On Aug 9, 1965, Ms Christabelle Alvis was leading a camp of about 30 Girl Guides on Canossa Convent Primary School’s grounds.
The 86-year-old, who has served Girl Guides Singapore for 65 years, said they were on only their second day of the camp when news of Singapore’s independence broke.
The British citizen said: “We tuned in to the radio and heard that Singapore had left Malaysia. The Girl Guides headquarters told us to pack up and come back in case of riots or any disturbance.”
Of course, nothing of that sort happened and everyone returned home safe, she added.
Ms Alvis became Commissioner of the North Division for the Girl Guides in 1970, but was only seven when she started with the organisation in 1938 – making her one of the longest-serving Girl Guides here.
She was the daughter of a British Army Royal Engineer and was born in India in 1931. She moved around a lot because of her father’s occupation, and joined the Bluebirds – the Brownies equivalent – in Burma when she was seven.
You know there isn’t much I remember from that age, but I remember what great fun it was for me to be a Bluebird.
MS CHRISTABELLE ALVIS, on joining the Bluebirds – the Brownies equivalent – in Burma when she was seven.
She said: “You know there isn’t much I remember from that age, but I remember what great fun it was for me to be a Bluebird.”
Ms Alvis was 17 when she came to Singapore in 1948 with her family. She lived at the British Naval Base in Sembawang. She worked with the Admiralty at the naval base as a stenographer, growing close to the admiral’s wife. The Admiralty was a government department that administered the Royal Navy, but is now incorporated in the Ministry of Defence and exists only in titles.
The admiral’s wife knew Ms Alvis’ history with guiding and suggested the young woman start a unit to give the girls who lived on the base something fruitful to do.
Said Ms Alvis: “You know there weren’t libraries or places for girls to go to after school in the north at the time. We thought to ourselves, why not give them some fun?”
She, together with the admiral’s niece, started an open unit at the naval base. It was one of the few at the time.
Open units are not associated with a school or institution, and any girl could join. Guiding is currently offered as a co-curricular activity in more than half of the primary and secondary schools here, and those units are associated with the institutions in which they are offered.
She said that when the open unit started in the 1950s, most of the girls were daughters of the British personnel who lived around the base.
Ms Alvis, who joined the teaching force in 1955, added: “Eventually, we had some Chinese and Malay girls, who were daughters of dock workers, join us. But they tended to be so demure that we really had to work to bring them out of their shells.”
At the time, she had to convince parents that their daughters would be safe doing common Guides activities such as camping.
“I remember I would visit the parents during Chinese New Year so they knew who I was, and talk to them to convince them that it was okay to have their girls join us.”
Ms Alvis said she made sure the first camp any newcomer went to was very fun, because that was what kept the girls coming back.
Girl Guides has had a presence in Singapore since 1917, and Ms Alvis was one of over 130 Girl Guides leaders and volunteers recognised at the Girl Guides Singapore centennial awards ceremony, held on July 21 at the Istana to celebrate the organisation’s 100th anniversary.
In 1966, following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, the Girl Guides in Singapore left the Malaysian Girl Guides Association to become an independent association. Ms Alvis was part of the team that facilitated this transition.
“That was a busy time for us trying to figure out the policies, organisation and rules that would govern our organisation. It was a difficult time but we still had active programmes and did what needed to be done to keep the Girl Guides going,” she said.
With over half a century of service behind her, Ms Alvis, who is not married, said: “Seeing the girls grow through guiding and seeing their success stories were just beautiful and that’s why I kept being involved.”
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