British Camp Fire Girls in the press 1920s

The British Camp Fire Girls Movement started several years after the Camp Fire Girls USA (c.1911/12) and became a National Organisation in Britain in 1921.

Image source: the 1925 British Camp Fire Girls handbook (my collection)

This Camp Fire Girls series of posts is part of my ongoing research into the early 20th century youth groups such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Girl Guides for my ongoing Scouting Wide Games for the Tabletop Project, especially the DMZ demilitarised strategy game side.

Image source: the 1925 British Camp Fire Girls handbook (my collection)

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Miss Edith Kempthorne, “our new invader” and speaker at the British Camp Fire Girls first annual meeting in 1921, was visiting from the Camp Fire Girls movement in America.

Pall Mall Gazette, 29 September 1921

Elsie J. Oxenham (or Dunkerley) was present at this first annual meeting and had already written several girls’ school and fiction stories featuring the British Camp Fire Girls and their difference from Girl Guides.

There is an article by Adrianne Fitzpatrick on Elsie, Camp Fire and her fiction in Tig Thomas (ed.) True to The Trefoil: A Celebration Of Fictional Girl Guides (2010). https://tabletopscoutingwidegames.wordpress.com/2022/04/10/ripping-yarns-true-to-the-trefoil-and-girl-guide-fiction/

By 1921 Elsie had already written about Camp Fire in her 1917 book A School Camp Fire, The School Of Ups and Downs 1918 and would soon write its sequel, Patience Joan, Outsider (1922). Reprints available here.

Elsie Oxenham based her stories on her own experience running an early British Camp Fire Girls Group in Ealing from 1916-1922 when she moved to Worthing. The Guides were too well established in Worthing for her to set up a Camp Fire there, although a Worthing Camp Fire later emerged and featured regularly in press reports in 1928/29 onwards as you you will see. Camp Fire continued in her Torment series of books, Ven at Gregory’s and the Abbey Girls and Peg books.

Her father the poet and writer John Oxenham (pen name of William Dunkerley) allowed one of his Fire poems to be used or recited in the Camp Fire Fire lighting rituals, printed in The British Camp Fire Girls handbook (1925).

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Miss Margaret Ann Backhouse was involved from the beginning.

Yorkshire Evening Post, 29 September 1921

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In 1924 Miss Robins gave an early radio talk on BBC 5NO Newcastle:

Mrs Margaret Backhouse become the Chief Guardian of the British Camp Fire Girls and its younger Blue Bird ‘Nest’ or Groups.

2 May 1925, Nottingham Evening Post

In 1925 the British Camp Fire Girls handbook was published, a British or Anglicised version of the 1912 (and onwards) Camp Fire Girls Of America handbook.

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13 December 1926, Nottingham Evening Post

Daily News, 4 June 1926

From the 1925 handbook – The pictogram or cartoon symbol of a two triangle figure is called the “primitive woman” figure in an early American Camp Fire Girls handbook. An affordable reprint of the 1912 USA original is available.

I am aware whilst writing these Camp Fire posts that the now co-ed Camp Fire USA is in the process in 2021/2022 of dealing with the cultural appropriation of Native American tribal culture. I support this move towards equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

Indoor Craft – Image source: the 1925 British Camp Fire Girls handbook (my collection)

The photographs I show here are of the practical camping and everyday meeting uniform, not the ceremonial Indian robes, from my 1925 vintage British Camp Fire Girls handbook.

Everyday camping and meeting gear with blanket roll. Image source: the 1925 British Camp Fire Girls handbook (my collection)

Camping – Image source: the 1925 British Camp Fire Girls handbook (my collection)

Throughout its 40 to 50 odd year existence the small British Camp Fire Girls movement made little impression in the press, compared to the Girl Guide movement. The British Camp Fire Girls have left little impression online either (as of 2022).

I have searched through the British Newspaper Archive over a series of blog posts (to cover the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s to 1960s) to see what surfaced in the press to find a representative sample of the British Camp Fire Girls’s public face and press activities. Sometimes only a couple of stories appear in a year, sometimes none.

Brockley News, 11 March 1927

28 March 1927, Leeds Mercury Photo and article, Margaret Backhouse is seated right in ceremonial robes.

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27 May 1927- Market Harborough Advertiser.
Similar letters appeared June 1927 – Rugby Advertiser, 27 May 1927, and Leicester Evening Mail – all in the Midlands area close to where Margaret was based (1915-1939) at the Westhill Training College, Selly Oak Birmingham.

