Story so Far
For 130 years, The Girls’ Brigade has been working to improve the lives of young women all over the world.
We’re the world’s oldest and largest Christian mission to girls and it all started in a church in Dublin in 1893…
The Girls’ Brigade (Ireland)
Although The Girls’ Brigade today is one global movement, it started as three separate organisations in Britain and Ireland.
At the end of the 1800s, girls were not encouraged to be pioneers. They were pushed towards family and domestic roles. It had been less than 10 years since the first woman had graduated from university in Ireland, and it would be another 25 before the first women were allowed to vote.
The Girls’ Brigade of Ireland was founded in 1893 by a woman named Margaret Lyttle. On a cold October day, Margaret led the girls from the Presbyterian Sunday school in some PE classes to keep them warm. They enjoyed themselves, couldn’t wait to come back the following week, and soon started calling themselves The Girl’s Brigade.
The earliest Girls’ Brigade activities focussed on fitness, needlework, games, and dancing. From the beginning, Margaret’s vision was to see ‘the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom among girls,’ and she achieved this by allowing the girls to make friends and build a community in their small church. For Margaret, it was important that their fledgeling group nurtured the girls’ spiritual and physical health. Her belief that the two were interlinked put her decades ahead of her time.
Slowly, the message of The Girls’ Brigade started to spread across Dublin and into the rest of Ireland. At the same time, other countries were starting to recognise the need for their girls to have a place to meet friends, learn new skills, and be welcomed.
The Girls’ Guidry (Scotland)
In 1900, a group of women in Glasgow established The Girl’s Guidry. Their motto was ‘helping girls to become mature Christian women.’ Meetings of The Girls’ Guidry looked quite similar to Girls’ Brigade meetings in Ireland. Just like in Ireland, the movement quickly started to spread beyond the borders of the city.
The Girls’ Life Brigade (England and Wales)
Within two years, the principles of The Girls’ Brigade and The Girl’s Guidry had spread to England and Wales. In 1902, The Girls’ Life Brigade emerged.
The Girls’ Life Brigade was originally a companion to the Sunday School movement, but what made them different was the desire to be more than just a Bible school that met on Sundays. Like the women in Scotland and Ireland, they believed that they needed to meet girls through the week, in addition to Sunday services, to show them that God could transform their whole lives.
Throughout Britain and Ireland, it wasn’t long before girls took to heart the messages that they had unique gifts, were made for a purpose, and had a reason to hope. Week by week, they were becoming responsible, self-reliant Christian women. They were experiencing what it meant to be loved by God and to love others in the same way.
Even by the beginning of the 20th century, things were starting to change for women. They started to fight more publicly for a voice and a position of influence (a fight which many would say continues to this day, especially in some of the countries where The Girls’ Brigade works). The organisations which would become The Girls’ Brigade were already providing a Christian voice in the struggle as they equipped the girls they served for their lives as women of God.
In 1909, The Girls’ Brigade of Ireland adopted the motto ‘Onward and Upward’. This positivity and commitment is something that we see in the next decades of The Girls’ Brigade’s development. They were looking inwards at their own lives, outwards at their communities, and up towards God.
It wasn’t long before the message started to resonate around the world.
After World War One, the first women were given the right to vote in Britain and it became clear that their social position would never be the same again. Likewise, there were changes underway as the organisations which would become The Girls’ Brigade started to feel a global call.
The first international group of The Girls’ Guidry began in Jamaica in 1923. Its founder was Olive Miller (nee. Wright). Within 10 years, there were companies of The Girls’ Brigade, The Girls’ Guidry, or The Girls’ Life Brigade in South Africa, Latvia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Samoa. GLB had spread so far that, in 1930, they were able to hold their first international rally in the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London.
And still, other countries felt the need for an empowering Christian movement for young women.
From 1930 to 1963, well over 20 countries from Bermuda to Tuvalu had joined one of the organisations that would become The Girls’ Brigade. Furthermore, The Girls’ Brigade, which had started in Ireland, began to work in Northern Ireland and England too. Both the Girls’ Guidry (Scotland) and The Girls’ Life Brigade (England) worked in Zimbabwe. Canada welcomed both GB and the GLB.
By the 1960s, the Girls’ Life Brigade had employed Hilda Rae as their first overseas secretary to support their groups in an ever-growing list of countries. A new international headquarters was opened in the UK, and the first continental fellowship was formed in the Pacific region to coordinate GLB’s work across a number of island nations.
As the vision spread across the world, it was becoming increasingly clear that all of the groups needed to organise in order to effectively serve their new members.
