Saturday July 31, 1937.
Leaving Wembley at 8.15 am for Victoria Station, joining crowds of Woodcrafters there, taking our places in the 10am Woodcrafter’s Special, and we realise we are really on our way to the first International Children’s Camp held in this country.
Walking from Brighton Station to Ovingdean, the procession of boys and girls clad in green jerkins, waving flags and banners attracted a considerable amount of attention from the holiday makers at Brighton. We found the campsite at Beacon Hill a very desirous place.
So, just a few kids off on their hols? Not really. This was rather more than just few kids. This was the first ‘Children’s International Republic’ to be held in Brighton. For three weeks in August 1937, some 2,000 children took possession of Beacon Hill. The children were mainly British, but 400 of them were from France, 300 from Belgium, 60 were Swiss, 25 were from Spain. There was a significant number from Germany and a handful from further flung countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. This was a Peace Camp just two years before the outbreak of WW2.
Who was organising such leftie-leaning camps? For the Brits, it was the Woodcraft Folk. For France it was Les Faucons Rouges [The Red Falcons], for Germany, Die Rote Falken. The three official languages of the camp were English, French and German.
For a non-militaristic organisation, the camp was set up with, dare we say it, military efficiency. In the run-up to the opening of the camp a letter from Henry Fair, National Camp Marshal (aka Koodoo) pointed out that the camp would need a volunteer force of
typists (preferably those who can do shorthand) and general office workers, interpreters and those who can work duplicators, poster and notice board painters, craftsmen, carpenters, hospital orderlies, games and Folk dance organisers, cooks and all the other workers that are needed by a community of 2000 people. (March 1937)
Beacon Hill was to be home to the children (ages 10 to 18) for three weeks. There was plenty of water at standpipes (no excuses for not washing behind those ears), and “latrines will be on the lime pit system with cubicles”. All for 10/6d (52½p) per week. The hundreds of tents were “organised in ‘villages’ each with its own mayor, corporation and ‘police force’ and so on.”
The aim was to provide plenty of fun but also to “help in their training to serve the cause of democracy.” Sounds a bit earnest and deadly-dull? Perhaps not.
The chances are that these children happily ignored the politics and enjoyed swimming at Ovingdean Gap, listening to the 60-stong Czech band, playing their own instruments, running, jumping generally getting up to mild mischief. Above all, they would be munching their way through a reported 4,200 yards of bread (were they all eating baguettes?) and slurping their way through 7,000 gallons of milk. Naturally the comestibles were supplied by “the Cooperative Wholesale Society and the Brighton Equitable Co-operative Society”.
The French contingent must have been even more excited than the Brits. They had left Clichy in Paris at 5.45 in that first morning. They had strict instructions: apporter fruits et boissons et 1fr pour metro. [bring fruit and drinks and 1 franc for the metro]. They made their way by metro to the Gard du Nord and from there to Ostend. At Ostend the French met up with small Swiss and Tunisian contingents. They must have been exhaused by the time they arrived in Brighton. Although there are no reports of how they made their way from Brighton Station to Beacon Hill, it is not unlikely that they walked (or marched) the whole way as the Brits had done.
In 2009, an anonymous 86-year old Parisian recounted his Brighton adventures (with a few lapses of memory along the way):
[Every year we were offered holidays. They were called “The Republic of the Red Falcons”. As far as I was concerned, I went once, it was to England, to Brighton. I think it was in the summer of 1936 and Oh! what a surprise, there were English (Worldcraft…) [sic], Czechs, Spanish (who had immigrated to France). There were also some Jews who had their own group. In our group, half of the Red Falcons were also of Jewish origin, but they always stayed with us. We were pals and no-one’s religion had anything to do with it, if there was any religion, for example, I came from a family of atheists.
We slept in “marabouts”, bell tents with a central pole and which came, I believe from WW1 ex-US-army stocks. We slept in star formation radiating out from the pole. The main activities were singing, games (ball games) and walking (walking for walking’s sake – we never ‘went’ anywhere). There were so many people and so many games that we had all we wanted.]
Not only was there a huge amount of organisation of the day-to-day running of the camp, but very special permission had to be sought from the highest levels of government for the camp to even be pitched in Ovingdean. In his March letter to adult leaders of the Woodcraft Folk of England, Koodoo revealed that …
it was not until 20th March that I received from the Secretary of State via the Chief Constable of Brighton permission to wear costume at the camp.
The Woodcraft Folk, being non-militaristic, did not wear uniform, but ‘costume’. Koodoo ends his letter with the words:
So to it, comrades, ignore coronations, build the Co-operative and Socialist Children’s Republic of 1937.
Henry Fair was of course, writing to committed Republican Socialists. They could not be expected to take much interest of the coronation of the new monarch, George VI, in May of that year.
The clearly leftist nature of the camp gave rise to some bold headlines. On 14th August The Evening Argus (and The Daily Telegraph) shouted:
This despite The Daily Telegraph having reported very positively three days earlier in much smaller capital letters:
2,000 CHILDREN IN FRIENDSHIP CAMP
INTERNATIONAL PEACE EFFORT
FIRST EVER HELD IN BRITAIN
Not surprisingly, The Daily Worker, the radical Reynolds News, the pro-Labour Daily Herald and the Co-operative News all supported the camp as did, seemingly the local newspapers. However, 2,000 children can make a lot of noise. They take up a lot of space. They swim in the sea and splash! The Evening Argus dutifully reported the concerns of local residents. Under the headline:
The last part of the article continues:
I spoke today (writes and Evening Argus reporter) to residents of Ovingdean, most of whom are retired or still active London business men. The majority of them were angered by the activities of the camp.
One of them told me: “We did not mind the Territorials camping here. We would not mind the Boy Scots coming. We do object most strongly to this flagrant intrusion by people who can only be called Communists by everything they do.” .…
Some of the people complain that Ovingdean is being over-run by the children, that it is almost impossible to bathe at The Gap for the crowds of children who “go down there shouting their queer songs and given the salute of the clenched fist”.
Yet, for all their bluster, not one resident of Ovingdean would have lifted a finger against these children. Indeed, this photograph below implies that the camp was somewhat of a tourist attraction.
Unfortunately, this was not true of some who might have wished the children harm. On 20 August the New Leader newspaper headlined a report of a:
Fortunately, these were not physical attacks… although it must be assumed that the organisers ensured the safety of the children by keeping a wary watch around the perimeter of the camp. But there were verbal attacks reported by the New Leader:
The Fascists through their organ “Action” have been making vile attacks upon the International Children’s camp near Brighton. They complain that “aliens and Jews” are marching through the streets of Britain “in uniform” with clenched fists and singing the Internationale. …
It is significant [New Leader continues] that “Action” should find fault with the Woodcraft Folk but should ignore the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, Boys’ Brigades, Toc H and the numerous bourgeois counterparts of the Folk. It reveals that “Action” is not really concerned with “uniforms” but that what it does object to is the working-class nature of the organisation.”
Let’s hope that the children were blithely unaware of any animosity toward them and that the spirit of the Internationale carried them in harmony and friendship to the end of their three weeks in the Borough of Brighton.
Apart from the texts in French, the above article is based entirely on the archive of The Woodcraft Folk. The motto of the Folk is ‘Span the world with Friendship’. And that is what they were and are trying to do. A good example of European unity and co-operation.
There are several active Woodcraft Folk groups within the City of Brighton and Hove.