Woolwich & Districts
8th Woolwich (St. Margaret's) Scout Group
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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:
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!
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
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.
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.
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!
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.