“The Kibbo Kift (archaic Kentish dialect for ‘proof of great strength’) has been described as ‘the only genuine English national movement of modern times’ and was certainly very different from Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts.
Based on the woodcraft principles of naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton that had been a key part of the early Scout programme, the Kibbo Kift was to be not merely a youth organisation but was to involve all ages and, very daring for the times, it was open to both sexes. The ideas of world peace and the regeneration of urban man through the open-air life replaced the nationalism and militarism Hargrave had detested in the post-World War I Scouts.
Formed in reaction to the perceived militaristic nature of the Scouts, the Kibbo Kift Kindred were formed by social reform activist and artist John Hargrave in 1920, who drew on influences as disparate as Anglo-Saxon and Ancient Egyptian mythology, contemporary art and fashion design, the occult, and of course, woodcraft.
In 1920 Hargrave explained what the distinctive words meant:
- Kibbo Kift is an old English expression meaning literally proof of great strength – or The Strong. So today, in the woodcraft camp we speak of:
- KIBBO KIFT – meaning the Idea and Ideal of the Great Outdoor Trail and Open Air Education
- THE KIBBO KIFT – meaning the Woodcraft Kindred, or the people who follow the great Woodcraft Trail
- TO BE KIBBO KIFT – meaning to be a good camper and woodcrafter, to be a clean, strong, upright man (woman or child)
The Kibbo Kift were never more than a few hundred strong. Kinsmen and Kinswomen included the Suffragettes Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Mary Neal and May Billinghurst, the journalist Henry Nevinson, the photographer Angus McBean, and Ruth Clark. The Advisory Committee included Havelock Ellis, Maurice Maeterlinck, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, H. G. Wells and Professor Julian Huxley. D. H. Lawrence took an interest in the Kindred and it has been suggested that Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is based on an archetypal Kinsman.
Nayia Yiakoumaki, co-curator of an exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery said of the society: “Today we can interpret them within the context of art history, but at the time their focus was to be an open air campaigning educational group, and to create a new society. Their influence from the world around them was so profound, they were so open minded. First with the social aspect and the belief they had in changing the world, and secondly, because of their graphic design. They were mainly middle class people, some were working in advertising, some were designers, photographers… they were very aware of the visual influences of the era that they were in.
They also believed that you had to go through various stages of cultural development to then become the Kibbo Kift person. That’s why there’s all these influences, from Ancient Egypt to Anglo-Saxon through Futurism – they thought that you had to go through everything in order to re-emerge as this new person who will change the world. On that journey through culture they picked up visual elements, but they didn’t have much discrimination between a work of art as an object or a piece of woodcraft as an object. They were just doing things all of the time.”
The growth of the Kibbo Kift was not without its setbacks. Members had passionately believed in the pastoral life of the British countryside, and sought it as a chance to rebuild society. When it became political, radical, and in a way more interesting, a lot of people were put off by that in comparison to what they had before. But John Hargrave was the leader, and in the end he became interested in the idea of Social Credit as the way to create an economic utopia.
In 1924, the South London co-operative lodges challenged Hargrave’s leadership, and seceded from the movement. They established their own organisation, The Woodcraft Folk, which outlived its parent organisation and still exists.