Review of a History of the Woodcraft Folk

Davis Mary, (2000) Fashioning a new world, A History of the Woodcraft Folk, Holyoake Books, Loughborough. ISBN 0 85195 278 X. pp.147.

This is an important book about an important organisation which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. It adds eloquently to the growing literature of the history of youth work and youth movements. It is not an official history or comprehensive organisational narrative. Rather it is a challenging political analysis of the place of a socialist youth work organisation in relation to the labour and trade union movement, youth work theoreticians and international issues. Davis describes the growth of the Folk against the politics of the times and the development of both youth related and wider ideological questions. She demonstrates the impact of moments of danger in history on the internal politics of the Folk and its sister organisations and internationals overseas.

In doing so she touches on some of the most profound problems that afflict our civil society and the hundreds of thousands of organisations that involve young people and seek an extension of the democratic franchise. The reference to these problems, albeit between the lines and in passing, should inspire us to consider a number of key questions more deeply. Davis refers to the gulf between workplace organisation in trade unions and the wide diversity of youth and community organisations outside the workplace. The fault line between them divides and hinders the development of progressive politics as CYWU has sought to demonstrate in recent TUC motions. The TUC remains as uninterested in the wider sector now as it was when the Folk attempted to enlist its support and recognition in the forties. Within the broader socialist camp there has been a division between social democracy which has invariably supported imperialism, and a socialist tradition, itself of course split, which has advocated peaceful coexistence and nuclear disarmament. The relationship between these two traditions and older, almost feudal socialist, mystical and romantic and pacifist trends has generated uniquely hybrid cultures of collectivism in Britain which the Folk best exemplifies.

Another historic problem brought to our attention, as it were obliquely by Davis’s study, is the ideological battle for the minds of the young that has raged since the conceptualisation of adolescence in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Ironically political parties and trade unions have miserably failed in this, though at various times have competed for membership of their ‘youth wings’. It is the vast array of voluntary youth organsiations that have pitched most effectively into the battle. The state, in response, has built a Youth Service, the Woodcraft Folk has been particularly supportive of this development and indeed, Leslie Paul, one of the Folk’s key theoreticians and organisers, was a member of the Albemarle Committee along with Pearl Jephcott from CYWU’s predecessor Union. The relationship between what might generally be described as the political or religious aspirations of the voluntary sector youth work organisations and the secular state sector is a massive area that still needs study.

The battle to mould the minds of young people has been waged in the different ideological approaches of voluntary youth organisations. At two extremes you might think, the Queen and country of the Scouts and Guides and the republicanism and internationalism of the Woodcraft Folk. While there is some truth in this description the gradations of difference have been blurred over the years and as Davis shows in her opening chapter, uniformed organisations for boys with a concern for the outdoor life, share some interesting common roots which youth work historians should consider further.

As an expert in early twentieth century socialism, Davis is able to focus particularly interesting attention on the early origins of this movement and its development out of the racist, right wing and imperialist associations of Scouting at that time. Davis’s brief but insightful analysis of the relationship between imperialism, theories of racial purity and the concentration of early youth organisations on rescuing destitute boys from unhealthy cities in order to create a brighter future and stronger armies for imperialist adventures is essential reading as our collective study of the history of our work develops. Indeed, the word ‘folk’ has a troubled set of connotations in various racist concepts of nation that took root most terribly in Germany.

The Woodcraft Folk has blazed a trail linked to the struggle for a co operative, socialist, collectivist society. It has done so in relation at times to the Co Op Party, the Labour Party and the former Communist Party of Great Britain. Davis charts the ups and downs, embraces, misunderstandings and divorces within these relationships. She demonstrates that the Woodcraft Folk’s work has always been for the human race, and no one attending this year’s Camp could fail to have been impressed by the internationalism and embracing comradeship and the sensitive quality of the political and aesthetic and environmental education that still develops the minds of its young participants. The steady and consistent year on year rise in membership since 1925 provides the basis for a future when the values of the Woodcraft Folk and its activities are more necessary than ever.



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