Girlguiding 'alive and kicking' after half a century in Sheffield

Linda Grant, County Commissioner of Girlguiding looks at an old uniform from 1965. Picture by Andrew Roe
Linda Grant, County Commissioner of Girlguiding looks at an old uniform from 1965. Picture by Andrew Roe
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"People used to say we were a militaristic organisation," says Linda Grant, after browsing through a selection of vintage Girl Guide outfits on a rail at the group's Sheffield HQ.

"We wear a uniform, that's part of a common standard, but we don't march up and down these days."

Linda Grant, County Commissioner of Girlguiding looks through old photographs. Picture by Andrew Roe

Linda Grant, County Commissioner of Girlguiding looks through old photographs. Picture by Andrew Roe

They vary wildly - some of the older garments look fit for an air raid warden, while a shirt from 1965 still has a wrapped-up penny safely stowed inside a pocket, much to Linda's glee.

"We always used to carry a penny," she remembers.

The reminiscing has been sparked by a special anniversary, as it is 50 years since Sheffield was formally recognised as a Girlguiding county in its own right. Linda is the county commissioner, and at the weekend was responsible for leading a celebration in Hillsborough Park, attended by more than 800 girls and leaders.

"I've been loading the van with 900 portions of Our Cow Molly ice cream," she confides. "It takes a lot of room up."

Girlguiding's history extends further back than 1967, of course - it originated in the early 1900s when girls demanded to take part in the boys-only scouting movement.

It's no anachronism, though. The organisation is 'alive and kicking', says Linda, and is going through a process of modernisation to make sure its activities reflect today's society.

In Sheffield alone there are just under 3,000 guides, along with over 700 leaders, commissioners and volunteers. The group has a camp at Whiteley Woods near Bents Green, and another site at Hesley Wood, Chapeltown.

"It's still very popular and we have a long waiting list," says Linda.

"The girls get a lot out of being part of the organisation - they do a lot of things they don't in school. It's time to just be yourself."

She recalls a recent Brownie camp which featured a host of wholesome pursuits - marshmallow-toasting, sleeping under the stars and 'crate-stacking'.

"That's where they climb a load of crates and fall off, roped onto a branch," Linda explains.

"When you're seven it's a big deal - well, it probably would have been for me."

There's less cooking over open flames, these days, however - "We do make fires, but we tend not to cook for the whole camp on them" - and girls are encouraged to think about women's place in the world.

"We have to keep up with what the girls want to do. Things like social media and body awareness are much more part of everyday life. There are lots of different ways of looking at it, for example taking apart a magazine and asking 'Do you think this girl really looks like this?'"

Linda adds: "We didn't do it for the last election, but for the previous election we did a lot of stuff about democracy and voting, and how we got to being able to vote. But then equally we might spend an evening baking and icing, or making bath bombs.

"Girls spend a long time looking at their iPads or the telly than they ever did when I was growing up, but outdoors and going abroad on holiday is still a huge part of what we do."

A big review is under way to update all the classic badges - coveted patches guides can obtain by completing certain activities. Some of the ideas put forward were 21st century in the extreme, app design, vlogging and upcycling among them.

"In this country we expect to be able to do everything, but in other countries Girlguiding is the only thing they have where women are important. We are very much about saying that girls can do anything they want."

Linda, aged 58, became a ranger in the early 1970s at Sheffield's Greenhill guide branch. She took time out in the early 1980s to look after her son and daughter - James and Hannah, now in their 30s, who both attended scouts and guides - but returned to become a leader in 1988.

She juggles her duties with a full-time job as director of Ferndale Garden Centre in Dronfield alongside her husband, Neil.

"It has its own stresses, but it's a great way to relieve the pressures of work. You've just got to be on your mettle and can't think of anything else for an hour or so."

Girls sign up to the guides from the ages of 10 to 14, but can join the senior section or become a ranger until they are 19.

"You can actually stay until you're 26. We've got leaders that have done 50 years' service. It's lovely watching the girls grow up, and learning how to look after themselves. As they get older, they flourish - they do go through the horrible stages but, then, don't we all. It's a privilege, really. They're a bit like your own daughters - it sounds very sentimental, but it's true."

Linda accepts that Girlguiding has some work to do to dispel its somewhat middle-class image - "It's hard trying to engage with everybody, but we would welcome everyone" - and confirms that a pledge to 'serve' its patron the Queen is still required, although a religious oath was dropped four years ago.

"We used to make our promise to God but now we promise to be true to our beliefs, so that would cover whether you believed in God or not."

The county commissioner role is a five-year post, and Linda has another two years left, after which she will take a break, then likely return to a unit. This Friday she is heading to Denmark as part of a group of 10 girls and leaders from Sheffield for a World Scout Jamboree, expected to attract a turnout of 40,000. Linda smiles at the prospect and admits: "It's addictive."