Gidney, Francis 'Skipper'. 1890-1928Gilwell's first Camp Chief. Wood Badge pioneer
GIDNEY started one of the first Scout Troops in the country in 1908, when he was a 16-year-old pupil attending Lichfield Grammar School. He went on to Cambridge University in 1911, graduating in 1914 the year the First World War started. He volunteered and was sent to France with the rank of Captain and, although escaping the fate of many of his contemporaries, he was seriously wounded and invalided out of the army before the Armistice. Gidney's war experiences took a terrible toll and, though not many people realised it at the time, he was as a very sick man.
I have yet to discover how Gidney met B-P, or to learn of his Scouting service after university and before Gilwell. It is known that B-P thought him the 'perfect Boy-Man', a term which, though very non-PC today, was at that time one of the highest accolades that B-P ever bestowed. Gidney was described as having an angular, bespectacled face which was sad in repose, but he had a boyish sense of humour and was a natural enthusiast. B-P appointed him Gilwell Camp Chief in 1919 over John Hargrave who, as Commissioner of Woodcraft, might have been thought of as the natural choice, particularly as it was he who had impressed upon B-P the need for a training ground for Scouters rather than just a campsite for Scouts. But Hargrave had ruined his chances with his outspoken comments on militarism in Scouting, and trying to subvert Scouting in general to his Red Indian woodcraft-based version, founded on the principles outlined by Ernest Thompson Seton
As soon as he was appointed, Gidney exhibited a showman's love of stunts and tricks, as well as tree-climbing and log cabins. His first camp fires were enlivened with displays of axe and knife throwing, and he did embrace some of Hargrave's Red Indian ideas, as the various totem poles at Gilwell and the Indian sign-writing on the Gilwell Log Book testifies. The Camp Chief kept a resident quartet of singing Rovers, and an early helper said "Gidney brought a touch of controlled lunacy to the place." Charles W Emlyn in his book, A Twenty-Four Years' Hike wrote, "Gidney was a man who could persuade anybody to do anything." The boys who visited Gilwell adored him, as did the many helpers, not least Don Potter.
GIDNEY'S wife, a twice-married actress, cared little for Scouting, and could not have been impressed by her husband's low salary because, as early as October 1919, Gidney had complained that he was inadequately paid. B-P agreed but, after 2 years, nothing had been done. Such things did not deter Gidney from doing his best, and he threw himself into his job heart and soul, his reputation spreading as the graduates of the Wood Badge courses returned to their homelands across the globe. B-P was a frequent visitor to Gilwell and was particularly happy to bring with him any potential benefactor to Scouting as, as he readily acknowledged, there was no better place to see the 'Scout Spirit' at work.
'Skipper' Gidney, photographed sometime between 1921 and 1923
In November 1921 Gidney went to India to establish Wood Badge training there, but only a month later one of Gidney's children died and that, together with other difficulties, made him take time off. When Gidney returned to Gilwell, things had changed. The Finance Committee had found that Gilwell was costing too much money and looked askance at Gidney's 'extravagances', such as log cabins and the like. B-P tried unsuccessfully to calm the situation down, but the Committee wanted Gidney merely to be in charge of training and not the management of Gilwell Park. B-P agreed and proposed that Gidney should be Camp Chief, but that the Finance Committee should have overall control of 'the Department' that managed Gilwell. B-P himself promised to represent Gilwell on the Committee of the Council.
