The Role of the Stalham Boy Scouts Association in the First World War
Stalham Boy Scouts Association was founded in 1912 and its secretary was Robert Gurney of Ingham Old Hall, Stalham. Initially the Troop Charter was issued to troops from Stalham and Catfield. Ingham, Ludham and Sea Palling joined in 1913 followed by Horning in 1914. Gurney’s record book, held at the Norfolk Record Office, details the Scouts’ activities during the First World War.
In January 1914 the programme for the Ingham Scout Concert gave some indication of times to come with patriotic songs such as “I want to be a soldier”, “Hearts of Oak”, “Boys be Prepared” and “All Patrols Look Out”.
The Scouts were one of the first youth organisations to get involved in the war effort. There was great concern about the possibly of communication lines being sabotaged, air raids and invasion. Being so near to the coast, the Stalham Boy Scout Association was ideally placed to help and they responded immediately when the call came.
Britain declared war on Germany on Tuesday 4th August 1914. At 10.30pm that same evening a message was issued by Colonel Barclay which reached Stalham the following day. It read:
Following this message the troop Scoutmasters issued notes to each of their boys:
To Scout …..
Your services are required by the Government for duty beginning today. Report yourself to me at ……… in uniform with great coat and complete camp kit. 1/- a day.
While the boys were ordered to report at 11am on the following Monday, one Scoutmaster set off to North Walsham to get more information about the telegraph cable line they were being asked to guard. Gurney records in the minute book:
“After much difficulty found that it ran, not via Tunstead as advised by Col Charles, but via Worstead and Scottow. I went at same time to Horning & Worstead & whipped up Scouts there. At about 11.15 we got off with 6 Palling Scouts & camp outfit, and by noon we had placed all our boys along a line from North Walsham main road to Cook’s farm at Worstead.”
In defending the line most boys camped but the Worstead boys were able to continue living at home. A series of numbered poles was erected along the line and the boys were divided up and allocated to different sections. Each section had a book carried by the boys to make notes in.
The night watches were carried out by boys in pairs except for the two Scouts who were over the age of 17. The road was patrolled each day and night by a GPO man on a bicycle.
“The day man reported on Aug 10 that wire had been cut at Cromer and tapped at Bacton during the night. Said that the wires here form a ‘cable pack’ going via Bacton to London, but that the Cable was now cut at sea deliberately & the wires used for inland military purposes & not for telegraph but for telephone.”
Overall the boys rose well to the occasion. Sixty seven Scouts, ten Scoutmasters and other volunteers were soon in place. Two small ones got homesick and cried and were sent back home. Gurney comments:
“They were not overworked, only silly”.
The troops appear to have responded quickly and with great diligence. Disappointment was expressed by Gurney at the lack of a speedy response from other groups.
“The Wroxham troop . . . failed to get into touch till Thursday 13th. Part of the time they watched a road without wires at all”.
On 10th August a telegraph was received instructing Gurney not to use boys under the age of fourteen. The 1/- a day was an allowance in lieu of rations. And so, on 13th August, the boys under 14 were sent home. The manning of the poles was reassigned to three separate camps. On 13th August Gurney received notice that night duty was no longer required “so thinking the whole thing was a farce”. Gurney went to see Colonel Charles the next day to be told that all Scouts should be withdrawn, “pay ceasing as on the 4th day!”
Gurney then received another telegraph requesting the Scouts’ assistance with coastguard duties.
Gurney once again acted promptly and set up a small group of Scouts by Sandhill. This was not seen kindly by a local resident whose wife was expecting a baby:
“Received strong protest from an ass called Watson . . . . . as his wife expected a baby by end of month, couldn’t have them there. Expostulated with him & left them there. Wife is militant suffragette”.
Gurney did eventually move the boys’ camp. “During first day or two saw much in way of activity at Sea – and Aeroplanes, but have not been of any serious assistance to Coastguard”. The boys remained on duty for twenty eight days “they gave complete satisfaction to the Coastguard officer”.
The troops were active in other war efforts too. Stalham and Ingham Troops took part in the sale of War Relief Stamps and proceeds went to the National Relief Fund. Eight carts of newspapers were also collected for the same fund.
The Ingham Troop helped at the Red Cross Hospital for wounded soldiers. Gurney writes:
“Most of them have undertaken some regular voluntary duty which they carry out cheerfully and very efficiently”.
The hospital was located in Ingham Old Hall, home of the Gurneys. It opened on 29th October 1914 with 40 beds and did not close until 28th January 1919. Gurney’s wife, Sarah Gamzu Gurney, was the Commandant and was awarded the MBE in 1918 for her services to the hospital.
Six Scouts were awarded War Service Badges; G Whittleton, A Harris, Ray Spanton, G Allard, C Allison and H Sutton. Five of these boys were from Ingham.
Following the Association’s annual committee meeting in October 1915, there is a significant gap in the record book until October 1919 due to the war. Scoutmasters would have been called up as would some of the Scouts once they reached the required age. Gurney was somewhat surprised, when activities resumed in 1919, to be informed that the Stalham Boy Scout Association had been dissolved without the Association being informed. As Gurney records, the Association had been “in abeyance during the war”. G Spanton, a committed Scoutmaster for several years, was killed in action as was S Wilkins, also from the Stalham troop.
Gurney soon set about reinstating the Scout troops which resumed their many activities, hopefully undisturbed by world events until 1939.
This blog post has been researched using two sets of records held at the Norfolk Record Office:
- Stalham Boy Scouts Association record book, 1912-1927 (MC 3126/1, 1036X7)
- ‘The Auxiliary Hospitals of the British Red Cross Society & St John Ambulance in Norfolk 1914-1919’ by Col. C.E. Knight (SO 161/1, 762X8)
Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.