William Alexander Smith – the founder of the Boys’ Brigade as a youth worker

William Alexander Smith – the founder of the Boys’ Brigade as a youth worker. Jonathan Roberts examines the William Alexander Smith’s contribution to the founding, character and development of the Boys’ Brigade. He seeks to get behind many of the mistaken images of the work that those outside it have.

Contents: introduction · William Alexander Smith · the Boys’ Brigade – military, drill, uniform and discipline · not the only way to do it?· further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

Many reactions to the Boys’ Brigade (Boys’ Brigade) are at one end of a continuum or the other: fond memories of friendships, dignity and activities that stay life long; or blank disbelief at what appears to be militaristic, conservative, and badly out of date. Yet over the years I have met a number of committed and courageous people who have been in the Boys’ Brigade and used it to offer young people youth work in some of the most difficult areas of the country, In this piece I want to look at William A. Smith’s vision to see if it still works. I also want to explore William A. Smith’s significance for youth work and informal education more widely and to make connections to other work.

What was it like in the early days in the Boys’ Brigade? What drew young men to join and what aspects of their life benefited from what happened in the Boys’ Brigade? In the interaction between the intentions of the adults and the activities that worked for the young people methods evolved that were and are used more widely than just the Boys’ Brigade. For church youth work William Smith started a movement that carried with it many of the abiding dilemmas of how far do you go in evangelism? From a social point of view the Boys’ Brigade addressed the great generation of young people of the growth in British population: their longevity, as clean water and the end of cholera kicked in, meant that they were able to make traditions over 50 years in their own life times. The influence and impact of William Smith’s ideas and their organisation meant that they were imitated, criticised and contradicted in his own life time.

William Alexander Smith

William Alexander Smith (1854-1914) was born 20 miles west of John O’Groats, near Thurso, Scotland on 27th October 1854. He was the eldest son of Major David Smith, and Harriet. His father was the son of William Smith who had fought in the 78th Highlander Regiment in the Napoleonic wars with Wellington up to 1815, and had himself served in the 7th Dragoon Guards in the so-called ‘Kaffir War’ (South Africa) of 1849-50. The trappings of the imperial soldier came back to the north of Scotland: he held a (part-time) commission in the Caithness Volunteers and his son played soldiers with his 11 year old friends. William Alexander Smith joined the 1st Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers in 1874 and moved through the ranks from private, to Lance Corporal, to Lieutenant – Colonel (second in command) by 1905. The mass military activity of the time was absolutely part of his culture.

His mother was the daughter of Alexander Fraser who was a merchant in Glasgow. (Gibbon 1934: 9) When William was 13 his father died on business in China and he went to Glasgow to his uncle. The histories written for boys emphasise his achievement at school and his continuing studies afterwards, as a 20 year old in a French class (Birch 1959: 17). In 1869 he joined the family firm as a junior clerk. ‘Alex. Fraser & Co. were wholesale dealers in “soft goods,” shawls being one of the principle lines, and South America their chief market.’ (Gibbon 1934:15). Smith’s involvement in business continued until 1887, first in the family firm then in partnership with his brother and a friend. We can see the man growing up to live on a big map. Knowledge and discipline are the means to take a place in the world. We can also see the excellent social connections; and, for those who like to read between the lines, the abiding pattern of the Triangular trade that had made the west coast of Britain rich.

William Smith began to make choices about his life. In 1872 he was attracted by Amelia Sutherland, the 16 year old daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and joined the choir where she sang sweetly and he did not. The narrative written for Boys’ Brigade members delights in the story of: ‘the lovely girl, whose dark eyes seemed to speak of Spain, and who was want to sing the Spanish folk songs with quaint and bewitching ease. Willie Smith fell in love with her, wooed her and won her.’ (Gibbon 1934: 25) ‘Mrs Sutherland, because of her daughter’s youth, would not consent to an engagement; but though the consummation of his hope was long delayed, William Smith’s mind was made up… he applied himself with diligence to the things to which he had set his hand.’ (Gibbon 1934,: 26). What a contrast to the anxiety about sexuality found in Baden-Powell. They married in March 1884 and the partnership was vital in the development of the Boys’ Brigade.

In the autumn of 1872 William Alexander Smith joined the Glasgow YMCA and ‘attended lectures, two of which were given by H M Stanley the famous African explorer’ (Gibbon 1934: 17). The YMCA played an important part throughout his life. In 1874 William Smith set up a branch of the YMCA in his own church with the encouragement of the minister. This was no short term matter. For example, when he married his second wife, Hannah, in 1906 (Amelia Smith had died in 1898 when their two sons were 11 and 8), ‘None of the numerous wedding presents gave greater pleasure than those from the [Boys’ Brigade] Company and the Woodside branch of the YMCA, which was largely composed of Boys from the 1st’ (Gibbon 1934: 144).

