Scouting – a Family Affair

“We had two scout troops. One for the boys and one for the girls.”
My grandmother Edna always told her childhood stories in a very soft voice. Her life stories were my bedtime fairytales, and perhaps that is why I remember them so vividly.

“When we had days off, we went on hikes down to the valley, where there was a beautiful little creek and a natural dam, lovely to bathe and swim in. Sometimes, we stayed overnight under the starry skies, with a camp fire. We took turns watching over the camp during the night. It was exciting. You know, there were leopards, big monkeys and some snakes. Today, I don’t know how we dared”.

My grandmother made a dramatic pause and continued with tension in her voice:

“One day, there was an accident. The only one in all the years I was there. One of the boys in the senior class had a small rifle. He used it for hunting when he was at home in Mongolia. I don’t know why he brought the rifle with him to school, but in any case, he was about to shoot a crow and for some reason the rifle exploded and he got a piece of iron in one of his eyes. We all thought he was going to die. The blood and the screaming was unbearable. The closest doctor and hospital was in Hanchow. To go there, you had to travel one hour to the railway and then five hours by train. To complicate the matter, you didn’t know if the train would arrive that day or some other day.

It must have been horrible for him before he finally got to the hospital and was cared for. And we were so worried during the whole time – not knowing if he was to survive or not. You cannot imagine the euphoria when we recieved news that he was alive and on his way to return to school. Unfortunately, the eye was not possible to save, but at least he was still with us.”

Always ready! Grandmother Edna in 1925.

My grandmother used to tell me these stories about scouting when I was little. I remember this particular one, because I always felt very bad on behalf of the poor boy who lost his eye. I imagined the pain, the long wait and how he was marked for life just because of one unfortunate moment.

My grandmother was not as sentimental about it. During her time in China, she had lost a little brother as well as friends of the family. She had been through robberies and her family had been threatened at gun point several times. She didn’t take life for granted.

She found scouting pretty exciting, though. Perhaps because it was an acitivity together with friends her own age. She told me how she and the other girls made their camps and tried to go to sleep, only to hear the bushes rustling and twigs breaking outside their tents. They were scared and thought it was wild animals – like leopards – but it was only the boys scout group, spying on the girls behind the bushes. My grandmother didn’t care much for that, even though I thought she found it a bit amusing, as she told me about it so many years later.

Fact is, my grandmother must have been one of the first female scouts – and in China she was certainly a pioneer.

Bodil Formark, is a Swedish historian, who has published the first thesis about the history of girl scouting in Sweden. Girl scouting in Sweden started in 1913. The scout movement wanted to raise girls to be good scouts. It was not about being a ”traditional girl,” it was about being a scout. But being a scout was not for everyone in the beginning. You had to have some basic economic standard – mostly upper or middle class – to be able to have free time to spend on scouting.

My grandmother became a scout when she attended the Swedish boarding school in China on the mountain of Kikungshan. The teachers were also the scout leaders, and the hikes were all about the mountain and valleys of Kikungshan.

The scout uniform for girls at the time was  a shirt and a skirt. Pants were not considered suitable for girls back then. I don’t know if my grandmother threw her skirt away and climbed trees in her stockings as a child, but somehow I doubt it – she wore skirts very often, and seemed very comfortable with that.

In Sweden though, it’s said that the girls threw their skirts away as soon as they left civilisation. In 1913, there was a lot of debate in society if girls should be allowed to practice scouting. But society developed. In 1919, Swedish women finally got the right to vote (a right first excercised in the 1921 election), and it turned out girl scouting was not a threat to society after all…

The first years of the scout movement did not draw large numbers of participants. In 1925, the scout movement in Sweden had about 2 000 members, but only five years later they were up by 100%. During the mid 30’s the scout movement had about 8 000 members and in 1940 it counted 12 000. Today, there are about 70 000 scouts in Sweden. It’s really amazing how scouting has grown over the years. And the need to stay close to nature, learn practical skills and just have fun with others outdoors, will probably never go out of style.

I, myself, was a cave scout when spending a year in Australia. Even though I joined as a 17-year old, I had so much fun crawling through cave systems south of Sydney and getting to know Auzzie girls with helmets and overalls.

Both my kids have been scouts – landscouts and seascouts, and I can’t even begin to estimate the value of all they’ve learned. Sailing with scout friends on the Riddarfjärden just opposite the Stockholm City Hall is something not available to everyone. Hiking in the national reserve of Tyresta, outside Stockholm, or spending a week in a camp on a beautiful archipelago island, are memories for a lifetime.

