Ecclesfield at the centre of Girlguiding history
Around half a million girls in the UK are part of Brownie, Rainbow and Girl Guide groups.
They are following in the footsteps of the girls who, in 1909, made sure the Guide Association was established through their belief that scouting wasn’t just for boys.
Groups went on to make important contributions to the war effort, broke world records and more recently marched at Pride and created a Girls Matter Campaign.
Much of this wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Juliana Gatty, husband of the Reverend Dr Alfred Gatty, vicar of Ecclesfield in the 1800s.
Juliana wrote the original Brownie story at St Mary’s Church, which told of a band of ‘Little People’ whose purpose was to help adults.
Nowadays the Ecclesfield Girl Guide unit meets weekly at Gatty Memorial Hall, which was built as a memorial to Rev Gatty.
Ecclesfield Girl Guide leader Julie Whitham said: “It’s phenomenal that this story, which is now told worldwide, was written just across the road from where we meet at Gatty Hall. There’s still a pond in Ecclesfield which is talked about in the Brownie story.”
The village may have changed a lot since then, but leader Diana Hoey believes its Girl Guide unit still carries the same great ethos.
She said: “Even though Ecclesfield is now growing, it’s still our little village.
“If you take a walk through the area, everyone knows someone and says hello.
“When I walk through many of the older ladies will stop me and ask if I still run the guides, and they’ll recall when they used to be guides themselves.
“We are quite a modern unit but the girls also really like to hear about the history of our hall and group in general, as they know they’re growing into that history themselves.
“They’re fascinated by it.”
The unit of 20 girls is ran by four senior and three young leaders. Julie Whitham, Claire Topham and Laura Radford-Black have over 80 years of experience between them, working alongside young leaders Lucy Firth, Bethany Topham and Chloe Smith.
Girl Guiding has benefited the community in Ecclesfield since 1918. The group believes it was the third unit to form in Sheffield.
Diana said: “We still have all the original flags given to us by the Queen when our group first started. We didn’t realise how important they were until the museums started approaching us and asking to use them in their exhibitions.”
Julie added that older Guides had gone on to be leaders, ‘so they must enjoy it’.
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“Some girls come back from university and join us,” she said. “They just don’t seem to want to give something that’s been there all their lives.”
Meanwhile the Guides are at the heart of the neighbourhood’s traditional May Queen celebration which has been held every year since 1945.
Diana said: “Every year one of the girls is chosen to be our Queen. This year will be our 75th show.
“It comes in two parts – the first part is full of performances from the girls whether that’s singing, dancing or drama, which then leads into the crowning of the new Queen.
“Girls are chosen based on their attitude towards Girl Guiding and their work within the community.”
All Girlguiding members are invited to make the same promise – to do their best, to be true to themselves and develop their beliefs, to serve the Queen and their community, to help other people and to abide by the Guide Law.
The leaders at Ecclesfield couldn’t be more confident that their girls uphold these rules every day.
Diana said: “I think we are really lucky as leaders in Ecclesfield to have such fantastic girls, and support from young leaders and parents.
“Our girls are very comfortable, relaxed and carefree at Guides – they know they can be themselves.”
However the leaders believe changes in society have had an impact.
“We’ve seen a change in the girls that come through the guides,” Diana said.
“As much as they’re told they have to grow up, they are losing basic skills.
“A lot of them don’t wash up or cook from a young age so we teach them to be independent. They are always happy to take on jobs, they just don’t often have the chance to.”
Diana spoke of the confidence she has in her girls.
She said: “We’ll take them out to do outdoor cooking for example, where they’ll collect their own firewood and stones and make their own fire pit, which is hilarious.
“The older girls tend to look after the young ones when we go on camps, and sometimes we’ll visit the fire station or have a visit from a police officer.
“Once a year we’ll go to the Big Gig concert which the girls love.
“I think we give young people such a hard time these days. Our girls are so polite and we all pull together. I’d take our girls anywhere.”
The Ecclesfield May Queen event takes place on May 16, 17 and 18 at Gatty Hall. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to buy tickets.