How Girls Can Help Build an Empire: The Girl Guides of South-East Manchester

Fragments: Album with 96 photographs recording the members, activities and officers of the Girl Guide companies of the South-East Manchester Division, 1923 -1934.

Fairfield and Openshaw, May 1926


In 1902 the career soldier and cavalry officer, Lord Baden-Powell, returned to England from teh Boer War as the hero of the Siege of Mafeking. Already an enthusiastic imperialist, he drew on his popularity and public prominence to launch the Boy Scout movement, which he saw primarily as the means of strengthening the nation and the empire. Organised into a disciplined movement, he believed, boys could enhance the social and political unity of the nation and the empire, ‘as the bricks in the wall’, by promoting harmony, by opposing the prejudices of class, creed and colour, by countering a ‘degeneracy’, which he believed arose from urban living, by personal service, and by themselves living purposeful and healthy lives. He set out these hopes and his proposed ways of attaining them in Scouting for Boys, published in early 1908.

A signed photograph of Lord Baden-Powell.

The foundation of the Girl Guides in 1909 followed the spontaneous emergence of ‘Girl Scouts’ and signified Baden-Powell’s recognition of the appeal to girls of a movement which combined games and an outdoor training with nursing and ambulance work. However, he saw girls as needing a separate and distinctive training in line with their future responsibilities as wives and mothers. His Handbook for Girl Guides or How Girls Can Help Build the Empire, written with his sister Agnes, was published in 1912.

The Guides did not share the initial popularity of the Scouts. Until the middle years of the First World War, it remained a relatively small organisation, with perhaps 40,000 members in 1916. Its rapid expansion followed the war, the membership reaching 80,000 in 1918 and 494,000 in 1932, with additional 152,000 in the dominion.

In general the Guide movement found it more difficult to sink roots in working-class districts than in the communities with a strong lower middle-class or skilled artisan component from which could be drawn volunteers already involved in church or other institutional groups. It was on such volunteers that the continuity of guide groups largely depended.

It may be that this explains the relatively late arrival of Guide companies in the South-East Manchester Division, most districts of which – Openshaw, Fairfield, Droylesden, Reddish, Glossop and Denton – were populated by workers in local mines, engineering and chemical works. However, once the first companies were formed – there were six in 1923 – the movement grew rapidly in the area. By the Whitsun holidays 1924 there were already 14 companies with a total membership of 600, and it the following year 1,000 members of 21 Companies, one Rangers group and 14 Brownie packs attended a special service at St. Clements’s Church in Higher Openshaw.


Historical Pageant, June 1926

By the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s membership of the Guides had become a rite of passage for the girls of South-East Manchester.


A rally of the fourteen companies of the South-East Manchester Guides in the Spring of 1926, organised by the then Divisional Commander, Miss E. May Higgibottom, in a field in Openshaw loaned for the occasion by a local resident, suggests the nature and range of what became their annual activities.

While signalling the military origins of Guiding with an opening march in uniform, at which the Divisional Commissioner ‘took the salute’, and a display of ‘tactical marching’, the rally focused on their universal mission and, particularly, on the movement’s recreational element. ‘Guide games’ were followed by a pageant entitles ‘The Great Sisterhood of the World’ in which members of one company dressed in national costumes, carried national flags and provided displays of folk music, flag formations, and (surprisingly) the Irish jig.

As local residents became more accustomed to Guiding, more public rallies were organised in the two successive years, with much the same balance. In 1927 the march past was followed by a service in St. Clement’s Church at which special prayers were said and hymns sung and Guide colours were ceremonially ‘received’ by two of the local clergy. This was followed by a ‘pageant’ in which Guides and Brownies acted scenes from ‘Peter Pan’, ‘The Christmas Carol’, and a specially written play, ‘The King’s Breakfast’. The event ended with a camp fire and sing song.

Camping trip at Motram, 1934


Local rallies were complemented by Easter Picnics and by Whit-Week Camps, the first for the South-East Manchester Division held at Conway in 1924. The Camps reflected the guide ethos in teaching girls the value of health, co-operation, cleanliness and discipline. ‘The excitement of adventure’, it was claimed, ‘melts the barriers of reserve and breaks down the impulses to selfishness; even girls who habitually stand aloof will tumble into the common life of Camp with zest’. Under a camp ‘captain’, ‘patrol leaders’ took charge of the tents.

Easter Picnic, 1927
‘Officers and P. Leaders’, 1923

It was typical of Manchester philanthropic movements that a social gulf separated the givers from the receivers. Since the local, working-class women of East Manchester were not seen to possess the qualifications required for Guide leadership, Guide Officers were drawn from business and professional families living in leafier suburbs, most of whom were also graduates of one or other of the suburban girls’ schools which had developed in Manchester since the 1870s to widen the vocational opportunities open to middle-class women. The Commander to the South-East Manchester Division of the Guides in 1926, who organised the first Guides rally in Openshaw, May Higgibottom, was an old girl of the first and most successful of these schools, Manchester High School for Girls.

Whit Week, 1934. The back of the photographs of the photograph reads: ‘Peep Show’.



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