In September, 1922, Gidney's wife was ill and he went with her to the USA for three months, came back to England for three months and then returned to the US for a further six months, during which time he helped US Chief Scout James West set up Wood Badge training courses there. Whilst he was away, Percy Everett found that Gilwell was in chaos. He reccommended that control from the centre was the only solution and he urged The Founder start a new system before Gidney came back from the US. On his return Gidney and B-P lunched together at the Gilwell re-union, a Gidney creation which was now annually attracting 1,000 Scouters, but the news that Gidney's Assistant had been dismissed was broken to Gidney at B-P's home at Pax Hill on October 3rd, 1923, with Everett present. On the morning after this confrontation, Gidney was too ill to go to London with Everett and B-P, and so he left alone later in the day. Gidney was happy enough with the proposal that he should remain Camp Chief, in charge of training under the 'Head of Training' at HQ, as B-P himself had taken on that rôle, but he was less happy with the proposal that he loose all control over the management of Gilwell Park. And was particularly aggrieved at the dismissal of Chapman, his Assistant, especially as it was Gidney who had persuaded his friend to leave a regular and well-paid job to assist him at Gilwell. He therefore tendered his resignation to B-P.
Baden-Powell was sincerely saddened and surprised by the resignation and he did his best to try and talk Gidney round. From Headquarters Gazette, November 1923:
"Unfortunately, He could not see eye to eye with me in the matter of changes which, in my capacity as Commissioner for Training, I have made in the administration of Gilwell.
The movement as a whole, both at home and overseas, owes a great deal to Gidney, to his personal charm, sincerity of purpose and capability; and nobody owes more to him than I personally.
I am consoled by the fact that he is not leaving the movement."
James E West, Chief Scout of America, who had worked on training courses with Gidney when he was in America asked B-P if he would mind if he offered Gidney a job. B-P replied that Gidney was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but conceded that he was "an outstanding personality . . . a genius at training", and that he had resigned mainly "through a misunderstanding with myself."
'SKIPPER' Gidney died from the effects of his war wounds at the age of 38, in 1928, five years after leaving Gilwell. Before that his marriage had foundered. He worked briefly as a Master at a preparatory school in Bournemouth, before returning to his parents' house to die. On his death-bed he wrote to Baden-Powell and quoted the 8th Scout Law. "I have tried to 'smile and whistle' through it all." He asked to remembered to B-P's children particularly to Heather. (Gidney also had a daughter called Heather).
It was decided, appropriately (did no-one see the irony?) to build a log cabin to his memory on the edge of the Gilwell Training Field. The Frank Gidney Memorial Cabin, was mainly, and appropriately, built by Don Potter, and was opened by B-P on Easter Day, 1930. B-P was accompanied by his son Peter and Gidney's parents. Gidney's children, Heather and Alan, were also present. (The Gidney's had twins, one of whom had B-P as a Godfather. Heather and Alan may have been those twins. I regret that at this stage I know nothing more about his children, including their dates of birth and would, as always, welcome any additional information readers may have.) Major and Mrs Gidney had donated their son's Scouting trophies and mementoes to decorate the hut, which was furnished with hickory wood items donated by the Boy Scouts of America.
THE significance of Gidney's short four years as Camp Chief cannot be over-estimated, both in the UK and throughout the Scouting world. It was his idea to start the 1st Gilwell Scout troop for all Wood Badge holders, with its distinctive neckerchief and he successfully established the pattern still used for modern-day Gilwell reunions. Under the pen-name Gilcraft, he, and a number of writers whom he commissioned, wrote on training matters for the Gilwell courses, starting with his own work Spare Time Activities. This led to articles in The Scout and Headquarters Gazette, then to separate booklets. E E Reynolds wrote, "It is impossible to estimate the influence exerted by these Gilwell-sponsored books; they reached thousands of Scouters who could not get to training camps." And from B.-P.'s Scouts, by Collis, Hazelwood and Hurll. "He took B-P's ideas of the theoretical session and the practical demonstration and gave them a pattern which no change of circumstance or personality has effaced."
B-P was, as ever, also fulsome in his praise.
"It was he who started the training of Scouters on the right lines, and who laid the foundations for the spirit of Gilwell."
Gidney's contribution to Scouting, bearing in mind that his short but very influential career was increasingly affected his serious war wounds, was remarkable. His loss to Gilwell, and particularly the manner of his departure, must surely be a matter of deep regret.
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