The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (a Background)
The following article is based on a talk that Silverspear gave to Pagan Pathways in April 2017.
The urge to revere Nature, albeit a rather idealised form of Nature, gained momentum in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution with certain movements and groups seeking a return to a simpler and more rural way of life. An example of this disenchantment with modernity resulted in the founding of the Woodcraft societies. One such group was known as “The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry”, an organisation founded in the USA by Ernest Westlake and not dissimilar in structure to Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout movement. A young man by the name of John Hargrave had been an active member of Baden-Powell’s movement; in fact, he had been the Commissioner for Woodcraft and Camping in the Scouts until he was ejected (excommunicated, is the term that Hargrave later used) because of his innate distrust of authority. Hargrave came from a Quaker background and therefore was a pacifist – a stance that was entirely alien to Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement, which focussed on military values and preserving the dominance of the British Empire.
Nonetheless, despite Hargrave’s pacificism, he volunteered to serve in the British Army during the First World War as a non-combatant and joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher-bearer. What he experienced and witnessed in the trenches, however, only reinforced his hatred of warfare even more. After the war ended, Hargrave wrote a book (published in 1919) entitled: “The Great War Brings It Home”, in which he expressed his view that civilization had disastrously failed. To counteract this failure, he founded a new Woodcraft movement in 1920, which he called The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. When pressed to explain the meaning behind the name, Hargrave tended to imply that such a question was ultimately unanswerable, which indicates a personality tending towards mystique and secrecy; traits often displayed by founders of magical-inspired traditions. Apparently, the name was actually taken from an antiquarian dictionary of colloquial Cheshire terminology, meaning, “proof of strength”.
Documents signed at the founding of Kibbo Kift still survive. The following are seven points that were central to the group’s aims:
1 Open Air Education for the Children; Camp Training and Naturecraft
2 Health of Body, Mind and Spirit
3 Craft Training Groups and Craft Guilds
4 The Woodcraft Family, or Roof Tree
5 Local Folk Moots and Cultural Development
6 Disarmament of Nations – Brotherhood of Man
7 International Education based on Freedom of Trade between Nations; Stabilisation of the purchasing Power of Money in all countries: Open Negotiations instead of secret treaties and diplomacy; A World Council
Needless to say, the British Establishment quickly became highly suspicious of Kibbo Kift’s utopian ambitions. In 2014, under the Freedom of Information Act, former classified papers were released revealing that Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift had been under surveillance by the government for ‘deeming to be unpatriotic’. Despite the fact that Kibbo Kift was regarded as subversive, many illustrious characters of the day were on the group’s advisory council. There were Nobel Prize winners for literature, Liberal and Labour MPs and eminent scientists, such as Julian Huxley. Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells were also supporters. Other notable individuals who supported the aims of Kibbo Kift were two suffragettes, Mary Neal and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
Clearly from the outset Hargrave intended the Kibbo Kift to be an elitist organisation, confirming this when he wrote in the K.K. broadsheet ‘Letters to the Kindred’: “Those who do not feel themselves consumed, swallowed up, released, set free from idiosyncratic impedimenta, and able to make the necessary projection in some form of Art, Science, or Philosophy, have mistaken the K.K. for a rambling club or a Holiday Campers Fellowship or a Debating Society”. Hargrave had also drawn up a list of essential qualities for members:
A Kinsman keeps his body clean and tidy
A Kinsman is always on Active Service
A Kinsman does not whine or grumble
The Kindred have one Common Aim: World Unity
The Kindred have one Common Enemy: Sloth
The Kindred belong to one Country: The World
The Kindred have one Loyalty – to Mankind
A Kinsman trains himself physically – by Campcraft
A Kinsman trains himself mentally – to Think Internationally.
In view of the group’s focus on self-development and loosely-disguised neo-paganism, an important question inevitably arises: was Kibbo Kift a magical, as well as a political group? Kibbo Kift certainly adopted a lot of magical and pagan-inspired elements. Kin roles, for example, were given certain archaic titles, such as Scribe and Tallykeeper; the term ‘Scribe’ is used today in some traditional witchcraft groups rather than the term secretary. A traditional Kin greeting was ‘Wes Hael!’ (Be thou Whole) which many pagans today would recognise. Phrases lifted from Aleister Crowley were also displayed on some of Kibbo Kift’s tents, including many other symbols associated with neo-paganism or magical traditions. The governing body of Kibbo Kift was known as the Ndembo, which had its own initiation ceremony. This included the casting of circles, with banishing and invocation and the consecration of the Four Quarters. The Ndembo also frequently uttered the magical cry: “So Mote it Be”.
It was customary too for Kibbo Kift members to adopt names that reflected their personalities, a custom that is also a feature of some modern witchcraft traditions; Craft names, as they are known. John Hargrave was known as White Fox, but clearly became disenchanted with the over-popularity of wolf names: “Too many kinsfolk have taken the Wolf as a Totem. There are lone wolves and grey wolves, and fighting wolves, and brown wolves, and black wolves and little wolves, and (pause for breath!) every kind of wolf that is, or ever shall be”.
Hargrave was certainly critical of popular occultism: “Let those who turn tables, read thoughts, speak with tongues, gaze into crystals … turn away. There is nothing here for them. This is no mystical cult, occult clique nor magical fraternity. Nor is it a secret nor semi-secret society”.
