Eccentricity has long been a quality appropriated by the English. (Similar behaviour by the Scots, Welsh or Irish is usually dismissed as simply ‘mad’ – at least, by the English). Few however, have so assiduously pursued the epithet as The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. This bizarre offshoot of the Scouting movement was founded and led during its brief existence in the 1920s by the charismatic soap packet designer, John Hargrave as a counter-force to what he saw as the over-militaristic regimen of Baden-Powell’s international youth movement.
The strange name of the group derives comes old Cheshire dialect meaning ‘proof of strength,’ according to Annebella Pollen, lecturer on History of Art and Design at Brighton Uni, who has just written a fascinating, comprehensive and lavishly illustrated history of the group with an accompanying exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.*
With their impenetrable initiation rites, rituals, sigils and signage, all-night hikes, and a ruthless aversion to bodily comfort, The Kin was active for ten years as a home-grown version of other Europe-wide, idealistic, paramilitary youth organisations. But while the appeal of the Hitler-Jugend to bored disaffected youth was immediately apparent (snappy kit, guns, beating people up, beer, informing on your parents) that of the Kindred was a harder sell. The whole ethos of the group – and in particular their visual presentation – confirmed them as outsiders – the Exclusive Brethren, say, but with smarter uniforms.
And what uniforms they were: inspired by Vorticism, Art Deco, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism and a dash of Cabaret Voltaire Dadaism all souped up by Hargrave’s distinctive, hard-edged graphic style (he helped design the Sunlight and Lifebuoy soap packaging among others). The Kibbo Kift Kin, with their appliqueed tents, banners, bunting, sigils, standards, staffs and maces must have cut colourful and distinctive figures on an English camping scene not generally noted for its sartorial stylishness.
Hargrave had become more and more disaffected with the militaristic aspects of the Boy Scouts Association after the catastrophe of the First World War and eventually split with Baden-Powell to form his own gang after he had fallen under the sway of Ernest Thompson Seton, a writer and wildlife artist who grafted his own, largely invented, veneer of American Indian woodcraft primitivism onto the scouting movement.
Seton believed in ‘picturesqueness in everything’: ‘The effect of the picturesque is magical and all the more subtle and irresistible because it is not on the face of it reasonable. The charm of titles and gay costumes, of the beautiful in ceremony, phrase, dance and song are utilized (sic) in all ways.’
Nobody would argue that the Kibbo Kift Kin were reasonable, and Hargrave saw his mission as marrying Seton’s woodcraft virtues of fortitude, self-reliance, independence and indifference to physical comfort as well as his ‘magical picturesque’ to a strong culture of ritualistic shamanism and an almost pantheistic reverence for the English landscape. He also said that to be truly revolutionary one should embrace ridiculousness.
To confirm the Kin’s ‘outsider ‘ status, Hargrave devised a complex code of rituals – just getting into the Kibbo Kift was difficult enough. Once it had been determined you were the ‘right sort’, the induction process involved a recondite simulated death, interment and spiritual rebirth ceremony. The whole thing was cobbled together by Hargrave from his readings of esoteric theosophical literature, The Golden Bough, Freemasonry and even snippets of Alastair Crowley’s Order of the Golden Dawn ceremonials. As a consequence, membership of the Kin (which Hargrave was convinced would blossom into a mass movement) never rose to more than 500 members.
Hargrave’s obsession with rite and ritual – he would constantly amend and re-write the ceremonies and rituals of the Kin – helped lead to a split when the Co-operative movement withdrew its support over the issue of Hargrave’s autocratic leadership style, leading to a schism and the founding of the offshoot Woodcraft Folk.
The Kin hoovered up an impressive collection of celebrities and intellectuals in its brief existence with HG Wells, Rabindranath Tagore, Havelock Ellis, Patrick Geddes and Julian Huxley on its advisory council. Orwell was not a fan, regarding them as the sort of cranks, ‘magnetically attracted to left wing groups.’ DH Lawrence thought Hargrave ‘overweening’ and ‘cold’. Auden thought him ‘terribly lower middle-class, with that lack of humour which all half-baked culture addicts have.’ But perhaps the most damning indictment came from Rolf Gardiner, folk revivalist, nazi sympathiser (and father of conductor, John Eliot Gardiner) who said Hargrave’s ‘every beastly thought…is coloured and shaped by his Jewish Soul and his Jewish Blood.’
Ironic indeed as Hargrave was himself a subscriber to then current racial purity theories. These held that the flower of Britain’s youth had been exterminated on the battlefields of the Western Front leaving only the racially degenerate to provide the breeding stock for future generations. He regarded the Kibbo Kift as an elite body whose duty was to re-assert racial purity.
This neo-Darwinian, pseudo-scientific theory of Eugenics and selective breeding was woven into the fabric of intellectual life in the early twentieth century: Fabianism, The Suffragettes, folk revivalism, the nascent green movement, vegetarianism, naturism. It took another world war to purge it from left wing thought.
*’The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians.’
Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, Whitechapel Gallery, London