Barclay, Vera Charlesworth. 1893-1989Leading female pioneer Scouter and author
VERA Barclay was the daughter of a Church of England Vicar and Florence Charlesworth, a then-famous novelist. Her father was vicar of Hertford Heath and Little Amwell in Hertfordshire between 1881 and 1920. She was born in 1893, the fourth of eight children. Her eldest brother Cyril became the vicar of Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
Vera joined the Scout movement in 1912 and was an early (though by no means the first) Scout Mistress. In 1914 she became one of the first Wolf Cub Akelas. She joined the staff of Imperial Headquarters in 1916 as the national Wolf Cub Secretary. There was a corresponding Boy Scout Secretary, J Archibald Kyle (a future subject for these pages), and these two offices were very senior and significant appointments. Miss Barclay clearly had a tremendous effect on Baden-Powell's revision of the Wolf Cub section, but her influence went beyond this. She was, apart from Baden-Powell's sister and wife, who were Guiders rather than Scouters, the most significant woman in the Scout Movement at this time. She helped to change the way women were thought of as leaders and administrators and, significantly, aided the role of the Catholic Church in sponsoring R.C. groups within the Movement.
The earliest mention of Vera Barclay that I can find in Scouting literature is in the January 1915 edition of Headquarters Gazette. In an article entitled How a Lady Can Train the Cubs, she explains that whilst already running her village Scout Troop, she was being continually pestered by young boys wanting to come into Scouts. Keen-eyed neglected youngsters would run after her, she claimed, calling out, "Miss, Miss if yers wants anuver Scout, I'm ready."
"When inarticulate youngsters of two and a half in dirty pinafores took to saluting me with three fingers, I began to feel that something really must be done for those under age. It was then that someone handed me a pamphlet on Wolf Cubs"
The following day Miss Barclay set about founding the 1st Hertford Heath Pack which had a programme that would delight any modern Cub Scout. The troop, in her father's parish had its headquarters in the Hertfordshire countryside north of London, only 15 miles from Gilwell Park. Her Scouts had first claim on her time but since Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings were devoted to them, with camping and riding at the weekends, Vera co-opted her younger sister Miss Angela Barclay to assist her with the Wolf Cubs. In typical Barclay style, she concludes her article by saying:
"If every Scoutmaster could persuade a woman of his acquaintance to run a pack in conjunction with his Troop, he would find Scouting in the future vastly simplified."
On December 16th, 1916 on a wet day in London, Vera Barclay was present to see Baden-Powell re-launch the Wolf Cub Section from a stage in the Caxton Hall in front 200 educationalists and some Wolf Cubs. She was later to describe the venue as "a place in the sun". Baden Powell had given Scouting's youngest section a completely new look. He had changed its structure to incorporate his friend Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. What was required now was a new handbook. Vera Barclay was, at that time, a wartime Red Cross nurse working at the Netley Red Cross Hospital near Portsmouth. She knew that she could not carry on nursing because of a re-occurring "old skiing knee cracking up", but she was not to know just how her life was to alter. She was at the Caxton Hall as a dedicated Scout Mistress, forced to the fore by the absence of male leaders, many never to return after the carnage on the Somme and in Gallipoli. She did not, she thought, like the idea of working with younger children, of being an office worker, or living in London. The Chief Scout, however, had decided that she was to be the one to help him 'work up' the transformed section and help write The Wolf Cub Handbook, and evidently he was very persuasive.
Vera quickly fell under the spell of the existing London Wolf Cubs - she called them 'the little cockneys' - and, like Roland Philipps, seemed particularly at home when working with poorer families. Her job was to "straighten out" the new handbook and to think up badges and tests to go into the next edition. As always, The Chief was on hand to offer advice in the form of little notes on her desk every morning written on shaving paper (small pieces of wafer-thin absorbent paper, made by the same manufacturer who made cigarette papers, to staunch the flow of blood from accidental nicks made whilst shaving with 'cut-throat' razors). Evidently B-P thought best when in his bath and wrote the notes immediately he had completed his ablutions.