As an organisation grows, it becomes complicated. For The Girls’ Brigade, The Girls’ Guidry, and The Girls’ Life Brigade, which were still run largely by volunteers, working across communities, countries and cultures (decades before email and affordable air travel) was complicated enough without having three separate organisations working in the same places.
In 1964, a radical step was taken.
The women leading the organisations did something truly pioneering. All three organisations needed structure after their rapid growth. They had common goals and a common purpose to spread the Christian message to girls, so why not work together under one name? This was the beginning of The Girls’ Brigade as we know it today.
In 1968, the first meeting of The Girls’ Brigade International Council was held in London. Representatives from 19 countries attended. They elected Joan Chenhalls as the first International President, founded the International Award and, for the first time, worshipped under one badge.
As one organisation, The Girls’ Brigade continued to grow. It expanded into new countries. In countries where it was already established, more and more groups formed.
From the beginning, The Girls’ Brigade was a global organisation where countries had the power to lead locally, in accordance with their culture, customs and needs, in order to best serve their girls.
Every five years, they met together for the International Conference. New Zealand hosted in 1973, Grand Cayman in 1978, Singapore in 1983, and the Cook Islands in 1988. Just as they do today, members treasured the opportunity to travel and meet their sisters around the world. The conference was a chance to catch a glimpse of how The Girls’ Brigade was working, share ideas and experiences, and see their common goals realised in very different settings.
In 1998 a the ICGB in Brisbane, Australia, The Girls’ Brigade International restructured and the five International Fellowships that exist today were formed. At this point, 39 countries were full members of The Girls’ Brigade. Each country would have a say in electing one woman to represent their fellowship (the International Vice President), and would also vote for the overall International President of The Girls’ Brigade.
From this point on, the International Vice Presidents would meet every year to discuss the work of The Girls’ Brigade in their region, their hopes for the organisation internationally, and the needs that had to be fulfilled to allow their visions to be realised.
In 2018, The Girls’ Brigade celebrated its 125th anniversary.
The theme of our work in 2018 was ‘Fruitful and Overflowing’. That certainly captures how it felt to reach such a historic milestone.
At the 2018 International Conference in Zambia, representatives from over 50 countries came together for a ‘family gathering’ to celebrate our history and look forward to the future. We gave thanks for the thousands of lives transformed by the work of The Girls’ Brigade, celebrated God’s faithfulness, and got excited about where He would lead us next.
After a lengthy application process, we also received the news that The Girls’ Brigade would be recognised by the UN as an NGO with Special Consultative Status. This is a fantastic opportunity that allows us to advocate for girls on a global platform, network with other NGOs, and bring a Christian voice to debates that influence the future of girls and women across the world.
There will be challenges in the next 125 years. We have to remain relevant to the next generations of girls. We have to be good stewards and put creation care at the forefront of our work. We have to make a loud noise as we advocate for our sisters in countries around the world and bring God’s transformative hope to more and more young women and their communities. In the next 125 years, we want to be the first to pray, the first to speak out, and the first to take action for justice for the girl child.
In local groups around the world, our current initiatives see us working in schools, health education, social enterprise, children’s work, leadership academies, mission teams, and (increasingly) web communities. Because of the creativity of our members and leaders, the list grows every year.
In 2023, The Girls’ Brigade celebrates its 130th anniversary.
For 130 years, there are so many girls and women who have experienced the fruitfulness and happiness of joining Girls’ Brigade.
GB members have been sharing their stories of transformation and how their lives have been positively impacted by Girls’ Brigade.
The theme of our work in 2023 is ‘Rise in Strength… for such a time as this’.
This year, two resources have been launched to assist local Girls’ Brigade groups, one of which is called Climate Change. This new Climate Change resources kit, prepared by the Asia and Pacific fellowships, has been created to help our members to know more about climate change. It contains links to up-to-date and relevant information. GBI recognises that to protect our living home for our next generations, we must join hands and act now.
At IPC 2023, the International Presidents Committee also celebrated 25 years since the current Fellowships were constituted! Whilst at IPC, members of the International Presidents Committee took time to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of GB’s five Fellowships with our International Vice Patron Piang, Past IVP Sally Chew and GB Singapore. Everyone enjoyed sharing tea and cake together.
On June 4th, 130 days of prayer was launched to celebrate 130 years of mission amongst girls and young women and to give thanks to God. Each day until 11th October, 2023 the International Day of the Girl Child a prayer was posted on GB International’s social media platforms, from our members around the world.