When Jane Carroll joined the girl guide movement more than 50 years ago it was, she says, ‘the thing to do’.
“There wasn’t much else in those days,” remembers Jane, president of Girlguiding Sheffield, who has just been presented with an award to mark her half-century of service.
It was fun back then, but strict – girls weren’t expected to be forthright and the rules were quite overbearing, starting with the uniform.
“You had inspection every week, and in your pocket you had to have tuppence for a phone call, a piece of string, paper and pencil, and a clean handkerchief,” she says, laughing at the thought of her brownie outfit, which she wore from the age of seven before progressing to the guides four years later.
“We wore a tie that was triangular and you used that for a sling. You had to have a shiny belt and shoes – and your badge had to be polished on both sides.”
Not that Jane or any of the other girls would have complained.
“You didn’t think about it. In fact it was something special, really. You felt quite proud of being in your uniform, as you do now. Now you can wear whatever you like, within the uniform range. There are polo tops, sweatshirts, culottes, skirts, jogging bottoms...”
Jane presides over the guide county of Sheffield, which has about 4,000 girls enrolled as members, including rainbows – aged five to seven, brownies – seven to 10, guides – 10 to 14 – and rangers – 14 to 18. The senior section extends the age range to 25, and women can become leaders too.
“It’s a wonderful organisation,” says Jane, sipping tea on a bench outside in the sun at the Sheffield group’s 13-acre outdoor activities centre. Tucked away down a rural lane in Whiteley Woods near Bents Green, it’s a lovely place where squirrels and rabbits dart about, surrounded by bird song. “I remember camping, that was brilliant. We used to go in an open-topped lorry, all piled in the back. You wouldn’t be allowed today, all the equipment weighed a ton.”
Did she ever envisage staying for 50 years?
“No way. I just never left. I feel as though I’ve gained such a lot out of it, seeing the girls grow in confidence. And it’s a cheap hobby once you’ve got your uniform and paid your subs.”
The movement originated in 1909 when girls demanded to take part in scouting, which had previously been the domain of boys only. Guides quickly grew in importance – in the First World War members acted as messengers during the negotiations for the treaty of Versailles. Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space, was a guide during her childhood in Grenoside, while both the Queen and Princess Margaret signed up in their youth, the latter becoming national president until her death.
Guides still make a promise to ‘serve the Queen and my community’ on joining, but references to God have been dropped in a bid to accommodate people of all faiths and none – instead girls pledge ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs’. Likewise the coveted badges that guides work towards gaining are being completely overhauled from September 2019 as part of a £3 million programme. Vlogging, mindfulness, boxing, financial management and upcycling are some of the modern activities on offer, representing a departure from traditional home and craft skills.
Nationally, there are 400,000 young members, a figure that has remained stable in recent years.
“We’re a progressive organisation, very much for women and equality,” says Jane. “The promise moves with the times – as the girls’ lives change, so guiding changes. They’ve got the freedom, they can voice their opinions. They’re adventurous. There’s no discrimination.”
Jane, 72, grew up in High Storrs where she has always lived. When she left school at Abbeydale Girls Grammar she worked as a lab technician, then ran a catering business and worked at a nursery. Later she acted as secretary for her husband, Roger, a self-employed consulting engineer. Leaving work meant she had time to take on the role of county commissioner for Girlguiding Sheffield, effectively a full-time job which she kept from 1989 to 1996.
“I was very involved with the World Student Games, and met the Queen a couple of times. I feel I led from behind rather than in front. I’m a delegator, but I’ll always support others – mainly for their benefit as well, so they can achieve. I do believe in giving people opportunities.”
She became president four years ago, and has 12 months of her five-year term left. Has she considered leaving? “That’s a hard one, really I should give up gracefully. I just enjoy it so much.”
She will definitely continue with the Trefoil Guild, a non-uniformed branch of guiding for adults, and is still friends with members she met long ago.
“I had a surprise 50th party with people I hadn’t seen for 40 years. It was wonderful, absolutely amazing. I have one friend I still see every week. We’ve met on a Tuesday come what may.”
Her sons, Steve and Phil, were once scouts, and her daughter, Jo, was a guide, ‘but they all left’, she says.
“My theory was, just because I get so much out of it there’s no reason why they should. It’s not for everybody, it’s there for people to enjoy it, not something you’ve got to be forced to do.”
‘Join our family’
Jane Carroll believes girlguiding has a long future – provided enough new volunteer leaders can be found. In Sheffield there are long waiting lists, she says, a problem that could be solved if more helpers came forward.
“That’s the biggest drawback. We could open more units but we just can’t get the leaders. People are so busy. But if you want to do it you make time, don’t you?”
Appealing directly to potential volunteers, she said: “Try it and see the children’s faces, the pleasure you get from it yourself, the friends you make, the fun you have, the opportunities – it’s just a great organisation to belong to. It’s a guiding family.”