“Proof of Great Strength”: Grappling with the Kibbo Kift Kindred

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Friday, 9th June 2017

Exemplifying the virtues and limitations of the early 20th century “self-taught man”, John Hargrave (1894-1982) was accomplished in a variety of fields.  A senior scoutmaster possessing great powers of imagination, energy and charisma, Hargrave’s experience of war during the Battle of Gallipoli caused him to become bitterly disillusioned with the nationalism and militarism of Sir Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement.

When the Great War ended, Hargrave broke from the Scouts and created a pacifistic, progressive and universalist alternative youth movement, which became known as the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift.  “Kibbo Kift”, Hargrave maintained, meant “proof of great strength” in an archaic and obscure Cheshire dialect.

Although never very great in numbers, the Kindred were highly active and influential throughout the 1920s, attracting support from writer H.G. Wells and former suffragette Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence among other socially progressive thinkers.  Indeed, Wells’ 1905 novel A Modern Utopia, with its vision of a “New Samurai” class of creative, disciplined and self-actualised individuals leading the world towards a future free of war and poverty, was a clear model for Hargraves’ counter-cultural movement.

The Kibbo Kift adopted a romanticised Anglo-Saxon motif, including a uniform of green jerkins, hoods and cloaks. Thus attired, they set out on strenuous camping and hiking expeditions, staged elaborately theatrical rituals and mystical plays, produced strikingly original handcrafts and costume art, all according to Hargrave’s comprehensive philosophy for the betterment of each individual Kin member and the wider society.

Above: echoes of Robin Hood as young members of the Kibbo Kift embark on a bracing cross-country hike.

Although the Order of the Kibbo Kift was an avowedly pacifistic organisation, it also promoted physical fitness and the ethic of self-reliance, which included self-defence if necessary.  Therefore, along with archery and “fleetfoot” (running races), Hargrave – whose name within the Order was “White Fox” – instituted a type of wrestling sport called “thewstrang”.  This word was taken to mean “muscular strength”.

Above: Thewstrang as demonstrated by two stalwart Kibbo Kift Kinsmen.

Unlike most English folk-styles of wrestling, Thewstrang did not mandate any particular opening grip, nor insist that a specific grip should be held throughout the match.  In common with the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style, it allowed holds to be taken below the belt-line.  The object appears to have been to throw one’s opponent to the turf, although it’s possible that – like the roughly contemporaneous “standing catch” style – one could also win by simply hoisting an opponent helplessly off his feet.

Thewstrang matches were mainstays of Kindred meetings, including a tournament held at their main annual camping gathering which was known, after the Icelandic custom, as the “Althing”.

During the economic and social turmoil of the 1930s Hargrave attempted to transform the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift into a political movement, agitating for the institution of a radical, Social Credit-based economic reform.  Members of his quasi-militaristic Green Shirt Brigade frequently exerted their “thewstrang” in clashes with Sir Oswald Mosely’s fascist Black Shirts during political rallies and marches through the streets of London.

A Hargrave supporter, Hubert Cornish-Bowden, recalled the wrestling technique he’d used during a brawl at a Mosely meeting:

We were carrying a banner and a chap tried to pull it down. I gave him a biff and then I found myself on the floor with about four people kicking me. Unfortunately, it was very dark and when one is lying in the gutter being kicked it is rather difficult to distinguish one person’s legs from another’s. And I caught hold of a policeman’s foot. Got hold of his toe in one hand and his heel in the other, and twisted it. Of course he fell down. Next thing I knew, either three or four policemen were carrying me out of the meeting, one on each arm like that and with one or two holding my feet. What they call the frog march. They fined me £3 at the London Magistrate’s Court.

Another Green Shirt (appropriately named Ralph Green) made the news when, inspired by Robin Hood, he shot an arrow through the window of No. 10 Downing Street, proclaiming that “Social Credit is coming!”

The activities of the Green Shirt Brigade and similar paramilitary movements were curtailed by the Public Order Act of 1936, which banned the wearing of uniforms by political groups, and then the membership was scattered by the outbreak of war in 1939.  Thereafter, John Hargrave gradually withdrew from the public spotlight.  Although his notably creative efforts at progressive social reform had been largely forgotten by the time he died in 1982, it could be argued that some of them were simply decades ahead of their time.

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