Ritual, craft and camping: How the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift tried to re-make the world

An interview with Annebella Pollen

Andrew Sleigh
Aug 1, 2016 · 12 min read
Boys and men in the Touching of the Totems rite, Althing, 1925. © Kibbo Kift Foundation, courtesy of London School of Economics Library

If you had ventured out onto the downs of southern England during the 1920s, you might have crossed paths with a group of extravagantly-clad youngsters, bearing totems, and carrying on their backs hand-made tents and simple camping equipment. At their head, you might have seen their leader, White Fox, otherwise known as John Hargrave, who along with a group of like-minded pacifists, disgruntled ex-Scouts and woodcrafters set out to create a new social movement based on the principles of a healthy outdoor life, self-reliance, handcraft, and peaceful fraternity. They were the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.

The movement was short-lived, and they never had more than a few hundred members, but their ambitions were global, and their extraordinary rituals, costumes and handcrafted objects, not to mention their charismatic front man, ensured their influence would continue on to today, and likely far beyond. A splinter group of the Kindred went on to become the Woodcraft Folk, an alternative scout-style organisation still operating today. By the late 1920s and 1930s, Hargrave had shifted his focus to campaigning for social credit, a theory of monetary reform which enjoys renewed interest today in the form of basic income. And thanks to Hargrave’s understanding of the power of images (he was an artist and an ad man by profession), we have a rich visual archive, which has inspired contemporary makers, students of fashion, woodcrafters and revolutionaries.

In 2015, the design historian and researcher Annebella Pollen wrote a beautiful, heavily-illustrated book The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, which tells the little-known story of Hargrave and Kibbo Kift, and brings to light, for the first time, the incredible archive of images and objects which they created during their brief existence. In August, she’s speaking at Maker Assembly in Sheffield. Ahead of that talk, I caught up with her to find out what makers today can learn from this remarkable, iconoclastic group.

Body of Gleemen and Gleemaidens, Gleemote, 1929. Photo: Angus McBean. Courtesy of Tim Turner.

At first glance, Kibbo Kift might just look like a group of outdoor types who enjoyed dressing up in fanciful costume. But their goals were audacious, and global in scope. When founded in 1920, they were committed to, amongst other things: “bringing about an international educational policy, international freedom of trade, an international currency system, the abolition of secret treaties and the establishment of a World Council, including ‘every civilised and primitive nation or race’”. It’s hard to imagine a craft movement today setting out such a far-reaching agenda, so I asked Pollen if there were factors in play at the time, that created the conditions for such a movement to emerge:

So where has the action gone today? Where are the making, art or craft-based movements that call for change on such scale, and have at least proposed a programme to achieve it?

Anyone who’s trying to build a popular movement for change wants to know how movements gain traction. And in particular, how distributed movements, built on principles of openness and egalitarianism can achieve this. When I spoke with the technology writer Kevin Kelly about this recently, he suggested that when they do succeed, it is in large part thanks to maniacal leadership. He cited Linus Torvalds and the Linux open source operating system as a case in point. If true, this is troubling for those involved in attempts to create more equitable or distributed systems of technology. It suggests that such progressive movements may fail without a strong, hierarchical leadership, which to some extent must cut against any egalitarian programme.

John Hargrave as White Fox Spirit Chief with children at Dexter Fam Tribal Training Camp II, 1928. Photo: Angus McBean. Courtesy of Tim Turner.

Reading about John Hargrave in Pollen’s book, this thought resonated. He clearly had strong opinions, wild ambitions, and a knowledge of the tools needed to recruit people to his cause. So was Kibbo Kift under the control of one (perhaps benevolent) leader? Was it a personality cult? If so, to what extent did it succeed in growing a wider support base and sharing ownership through its membership?

Kinswomen dancing, c. 1924.© Kibbo Kift Foundation, courtesy of London School of Economics Library.

The Kibbo Kift made effective use of rituals, ritual objects, and costume to create an identity, and give their ideas coherence and power. In fact, the visual record they left behind would be considerably less impressive, if it weren’t for this focus.

With a few exceptions, such as the quasi-nostalgic garb of bushcrafters or the steampunk community, I suggested that today’s craft and social movements seem to take on a more casual approach. Pollen disagrees:

Left: John Hargrave’s Head Man totem, c.1928. Right: Great In­Bringer, 1929. © Kibbo Kift Foundation/Museum of London. Photography by John Chase.

It’s evident from the archive of totems, costumes and marching regalia that craft was an important practice to Kibbo Kift. So what was the value they saw in making?

Hargrave, like John Ruskin and William Morris before him, tried to find a way for makers to operate in a world of mechanised production. Hargrave believed that craft was both a valuable way of living that we had lost in the past, and a vital tool to survive — and thrive — today. But he went further, seeming to suggest that Kibbo Kift were preparing for a future after the fall of civilisation, where their outdoor skills and self-reliance would become valuable assets.

Kinsmen at Stonehenge (Wessex Pilgrimage), 1929. Photo: Angus McBean. © Kibbo Kift Foundation, courtesy of London School of Economics Library.

Kibbo Kift looked both to the past and the future, but did they hold a coherent position that could suggest a viable response to an industrial (or post-industrial) society?

Annebella will be speaking about Kibbo Kift at Maker Assembly in Sheffield on 31 August.

Her book, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians, is available direct from the publishers, Donlon Books.

Maker Assembly is supported by The Comino Foundation, Lighthouse and the V&A.

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