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8th Woolwich (St. Margaret's) Scout Group

You could join the Cubs at the age of eight, but I wasn’t enrolled until I was nine-plus. The reason? I am not sure, but I suspect that my parents, and in particular my mother, were not keen, discouraging even, for reasons which I shall spell out later. But my friends were in the Cubs, and I so envied them having a uniform to wear on the afternoon of Empire Day in May when we paraded behind union jacks around the school playground. I used to ask them what all their different insignia meant, but like members of some arcane society sworn not to divulge its secrets to outsiders they told me little or nothing. Eventually, though, I prevailed upon the skeptical parents to let me join.

It felt good to be on the inside. I enjoyed the weekly Cub nights, with their games and working towards those proficiency badges that I so much coveted. You had a card pre-printed with a list of skills to be mastered, beside each of which was a space for the date when you ‘passed’ that particular test and the Cub mistress's signature. There were things like tying knots (manual dexterity), walking with a block of wood on your head (posture), using a compass (orientation) and accurately reciting all three verses of the National Anthem (patriotism?). After the Tenderfoot - which I am sure today would be called ‘entry level’ - you went on to two further stages; successfully completed, each of them entitled you to wear a metal star on your green peaked cap. The Cub Pack was divided into ‘sixes’, each with its leader and deputy, the Sixer and his Second. I made it to the dizzy heights of Sixer and proudly wore two yellow hoops round the sleeve of my navy blue jersey to prove it. Some of our Pack had proficiency badges all the way up their arms, it seemed; there was nothing they couldn’t turn their talent or interest to. But since the majority of the skills could only be picked up if you were the hearty outdoor type, I was not going to do very well. Catch me going in for the Backwoodsman or First Aid badges! I acquired just two: Collector and Artist.

There were ‘wide games’ on Plumstead Common and in Shrewsbury Park, during the light summer months, and songs round the fake (i.e. electric) camp-fire in the colder, darker times of the year. There was the annual Soap Box Derby in the grounds of Goldie Leigh Hospital on Bostall Hill. I was only ever a spectator, but it was thrilling to watch competing Scout troops hurtle round the track in their home-made pedal cars. There was a monthly church parade, when Scouts, Cubs, Guides and Brownies assembled at the bottom of Wernbrook Street and then marched up Blendon Terrace to St Margaret’s Church, to take part in the 11 o’clock Communion service. There our respective flags were carried aloft and taken up to the altar rail where the Vicar, Canon Reggie Morecambe, received them and placed them beneath the big east window, to be collected and processed out of the church at the end of the service. The Cubs’ flag was green and yellow with the wolf’s head motif in the centre and the name of our Pack written above and below. I must have carried it a few times, I guess. I loved to see its polished brass top glinting in the sunlight and hear its fabric snapping in a stiff breeze. There was an annual St George’s Day Parade in Woolwich which all the area Packs and Troops attended. The parade took us past the steps of the Town Hall on Wellington Street, where the Mayor, resplendent in his scarlet and fur gown, white lace stock, black cocked hat and chain of office, stood to take the salute. Then on to one of the town’s bigger churches, like St Thomas’s, behind the Odeon cinema, for a special service at which inter alia we all had to renew our Scout’s Promise.

I remember the Cubs with pleasure not least because we had what would today be called really ‘cool’ young adults in charge. Akela, the Cubmistress herself, was Eileen Flanagan, Chil was Eric Miller, Rikki was Bill Dick (my friend and neighbour John’s Dad), and Bhageera was Michael Balding. They were all friendly, approachable and good fun to be with, even though they did represent ‘authority’. I often wonder how silly they felt with names taken from Kipling’s Just-So Stories. Eric was Head Boy at the Roan School and was my hero; my decision to put the Roan first choice after I passed the eleven-plus was influenced in no small measure by that link.

I can’t leave this section on my time in the Cubs without mentioning The Goon Show. I shall forever associate Cub night with that legendary radio programme. It must have come on air at almost the same moment as we were all leaping to our feet from a wolf-cub crouch shouting ‘dob dob dob’, to signal the end of proceedings. Each week I would grab my coat, scoot across ‘our’ corner of the Common and race up the steps to our house in St John’s Terrace, to try and catch the show as it started. The Goons were firm favourites with my mum and me; for years afterwards we would talk to each other in those zany voices, like the one that Peter Sellers used for Bluebottle: “All right, my Captain?” or Spike Milligan’s “He’s fallen in the water.” Our regular greeting was, “Hello, Jim!” in the manner of Harry Secombe.

For me the undisputed highlight of my time in the Cubs and the Scouts was the Woolwich Gang Show. Held every year during the second week of the Easter holiday, it was in essence a variety show written, produced and performed entirely by Scouts. Years after I trod the boards of Woolwich Town Hall theatre for the last time in 1959 it became ‘Swingalong’ and girls joined the company or ‘gang’. But in my day it was an all-male affair except for the ladies who did wardrobe and make-up. The songs and a good many of the sketches were written by Ralph Reader, who founded and ran the legendary London Gang Show. Most people outside the Scout movement know little or nothing of the Gang Show, but if they have heard of one thing it will be its signature number:

We’re riding along on the crest of a wave,
And the sun is in the sky-ee-eye;
All of our eyes, on
The distant horizon,
Look out for passers-by.
We’ll do the hailing,
While other ships are out a-sailing.
We’re riding along on the crest of a wave,
And the world is ours!

