When I was at school in the early Sixties ,Boy Scouts were a constant source of curiosity. We were too young to think of them as anachronistic throwbacks to Victorian imperialism and muscular Christianity. We just wondered what the hell they were up to.
The Scouts in my school were all about nine to 12. They didn’t wear uniforms, just little green flashes that hung from the fold in their socks; but they were rumoured to do Hearty Old-Fashioned Things together. It was whispered that they would decamp en masse to the Surrey countryside at weekends, camp overnight in bivouacs and, supervised by earnest, gangly men, spend evenings around a log fire, eating baked beans and singing wholesome songs.
Since our school was run by Jesuits and we were thoroughly brainwashed Catholics, this behaviour didn’t seem terribly odd; no odder than going on pilgrimages to Lourdes and spending evenings singing Ave Maria outside a grotto. But we wondered about them. What did they get out of all this effort?
We tried to extract information. ‘Tell us, Huntingdon (Minor),’ we’d ask, ‘what do you do on these trips? What is a woggle? What the hell’s
a jamboree?’ They didn’t let on. The first rule of Scout Club, it seemed, was You Do Not Talk About Scout Club. We insisted that we innocently sought information; they knew we were taking the mick.
Then one day, Kendrick (Major) had a startling revelation. He’d found out the Boy Scout raison d’être. ‘They do it,’ said Kendrick (Major), ‘to get badges!’
He’d talked to a cousin whose brother was a Cub Scout, and been shown the cloth badges the kid had been awarded for things such as first aid, tying knots and birdwatching.
Badge of honour
So the climactic thing about being a Boy Scout was like school Prize Day – but instead of cups and medals, you were given bits of fabric to sew on your sleeves. We were disappointed. We’d have preferred it if the boys with the green sock-flashes were being inducted into a fascist militia, or an international cadre of spies – possibly involving firearms and loose women. But learning to tie a reef knot, apply a tourniquet and clock a peewit? Not exactly thrilling.
How foolish we were. This month sees the republication, after a century, of the classic Boy Scout manual, Scout Tests and How to Pass Them. It’s a riveting, exhausting document. Forget the easy-peasy, knots-and-knobbly-knees stuff. This is heavy-duty, apprenticeship-level toil, in which the Scout, aged 11 or 12, strives to perform the tasks of a professional working man. He can win a badge for emulating, amid 60 possibilities, a bee farmer, a fireman, a plumber,a bugler, an engineer, a mason, an oarsman, a river pilot, a telegraphist, a plumber, a signaller or even a prospector.
Yes, you read that right. There is a prospector badge. But have to learn about the strata of rocks and soil in the formation of the Earth’s crust, and acquire an understanding of ‘stratification, dip and faults’. (There’s nothing about departing for the Yukon or the Sierra Madre
with a pickaxe and a revolver, panning for gold and hoping not to meet Humphrey Bogart.)
A starman badge
Likewise the starman badge is nothing to do with dressing up as David Bowie; you get it for being able ‘to point out and name six principal constellations’.
What startles you about the criteria for passing these tests is how crazily demanding some are. For the miner’s badge, unbelievably, the Scout ‘must have worked below the surface for not less than six months’ to gain ‘general knowledge of one particular branch of the mining industry, such as coal, iron or other mineral, with the special dangers involved and safeguards against them’.
To encourage the aspirant miner, the guide explains how two Scouts lost their lives volunteering for rescue work at the Cadby Colliery disaster in 1912. ‘If [Scouting] can produce boys and men prepared to act in every emergency as these two heroic examples,’ says the guide heartlessly, ‘it has indeed a place in the colliery as everywhere else.’ It’s a reminder that Scouting recommends ‘duty’ as a calling above all others – a slightly chilling emphasis, published in the year before the First World War sent thousands to do their duty in the trenches.
I’d been directed, by Saga Magazine’s editor, to choose one hard-to-achieve badge and apply myself to win it. Which should it be? The boatman badge, which requires you to familiarise yourself with all 47 sails on a tall ship? Perhaps not. The coast watchman badge, for which you ‘must know every rock and shoal within the five-fathom line on a four-mile stretch of coast’? Unfortunately, I don’t have a spare lifetime.
The clerk badge sounded more the thing, demanding only an ‘ability to use a typewriting machine’, knowledge of simple book-keeping and balance sheets and ‘ability to write a letter from memory on the subject given verbally five minutes previously’. But I knew the editrix would never allow anything so lame.
Eventually I settled on the blacksmith badge. ‘A Scout must be able to upset and weld a one-inch iron rod, make a horse-shoe, know how to tire a wheel, use a sledge hammer and forge, and how to shoe and rough a horse correctly, and be able to temper iron and steel.’ That sounded okay, I thought. (But how do you upset a one-inch iron rod? Tell it, ‘You’re pathetic! Look at you! Call yourself a one-inch iron rod?’)
