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Brownies anniversary: It's time to get the woggle on

By Stephanie Bell

As the Brownies celebrates their 100th year, we speak to four personalities who share memories of their time in Girl Guides' junior branch.

Camping, friendships, games, badges and fun are among the very special childhood memories the Brownies has given to thousands of women over the decades. The junior branch of the Girl Guides is this year celebrating its 100th birthday and what a bash it is proving to be.

A host of events locally and nationally have seen many of Northern Ireland’s 3,800 young members in 209 units take part in The Big Brownie Birthday.

Brownies were first set up by Lord Baden-Powell in 1914 to complete the range of age groups for Girl Guides but it was the early 1920s before they formed in Northern Ireland.

Originally the girls were called Rosebuds, but after they complained they didn’t like it they were renamed after the story The Brownies, written by Juliana Horatia Ewing in 1870. In the story two children, Tommy and Betty, learn that children can be helpful Brownies or lazy boggarts.

Brownies is the Girl Guides biggest section with more than 200,000 members and 12,000 groups in the UK. Over the decades it has continued to move with — if not ahead of — the times, equipping young girls with skills that have carried many through life.

The little brown tunic uniform is long gone in favour of a comfy and more practical brown and yellow tracksuit and badges today no longer focus on helping girls become good housewives but instead are teaching more relevant team-building and computer skills.

Carole Graham, Chief Commissioner of Ulster Girl Guiding, was just last week awarded an MBE for her services to young people in Northern Ireland. She has had a life-long association with the Guides which she joined when she was just 11 years old.

Carole (55) from Tempo in Fermanagh works as a finance manager and company secretary and is married to Hugh Johnston (67) a company director. They have two daughters, Darcie (31), who helps out in a Belfast Brownie group, and Katie (27).

“The number one aim of the Brownies is to have fun but we do try to make sure we give each girl a voice as well,” she says.

“Even at Brownie age, it is about allowing them to make decisions which will empower them, whether it’s the choice of badges they do or the activities.

“The Brownies has changed as the girls have changed. We’ve tried to keep it modern and relevant and badges have changed to reflect this and in some ways we have been ahead of the times as well.

“The focus of the organisation in Northern Ireland for the past two years has been to try and expand and reach communities which might not have had access to Brownie groups before.”

Carole says the campaign has been a huge success and the plan now is to extend it for another year in September.

“We want to bring the Brownies into every community including disadvantaged areas and places where traditionally Guiding wouldn’t have existed,” she says.

“This year alone as a result of the campaign new Brownie groups have opened in Newcastle, Donaghadee, Ballycastle, Castlerock, Tullygarry,

Waringstown and Belleek.”

The birthday fun continues throughout the rest of this year with a host of events including a Challenge Badge, Star Quest Day, Stay Away Residential and Euro Hop, an international experience in the UK.

We talk to four well-known personalities who share their memories of what it was like to be a Brownie.

Sarah Travers, presenter of The Magazine show for UTV, lives in Portstewart with her husband Stephen Price, a writer and lecturer, and their children Jack (16) and Evie (10). She says:

I was seven or eight when I joined the Brownies in my local Portstewart Guide hall. I absolutely loved it, it was amazing, I adored it. All my friends were there and I’ve really fond memories of singing, laughter and of storytelling.

I became a Sixer which was very important and our group was called the Sprites. All the groups had mythical names like Imps and Pixies.

We took our jobs very seriously and each little Six had a Sixer and we were set our tasks to do.

One of my best memories was going to stay over at Guide headquarters at Lorne House, in Craigavad, Holywood. We didn’t camp out as we were too young but we stayed in dormitories and it was my first trip away from home and a brilliant experience.

We were helping to cook and clean for ourselves and telling ghost stories right through the night.

I wasn’t a very good Brownie when it came to getting my badges. My first

one was the entertainer’s badge which was very appropriate.

I think Brown Owl and Tawny Owl got quite a chuckle with me as I was a bit of a gossip and a chatterbox and not very conscientious.

I remember I had to go to a little old lady’s house with another girl to help clean it and at the time my mum would have said that I tidied nothing at home. We also learnt how to iron a pillowcase.

I really enjoyed the camaradie and friendships and I am still friends today with some of the girls I met in the Brownies.

I felt safe and secure and very happy there. My daughter joined the Rainbows and the Brownies and was in the Guides and she was in the exact same hall I was in. Going in there again it smelt exactly the same and took me right back.

Linda McAuley is an award-winning presenter with Radio Ulster who lives in Bangor with her husband Paul Wilson, a retired insurance broker. They have three grown-up sons, Neil, James and Michael. She says:

I joined 2nd Bangor Brownies when I was seven and we met in the Scout hut in Ward Park every Tuesday night.

I was in the Sprouts pack and I was a 2nder and a Sixer. My fondest memory is when Brown Owl announced one day that we were entering a painting competition for all Brownies in the Commonwealth.

I am extremely unartistic and I remember as I was working on my painting I accidentally knocked my water over it. Brown Owl very kindly helped me turn what was a sodden mess into a cloud.

We were off caravanning for the summer and my dad would work during the week and then join us at weekends.

I remember this weekend he arrived with what looked like an official letter for me which said I had won my age group in the painting competition.

I had won a beautiful paint box and my painting was to go on exhibit at the national guide headquarters near Buckingham Palace.