In her review of the Handbook dated November 1916 in the Headquarter's Gazette on The Cubmaster's Page, she wrote like a breath of fresh air:
"Those solemn people who expected a heavy manual of how to educate the child of eight to twelve; that is, how to drill him until you turn him into a stupid little machine; how to crush his eager spirit under a nightmare load of academic precision - those people would be painfully disappointed. But when they buy the book . . . they will be let down gently. For on the cover they will come face to face with a genuine and furry Wolf Cub, who, as the Chief hopes, will not let them expect anything very serious between the covers!"
Prior to 1916, Miss Barclay had converted to Roman Catholicism and was aware that there were those of that denomination who were suspicious of the Scout Movement (as indeed there were in the Church of England). Her books Good Scouting: Notes from a Catholic Parish (1927) and The Scout Way (1929) were aimed at Catholic audiences and gained the support of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, notably from Cardinal Bourne, the then Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. This led to an increase in the number of R.C. Scout Groups. Pierre Péroni was a member of the 8th Westminster Troop, the 'Cardinal's Own', and in 1983 in his 'Origin of the Scout Movement', a series of articles in the magazine 'Kim', wrote that when Vera converted to Catholicism she became Akela of his troop's Cub Pack and helped to organise the first parade of Catholic Scouts on St George's Day 1917. Péroni went on to become Vera Barclay's French translator, her books published in this language making her perhaps even better known in France than at home.
During her last year at International Scout Headquarters, B-P asked if she could supply 1,000 Wolf Cubs for a Grand Howl to take place at the first World Jamboree at Olympia in 1920. She thought for a moment about the practicalities of getting so many Cubs in one place at one time without their needing to go to the toilet and suggested that 500 would be a better number. The Chief seemed satisfied, but we know now that Grand Howls of thousands of Cubs were to become commonplace. Vera Barclay needed to ensure that the 500 Cubs involved all had been taught the same version of the Howl and visited each pack concerned. It was just as well she did, because with little central training for the majority of Akelas (this was in pre-Wood Badge days) there was no uniformity. One young man had been teaching his pack to spell out each of the letters of DYB DYB DYB (Do Your Best), and DOB DOB DOB (Do Our Best).
Miss Barclay's work won official recognition and was awarded Scouting's highest award - The Silver Wolf - but not until she had announced that she was leaving the Movement. Pierre Péroni wrote an article in a 1939 edition of Kim, (a Scout de France magazine), reporting that the presentation was made in front of her Cubs at the 1920 Olympia Jamboree (as he was one of Vera's Westminster pack, he ought to know!) There is little doubt that B-P thought Vera deserving of the award. I am grateful to Milestones reader Thierry Le Cam, for confirmation of VB's award, though I have, as yet, been unable to discover its whereabouts. Shortly after this time Vera Barclay was invited to visit Charmarande, (the Scouts de France Training Grounds near Paris) by Father Sevin. She made many visits and was present in September 1923 for the first French Wolf Cub Wood Badge course. Her work led to her being awarded the Scouts de France prestigious Cross of St Louis.
Scout Association records show Miss V C Barclay was the 'CM' i.e. Cub Mistress of the 21st St Francis of Assisi Group at Edgbaston, with 12 Cubs. The certificate notes the group was 'confined to R.C. boys'. In August 1924 VB had become Acting Scout Master with 16 'active Scouts' at St Peters 21st Birmingham (Edgbaston). When it registered in October 1928, Vera filled in the form and added the word 'acting' to her Scout Master status. She also crossed out the designation 'Group SM' against her signature as the person who had filled in the form, leaving the officially printed designation '(or officer in charge)'. Her leadership, 'acting' or otherwise was a success as now there were 44 Scouts in the Group with 24 Wolf Cubs with M Shoebotham as Akela.
