The glorious 6th Wellingborough Peter Godfrey
Yes, I was a member of the glorious 6th Wellingborough at the time when Jake Dunning and Stan Stanley were the Scoutmasters.
I am not really sure, why I joined the troop. It may have been because my father had been a Scout when Baden Powell was the Chief Scout, and he recounted stories of his troops’ camping trips and the songs around the campfires. The stories were perhaps told with a slightly rose coloured hue, because I discovered that he had omitted the fact, that on cold nights only the parts of a person facing the fire actually stayed warm and on warm nights the midges and mosquitos were a constant menace and seem to delight in my blood.
In order to avoid those plagues it was necessary to sit closer to the smoke which tended to keep them away, but also had the tendency, to turn Boy Scouts into kippers, or at least something that smelled very much like one all through the night curled up on solid ground in our sleeping bags.
Anyway, the romance of the campfire, the thought of the open road, service to God and country instilled in me by my father must have had their effect, because without telling my parents, I stayed behind at school on the evening of the Scout Meeting and offered my meagre services.
The first consequence of my action, was that since I had not told my parents of my intentions, they became rather worried when I did not appear at home for several hours. Not a good start for a person joining an organisation which prides itself in it’s sense of responsibility and care for others.
I suppose today a nation wide search would have been instigated and I would have appeared on the local news, with a by line, about the fear of a kidnap. When I turned up at home feeling rather proud of myself, my fathers grim visage told me that my joy would be short lived, only to be saved by blurting out were I had been and what I had done, so seeing grimness turn to pride at a son following in a father’s footsteps.
The down side was, that I had to listen to all those old Scouting stories again and I am sure that they were even more embellished. Perhaps a bond had grown between us, based on joining the same “club” and being ready to learn the secrets that any specialised group must have in order to separate it from the herd.
Over the years, we shared many stories of Scouting, but none of mine could top his, perhaps because he knew if I was indulging in embellishment and of course I could never know if he was.
The strange thing about it is that I joined the Scout Troop when it was in the charge of Jake Dunning. Jake was my Geography master and he terrified me to the core. I feel quite able to say this, because I know that many others felt the same, including perhaps some of the staff.
There were some occasions, when if Geography was on that day’s timetable, that I complained bitterly to my parents, of some awful illness, which had to keep me in bed. If I had been more informed or inventive I could have conjured up symptoms of beri beri, yaws, malaria or even plague, but my pleas never worked and I was packed off to school , with comments such as,”You’ll be alright dear,” from my mother, and “Be a man’” from my father. I suppose we 12 year olds were made of sterner stuff then.
The strange thing about the whole initial experience was that I found Jake to be an entirely different man as a Scout leader, than as a teacher of geography, or at least I thought that I did.
Gradually I was awakened to the fact, that, a person can seem to be two different individuals in different circumstances, but in reality Jake was applying the same principles to his teaching as he was to leading boys in the Scouts. It is just that different circumstances demanded that the same principles be applied in different ways.
Perhaps I should say virtues more than principles. He gave all of us the understanding, that we should always act honestly and openly. That there was no place for skulking behind an excuse when you were to blame and that everyone is responsible for his own actions.
He also showed us what it means to work hard and expected us to follow his example. In saying that, he never ever created a divide between the leader and the led and shared our triumphs, failures and discomforts. Jake was actually a real leader of boys and one who was able to fashion them into decent, honest men. If some failed to achieve that, it was not Jake’s fault and no person can succeed in everything.
From memory, every single meeting was interesting. We were always offered new challenges or presented with information which taxed our memories or fortitude. The acquisition of various badges came high on our agenda and this was encouraged by both Stan and Jake.
There were several reasons I believe. Firstly we were learning useful information, often information which would last a lifetime. Secondly, we were productively employed and thirdly we had to face the challenge of the work and place ourselves in a position, where we might fail.
A major factor in our thinking was, that when we passed a badge and were presented with it at a small ceremony in the school Hall, where we often had our meetings, the badge looked really great when sewed on to our uniforms. Every other Scout in the world could tell what you had achieved, just by looking at the badges which festooned a uniform.