Find a blacksmith
All I had to do was find myself a blacksmith, a forge, a fire, an anvil, a sledgehammer, several tongs to pick up furnace-hot metal with, plus iron bars, nails… oh, yeah, and a horse.I couldn’t find a blacksmith in the wilds of West London, where I live. Not much call for them, apparently, in Westbourne Grove. But, through horsey contacts, I found a farrier who could supply almost all the necessaries. He’s called Philip Monkhouse, aged 51, a tall, tanned and strikingly handsome chap living in Pulborough, West Sussex. He was born in Tangmere, where Douglas Bader, of Reach for the Sky fame, was based. Philip shares Bader’s (or perhaps I’m thinking of Kenneth More’s) breezy resourcefulness. In his twenties Philip was working in what used to be called the the Midland Bank, when it employed 60,000 people. ‘I was corporate loans manager,’ he told me, ‘and spent a long time staring out the window thinking, even on rainy days, “Frankly, I’d much rather be out there than in here”.’ He eventually fled office life at 29 and settled into a four-year farrier course, and now shoes horses all over the South Downs. And no, he was never a Boy Scout.
Rather than work in a forge, Philip drives a tank-like pick-up truck with a furnace the shape and size of a large microwave in the back, along with a half-size anvil. The anvil is astoundingly heavy, weighing literally a hundredweight. Opening the furnace door is like briefly inspecting the core of a volcano. He has a whole batterie de cuisine of tools, with archaic names. What’s that you’re using to pick up the hot shoe? ‘This? A carrying pritchel.’ And the thing you’re now whacking into the horse’s foot? ‘That? That’s a clench groover.’
Hoofing a horse
I watched, fascinated, as he scooped out a month’s residue of soil, dung and barnyard gunge
from the shoes of a chestnut called Morgan, applied a new, hot horseshoe to the horny pad, making clouds of hissing steam, took the shoe to the anvil and banged away, making adjustments that he assesses by eye alone, then banged the custom- fitted shoe onto Morgan’s hoof
with three or four long shiny nails.
‘The days when the village blacksmith was the chap who made iron gates and shoed horses,
and was a vet, and winner of village fights, they’re gone now,’ he said sadly. ‘We all have separate trades and professions. There aren’t many blacksmiths around because people can’t afford to pay for their time. And lots of smithy work can be done by machines now. But you still can’t shoe a horse with a Black & Decker – so if people want horseshoes, they have to pay the price.’
I showed him the requirements for the blacksmith badge. He frowned. ‘Make a horseshoe? This is pre-First World War, isn’t it?
To make a horseshoe from a block of iron would be a waste of time when you can buy them, ready-made, with pre-stamped holes.’ Where did he get his? ‘These ones are from Malaysia, very well made, well finished and relatively inexpensive. I know only one British manufacturer that I’m happy to buy from in terms of quality.’
A farrier's licence
Could he show me how to ‘tire’ a wheel? ‘My neighbour was a wheelwright, as was his father on the Cowdray estate. The days of making wooden wheels and putting a metal ring around them ended with the arrival of rubber tyres.’ Could
I ‘learn to use a sledgehammer and forge’? Actually no. Philip doesn’t use a sledgehammer, just a flat-faced hammer of tooled steel. ‘The more carbon in steel, the harder it is.’ And as for forges: ‘You don’t find many forges around now. Most of ’em have been re-made as garages.’
But, I cried in desperation, I’m here to learn how to shoe a horse correctly, to get my blacksmith badge. Can’t you help me? ‘I can show you,’ said Philip. ‘But you’re not actually allowed to do it.
It’s against the law to shoe a horse without having a farrier’s licence.’
So I watched him, and tried on his chaps (those extraordinary leather trousers that stop your legs getting chafed by horseflesh, but leave your crotch alarmingly exposed) and wielded a hammer and picked up a horseshoe, orange-hot and almost melting from the furnace, and I banged one with the other, and
I hoicked up Morgan’s front hoof and wedged it between my thighs (Morgan looked away haughtily across the yard, as though embarrassed by having a rank amateur play with his feet) and I learned how you ‘upset’ metal and how you ‘rough’ a horse – and by the end of two hours, I felt I’d earned something. Not a blacksmith’s badge, though. Just a poser’s pennant.Caps off, then, to those resourceful Scouts who achieved those
feats. Especially you, Huntingdon (Minor). I take it all back.
Scout Tests and How to Pass Them is published on October 10 by
Michael O’Mara Books (£14.99)
For more on modern scouting visit scouts.org.uk