A Singular Man
By Anne Beech
What do psychic healing, the Woodcraft Folk and the Concorde’s
navigational system have in common – and what does it have
to do with Stoke Newington?
The answer (and there’s no ‘of course’ about
it) lies in the person of one John Gordon Hargrave, whose almost
unimaginably curious life began, unremarkably, with his birth to
an itinerant Quaker family in Sussex in 1894.
Drawn to the fledgling Boy Scout movement in the early years of
the twentieth century, the young Hargrave rose swiftly through the
ranks, contributing a regular column on woodcraft, as ‘White
Fox’, to the scout magazine The Trail, while earning a precarious
living as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist – and on
one occasion tutoring the young sons of King George V, enthusiastic
scouts, on campcraft skills.
A pacifist, he enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps during
the First World War, seeing service in the Dardanelles. Invalided
out, he was appointed Boy Scout Commissioner for Woodcraft and Camping
by Baden Powell, but soon found himself at odds with a scouting
movement he saw as increasingly and dangerously militaristic.
Spearheading a dissident group of like-minded, anti-war scoutmasters
– no laughing at the back, please – Hargrave (clearly
a natural leader) broke with the scout movement in 1920 and established
his own idiosyncratic movement, the Kibbo Kift, an organisation
devoted not merely to outdoor pursuits but to the creation of nothing
less than world peace, drawing on Norse legend and a curious mélange
of Saxon ritual, futuristic design and the 1920s equivalent of Glastonbury.
Without a sound system, obviously.
Hargrave seems to have done nothing by halves: throughout his life,
he managed to supplement whatever he was involved in with a parallel
publishing programme of leaflets, novels, biographies, a weekly
newsletter and sundry essays, articles and occasional pieces, in
a phenomenal literary output that attracted the attention, and the
occasional critical acclaim, of various literary luminaries, including
Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and, puzzlingly, John Steinbeck
A challenge to his resolutely apolitical leadership of Kibbo Kift
in 1926 led to the creation of the Woodcraft Folk – which
endures to this day – while Hargrave himself pursued a new
enthusiasm for Major C H Douglas, and his controversial social credit
theories. In keeping with the times, and the emergence of Mosley’s
Black Shirts, Hargrave disbanded the Kibbo Kift in 1932, renaming
what was left of his following as the Green Shirt Movement for Social
Credit – to the bafflement, it appears, of the loyal rump
of his die-hard supporters, most of whom had no idea about, and
little interest in, the principles of Major Douglas’s economic
An ill-advised detour to Alberta, Canada, in the early 1930s, to
advise the only State government ever to be elected on a social
credit platform, ended ignominiously with Hargrave’s recall
to a Britain in which the 1937 Public Order Act had outlawed the
use of all political uniforms: black and green shirts were now illegal.
It was a blow from which Hargrave’s tiny Green Shirt Movement,
never comparable to Mosley’s Black Shirts in intent or influence,
did not fully recover.
Pragmatically, Hargrave disbanded the Green Shirts and channelled
his surplus energies into developing and patenting a prototype navigational
device for aircraft. In the run-up to the outbreak of the Second
World War, there were no takers. The device required gyroscopes
– but they had all been commandeered in preparations for war.
Hargrave was apparently undaunted.
Sitting out the war, Hargrave bizarrely discovered that he was
possessed of psychic powers, and continued to write novels and biographies.
As you do.
Post-war, and as energetic as ever, Hargrave re-launched the (now
shirtless) Social Credit Party of Great Britain, orchestrated a
nationwide campaign, and, perhaps unwisely, decided to stand as
the Social Credit Party parliamentary candidate in the 1950 election
campaign – for Stoke Newington.
Sadly, Stoke Newington failed to appreciate his many and varied
talents. Winning only 700 votes, and losing his deposit, put an
end to Hargrave’s political ambitions. He dissolved his party
(although not all of them, contrarily, accepted the dissolution),
withdrew from the political arena, and spent most of the rest of
his life earning a meagre living as a freelance writer.
Perhaps predictably, however, he had two more shots in his quiver.
In 1967, he was alerted to the fact that Concorde’s navigational
system owed much to the prototype he’d patented some 25 years
earlier. A nine-year battle to establish his patent rights ended
in failure. The disappointing outcome of the government enquiry,
however, absurdly but perhaps characteristically gave way to delight
at the news that his work with the Kibbo Kift, so many years ago,
was to be celebrated in a well-received rock musical at the Edinburgh
festival in 1976.
Hargrave died, understandably exhausted, in 1982. Intriguingly,
his papers and an extensive collection of Kibbo Kift memorabilia
and regalia are now housed in the Youth Movement Archive at University
College and at the LSE.
Why he stood in Stoke Newington is not recorded. But his candidature
– in a constituency that has always prided itself on dissent
– seems somehow entirely appropriate.