Singing that at full volume in a choir of a hundred voices under bright stage lighting with a ‘proper’ pit-orchestra was truly exhilarating, enhanced by the GS uniform of white shirt, white shorts, socks and shoes and a red neck-scarf secured at the throat by its special woggle. When in 1954 dad was asked to join the band - on tenor sax and clarinet - mum and I watched his first show from the balcony. I was utterly enthralled. Although it was actually the work of enthusiastic amateurs, the show had very high production values, thanks to Les Paine, a local builder and father of my chum Michael, who was the man in charge. The sheer professionalism of what I saw that night made me ache to be part of it from then on. It was colourful, pacy, and definitely set your foot tapping. I auditioned successfully for the next year’s show and soon started Saturday afternoon rehearsals at Conway Road School. When you weren’t ‘on’, you had the run of the ground floor and the playground; we had a great time messing about, making new friends from other packs and troops. I did five shows altogether. The most memorable will be the later ones, when I was a Scout. There are photographs of me in various costumes, choirboy’s cassock and surplice for The Little Dears and full Highland rig for McDougall’s Song in which I was the main man.

Woolwich Scout Gang Show 1956. The choir boys featured in a musical number called 'The Little Dears'. (Click on pgptp for a large versions)
Back row L to R: John Stanley, Neil Stevens, John Nevill, Michael Paine
Front row L to R: Brian Semple, Chris Martyn, Michael Fox, Freddie Phelan
All but two of them (Fox and Phelan) were also my classmates at St Margaret's School.'

Photo: Christopher Martyn.

I was put into a number of dance numbers and for that had to wear tap shoes and go to the local dance school for lessons with Pat Beadle at her studio on the corner of Wrottesley Road. Pat was something I’d never met before, a dyed-in-the-wool stage professional. Her dancing days were over by then but she still had an unmistakeable theatrical air about her, and stood with splayed feet like every dancer I’ve ever known. She was seriously short-sighted too; the colourful and elegant frames of her glasses couldn’t quite disguise the ‘bottle-bottom’ lenses they supported. Pat was a real lady.

My time in the Scouts was similar to what I had experienced in the Cubs although in the promotion stakes I only made it to Second of the Cobra Patrol. I got another two studious person’s proficiency badges (Musician and Interpreter) and managed to avoid pretty well all outdoor activities, especially camping. No mean achievement, I can assure you. But the weekly round of British Bulldog, stave fights, Kim’s Game and so forth in the so-called ‘gym’ of St Margaret’s School was OK. Because I was vaguely literate I was elected ‘Scribe’ or Minutes Secretary to the ‘Court of Honour’, of which only Patrol Leaders and their Seconds were members; it was this élite group, under the watchful eye of Sid Shaw the Scoutmaster, that made decisions about the programme for Troop nights and so forth. Sid was one of the nicest people I have ever known; gentlemanly, mild-mannered and softly spoken, fair-minded, thoughtful and kind . . not at all like the stereotype of the Scout Leader who is usually depicted as some kind of neo-Nazi or a chinless wimp. Thankfully I did not share my mother’s unpleasant reservations about the Scouts in general and about scoutmasters in particular: I really think she believed them all to be a bit strange, though she never actually said so. She disapproved of almost everything the Scouts did: Bob-a-Job was simply ‘begging’, and spending the night under canvas was a short route to catching pneumonia. The latter was a recurrent theme all through my childhood, and she was still saying ‘Do wrap up warm, son’ when I was in my fifties. I was not allowed to sit on stone steps, or park benches after rain or anything that might be chilly and damp: ‘death-traps’, all of them.

To pass your Second Class you had – among other things - to cook something on an open fire. This could not be arranged for a regular troop night but had to be done when you were away at camp. But I didn’t go to camp, did I? So one Saturday dad and I walked over to the Woodman to catch the 126 bus to Bromley, and then another from there to Downe where the 8th Woolwich were camping for the weekend. There I had to make and light a fire, mix up some flour and water and cook it in lard, in a skillet, until I had something that may have resembled a pancake. Then I had to eat it. No sugar, no lemon. It was not so much disgusting as utterly tasteless and very chewy. Then we got on the bus and went home. I got my Second Class and the badge to prove it, but at what cost! I was intensely embarrassed by the whole episode, not least having my father lurking in the background. Ah, the joys of being an only child with over-protective parents!

Although fifty years have passed since I had anything to do with the Scout movement, I have watched from the side-lines, as it were, and have been gratified to see it successfully adapt to changing times and changing ideas. I still have my copy of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys, first published in 1908 during the heyday of the British Empire. It made quaint reading in 1955 never mind in 2009, with its camp fire yarns, a chapter on the chivalry of knights, another on endurance or ‘how to be strong’, and the author’s undisguised admiration for the stories of Rudyard Kipling. Being a Cub and a Scout taught me lots of good things, like self-reliance, honesty and the value of friendship. But above all it gave me a taste for performance. I realised straight away that I was the complete ‘stage animal’. Unfazed by the dazzling lights or by the pressure of remembering the words and music, I was truly at home in front of a big, expectant audience and unashamedly relished their applause. Years later I made a semi-professional career out of singing, to go alongside the day job of teaching English to sixth form college students. Playing the part of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto or Don José in Carmen, or singing the tenor solos in Handel’s Messiah or the Verdi Requiem were in some ways a far cry from McDougall’s Song, but I see plenty of continuity there. Had it not been for the opportunities presented to me by the 8th Woolwich I might never have strutted my stuff anywhere. The debt is a big one.

Christopher Martyn

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