Baden-Powell, Scouting and the British empire

At the centenary of the founding of Scouting by Baden-Powell in 2007, Anthony Delano examined the movement's rapid spread around the globe and looks at what it tells us about life in the British empire at its Edwardian zenith

Scout Troop

Not since the First Crusade had an idea travelled so far so fast.

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The 1907 camp on Brownsea Island off Poole, which Scouts from all over the world are commemorating this summer as the founding event of their movement, was organised by Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell, an eccentric old soldier who had made his name by leading the 1899 defence of the besieged town of Mafeking in the Boer Wars. On Brownsea Island, 20 adolescent pioneers pitched their tents  for a fortnight of woodcraft exercises, sailing excursions, fireside singsongs and storytelling.

Within two years, there were 100,000 Scouts in Britain and within 20 years two million boys aged 11-plus were exchanging the three-finger salute and reciting the Scout Promise in 78 countries. Modelled in the image of their idiosyncratic, fervently patriotic leader they hiked and sang and soaked up exotic lore, united in the imperial embrace of Britain’s Edwardian twilight.

The spark that lit a thousand campfires was Scouting for Boys, which appeared in parts in 1908. It was based on an army manual Baden-Powell had written and he intended it as guidance for organisations such as the Boys’ Brigade. The BB and its counterparts were mainly out to save souls. Baden-Powell took Christianity for granted, but like many army officers, he had been dismayed by the poor physical condition and spirit of young men recruited for the Boer wars. He wanted attention paid to developing healthy bodies, alert minds and a sense of social purpose. If the British empire, which he had no doubt was the greatest force for good on earth, was to survive these were essential requirements.

Robert Baden-Powell, the British soldier who founded the Scouting movement, photographed with his wife Lady Baden-Powell, c 1910. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Robert Baden-Powell, the British soldier who founded the Scouting movement, photographed with his wife Lady Baden-Powell, c 1910. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As sales of Scouting for Boys mounted, boys everywhere began to do just what it advocated: bond together and do good. Troops and Patrols sprang up spontaneously all over the country. In a rare moment of modesty, B-P (the motto Be Prepared came from his intitials) would insist that the worldwide movement was not really launched by him but by Scouts themselves.

SCOUTING FOR BOYS was to stay in print for nearly a century, translated into dozens of languages, outsold only by the Bible, the Koran and Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book.

Baden-Powell was a compulsive writer, publishing 50 books and pamphlets. He did not, however, write all of them himself. His secretary of 27 years, Eileen Wade, came to know his ideas and style so well that he often left the task to her, giving her the royalty payments that he would otherwise have donated to the movement.

Unsurprisingly, the “white” empire – Canada, Australia and New Zealand – was quick to adopt this quintessentially British activity. But word spread further, sometimes in strange ways. Oblivious to the blaze of enthusiasm he had inspired, B-P set off on a cruise. In Valparaiso, Chile, delivering a lecture in his capacity of military hero, he described his ideas for boys. He was barely back on the ship before a local Troop was being organised. On a ferry in the Baltic, a copy of Scouting for Boys dislodged from a shelf and fell on a Swedish army officer’s head. Before he could even finish translating it, word spread and the first Scandinavian Troops were formed in Denmark. Tsar Nicolas II of Russia summoned B-P to an audience to explain Scouting and gave his blessing to the Russian movement.

Colonial Scouts
Canadian Boy Scouts at the Lord Mayor’s Show in London, c1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Why did the Scouting movement grow so quickly?

The attraction was obvious: adventures that offered a change from city life, intriguing ritual, companionship, the virtuous glow engendered by the daily good deed. Only incidentally did boys assimilate the essence of the Edwardian values B-P idealised: loyalty to the nation and its leader; cheerful acceptance of the way the world was run. He preferred an obedient boy to a clever one. As Tim Jeal, one of B-P’s biographers, observed: “At the heart of Scouting lay a whole series of incompatible aims, not the least of which was an undertaking to produce self-assertive, independent young men who would nevertheless remain loyal supporters of the status quo”.

If success took B-P by surprise, he soon adjusted to it. His army career was coming to an end but he remained an international celebrity as the Defender of Mafeking. His conduct of the 217-day siege in that little tin-roofed town, encircled by Boers, had been one of the few inspiring episodes of the South African campaigns.

