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Why We Have Scoutmasters

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A ripping good yarn from John Thurman’s Patrol Leader’s Handbook  was aimed at helping the Scouts of 1950 catch the spirit of their work as patrol leaders.

I offer it here to spark your imagination, and to answer the question ‘why do we have Scoutmasters?’;

In the early days of Scouting boys from all over the country, and later from all over the world, bought the book Scouting for Boys and formed themselves into Patrols. I want to repeat ‘formed themselves’. This means that someone, a leader, not appointed by anyone in particular, but chosen by other fellows because those same other fellows were willing to follow him, gathered round himself a crowd of chaps who wanted to be Scouts.

They formed a Patrol and they started to train themselves, using the book Scouting for Boys as the only guide, but they found, as Patrols have always found, that there were many things they did not know, many things they could not find out and many things they could not do without the help of some adult, and so the practice grew of a number of Patrols getting together, forming a Troop, and usually finding their own Scoutmaster.

It was some time in the year 1908 that a gang of boys saved, up their pennies and managed to purchase two or three copies of the 4d. booklet Scouting for Boys. They met together in an old barn and tried many of the things that B.-P. suggested they should do. They had a lot of fun and learned a great deal and they got into quite a few scrapes.

One day they came across the chapter on Camping, and as they had tried all the things suggested, they were not going to be defeated by one which seemed a little more difficult. Of course, none of them had ever been to camp and they didn’t know the first thing about it, but they had what I hope your Patrol has – a real spirit of adventure. They were prepared to try anything, not only once, but until they got it right, and so they talked it all over and devised all manner of means to get the things they thought would be suitable. Bill, Jack, and Tom were to get the food – just how, nobody told them – Martin, the Leader, was going to get the tent, and Alec, the youngest, said he thought he could get a cart. The Leader also said he would look after the cooking-pots, and each boy was made responsible for getting his own bedding.

So it happened that one Saturday afternoon in early June they duly assembled at their barn and started out on their travels. No questions were asked, although young Alec did indicate that it had been very difficult to get the toy cart away from his baby brother and Jack was not very complimentary about the very old tarpaulin that the Patrol Leader said was to be the tent, but they were all amazed and delighted at the quantity of food that had been produced, which, by present-day standards, would have been enough for a month.

Well, they packed what they could into the cart, and after the food was in there was not really much room for anything else, so the rest was carried. They did not know where they were going; they had no map, and I doubt if they could have read one, in any case. They set off, literally into the blue, out of the village and over the hill and across country, because they were not the sort of fellows who walked on roads if they could avoid them, but all their preparations had taken a long time and it was quite late in the evening when they settled on a place to camp; a pleasant enough site between a by-road and a stream. They decided the stream would do for washing and water for cooking.

It was all very unhygienic, but they did remain alive for many years to tell the tale.

They lit a fire as they had already learned to do, although they used more than two matches, and it was a very large fire, as they had never heard the Red Indian saying – ‘Red man he make little fire and keep close; White man he make big fire and have to keep away.’ They then set to and cooked the food. They mixed some very queer concoctions and they burned quite a lot, but food had never tasted better to those particular boys.

Then, rather late, they tried to put up the tent. The Leader had a knife and cut down two saplings, and somehow, with string and ingenuity, they rigged up the tarpaulin into some sort of tent and, as it became dark, very tired, but very happy, they crept into the tent and got into bed.

Fortunately – as they didn’t know anything about groundsheets – it was very dry. They did not know that cold rises from the ground, and, in fact, they didn’t know very much at all, but they were learning by doing.

They talked in the tent, feeling very much like pioneers, and gradually, one by one, dropped off to sleep, all except the Leader, who felt a special responsibility and, although he had not told the others, he was going to try to keep awake. Suddenly, in what seemed to him to be the middle of the night, but was actually only about ten o’clock, he heard footsteps which stopped outside the tent.

The Leader kept very quiet until the light of a torch shone, and he looked out to see a very large pair of boots. As his eye travelled upwards he saw a pair of dark blue trousers and from somewhere a very long way above a very deep voice said: ‘And what are you supposed to be doing?’

The others awoke, and there, to their dismay, was a policeman.

The Leader said: ‘We are Scouts and we are camping,’ but in 1908 not many policemen had heard about Scouts and certainly this one hadn’t, and his answer was: ‘Well, you are coming home with me.’

Very sorrowfully the Patrol packed up their gear and went with the policeman. They were very surprised to find that they had not far to go. Owing to their having no map and practically no sense of direction, they had almost travelled in a circle and were, in fact, camping quite near home.

We will draw a veil over what happened when they got to their various homes, but they were not daunted, as they had arranged to meet at their barn the following night. The Sunday evening found them together again in the barn, and the Leader had not been wasting his time. He had re-read Scouting for Boys, and when they met the first thing he said was: ‘Look here, chaps, I have been reading the book again and it talks about a Scoutmaster. I think that is what we want. He would have kept the policeman away!’

Well, that is one of the jobs of the Scoutmaster and is one of the reasons why your Patrol or Troop needs one; somebody who will arrange for you to carry out Scouting without fear of being interrupted.

I do want you to remember that this Patrol started on its own. The boys really did venture out together, and they came to realise the kind of things that a Scoutmaster can do for the Patrol and they found a Scoutmaster for themselves. That Troop is still running – perhaps because it started in the right spirit.

I suppose today it is usual for the Scoutmaster to form the Patrol and then the Scouts get on with it. The important thing about the old method was that right from the start the Patrol Leader realised that he really was the key man in the whole business, and if he failed then his Patrol would fail; he did not lean on the Scoutmaster except for those things where he was quite naturally lacking in knowledge or ability and had to go to an adult for help.

What I am afraid happens so often is that it is not really a Patrol at all, but is only used as a convenient division of a Scout Troop. A Patrol must have a genuine life that is separate and independent of the Troop.

What do we do to allow our Scouts to catch the spirit of that self-formed patrol? Understanding what our role is (and isn’t) : A Scoutmaster is somebody who will arrange for Scouts to carry out Scouting without fear of being interrupted.

Whenever I share something like this the first reactions are predictable; blaming the Scouts. I will be told ‘our Scouts just don’t have that sort of spirit and independence, they just want to sit around and play video games..’ or something similar. A day or two ago I shared this letter, (written about the same time time Thurman penned the story here), that serves to show that the same complaints were common sixty years ago.

Our challenge is not that Scouts have become complacent or disinterested – our challenge is understanding our role in helping them catch the Spirit of Scouting and carry it out without interruption.

That’s why we have Scoutmasters.