I remember I just burst into tears. I couldn’t believe that this disaster which Brown Owl helped turn into a cloud had won.

The local paper did an article on me and later that year my granny took me to London to visit relatives and I got to see my painting on display.

I loved the Brownies and I enjoyed the badge work although my granny had to help me with the crafts badge as I wasn’t very good at knitting.

I moved into the Guides and stayed there until I was about 15 and I am a Guiding Ambassador now. My boys went to Scouts and I have always been a big fan of Scouting and Guiding.

Dr Joan Smyth CBE has enjoyed a high flying career which she believes was influenced by her early years in the Brownies and Guides. Joan from Bangor who is married to John, Vice Principal of Bangor Grammar, has served as Chair and Chief Executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, chairman of Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, Chairman of Progressive Building Society, a Board member of Eirgrid, Federation President of Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland, a Guide Commissioner and is a former President of North Down Guides. She says:

I was involved with the Guides for most of my life. I started life as a Brownie in 2nd Ballymoney when I was seven. It was just great. Both the Brownies and the Guides give you an early chance to be a leader.

In my day you had the chance to be a Brownie Sixer which was leading your own little group of six.

I credit some of the things I have gone on to do in my adult life with a lot of what we did together and the influential leadership skills we were given in the Brownies and Guides.

Children are given responsibility all the way through Guiding, starting with the Brownies, so that even as a young child you are learning what it means to be a leader and those basic principles stay with you.

Their motto is Be Prepared and in my day it was Lend a Hand and I believe that these are both good values as you go through life.

It is lots of fun and we were at camps all over England and Scotland and I had my first opportunity to travel abroad as a child through the Guides when I went at 16 with a group of other young women to an international camp in Finland.

At 18 I found myself captain of my local company in Ballyholme Presbyterian Church and we had a great time.

I served as District Commissioner and Divisional Commissioner for Bangor and as North Down President and then work commitments came into play although I still keep in touch and will attend events if I am asked.

As an organisation the Brownies definitely has changed over the years. Where they used to do a hostess badge it is now a party planner badge and they also used to have a diary maid badge and now there is a computer badge. The organisation has kept up with what young women need.

My memories of being a Brownie are that I really enjoyed it. I loved the activities and the different challenges you were set. I loved the company and I have made some good friends through it who are still friends today.

I think the Brownies and the Guides equip young women for life. Just going to camp teaches you to build fires and feed yourself and rely on others as well as how to be part of a team.

I remember I loved getting my uniform on and just getting ready to go to Brownies where I knew I was going to have fun.”

Alliance MP Naomi Long (42) from Belfast is married to Michael (43), who is an Alliance councillor for Castlereagh. She says:

“I was in the Ulster Bunnies which later became the Rainbows before I joined the Brownies when I was seven at St Christopher’s Presbyterian Church in Mersey Street.

I’ve been involved in the Guides all of my adult life as a leader until I was elected to Westminster when I had to give it up because being in London from Monday to Wednesday meant I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I got the Girl Guide bug very early. I loved everything about it — sitting beside the camp fires, singing, the games and the badges.

I remember as a Brownie going into peoples’ houses to help them to clean for our Home Makers badge and I just enjoyed all the different aspects of it.

It’s fun and you get the chance to be creative and try new things.

I think Guiding in general does encourage self confidence and allows you to feel that you can try new things and believe in yourself.

It also encourages people to work as a team and be respectful of each other and all these things are important to how your approach life later on.

I think the fact that it is girls only is important and now more so than ever I think they need that space for girls to be girls and not to have any of the pressure of having to look good.

I still get involved in different projects and I think once a Guide always a Guide and hopefully in the future I will be able to one day go back to running a unit again.”

How times have changed for the ever-popular girls’ movement

  • If all the Brownies in the UK gathered together, they would fill Wembley Arena 17 times, with some left over!
  • Last year Brownies held huge sleepovers at the Science Museum in London, at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow and by the monkey enclosure in Twycross Zoo in the Midlands.
  • There are Brownies in more than 100 countries around the world, from Aruba to Zimbabwe. British Brownie groups also meet in many countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
  • During the Second World War, there were Brownie and Guide groups in Weihsien Japanese internment camp in China and Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany.
  • You would need 620 Boeing 747 jumbo jets or 2,400 double-decker buses to carry all the Brownies in the UK.
  • Last year hundreds of Brownies from around the UK set a world record when they helped television presenter Helen Skelton to create the world’s largest bunting line across the Humber Bridge — and raised more than £15,000 for Comic Relief.
  • Brownies have their own rose — the Brownie Rose is a yellow Floribunda, launched to mark the section’s 90th birthday.
  • Well-known former members include Olympians Ellie Simmonds, Victoria Pendleton and Dame Kelly Holmes, Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, journalists Kirsty Wark and Kate Silverton (far left), actress Emma Thompson (left) and author JK Rowling (right).
  • The first suggested uniform for Rosebuds in 1914 was a blue skirt, knitted jersey and cap. Brownies today get to choose from 14 pieces of Brownie wear, including short and long-sleeved T-shirts, hoodies and leggings.
  • More than 66,000 girls took part in everything from aeroball, abseiling and archery to zip wiring at Training and Activity Centres last year.
  • Last year across the UK girls earned more than one million Brownie badges with the most popular including First Aider, Designer, Science Investigator and Fire Safety.

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