Some of our greatest times of fun were when we had what were known as “wide games”. This meant, games played over a wide area, and in reality meant a sophisticated form of hide and seek. From memory, these games were played in woodland near Wollaston and we would scatter in various directions and one of us or perhaps a pair or even a whole patrol, would have to seek the others.
Those who had scattered had to leave clues, but they were clues known only to Scouts, or at least we thought so. Once again we were members of a worldwide community which had it’s own jargon, language, code, ceremonies and signals. Scouts even shook hands using the left instead of the right. I wonder how many Scouts became Freemasons, because there was certainly an element of secrecy yet commitment to all things good, within the Scouts Movement.
Stones and sticks pointing in various directions meant something to us. A bent twig or blade of grass gave added clues and our young and sharp eyes searched the ground and bushes for such clues. A rabbit which has passed in the night and scratched for food could lead an unsuspecting Scout on a merry dance, so perhaps we were not that good at reading signs. We would leave scratches in the earth, a mark on a tree, stone arranged in certain ways and all of these were meant to be picked up by our fellow scouts so that they could track our path.
Imagine the superiority of feeling, to know that mere mortals who lacked our training could never have followed our companions and would be isolated in the wild wood, no doubt to be attacked by weasel, ferrets and stoats. What Baden –Powell must have picked up on the African veldt, to pass onto us, and we never ever saw a lion in the woods of Wollaston. No matter, it made us all far more observant and far more attuned to the natural world.
I certainly remember one of these occasions when Stephen Dobney was searching for us and we were trying to avoid him. We had passed the point when young boys concentrate on the job in hand and now we wanted fun. We gave false clues and made odd noises so that he followed us, only to find that we had gone.
We of course knew exactly where he was, not because of special skill, but because it was the height of spring, blossoms were everywhere and poor Stephen suffered from hay fever.
The combination meant that poor Stephen advanced through the woods accompanied by explosives sneezes which could be heard for miles. He did not stand a chance. He was also not particularly pleased with us when he did catch up, although we did not understand what he said, as his voice was muffled by a handkerchief and interrupted by his sneezes. His eyes streamed with water and his handkerchief was a sodden mess.
The highlight of the Scout year was the annual camp. One which particularly stands out, was a camp at Boars Hill near Oxford. I remember that one of our past Scouts, Graham Willie, who had become a Queen’s Scout, was up at Oxford and he came to visit us at the camp. We had a camp fire with him I think and he taught us a comic song, about “My old lavender trousers”.
On the first day when we were another annual camp, we established camp and Jake had gone off to inspect the whole sight and met the Warden. He returned to tell us that we had volunteered to do a job which would benefit all.
It seems, that during his inspection he had checked out the latrines, only to find them in a disgusting state. He sprang into action, and we were detailed of as latrine cleaners. They really were disgusting, no other word can describe the condition. We were many yards away when we smelt them and we held back from even approaching the door. Jake led the way and all of us except Jake gagged when we entered. It made me wonder even then what life experiences he might have had in order to be able to face such a repulsive atmosphere. But, Jake wearing large industrial rubber gloves lead the way and to be honest did the lion’s share of the work. I can see him now, pouring a highly caustic liquid into the large latrine cans, dragging them to a septic pit and pouring the contents into it.
At one time the indescribable mess splashed so much that some of the mixture spotted his brow. The effect was an instant sting from the caustic liquid and Jake threw off one glove, pulled out a handkerchief, passed it to me and told me to wipe the mess off his brow, while he still kept a firm grip on the can.
This was the man who, was so dominant in the classroom, whose knowledge was encyclopaedic, a man of culture and experience, a man before whom everyone trembled and there he was doing the meanest of jobs and asking me to wipe his brow.
To me, it was one of those boyhood learning moments, when I realised what it really meant to be a human being and stand on your actions not on what others may say about you. Perhaps, at that moment, I could see for the first time, what service meant and I knew that what ever he did, it would never demean him and that all service gave dignity.