Vera Barclay became a leading figure in the Catholic Scout Guild which ran a standing camp, the Gospel Farm Camp, at Hall Green some 25 minutes tram journey from the center of Birmingham. Y (Yvette or perhaps Yvonne)Dollé wrote an article about the camp in Le Chef, the French Scout De France magazine in Nov 1925. It appears that the camp was a haven for Cubs and Scouts "whose home life gives them no affection or comfort, whose ragged shorts show how poor they are"'. Though the Gospel Farm Camp operated mainly at the weekend and holiday periods, Vera lived there under canvas for six months a year for three years. Y Dollé wrote;
"Don't imagine that the St Francis Troop (sic) or Pack suffer from Miss Barclay's absence during the summer. On Wednesdays and Fridays, she cycles back into town and has two scout evenings from 6.30 p.m. to 9 p.m., where her imagination comes to the fore to ensure that the scouts and cubs have fun, whilst also doing them good. In the dark, she cycles home to her tent.."
VERA Barclay was forever conscious that she was a woman in a man's world and in her writings there is constant stream of apologies for her gender. She wrote:
"The only rank in the Scout Movement that a woman can adequately fill is that of Lady Cubmaster. Such am I. Sometimes a woman has to fill the gap and keep a troop going until a Scoutmaster can be found. I have done this on and off for the last fifteen years and got to know half a dozen troops intimately."
The then Gilwell Camp Chief J S Wilson, who was later to become Director of the Boy Scouts International Bureau, apologised on her behalf in his introduction to The Scout Way, including a quoted passage in Vera Barclay's own words:
"It is impossible for a woman, however clever, however observant, however experienced who has not been a boy, to understand, to be in tune with, the boy's mind. The older a boy gets, the more does he needs a man's leadership. To substitute a woman's leadership is, in fact, to deny him his birthright; for, after all, where also would a boy be without his father? And more, "these happy small boys will go to work and receive the shock that causes more suffering to clean-minded boys than most of us realise." The boy's moral welfare is intimately concerned with this question; his soul may be at stake."
And this was meant to promote the book! It was typical of the rather luke-warm response to Vera's early printed efforts. Thankfully, however, things were about to change. B-P in The Scouter in 1928 commended her on her book Good Scouting,
"Yes - there is a world of difference between Scouting and Good Scouting. Good Scouting not only shows the difference, but how Scouting on the higher plane may be achieved by all."
She wrote, in what she believed to be her last Cubmaster's Page, in the Headquarter's Gazette of September 1920, that she was leaving the Scout Association to become a nun and a Sister of Charity in the Order of St Vincent de Paul. Baden-Powell wrote of her in the same edition:
"Miss Barclay has, through her own personality, put much soul into the Movement and has made it already a very lively institution . . . Her loss will be very deeply felt by all of us that have the welfare of that branch (Wolf Cubs) at heart or who have had the pleasure of working in co-operation with her. She is one who can never be exactly replaced or adequately thanked. We can only hope that she will carry away with her happy recollections of the time spent over her young protégés, and the consciousness that she has successfully accomplished a very great work towards putting young souls on the right path for life and salvation."
A completely different side of Vera Barclay's life is revealed by her younger sister Angela Barclay, who in 'The Cresta Run' by Michael Seth-Smith, writes of Vera's experience on the famous Alpine toboggan course before the First World War.
B class="quote">"For several seasons I believe, she was the only girl riding the Cresta". Vera was serious tobogganist who had started the sport when she was 15 winning many trophies often dressed in skirts. As we know however Vera was not one for social convention and so some of her descents were made in riding jodhpurs. Somewhat surprisingly Angela describes her sister as a 'flapper' and hints at a socialite life style that included friendship with 'Little Willie' the Crown Prince of Germany. On one famous descent of the Cresta she was followed by young American who crashed and died of broken skull, the third Cresta fatality. Women were subsequently banned from taking part. It would appear that the entire family including Vera's mother adored Alpine sports though Vera was the expert. This expertise was sustained by wintering in St Moritz, paid for from Mrs Barclay's royalties as a best-selling authoress.