In 1874 we see a change in the seriousness of William Smith’s Christianity. On February 12th he heard the American evangelists Moody and Sankey for the first time, and on 12th April he joined the church (as an adult member) where his uncle was an office holder. Gibbon emphasises the distrust William Alexander Smith had for evangelistic missions and pledges (Gibbon 1934: 19). McFarlan notes the church focus and silence of the Scottish Sabbath (McFarlan 1983: 11). Both are trying to emphasise the thoroughness of the Christianity, and the life long nature of its discipline that marked out the style of Smith’s faith.

The organising church took him into the Mission Sunday school as a teacher, and later he became secretary. It is the developing work in this building in North Woodside Road that grows Smith’s practice and ideas for new methods. Nine years of the YMCA, and, in parallel, teaching bible study to unruly young people shows him a gap. The YMCA depends on the self discipline and motivation of responsible young men. The Bible needs to be learnt for the good life, but the ‘discipline and esprit de corps’ that William Smith found in the Volunteers was sadly lacking in Sunday School. The opportunity for unselfishness and team spirit is missing: attendance is erratic, they are there only for an hour and listen, there is no active participation… there is no form of work or play in which teamwork is called into action (Gibbon 1934: 33).

William Alexander Smith established the first Boys’ Brigade unit in 1883 as a way of making Sabbath School both more attractive to boys and young men and of giving a structure to the work. The famous anchor badge was an early feature along with the motto ‘Sure and Stedfast’ (taken from Hebrews 6: 19 – ‘Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast’). The Object of the Brigade was ‘The advancement of Christ’s Kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect, and all that tends towards a true Christian Manliness’.

picture: william alexander smith (believed to be in the public domain)William Smith convened the first Council of the Boys’ Brigade in 1885. By 1888 he had given up any significant involvement in his business to work full time as time Secretary of the Boys’ Brigade Council. He wrote what became known as ‘The Little Red Book’ – How to Form and Conduct a Company – and founded and edited The Boys’ Brigade Gazette. His work of regularly writing, collecting, and distributing resources to youth workers set a standard for the support, development and encouragement of youth work. William Smith was knighted in 1909 for his service to boys. He continued to work hard for the Movement up until his death (on May 10, 1914). Indeed it was at a Boys’ Brigade meeting two days earlier that he was taken ill. His body was taken to Glasgow where it is said over 150,000 people lined the route for his funeral. Whilst being Secretary William Smith remained Captain of the 1st Glasgow company and rarely missed a meeting.

The Boys Brigade – military, drill, uniform and discipline

The founding myth can be found in many places: William Smith drilled the Volunteers on Saturday and can’t get the same lads to sit still in Sunday School. He put the two together as the Boys Brigade on Thursday 4th October 1883 forming the 1st Company in Glasgow. In many respects William Alexander Smith was yet another man doing something useful where he lived and yet the movement caught fire and he stopped his day job to lead and administer the Boys Brigade. Why did it attract others so effectively? What is it about aspects of the Brigade that we find hard to stomach that link to important themes in youth work?

In what follows we examine some of the defining elements of the Boys’ Brigade – at least for many external commentators. To begin, however, it is important to recognize that the life of the Brigades contained many convivial aspects. William and Amelia Smith invited the boys they worked with into their house and fed and entertained them.

These ‘at homes’ were really an innovation in social work. ‘Slumming’ enjoyed a certain vogue at this period, but that was quite another story. For a large proportion of those who visited mean streets and entered unclean dwellings for the first time, slumming provided a new excitement, and it gave a delicious, if transient thrill to feel that they were engaged in good works and at the same time following the fashion. They visited the homes of the poor but the idea of encouraging a return visit never entered their heads. The example set by Mr and Mrs Smith has been followed… (Gibbon 1934: 51)

This approach is one of the key ways in which what we now know as ‘youth work as social education’ began to be spread more widely, rather than just observation of young people’s lives. Alongside the emphasis upon military organization. drill, discipline and uniform there was a significant social life with many Brigades having ‘club rooms’ and making use of activities for enjoyment. William Smith strongly insisted that both Officers and Boys should share in the life of the Brigade. At camp, for example, all should join in the fun, adventure and activities. This included sharing in the hardships and eating together. One of his oft quoted phrases was ‘Put the Boy first’.