The fires of ‘Romance’ that Camp Fire Girls tries to cast over everyday household chores, work and “service” is similar in my mind to the “Cloak Of Romance” drawn from historic fact and fiction that Baden Powell and the Scouts use in their Wide Games.

This made a Wide Game in a town park or wasteland into an exotic imaginative landscape of cops and robbers, knights, Wild West Frontier or smugglers and excise men. An early RPG game on a grand rather than tabletop scale?

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Margaret Backhouse (left) in ceremonial robes – Leeds Mercury, 28 November 1927

Worthing Camp Fire Girls – working with the local Woodcraft Chivalry Boys, Worthing Gazette, 7th December 1927

29 May 1926, The Sphere – London

Miss Norah Ackerley was the national secretary of the British Camp Fire Girls and a fellow Quaker. Norah became a close friend and lifelong travelling companion of Margaret Backhouse from at least the 1930s to their deaths in the mid 1970s.

Both trained at the Quaker-founded Westhill Training College in Selly Oak, Birmingham, Norah in 1921 (1921 Census), Margaret amongst the first thirteen students in 1907 and a teacher there from 1915 to 1939. Margaret ‘retired’ to do humanitarian relief and peace work from the Spanish Civil War in 1938 into the 1950s, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 on behalf of the Friends Service Committee of the Quakers. A longer biographical post is forthcoming. Meanwhile you can read Sian Roberts’ interesting article.

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07 September 1928 – Leicester Evening Mail

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Worthing Herald, 24 November 1928

Mummers plays, folk dancing, Hiawatha tableaux and the sale of good works. Worthing the only Sussex Camp Fire Girls, although Camp Fire Group numbers are up to 144 across Britain.

5 December 1928 Worthing Gazette

South of England Advertiser 6th December 1928


15 May 1929, Worthing Gazette

24 July 1929, Daily News (London)

Camp Fire Girls or Guardians (leaders) 28 July 1929, Reynolds Newspaper

“So little is known of the Camp Fire Movement in this District [Crewe] …”

28 December 1929, Crewe Chronicle

A photograph of this event showing their uniforms is shown here:

– Photograph 4 January 1930, Crewe Chronicle

The original press photos are rather poorly reproduced. This everyday dress of white or cream shirt and dark necktie, plain or dark skirt was the everyday or weekly meeting dress rather than the Native American inspired ceremonial dress or robes.

A new challenge to produce a (British) Camp Fire Girls Wide Games patrol for my Scouting Wide Games on the tabletop. I shall show in another post some more pictures of everyday dress camping activities from my 1925 British Camp Fire Girls handbook.

Further posts on British Camp Fire Girls in the press in the 1930s and the 40s to 60s, and Camp Fire Girls founder Margaret Ann Backhouse are forthcoming.

I will also post about the British Camp Fire Girls 1925 handbook in my collection, whilst remaining sensitive and supportive of the Camp Fire USA’s move to tackle cultural appropriation and insensitivity in its early years.

Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 1970s Cub Scout (Bronze Arrow, retired) 23 April 2022.St. George’s Day – be nice to Dragons!

2 thoughts on “British Camp Fire Girls in the press 1920s”

  1. A fascinating read, I’d never heard of them either. It’s tempting to imagine the younger Bluebirds as having some sort of blue uniform like the Brown of the Brownies, maybe even just a necktie.

    It was interesting to read about the Leicester branch as a local of course. The Hinckley Road is on my side of the city (although I’ve moved away last year) so I know the area well. The church had me wondering which one they would have attended and it was what’s an imposing building which I know as a Ukrainian community church (has been since 1969).

    https://www.myprimitivemethodists.org.uk/content/chapels/leicestershire-2/l-r/hinckley_road_leicester_pm_church

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes I think Bluebirds just wore blue clothes or a neck scarf, much more informal. I will cover BlueBirds when I post about the 1925 Handbook.
      The Leicester section came up on the British Newspaper Archive (via Find My Past). An excellent resource the Link you gave – a similar one is happening in Cornwall with the Mapping Methodism Project, tracking down and mapping / locating often long vanished or converted redundant chapels as the working population has changed.

      Liked by 2 people

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