Since the formation of The Boy Reserves in 1917, there had been isolated experiments with pre-Life Boy units, meeting separately from the 8–11-year-old age group. In Northern Ireland, such experiments included the 8th Newtownabbey (1955), 3rd Dromore (1956), 25th and 33rd Belfast Companies (1958) before firmly taking off in the early 1960’s. The Brigade knew that such groups existed, but did not feel any need to legislate for them. In 1963/1964 when the Haynes Committee examined the work and future of The Boys’ Brigade the Committee had this to say about pre-Life Boy Movements.
“Several Churches have started uniformed Movements for young Boys of pre-Life Boy Age. These go under various names – Cabin Boys, Nibs, etc. but only one has attempted national organisation. We do not think there is any necessity for the Brigade to provide a national organisation for this very young age and development can well be left to the Church concerned”.
Coincidental to the publication of the Haynes Report, the North Belfast Presbytery of The Presbyterian Church in Ireland considered what provision the Brigade might make for under-age groups. This was necessitated due to the fact that in a number of congregations, Boys were joining Organisations of other Churches, simply because they were being admitted at a younger age. In April 1964 a Chaplains Conference was held at Rathmore House, Larne and the Conference passed a unanimous Resolution, calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to recognise pre-Life Boy Service Units. The Northern Ireland Executive received this Resolution and appointed an ad-hoc Committee to examine the matter. This Committee noted that there were already in existence many pre-Life Boy Groups, using various titles – i.e. Robins, Cabin Boys, Eagles, etc. The Northern Ireland Executive made approaches to the Brigade Executive, seeking the formal recognition of pre-Life Boy Service Units. Although the Brigade Executive was not prepared to encourage the formation of such Groups, they nevertheless gave the Northern Ireland Executive the right to experiment for a period of 2 years to the end of Session 1966/67.
It was decided that official recognition could not be given to units attached to Churches where B.B. Companies did not exist, and was open to boys from their sixth birthday to the age for transfer to the Junior Section of The Boys’ Brigade. The Object was stated as:
“Through organised activity to prepare a young Boy for service in The Boys’ Brigade and to teach him loyalty to his Sunday School” and a Motto – “Always Cheerful”
Over 50 Groups immediately affiliated with the Northern Ireland District under a number of titles, “Cadets, Junior Patrol, Terriers, Dragons, Cabin Boys” but as the greatest number used the title “The Robins” it was decided this would be the title for these Groups. The members of Committee saw as their task the co-ordinating of work in this age group and in an effort to contrast with the that worn in the Junior Section, the uniform requirements in the Robins’ Leaders handbook recommended:
Scarlet school cap with cap badge
Plain mid-grey school shirt with approved badge over left breast Scarlet cotton or poplin tie
Grey charcoal shorts
Plain top grey stockings
During the 2-year experiment period, seven Training Sessions for Leaders were held, attracting attendances in the range of 60-120 persons and by the end of the experimental period, there were 75 Robins Groups affiliated to BB Companies, with an estimated membership of almost 1,500 Boys, and a further 14 Robins Groups operating unofficially. However, the Brigade was not encouraged and the Annual Report of 1968-69 stated:
“although recognising the development of the Robins in Northern Ireland, the Brigade Executive decided to reject their recommendation that the Brigade should encourage the Churches to form these groups, which would not of course be part of the B.B.”
BB Companies in Northern Ireland continued to operate Robins sections, the success of which could not be ignored, and finally by 1976, Brigade Council approved the introduction of a new section, to be known as the Pre-Junior Section, from September 1977. The Pre-Junior Section, which could be known locally as ‘Anchor Boys’ or ‘Robins’ would cater for Boys from their sixth birthday to the end of the session in which they reach the eight years of age.