Scouting has been in our family since scouting first started. I am so grateful for that and especially grateful to the female pioneers – such as Esther Laurell, Signe Hammarsten, and Emmy Grén-Broberg, who were teachers at “Wallinska skolan” (a girl school) in Stockholm and the first female scout leaders.

It would be lovely to hear more about scouting around the world – if you have a story, please share it with me

My grandmothers’ happy girl scout group on “Roosevelt hill”, Kikungshan, China. (I have not been able to find the name “Roosevelt Hill” connected to Kikungshan – perhaps it’s been changed or it was a name used only by the foreigners on the mountain at that time…)

13 comments

  1. A very interesting post, Thérèse! I enjoyed all the photos very much, including the one of you in Australia. 🙂

    I was involved in scouting until I was 11, at which point my family left Chicago and I didn’t join a new troop after the move. I remember liking it. I’m glad boys and girls can be in the same troop now. That changed here only recently.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Even though most scout groups in Sweden are mixed, there are still some that are girls-only. I also find it very sympathetic with mixed groups. Great that you were in the scouts, it sure is a very nice way to spend time outdoors 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. What a fascinating post! The photo of the girls at ‘Camel Hump’ really made me smile, as they are all so grumpy! (and very apt as to ‘Have the hump’ means to be in a bad mood).
    We have Girl Guides in the UK and Scouts in the UK. I loved being a Guide, especially camping in the spring and summer, even though it was not considered a cool thing to do. I think camping with your peers as a child brings a great sense of freedom and adventure.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh, that’s great – I didn’t know that expression – to ”have the hump” 😂 They do look very grumpy! Maybe it was a long walk to get there… When you say ”Girl Guides”, I remember they said that in Oz as well. But I always translated it in my mind to ”scouts”, though there may be some difference between them?
      I know, scouting hasn’t had a ”coolness” about it, but today it seems many parents want their kids to join, especially in city regions in Sweden. There are waiting lists to get in 😅
      I think it’s because parents see the need for their kids to get off the screens and spend time outdoors, something they cannot always offer themselves… Thanks for sharing about being a Girl Guide! ⭐

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I enjoyed this post very much, particularly the photographs. My mother and her twin sister were very big into scouting back in the 1940s. In addition to the Girl Scouts, they were also Sea Scouts. In the previous generation, my grandfather’s first cousin was VERY big into scouting. She received an award from Calvin Cooledge when he was governor of Massachusetts (c. 1919). There is a photo of him sitting in a chair and her advancing toward him with her hand outstretched. He looked a little afraid of her.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Liz! Scouting runs in your family too – wonderful! Calvin Coolidge must have given this award around the same time as he became known for how he responded to the Boston Police Strike in 1919? How great that the moment was captured in a photograph! Especially if he’s looking a bit afraid 😀 – I read up on him and they say he was reputed to be a tough man of “decisive action” 😉
      I wonder if girls who joined the scouts back then felt they could be “themselves” more than otherwise? I’m thinking of how it was possible to do things girls usually didn’t do. Scouting could have been some sort of “outlet” for one’s personality. Today many girl scout groups work with empowerment around the globe – such a great way to discover one’s strengths and interests.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re welcome, Therese! I once read this obscure little biography of Coolidge that said he had sandy hair, smoked very cheap cigars, and shoveled his food when he ate, ignoring the social niceties of conversation.

        I expect you’re right about the empowerment girls felt in the scouts years ago.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You’re welcome, Therese! When I was in high school, my dad used to joke, “Calvin Coolidge: the greatest man to come out of Plymouth, Vermont.” I didn’t actually get the joke until I visited Plymouth a few years ago. It’s a teeny, tiny little village nestled in a valley of the Green Mountains.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, what a fascinating history with scouting and I can understand why you loved those stories. Though the one of the boy’s eye was rather distressing. When I was a kid in the US, girl scouts was fairly mundane. We made arts and crafts projects in a church basement. But my family was very active when it came to camping and exploring the wilderness. I don’t think we were in danger of bears and cougars, but who knows. It was just fun. Great share, Theresa. What an interesting family history!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Diana! Yes, that is another part of scouting – arts and crafts and basements 🙂 When my children were land scouts, they used to meet up in the basement of an apartment building around the block. Luckily they always spent most of the time outdoors – hiking in the green areas close by. Perhaps your active parents helped you be so at ease with the coyotes nowadays 😀 In any case, for us as city dwellers, we really need to try to find activities for the children that offer something else – such as experience with nature. Thank you for taking an interest in this post and for commenting – lovely to see that we have all been involved with scouting somehow! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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