There were many more pleasant memories of the camp. The games, meeting Scouts from other parts of the country, the great campfire, when every troop had to put on a “skit, “ for the entertainment. I remember that we did one where Terry Stratton ended it by pretending to stab himself, although I cannot remember the details of the act. No Oscars were awarded, I remember that.
Camp fire sites seemed to have particularly significance to me, because during one of our annual camps north west of London and I cannot remember the place, I had chased someone across the area, tripped, fallen and skidded, only to crash my knee against the corner of the brick fireplace.
The result was that Jake took me to hospital in Chalfont St Giles, where I had stiches in the knee, a sorry disposition and eventually, a scar, which I carry with me to this day. Ah! Happy memories.
I think that camp was one of those fairly wet ones. Rain followed by fine weather followed by rain. It made life difficult, because we cooked all of our meals over an open fire, but like good Scouts we did not have any old fire.
We had been taught how to build an alter fire, which consisted of gathering rocks and other hard debris and building a structure about two meters long and about one meter high and perhaps half a meter wide. The top was recessed and had mud packed into it, which became rock hard with the heat from the fire. On top of this we placed iron grills on which the cooking pots were placed.
It looked as though we had constructed an altar, suitable for the priests of Baal to dance around and make sacrifice, but it was very efficient and it meant that we could stand up while cooking. Each patrol had to take a turn as cooks, and on one particular evening meal it was the turn of we of the Otter patrol.
Perhaps we were aptly named, because it rained incessantly, but in true 6th Wellingborough style, the challenge was on! It was a particularly important meal, because it was the occasion of Jake’s famous current duff. It was a tradition, that we had this fantastic meal as a dessert once on every annual camp. It was heavy enough to moor a ship, but succulent with currents and sugar, steamed for what seemed to be hours in our camp steamers and served if I remember with custard. It was famous and it was a favourite, and woe betide those who spoiled it.
Eventually the rain was so heavy, that only three of us were outside at the fire, myself. Terry Stratton and Ron Palmer. We had wet weather gear and between us one large old fashioned wide brimmed Scout hat, which we passed around when water leaked down into our shirts from our collars. It was the best of headwear and was in fact water proof, much better that the berets we normally wore.
We would not let anyone else near the meal, we wanted to produce the meal despite the circumstances. It was a great moment, keeping the fire going, water dripping off our clothing and knowing that the rest of our troop were counting on us to have a good meal.
Jake and Stan gave us a pat on the back when the meal was over and perhaps that meant more to us than anything else.
In hindsight, I now know that we did it because we had been given the example of service and that we were doing it not only as schoolboys, but members of a special group, who had been given, without knowing it, the gift of companionship, friendship and above all a will to serve others no matter how unpleasant the task. I wonder who we got that from?
On that camp we travelled to Scout HQ in London and we sat opposite an actor when we travelled on the Tube. He is still around and appears on TV from time to time often in big parts. He is rather a good comic actor, but I cannot remember his name.
At every camp we had our belts branded with the camp brand. It was burnt in with a hot iron and all of us had our bone handled sheath knife hanging from our belt and my sister brought me home an elkhorn handled clasp knife from a school trip to France which she went on. It has everything on it to do everything, even take Boy Scouts out of horses hooves I should think
I say has, because I still have it. It is in the top section of my wardrobe together with my scout sheath knife and they are both still firmly fixed to my scout belt. For reasons which are quite beyond my understanding the belt seems much shorter these day, but then a lot happens in fifty years.
It seems that perhaps I have not strayed to far from Scouting and although I have the physical reminders in the form of belt, knives and of course a scar, it is really the spirit and lessons of scouting which remain with me. They were wonderful times, led by men who understood what the Scout Movement really meant and who had the integrity, skill, knowledge and leadership to actually make it work.
After I left WGS, I took no further part in scouting, yet the influence on me was great. I have applied many of the principles of the Movement to my everyday life and I can still do sheepshanks, half hitches and square lashing when needed. Two of my daughters were Guides and if I had a son, no doubt I would have encouraged him to join, with stories about my times, much embellished of course.
Now I think back to my time in the 6th Wellingborough and remember those wonderful experiences, perhaps I would not need to embellish my stories, and come to think of it I do not think my father did either.