There is much truth in the transfer of a military pattern. The structure of the Boys’ Brigade has always had the ‘military pattern of Privates, NCOs and Officers, drilled in Squads, Companies, Battalions’ and have ‘colours, Band and Camp and an Annual Inspection or Review under the eye of a Field Marshal.’ (McFarlan 1983: 37). How far this causes difficulty and offence now is interesting to consider. Military personnel have been important to youth work: General Gordon undertook committed work with a Ragged School in Gravesend when he was posted there in 1865 (Eager 1953: 124ff) and his spectacular death at Khartoum was sufficiently attractive to attach his name to the Boys Club in Bermondsey. The army and the other services have provided an opportunity for a developing understanding of how to motivate, encourage, and work together. The approach of an officer to a group of soldiers is one model of how an adult engages with a group of young people. The army also produced some of the first human resources management tools in their officer selection and training, and it was shell shocked soldiers that gave Bion his material for his classic analysis of group work (Bion 1943). In the 1970s it was easy to find in many of the Brigades (Church Lads and Boys’ Brigades) officers who did National Service and continued that commitment to the wider community in their youth work. However, today there are significantly less officers with military experience. It is interesting, for example, to see that the current President of the Teesside Battalion of the Boys’ Brigade is a learning mentor in his day job, showing continuing links between private and public acts of commitment to the wider community.

Resistance to the ordered behaviour of Brigades by other young people has been notorious from the earliest days. Davies emphasised how working class ‘hooligans’ could make life uncomfortable for those attending the early Scouts and Boys Brigades’ (1999: 1-14), and this is a continuing experience that others will recognise. In the North East there remains a strong tradition of Brigades and it may in part be due to the fact that this small region (1,010,676 people in the England and Wales workforce population of 23,529,052 [ONS 2001]) makes up about a quarter of the Armed Services workforce. Respect for the forces, based on personal links, seen as a possible route out of poor job prospects, may mean that the militaristic element is simply seen as smart and organised. Where there are good job prospects the intrusion of a military structure can be seen as disruptive (Osgerby 1998:21).


Drill was an important feature of Boys’ Brigades. However, as McFarlen put it, ‘The rifles caused the biggest offence’. Drill was part of Williams Smith’s training and ‘it seemed only natural in those days that the only good drill was one that included the precise thud and slap and smart control of rifles exercised in precision. Some of the earliest manuals available from the Boys’ Brigade were: Infantry Drill, Manual Exercises for the Rifle and Carbine, and Firing Exercises’ (McFarlan 1983: 37). William Smith took what he was familiar with and what had by then been developed.

It is certainly the case that there was an anxiety about the fitness of recruits for the Boer War (Black and MacRaild 2003:95), but there is a more long-standing quest for health and fitness in work with young people. It is also the case that William Smith’s own background would predispose him to think highly of the army’s approach and requirements, but why did it attract others so effectively? In part it is that people wanted to develop their ideas about physical activity. Drill of various sorts (such as Swedish Drill, devised in 1870) was becoming more widespread and people wanted advice and guidance on what to do and this is what William Smith provided.

Eagar places these developments in the development of ‘virile recreation’ (Eagar 1953:98ff) in the 19th. Century (see, also, muscular Christianity). Enclosure and industrialisation meant that, for example in Blackburn, ‘by 1833 the right of recreation had been lost’ (Eagar 1953: 101). It was regained by: the 1847 Ten Hours Act which allowed the masses time to play (Eagar 1953: 102) and began to challenge the situation where ‘the industrialised working boy of 1770-1880 was … deprived of the activities proper to his age, who had no chance of playing games and formed no habit of open air exercise. Boys Clubs … began the restoration of that part of their birthright to working boys’(Eagar 1953:103). There are a variety of activities that are part of this development such as camping, day trips to the sea, games, playing fields, swimming pools, gymnastics and drill.

The issue of ‘physical development’ in youth work is a long standing discussion. Wholesome activity was a focus for other 19th Century initiatives: Quintin Hogg’s Regent Street Polytechnic had a splendid gymnasium (with structures like ship’s rigging running into the roof) (Eager 1953:249, 160). Cricket recurs in the stories of Boys Clubs in Kennington in the same period (Eager 1953:170ff). The boredom of existing forms of gymnastics in the YMCA led James Naismith to devise basketball in 1891 using a football and the gymnasium he had at Springfield Massachusetts (Titmuss 1998: 8f). It wasn’t until 1905 that the state began to systematically advocate exercise in schools (Board of Education 1909: v) with their ‘Suggestions for the Considerations of Teachers’. A detailed Manual with instructions and diagrams was published in 1909. This was also based on Swedish Drill and it is interesting that ‘As early as 1911, the Board of Education, via Dr. Newman (responsible for PE in schools) began to express some disquiet about Swedish Gymnastics, he described it as boring.’ (Umu 2005).

