They were prepared – the heroism of Croydon’s Scouts in World War Two

By - Wednesday 29th April, 2015

A plaque has been unveiled in St Barnabas’ chapel, Croydon University Hospital, paying tribute to some unsung – and very young – Croydonian war heroes. Hospital chaplain Hilary Fife reports

Photo by the Mary Evans Collection/The Scout Association, used with permission.

Look closely at the tin helmet in the photograph on the left and you’ll see the words ‘Mayday H’. This photo brought to life for me a conversation I’d had with a patient, in what we now call Croydon University Hospital, last autumn. It tells a largely forgotten story of the courage and commitment of members of the Scouting Association – Boy Scouts – in World War Two and of their work in the hospitals of Croydon.

Scouts had been deployed in a wide range of civil defence roles in the Great War (1914-18). As it became apparent in 1938 that Europe was once again heading for conflict, the scouting movement began to prepare. Training programmes were drawn up ensuring boys were indeed prepared, and they were to undertake over 180 different civil defence roles during the years 1939-45.

The boys were confronted with situations that nowadays we would shield our young people from

Under their wartime slogan ‘The boy scouts are carrying on’ (words emblazoned beneath a jaunty scout hat and above a pair of marching feet) they did everything from collecting old newspapers to fire watching; caring for evacuees to reclaiming furniture from bombed homes; acting as messengers to entertaining the troops; erecting Morrison shelters to instructing the Home Guard in such skills as tracking and stalking; working with the heavy rescue teams to salvaging metal; farming work to forestry… the list goes on.

But I was speaking to one of the ‘hospital scouts’ and it was their role that particularly caught my interest as a hospital chaplain. The scouts of Croydon, members of thirteen troops, worked so continuously in the hospitals that they became known as ‘the hospital scouts’. They ranged in age from fourteen upwards and while the more challenging tasks were reserved for the boys of sixteen and seventeen, all were confronted with situations we would, nowadays, shield our young people from. They reported for duty every third evening, unless called in for an unexpected incident. They wore their scout uniform with a boiler suit over the top. One former Mayday scout still has the badge that went on the arm of his boiler suit: ‘ARP – Mayday’. They stayed at the hospital through the night, returning home in time for breakfast and then school or work!

Boy scouts went out as stretcher bearers to bring in the wounded, the dying and the dead

Their base was just across from the hospital chapel. There, in a reinforced room kitted out with bunk beds, they spent the nights waiting to be woken by the sirens. As enemy aircraft flew over and bombs rained down, they went into action. Some were sent out on their bicycles, pedalling through the darkness to take messages to families whose loved ones had been killed or badly wounded. Some went out as stretcher bearers bringing in the wounded, the dead and the dying. A doctor would look at the person they carried in and direct them to ward, operating theatre or mortuary. Some were sent up to the top of the nurses’ home to act as fire watchers. Trained to extinguish incendiary bombs with a bucket and stirrup pump, they were also trained in more advanced fire-fighting techniques and operated the hospital fire service. They carried messages around the hospital and were taught how to take x-rays and develop the images. They helped escort patient to the air raid shelters, carefully carrying the babies from the maternity ward in large wicker baskets. Some were even taught how to prepare corpses for post-mortem examination!

Occasionally there was the unexpected. One Mayday scout brought in a badly injured woman. Directed to the operating theatre, he found a harassed surgeon and an acute shortage of nursing staff. Examining the woman, the surgeon said to him: “I need to take this woman’s arm off now and I need you to help me. Hold her hand and wrist while I saw. Look away if you need to” – quite a baptism of fire for a seventeen year old.

One of Croydon’s scouts received the gilt cross for outstanding heroism

In talking to other hospital scouts and those who served elsewhere in Croydon, I’ve been told again and again that “we just had to develop defence mechanisms”. But tellingly, one spoke of the early days when the romance of the wartime situation, fuelled by exciting films they’d seen, ran high only to be followed by the shock of reality – death and destruction. “It was pretty messy”. Perhaps it was not surprising that after a heavy night the scouts would go to the hospital chapel and spend time there with their own thoughts.

At the time, the Scout Association awarded the Civil Defence Badge to scouts aged 14 and over undertaking wartime duties. They also awarded the National Service badge and the bronze, silver or gilt cross. The bronze cross was the ‘Scout VC’ granted for special heroism. Local scout hero Eric Martin of the 35th Croydon Group received the gilt cross for his work on the night the town hall was bombed.

The Chief Clerk of Croydon sent thank you letters in 1945 to the scouts who had worked so faithfully. But as the years have gone by, their story has been largely forgotten. At Croydon University Hospital, with the help of some of the scouts of World War Two, we are hoping to rectify this. On Wednesday 29th April, at a special service to be held at 7.30pm, a plaque will be dedicated in the chapel, commemorating their courage, commitment and compassion. The Mayor of Croydon, Bishop of Southwark and CEO of Croydon Health Services will all be attending together with some of the scouts and their families and the families of others who have died or who are too infirm to attend.

An accompanying exhibition in the chapel will be open until 15th May, open from 9:00am – 7:00pm Monday to Friday.

But the evocative photo in this article still poses a question. From the Mary Evans collection at the Scout Association, it is labelled ‘A brave scout from Mayday hospital with the baby he rescued’. It was probably taken in 1940 but has no name. Can you help solve the puzzle? We’d love to know his name and his story…

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Hilary Fife

Hilary Fife

Born and bred in Croydon, Hilary worked as a primary school teacher in the borough for 7 years before becoming aware (with a degree of surprise) of a call to ministry. Ordained deacon in 1991 and then priest in 1994 (among the first women to be priested in the Church of England) she served in St Andrew’s Church, Coulsdon. She moved into healthcare chaplaincy working first at the Marie Curie Hospice in Caterham and then at Croydon University Hospital.

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  • Catherine Pestano

    Fantastic local history, attending in the memory of my friend’s father, the patient mentioned above.