However, like many magical individuals, Hargrave was probably resorting to obfuscation. He despised dilletantes and dabblers, a sentiment Hargrave shared with Aleister Crowley. This becomes clearer in another of Hargrave’s statements: “The operative magus does not proclaim his initiation, disclaims ‘occult powers’ and admits he ‘knows nothing’. Again, this echoes Crowley: “The word is spoken and concealed: the meaning hidden and revealed”.
Hargrave was also fond of citing the words of Paracelsus: “Resolute imagination is the beginning of all magical operations”. Anyone familiar with the magical arts will know, of course, that magic can only be achieved when it circumvents rationality and reaches into the realms of Imagination. The same principle underpins Zen Buddhism, with its use of koans to confuse the analytical mind. Hargrave also said that bewitching people was his mission in life – it is operative magic, as he put it. It is also interesting to note that in Kibbo Kift literature the word ‘magic’ was spelt the same way that Crowley wrote it – with a letter ‘k’ tagged onto the end.
Another feature of Kibbo Kift was the sacred campfire, which was always ceremonially lit and during camping events kept burning day and night. There was one incident in the mid-1920s when the wood refused to burn and paraffin was used to help ignite it. It turned out that a Daily Mirror reporter was present at the time and later wrote in his newspaper a mocking article, with the words: “Paraffin, Paraffin, sacred paraffin”.
Hargrave responded with this quote: “Ridicule will never kill or modify the Kibbo Kift because we enjoy being ridiculous, and know why we are ridiculous”.
There is little doubt that a magical element underpinned its ethos and, like modern paganism or the New Age, the Kibbo Kift was very eclectic. Some members were Theosophists, with a definite magical bent. Kibbo Kift also attracted feminists, political idealists and even practising Christians within its ranks. One Christian woman was Joyce Reason, who wrote missionary biographies and books for young children. Joyce Reason’s Kibbo Kift name was Sea Otter. Another Kinswoman was Vera Chapman (known as Lavengri) who was the wife of an Anglican vicar.
Another feature of Kibbo Kift was its strong emphasis on craftwork and art. Within the group one could seek advice on stencilling, printmaking, woodworking, leatherwork, dyeing, basketry, spinning, weaving, embroidery and calligraphy – and the list goes on. Kinsfolk were required to make everything themselves: their own costumes, symbols, walking sticks, hiking clothing and even their own tents. John Hargrave himself was an illustrator and draughtsman by profession, and anyone familiar with the witchcraft tradition referred to as “The Old Craft” will know it too places a strong emphasis on its members acquiring arts and craft skills and knowing how to make their own magical tools.
A vital piece of Kibbo Kift equipment was the lectern; hand-made, of course. One young woman who was ceremonially appointed as “Kin Scriptor” was Kathleen Milnes, known as Blue Falcon. Blue Falcon was an artist by profession, as were her parents, both graduates from the Royal College of Art. The lectern was used to support the Kinlog, which was a hefty tome recording the official history of the movement. The Kinlog measured 21 and ½ inches high and 16 inches wide and contained 600 pages of gilt-edged paper, hand-stitched and bound between embossed decorative leather end boards.
Another important symbol was Kibbo Kift’s own logo, known as the Mark, which was comprised of a blue K sign, along with an orange/red flame emerging from green campfire logs. The blue circle was said to symbolise eternity, the flame the life force, and the three green logs symbolised the three disciplines of Art, Science, and Philosophy. The performing arts were also important to Kibbo Kift, which had its own Gleemen and Glee-maidens, named after itinerant clowns in medieval England called Gleemen who tended to work in partnership with female clowns known as Glee-maidens. A notable figure in Kibbo Kift was the fellow who took nearly all their official photographs, therefore preserving valuable pictorial history that would have been lost for ever. His name was Angus McBean, known in the Kibbo Kift as Aengus Og. Angus McBean eventually went on to become a highly successful photographer, theatrical set designer and surreal artist and was also responsible for many of The Beatles photographs during the 1960s. Angus was born in 1904 and died in 1990.
When John Hargrave founded the Kibbo Kift in 1920 he no doubt hoped the movement would change the world for the better. Unfortunately, by 1930 membership of the Kibbo Kift had dropped dramatically. One possible reason may have been the result of Hargrave’s increasing focus on politics, which began to overshadow the magical and mystical elements of the movement; the very elements which had attracted so many creative and extraordinary individuals to the group in the first place. Consequently, Kibbo Kift lost its original identity but for a short while took on a new identity, reforming as the Green Shirts and modelling its style on paramilitary groups fashionable at the time. The main focus of the Green Shirts was achieving Social Equality. Unfortunately, in 1937 the British government banned the wearing of political uniforms and the end was in sight for the Green Shirts. Two years later, in 1939, world events changed the course of history for ever.
As for John Hargrave, he gradually slid into obscurity. Since the 1940s he had been in a relationship with the theatre and film actress Gwendolyn Gray and both lived together in her flat in Hampstead, London. It was only in 1968 that the couple were married, after Hargrave was finally divorced from his long-term wife Ruth. John Hargrave died in 1982.