Team games developed in part to address the issue of boredom in physical activity. Eagar reports the use of cricket, and the emergence of football in the imagination of the late 19th Century young men (Eagar 1953: 105-8). The ways to avoid boredom as far as Smith was concerned was to increase the level of participation and make a noise. A marching band and brigade allows a significant level of complexity to develop and participation by all members. Interestingly, it also allows its members to occupy public space in a legitimate way: there are not many occasions when adults smile to see a group of 50 young people proceeding down the middle of the High Street together. A parade can allow young people to have a place in their community that is respected. Drill also allows a task to be complete, and in a world where young people are being tested for some possible situation 5 or 10 years hence that can’t be bad.

Youth workers now may look at drill as the exclusive preserve of the cadets and brigades and it may be that this is due to the excellent tradition we have built up of street games, cooperative games and so on. The New Games Foundation, for example, emphasises fun, and ‘you don’t need special equipment… or to be in shape.. or to worry about being a superstar’ (Fluegelman 1981:10). In part this was a response to the professionalizing and commodifying of recreation and sport by arguing that losing a game has become the dominant experience in what was meant to be playful. Dearling and Armstrong (1995: 3) see their collection of games and pastimes as a way of allowing intergenerational activity, connecting with past traditions, finding support and fun, building relationships and skills. But we can look at those same statements of purpose and use them to describe drill.


The Boys Brigade began with a modest uniform of cap, belt and haversack (McFarlan 1983:17f). The Volunteer movement began as a patriotic crisis in 1859 (Eager 1953: 314) and Smith wore its uniform as an adult. In Glasgow the Boys’ Brigade uniform picked up a practice that was more widespread than the Volunteers William Alexander Smith commanded: there were Foundry Boys in 1865 who had the same sort of kit. More widely, brigades for shoe shine boys and street sweepers were given uniforms to show that they had a legitimate place in city streets (there is a wider study of the uniformed antecedents of the Boys’ Brigade by Robin Bolton to be published by the Youth Work Press (Bolton 2005)). Wearing uniform became one of the defining features of the Boys Brigade, and the changes to the uniform down the years have been accompanied by heartache that is typical of an organisation that takes its identity through history seriously.

Looking at the care that goes into young people’s self presentation in a visual culture (Polhemus (1994) it is hard to see the appeal of uniforms that may appear uncreative or ‘uncool’. The Streetstyle list of 39 different young people’s cultures (biker, punk, etc) can indicate distinctiveness and conservatism: ‘Style isn’t trendy. Quite the opposite. It’s inherently conservative and traditional and it is for this reason that it often makes use of permanent body decorations’ (Polhemus (1994:13). Put this way a uniform seems less stark. Uniforms can be seen as a way that organisations distinguish members from non-members, to support the values and tasks of the group (Nathan Joseph’s view in Rubinstein 1995: 67). Choosing to put on a uniform is a social tie symbol (Rubinstein 1995:206): it shows that the wearer wants to support the organisation, to be with the others. This combination of values, distinctive behaviour and aspiration are precisely what the Boys’ Brigade expressed when the object was first written: the advancement of Christ’s kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness. The Boys Brigade focuses on the processes rather than accredited outputs.


Above all there are the insights that William Alexander Smith had into the lives of young people and the sort of activities and interventions that work. It is interesting to see the contrast with the view of the ‘depravity’ or sinfulness of people, characteristic of many Calvinists. In the Boys’ Brigade the emphasis is on starting from the young person, characteristic of most youth work.

He had no patience with the theory that boys are unregenerate beings, and that to make them good we have to start from this rock bottom level. He believed that they are essentially good, and only require the inspiration of Christ the Hero to make them heroic too. His constant advice was ‘Trust the boys’. (Gibbon 1934: 98)

Henry Drummond (William Alexander Smith’s contemporary and Free Church professor of Natural Science in Glasgow University) was struck by the way in which many young men hesitated (‘through shyness, modesty, or fastidiousness’ [Eagar 1953:326]) to join in with evangelism but the Boys Brigade enabled men to join in with church work.

