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A People’s History of Woodcraft Folk

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A new book by Phineas Harper records the history, values and evolution of this unique organization. Jeremy Corbyn MP introduces the book, with excerpt by Saskia Neibig.

09-08-2016-Woodcraft-Folk-590.jpg [Related Image]
Picture from A People’s History of Woodcraft Folk: three young Woodcraft Folk members out hiking. The original caption read 'Kinswomen camping bent', 1930s.

The youth movement Woodcraft Folk has made a remarkable impact on British politics and education. Founded in 1925 on a wave of post-World War One utopianism and now a network of hundreds of local groups, it has empowered thousands of young people to shape the world around them.

This new book by Phineas Harper explores the history, values and evolution of this unique organization in a chronological sweep of stories from hand-making tents, and rescuing children from advancing Nazi troops, to campaigning against climate change.

Offering an unmatched insight into the story of this little-known but influential organization, the book features 200 pages of colour photographs, essays and stories, and is introduced by the veteran campaigner, Labour politician and long-standing Woodcraft Folk supporter Jeremy Corbyn MP.

Foreword

Jeremy Corbyn MP, introduces A People’s History of Woodcraft Folk.

Camping with Woodcraft Folk all over Britain and in Finland has given me some of the happiest and most fulfilling times of my life.

Whenever I come away from a Woodcraft Folk camp I feel a sense of rejuvenation and invigoration, having met hundreds of young people who share the values of internationalism, global justice and co-operation which are profoundly needed to create a more peaceful, sustainable and fair world.

Since its inception in 1925, Woodcraft Folk has actively campaigned against all forms of war, racism and inequality. Woodcraft Folk lead by example, whether in their camps in the UK or through their unique youth work here and around the world. They helped orchestrate the Kindertransport, rescuing many Jewish children from Nazi Germany. They campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and marched against war in Iraq. They have fought for the rights of LGBT people and oppressed minorities of all backgrounds. Above all they have supported and empowered many thousands of young people to explore big ideas, develop new skills and make lifelong friends.

Woodcraft Folk members are inspiring individuals giving their energy week after week to educate the next generation of scientists, teachers, artists and activists. They open our minds to better ways of doing things. Their green shirts and parachute games are regular sights, whether playing games in a village hall, camping by a lake or marching past the House of Commons.

This book marks the 90th birthday of this remarkable organization. Long may Woodcraft Folk thrive.

Jeremy Corbyn MP

Refugee crisis

In this excerpt, Saskia Neibig explains the role Woodcraft Folk played in the Kindertransport rescuing children from Nazi persecution.

Against a backdrop of German expansionism, the Spanish Civil War and a rise of fascism and racism across the continent, Woodcraft Folk hosted a Czechoslovakian delegation of 250 at the Brighton international camp held at Rottingdean in the summer of 1937. This kind of internationalism has always been common in Woodcraft Folk but this particular camp resulted in life-saving friendships. The Rote Falken, or ‘Red Falcons’, were Czech teenagers of both Jewish and non-Jewish heritage. They learned, played and camped together like Woodcraft Folk did, but met and spoke in German. Woodcraft Folk had already provided a ready welcome in their membership to a young Austrian refugee called Susanna Medus, her family having fled Germany because of her father’s left-wing journalism. Diaries from the time record that the Falcons who attended the camp in Brighton were surprised by the ‘small mattresses’ they ate for breakfast (Shredded Wheat) and the triangular sandwiches, without crusts, filled with ‘grass’ (mustard and cress).

Henry Fair being carried by young Woodcraft Folk members. Henry Fair wrote to all Woodcraft Folk members: 'Hundreds of the parents of Red Falcon members are in peril of their life, hundreds are refugees, sleeping in fields and ditches. Their children, ex-Red Falcons, many of them came to Brighton, are amongst these and they plead with their fellow comrades of other countries for help. Well what can we do, what can you?’

