Bexhill’s Girl Guides and the War

Not long after the formation of the Boy Scouts, Girls also began to demand the same. Groups began to collect together and created a similar uniform to that of the boys – usually a khaki hat with Scout badge and a long green or navy skirt.

At the first Scouts’ Rally in September 1909 held at the “Crystal Palace” in London, a large group of girls, dressed in their version of the Scout uniform, gate-crashed the event and asked Robert Baden-Powell for a group of their own. By 1910 Baden-Powell had formed the Girl Guides, and he asked his adventurous sister Agnes to take charge of the new organisation. A few years later, his wife Olave, became involved and in 1918 was appointed Chief Guide. In 1911 blue was introduced as their uniform colour. In the Edwardian era however, the idea of girls doing adventurous activities like boys, such as camping, was so groundbreaking that many people were suspicious. Luckily the war years changed the public perception as the contribution by the Guides on the Home Front became known and respected in Britain.

During the First World War there were not that many Girl Guides as the organisation had only been running for 4 years, yet they did a remarkable amount of work. Some girls worked in hospitals, preparing and laundering dressings, rolling bandages and preparing stretchers. Many were involved in sewing and knitting clothes, and in collecting fruit to make preserves. They gardened, and set up convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. Funds were raised to set up and equip rest huts for soldiers in France, and supply a motor ambulance.

The stereotypical idea as to what Girls Guides did and could do was best summed up in an article, in the “Bexhill Observer” on Saturday 23rd October 1915, extracts of which are given below:-

“The annual report of the 1st St. Leonards Company is, on the whole, quite satisfactory. At Christmas the Guides paid a visit to the V. A. D. Hospital, and sang carols and distributed various gifts. In April a display was given at the Metropole Hotel (kindly lent for the occasion), and was presided over by the Mayoress, who also distributed the badges, which included “All Round Cards” to five of the members. Various examinations were held during the year, at all of which the results were most satisfactory. A series of week-end Camps were arranged, but had to be given up on account of bad weather and war regulations as to tents. The guides have given all through the year regular assistance at two hospitals. The course of winter work is in full swing, and includes classes in cookery, first aid, and sick nursing.”

“The report of the second Bexhill Girl Guides is also satisfactory. Brenda Hiscox and Muriel Hurst have done very good work indeed; in fact, Brenda has gained almost every badge that she possibly could. Mr and Mrs Saxby Hurst most kindly lent a piece of ground that the Guides have cultivated. The Eastbourne Guides gave a display in March, and there Brenda Hiscox received the badges from Miss Baden-Powell”.

“Early in the summer they (the 2nd Bexhill Girl Guides) had a delightful week-end Camp with the Eastbourne Guides, and everything was carried out in true workmanship like fashion. They did their own cooking, and improvised hammocks in the loft kindly lent them by Mr Renwick, who allowed the Camp to be pitched on his land, and who helped them in many ways. Space will not allow of details of dispatch races, sing-songs, etc., but all were sorry when the return journey had to be made. Thanks to the kindness and ingenuity of Brenda Hiscox, the Guides are the happy possessors of the small field telegraph, which should prove a very interesting study for them, and a great incentive to learning the Morse code”.

However, this is not all that the Girl Guides did during the First World War. While they are best known for getting badges for embroidery, baking or helping the elderly they also worked, quietly and secretly for the Secret Service, MI5. All the girls who worked for MI5 between 1914 and 1918 were aged from 14 to 16. In many countries abroad they worked as undercover spies but in Britain their main role was carrying and passing-on counter-espionage material and highly classified information – and they were paid 10/- (ten shillings) a week for a fifty hour week, which then was a good rate of pay. Ten shillings would be worth about the same as £22 today.They were so trusted by MI5 bosses that they were also allowed to relay some of the messages verbally. At the start of the war Boy Scouts were also used to carry messages. However it quickly became clear that Girl Guides were more efficient because they were less boisterous and talkative.

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