How the Girl Guides Won The War, By Janie Hampton

Sarah Burton
Friday 13 August 2010 00:00 BST

When I began writing this book," writes Janie Hampton in her Introduction, "my perspective was that of a flower-child of the 1960s, who shunned uniforms and rules. I intended to write a satire on Guides and Brownies, making fun of Ging-gang-goolies and dyb-dyb-dob, standing for 'do your best, do our best"'. But the more stories I read, and the more former Brownies and Guides I met, the more I came to realise what an important part of twentieth-century history the Guide movement was."

Hampton instinctively knew, as much of her generation knew, that the Guides of her own time were deeply uncool. This prejudice was only revised when she investigated what turned out to be its golden age, during the Second World War, when the existence of an international sisterhood committed to serving others, at least rudimentarily versed in a variety of useful skills, truly came into its own. The history she has unearthed is often surprising, revealing Guides as enterprising young women who saved lives, changed lives and sometimes lost their own lives trying to 'do their best'.

When the Girl Guides were formed in 1910, the impetus had come from girls themselves, a keen gang of whom had turned up at a Boy Scout rally and demanded that their founder, Robert Baden Powell, allow them their own organisation. While deeply proud of them, Baden Powell always insisted, he hadn't started the Guides: "they started themselves".

Though conventional and conservative in many ways, Baden Powell was forward-thinking: boys learnt sewing and cookery and girls learnt woodwork and mechanics. The third Guide Law stated that: "A Guide is a friend to all, and a sister to every other Guide no matter to what social class she belongs". This democratic principle was extended to religion: despite the fact that both Scouts and Guides were often associated with the Church of England, Baden-Powell insisted that "the movement is based on faith but not a particular faith". He also protested against the fact that in some countries Guides and Scouts were organised into racially segregated companies and troops, and succeeded in changing this everywhere except in South Africa. Hampton draws attention to the international nature of the Guide movement and how, in wartime, it proved itself as a ready-made network, fitted for both survival and resistance. When war broke out in Poland, for example, guiding ceased to be a game: it was a banned, illegal organisation. Guides began to be arrested and others became part of the wider Polish resistance movement, running underground schools, medical units and soup kitchens, distributing illegal newspapers, smuggling food into the Warsaw ghetto and committing acts of sabotage against the German war effort. Several Guides were shot or died in concentration camps as a result.

In wartime Britain, even Brownies were taught how to put out incendiary bombs, while Guides assisted the Home Guard, and engaged in numerous acts of personal heroism. More mundane but effective activities included making garments for refugees and bombed-out families, One of the most resonant stories in the book concerns three adult Guiders who took it upon themselves to run a hostel for child evacuees from Glasgow's slums – the hostel was necessary as no local families would take such children into their own homes. A strong sense of community service coupled with a relentless optimism were efficiently phrased in the famous motto: 'Do your best'. The fact that struggle itself has value is something that perhaps those of us who are too cool for Guides have forgotten. As Baden Powell said: 'It is better to try without succeeding than to succeed without trying.'

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