it was at its most productive in the 1920s and 1930s with public projects including the progressive Forest School for children, and Grith Fyrd craft training camp for unemployed men. The organisation recently celebrated its centenary as a very small cluster of descendants of early members. The flamboyant, artistic Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was established as an all-ages, mixed-gender alternative to Scouts in 1920 but only lasted just over a decade as a woodcraft organisation before being radically remodelled into an economic campaign group (The Green Shirts) and latterly a short-lived political party (The Social Credit Party of Great Britain and Ireland). Finally, Woodcraft Folk was founded in 1925 following a schism in Kibbo Kift over political direction; it continues to thrive as an outdoor-focused and democratic organisation with around 15,000 adult and child members in groups spread across the UK.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationQueer as Camp
Subtitle of host publicationEssays on Summer, Style and Sexuality
EditorsKenneth B. Kidd, Derritt Mason
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherFordham University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9780823283613
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2019


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