Later, whilst researching through back-copies of the The Scouter over a different matter, the issue of December 1923, revealed the amazing find of the by-line 'Vera Barclay' at the top of the page normally written by N D Power, the Chief Commissioner for Wolf Cubs. She began her article in the 'Red Indian' style that was popularised by the one-time Woodcraft Commissioner John Hargrave, but which was very much out of favour in 1923. Perhaps this is an indication that Miss Barclay had lost touch with Scouting matters over the intervening three years. (Scouting Milestones has a projected article on 'Other early Scouting Organisations', including John Hargrave and his offshoot movement the Kibbo Kift.)
"It seems a long time ago that I sat on this Council Rock and howled good-bye to you! And I didn't expect, then, ever to say "Here we are again!" But lots of unexpected things happened, including me becoming a sick and useless Old Wolf for rather a long spell. And after all I didn't leave the jungle. So Mr Power has asked me to raise my voice once more, while he's away, to tell you some of the things that have occurred to me about Cubbing during the last three years."
Evidently N D Power was still 'away' the next month, because Vera Barclay again wrote his page, but there are no more personal disclosures and no hint of a goodbye. Rather ungallantly, N D Power, on resuming the authorship of the page the following month, neither mentioned or thanked Vera Barclay for her contribution. It was to be some three decades later that before she was to write again for the magazine.
In her last article in The Scouter in November 1956 entitled Forty Years Ago Vera Barclay having been B class="quote">"told to write on 'the early days'" apologised for the rather glum look on her photo used to accompany the article which was taken in 1920 at the time she was about to leave the Movement (see above), explaining that it was taken just after the conclusion of what she thought was to be her last Cub camp. Fortunately, as we have seen this was not to be the case as she went on to form Cub Packs and a Scout Group in Birmingham and was involved in training Akelas at Yorks Wood in Kinver, near Stourbridge, Staffordshire.
A part from her brief re-appearance in the 1956 article mentioned above - part of the build up to the 1957 Jubilee Jamboree - it did seem as though Miss Barclay had disappeared from active Scouting that could be explained by her acceptance into religious seclusion. This however left the nagging question of how it could be that she continued to produce a stream of Scouting books, some, but I am sure not all, of her titles listed in the Bibliography below, which were only a fraction of her output as she became a successful children's' author, publishing in both English and French, including religious works and schoolgirl fiction under the pseudonyms of Margaret Beech and Vera Charlesworth, her works including the Jane series for girls. I know now thanks to Vera's niece Jill Whitcombe (See Acknowledgements below) that Vera in fact did not take her vows or stay long term with the order of St Vincent de Paul. This was probably because of the illness she hints at in her 1923 articles for Headquarter's Gazette in place of N.D Power. It may well be, I surmise, that it was this illness that gave her 'time out' from active Scouting, but her still vibrant mind channelled its energy into using the writing skills she had inherited from her mother. VB left these shores to live in France in 1931 and in her 1956 article she says this was when her Scouting days ended.
At various times in her life she had also lived in Bern and Zurich. She was back living in England in Bognor Regis near Brighton in 1939 and she was also, though I do not know when, the Area Director of the Christian Women's League for Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. She spent the war years in Britain and was living in the London region in 1983, by which time she was 89 and, unfortunately, going blind. She then went to live at Sea View Isle of Wight where the family had a home. Vera Barclay died in Sheringham, Norfolk, in September 1989, aged 95. The Scout Association was represented at her funeral.
A significant figure in the history of Cub Scouting and indeed the Scout Movement, Vera Barclay's influence, because of her sex, was somewhat suppressed in those early days, but there is no reason now why she should not now be given the prominence she deserves, not least in 'liberating' women to take their rightful place in Scouting today.
Iam very grateful for contact with Jill Whitcombe, Vera Barclay's niece who answered an appeal on these pages for information about her aunt's later life.
This biography has endured now for many years on Scouting Milestones, being first completed in 2004. Since then, thanks to Milestone'scorrespondents mentioned above there have been many revisions. A regular correspondent has been Fiona Mercey who was attracted to research the life of Vera Barclay finding this English woman's name mentioned in her son's French Scout handbook. (Fiona lives in France.) In the early days of our correspondence I was able to assist Fiona in her researches but latterly her enthusiasm has been such that it usually she who now provides me with information including the revelation that VB was a champion Cresta Run tobogganist.