What interests young men in the Boys’ Brigade is the naturalness of the work. It is absolutely natural for a young man to be mixed up with boys… to take up their cause, to lay himself alongside their interests, to play the part of an older brother to them. He altogether understands them; he knows their ways and dodges, and has been in all their scrapes. A mother does not really know a boy in the least. She has never been a boy. (Drummond quoted in Eagar 1953:326).

The memories of many Boys’ Brigade companies are of groups of people who grew into friendship and were proud to see their young men become adults. Outwardly the style is systemic, focusing on group organisation, making team players. At the heart is the relationship between the officer and young man.

Looking at the purpose of Boys’ Brigade content we see: true Christian manliness: the Bible and the Christian life. This seems more disciplined than many a youth programme but look at it from the right perspective. Eager was right ‘A Boys’ Brigade Company is always connected with a church. A vigorous church, which always has young men of good type in its congregation has a good company if it has one at all. A feeble church which makes no appeal to young men is almost bound to fail.’ (Eagar 1953:323). In this sense the role of the Boys’ Brigade is not to abuse its power (the concern of Maxine Green (1999: 110ff) but to build and develop a Christianity that is part of young people’s lives.

Not the only way to do it

In the end the Boys’ Brigade was not the only way to work with young men. In Smith’s own lifetime the Boys’ Brigade was criticised and imitated by the Scouts and the development of the Boys Clubs. The former saw too slavish a devotion to a form of army life that wasn’t successful and tried to be empowering to a greater extent, seeing the potential in young people. The Boys clubs knew that the social groups being addressed by the Boys’ Brigade were nicer than the reality of the cities of Britain. And ever since new forms of youth work have emerged to try to improve on what has gone before. But the Boys’ Brigade still carries some interesting aspects of youth work that can stimulate us to think twice about what we are doing.


Bion, W. R. (1943) ‘Intra group tensions in therapy’ The Lancet 27th November 1943 available in (1961) Experiences in Groups, London: Routledge.

Birch, A. E. (1959) The story of the Boys Brigade, London: Frederick Muller.

Black, J. and MacRaild, D. (2003) Nineteenth Century Britain, London: Palgrave.

Board of Education (1909) The Syllabus of Physical Exercises for School, London: HMSO.

Bolton, R. (2005) First for Boys? (to be published), Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Davies, B. (1999) A History of the Youth Service in England (2 Volumes), Leicester: Youth Work Press.

Dearling, A. and Armstrong, H. (1995) World Youth Games, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing.

Eager, W. McG. (1953) Making men: the history of Boys Clubs and related movements in Great Britain, London: University of London Press.

Fluegelman, A. (1981) More new Games, New York: Doubleday.

Gibbon, F. P. (1934) William A Smith of the Boys’ Brigade, Glasgow: Collins.

Green, M. (1999) ‘The youth worker as Converter ‘ in S. Banks (1999) Ethical Issues in Youth Work, London: Routledge.

McFarlan, D. M. (1982) First for Boys: the story of the Boys Brigade 1883-1983, Glasgow: Collins.

Osgerby, B. (1998) Youth in Britain since 1945, Oxford: Blackwell.

Polhemus, T. (1994) Streetstyle: from sidewalk to catwalk, London: V&A Thames and Hudson.

Rubinstein, R. (1995) Dress Codes, Boulder: Westview.

Titmuss, D. (1998) Play the game: Basketball, London: Cassell.

Umu (2005) ‘Historical study of PE’ http://www.eng.umu.se/e3ht99/mattias/history.htm accessed


Smith’s biography: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/index.php?area=content/famous_scots/smith

Museum of Smith’s life: http://www.caithness.org/community/museums/boysbrigade/

Scottish Boys’ Brigade: http://scotland.boys-brigade.org.uk/

British Boys’ Brigade where there is a good history of both Smith and the Boys Brigade: http://www.boys-brigade.org.uk/

Acknowledgements: Picture: Oulton Broad Boys’ Brigade circa 1930. Picture sourced from Flickr and credited to jelltecks – 5339123169. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence. Picture: William Alexander Smith believed to be in the public domain.

To cite this article: Roberts, Jonathan (2006). ‘William Alexander Smith -the founder of the Boys’ Brigade as a youth worker’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/william-alexander-smith-the-founder-of-the-boys-brigade-as-a-youth-worker/.  Retrieved: insert date].

Jonathan Roberts works in the School of Social Sciences and Law, University of Teesside.

© Jonathan Roberts 2006