They also visited their counterparts in Antwerp to attend the ‘Worker’s Olympiad’ and returned to Eastern Europe afterwards with memories and friendships, but thinking little more of it. Later in 1939 the Nazis were agitating in the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia as the country prepared for invasion. Only five Falcon groups would remain inside the new border prompting Willi Hocke, the Brighton delegation leader, to send a friend, Vicki Schless, to London to ask for help. Woodcraft Folk’s response was enthusiastic. Henry Fair, the national organizer at the time, wrote an impassioned letter to groups around the country. Hocke was arranging for hundreds of children to flee to Belgium with the help of those friends they had made there the previous summer. Fair asked for Woodcraft Folk groups to fundraise to support this operation. He exhorted them to encourage their children to send their pennies and argued that, despite Woodcraft Folk’s own financial difficulties ‘this is a period of sacrifice by workers for workers’. In ‘solidarity with our Czech comrades’, he suggested that refugees would soon need to come to England and asked that people volunteer to host children on a temporary basis. Monday was raised to send to Hocke and 40 homes were offered. Various bureaucratic obstacles delayed these offers: hosts needed to provide two references, promise to adopt a child until the age of 18, educate them and provide £50 (10 per cent of the average annual income) as a guarantee to the authorities. Woodcraft Folk organized for at least 20 children to come and stay with their members and Woodcraft Folk groups also raised money to pay the guarantees for a few of them.

Susanna Pearson (neé Ehrmann) remembers boarding a train from Prague on the 29th June 1939 with 241 other children aged five to fifteen. At age 11 she did not realise at the time that she would never see her parents again. She was one of the last children to make it out safely and war broke out before all the offered homes could be filled. Arrival in England was not the end of the saga. Having co-ordinated the transport of the Falcons with Nicholas Winton, who brought 669 Czech children to the UK, Fair often had to maintain contact with the children’s relatives who had escaped to the UK and those concerned parents left behind. He co-ordinateed accommodation, bursaries and welfare of children with the Czech section of the Refugee Children’s Movement. For many host families Woodcraft Folk was the only source of support. Testaments from Kindertransport survivors show that adjustment to their new life was not always easy. There were often cultural and language differences as well as the challenges of the war to overcome, but by taking Falcons into Woodcraft Folk homes the foster parents were able to provide an upbringing with a familiar value system and access to a sympathetic youth group. At first Pearson refused to leave Prague. She remembers being comforted by her parents who told her it would be ‘like a Falcon camp’. She remembers that the transition to life in Sheffield was hard. While living with Basil Rawson, Headman of Woodcraft Folk, she had to learn English and live in an old fashioned semi-detached house that was a world apart from her apartment in Prague. Her education was disrupted by the outbreak of war because the school did not have an air raid shelter. She remembers hating the ‘very odd food’ like custard. The transition was made more bearable for those who attended Woodcraft Folk groups because camps which took place in Derbyshire and Epping Forest gave them familiar experiences. The friendships formed in these groups made it significantly easier to adjust to a new school environment.

Image from A People's History of Woodcraft Folk by Phineas Harper.

In 1939 the Liege camp provided perfect cover for Henry Fair to smuggle two Czech boys into the UK in order to protect them from kidnapping by the Gestapo who wanted to intimidate their father. They had no passports but were hidden amongst the Woodcraft Folk delegation of 700 children. Fair ensured that they had already been living in London for seven months before he had to inform the government of their presence when the boys needed ration books. His efforts ensured their safe presence in the UK throughout the war and afterwards.

The Kindertransport was a huge operation, bringing 20,000 children from Germany and Nazi occupied countries to the UK. The British government was reluctant to take more and frequently obstructed the efforts of organizers. Most of the children of the Kindertransport found out after the war that their parents had been killed. Many remained in the UK to continue the lives they had built, with some emigrating to Israel, USA, South America and elsewhere. A few returned home to rebuild what remained of their communities. Many faith organizations at the time were engaged in similar work but Woodcraft Folk seems to have been the most significant secular organization involved. Several Woodcraft Folk refugees stayed on in the UK and their children in turn went on to attend Woodcraft Folk groups and camps.

In 1946, in the aftermath of a war and alongside new bread rations, Woodcraft Folk hosted another international camp again at Rottingdean, nine years after the first. There they united more than a thousand people from all over Europe to continue their unflinching internationalism. Decades later, at the age of 88, Henry Fair discovered that he had been placed on Hitler’s hit list for his actions. He commented to the Western Daily Press, which ran the story with other newspapers, ‘I felt a sensation of shock on learning that I was a target. But on reflection, I consider it to be something of an honour to have been wanted by the Gestapo.’

Saskia Neibig

A People’s History of Woodcraft Folk was written, designed and edited by Phineas Harper, with many other contributing writers. To find more information, or to purchase this book, visit the Woodcraft shop.

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