The Dusky Crew

(notes by John McGivering and John Radcliffe)


This was the first poem authorised by Kipling for publication, when he was thirteen years of age. As Andrew Rutherford notes (p. 45) in August 1879 he sent it to an American periodical for children, the St. Nicholas Magazine, but it was not accepted. (In the 1890s several of his best-known Just So and Jungle Book stories were first published in St Nicholas). He also contributed it, over the signature ‘Nickson’, to The Scribbler, a hand-written journal produced by the younger members of the Burne-Jones and William Morris families, though according to ORG it was not included.

Its first publication was in Schoolboy Lyrics in Lahore in 1881, in an edition of around fifty arranged by his mother the year before Rudyard’s arrival in the city to work as a journalist. It is listed in ORG as No 3.

Collected in:

  • The Outward Bound Edition vol xvii (1900)
  • Edition de Luxe vol xviii (1900)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Early Verse by Rudyard Kipling (1986) Ed. Rutherford
  • Cambridge Edition (2013 Ed. Pinney) p. 1160.

Kipling did not include the poem in Inclusive Verse (1919) or Definitive Verse (1940), although he clearly agreed to its inclusion in the Sussex and Burwash editions.

The poem

The poem describes three young schoolboys, close friends, who like to roam out in the countryside, in places where they are not allowed to be, who make a cave for themselves where they ‘hang out’ and grow lettuce and radishes and cress for their delight. But they are caught and punished, their happiness lost.


Kipling was sent to United Services College at Westward Ho! in Devon at the age of twelve, in 1878. It had been recently established to provide education for the sons of army officers. Because of his poor eyesight, he was no good at rugby or cricket. The Head, Cormell Price, who was a friend of his father, gave him the run of his library, where he read voraciously, including a great deal of poetry,

As Kipling recounts in Stalky & Co. (1899) it was a hard life for a small boy, with a good deal of bullying, and beatings as punishment. However, Rudyard made a close alliance with two other boys, Dunsterville, nicknamed ‘Stalky’ and Beresford, called ‘Turkey’ in the ‘Stalky’ stories. The three of them stood together against adversity, shared a study when they were old enough, and remained friends long afterwards. The poem celebrates their early adventures.

These portraits, drawn by Beresford, show the boys at the age of fifteen or sixteen.
In “In Ambush”, the first story in Stalky & Co., they have had a hut for reading and smoking their pipes, but it has been detected, forcing them to find a new sanctuary on the edge of a cliff.


See also the notes on Stalky & Co. by Lancelyn Green and Isabel Quigly. For huts and the battle against authority “In Ambush”; and for breaking bounds “Stalky”. Also “An English School”, and the poem “A School Song”. See also Stalky’s Reminiscences by Dunsterville, and Schooldays with Kipling by Beresford.

Notes on the Text


Dusky: a dark colour, grimy or black. Like many boys of thirteen, they didn’t mind getting a bit grimy.

[Verse 1]

ink: a fluid used with a nib in a pen-holder for writing, before the development of the ball-point by the Biro brothers (who obtained their patent in 1943). In his years in India as a journalist, Kipling wrote with black ink which became liberally spattered over his clothes and his person. As he wrote later in Something of Myself (p. 230): ‘For my ink I demanded the blackest, and had I been in my father’s house, as once I was, I would have kept an ink boy to grind me Indian ink.’ Many modern keyboard users have never, of course, encountered ink.

[Verse 2]

Out of bounds: here meaning the boundaries of the land the schoolboys were permitted to roam – ‘Off limits’ in the USA. The school were concerned not only with the safety of their boys but with the interests of their neighbours, landowners preserving their pheasants, or farmers safeguarding their stock. See “Stalky” in Land and Sea Tales.

keepers: gamekeepers, men employed by landowners to look after their estates, catching poachers, rearing pheasants for shooting, shooting or trapping predators, and discouraging trespassers.

[Verse 4]

secret caves: The opening passage of “In Ambush” recounts:

In summer all right-minded boys built huts in the furze hill behind the college—little lairs whittled out of the heart of the prickly bushes, full of stumps, and root-ends, and spikes, but, since they were strictly forbidden, palaces of delight. And for the fifth summer in succession, Stalky M’Turk and Beetle … had built like beavers a place of retreat and meditation, where they smoked.

[Verse 6] He found our cave in the cold, dark earth,/
He crept the branches through; /He caught us…
Philip Holberton writes: This poem, written when Kipling was still at USC and only 13 years old, perhaps paints a truer picture of the Dusky Crew’s relationship with the masters than the rosier picture in Stalky and Co. from 20 years later. There, in “In Ambush”, the trio have a hut in the furze. Mr. Prout, their Housemaster, finds it, but Stalky outwits him:

Providence moved Mr. Prout, whose school-name, derived from the size of his feet, was Hoofer, to investigate on his own account; and it was the cautious Stalky who found the track of his pugs on the very floor of their lair … Crusoe, at the sight of the footprint, did not act more swiftly than Stalky. He removed the pipes, swept up all loose match-ends, and departed to warn Beetle and M’Turk.
(Stalky & Co. p. 1) [P.H.]


[J McG/J.R.]

©John McGivering and John Radcliffe 2017 All rights reserved