Only incidentally did boys assimilate the essence of the Edwardian values B-P idealised: loyalty to the nation and its leader; cheerful acceptance of the way the world was run

He enjoyed himself in Mafeking, organising concerts and theatrical performances as well as food rationing, civil order and rough justice. Reports were smuggled out to newspapers about the ingenious defences he contrived, the daring skirmishes and other high jinks. The British public was enthralled; his commanders less so. There were questions about whether he should have allowed his force to become surrounded. When, a little later in the war, he looked like being tempted into yet another Boer trap, the commander in chief Lord Roberts had to order him to safety. B-P “seemed to have a strange fancy for being besieged,” Roberts wrote. He might be a masterful organiser, but he was “not a general”. Roberts seconded him to raise a mounted police force for the newly pacified territories. B-P happily began sketching out a uniform for his troopers: broad-brimmed hat useful for carrying water; knotted kerchief to protect the spine from sun…

What was the Boy’s Brigade?

The Boys’ Brigade was an important influence on B-P’s early notions. It was founded in Glasgow in 1883 by a Sunday school teacher and part-time soldier, Lieutenant William Smith, to promote “the habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-Respect and all that tends to a true Christian Manliness”. “He put uniforms on their backs and rifles in their hands,” reported the Glasgow Weekly Herald, and the results were “marvellous”. The BB’s rival was the Church Lads’ Brigade and in 1900 came the Boys’ Empire League, promoted by a magazine publisher. Sectarianism swelled the ranks with the Catholic Boys’ Brigade and the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Other “leagues” were formed specifically to oppose drinking and smoking. Wholly militaristic were the cadet corps that some army regiments sponsored – there had been one in Mafeking, although B-P showed little interest in it.

‘The essence of British genius’

When the First World War began, Winston Churchill, then a member of the War Cabinet, delivered a mischievously backhanded compliment to his old friend: “How lucky for B-P that he was not… taken into the central swim of military affairs, and absorbed in all those arduous and secret preparations… how lucky for us all!”. But Churchill, who was an admirer of Scouting, added: “To this he owes his perennially revivifying fame, his opportunity for high personal service… and to this we owe an institution and an inspiration characteristic of the essence of British genius…”.

Churchill, ever bellicose, was among those who expected that Scouts would flock to the colours as soon as they were old enough to be shot at. B-P himself helped create the assumption that Scouts were interchangeable with openly militaristic organisations like the BB. His last army job had been helping to train the Territorial Army and in his early efforts to promote Scouting, he argued the activities he devised from his early experiences on the North West Frontier and with the South African Constabulary – stalking, observation, signalling, self-sufficiency in the wilderness – would help make good soldiers. Nevertheless, he resisted War Office attempts to introduce overt military training. There was an early Scout badge for marksmanship but the only killing encouraged was of animals suitable for food.

couts did sterling non-combatant work in the First World War (and the Second) as messengers and coastguards, earning themselves an entire chapter in The Times History of the Great War, but a visit to the Western Front left B-P convinced he had been right. The slaughter appalled him. “Somebody should have been hanged for it,” he said, and increasingly referred to his “Peace Scouts”.

Scouting and empire

Vast swathes of the map were still red, indicating the extent of the British empire (in 1901), but Britain was not the unchallenged global power she had been before the previous century expired in the shambles of South African campaigns. The middle class could feel the certainties of Edwardian life eroding. The Parliament that took office in 1906 included 29 Labour members. Trades union power was on the march and there was talk of measures – pensions for instance – that the better-off would have to fund.

It was a time of shifting alliances and the growing possibility of new wars. Two years earlier, a European nation, Russia, had been defeated by an Asian one, Japan. But Russia remained strong enough to threaten Britain’s growing dependence on oil from Persia and the Gulf. Germany was planning a navy that could challenge Britain’s domination of sea routes that were essential not only for trade but to transport the manpower that would be needed if an army of continental dimension had to be faced. Hostility towards Germany was kept simmering by sensational though fictional accounts of an invasion plan. The cover of Scouting for Boys showed a concealed Scout keeping watch on a landing party from a distant warship.

The perception of militarism was one of the factors that led to a schism in the developing movement and ensured Scouting in the USA would follow a trail of its own. B-P had been hard at work on Scouting for Boys when he received a book in the post, the accompanying letter signed with a paw-print. Its author, Ernest Thompson Seton, had been born in South Shields but taken to Canada as a boy and later moved to the United States. He had developed a romantic fixation with the “Red Indian”.

Seton’s book, The Birch-bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, described an organisation remarkably like the one B-P envisioned. Although far narrower in scope, aspects of it were particularly appealing, notably the notion of badges for certain accomplishments and the naming of groups of boys after animals. Seton came to London in 1906 and, undaunted by his unkempt appearance – Seton rarely shaved or washed – B-P took him to lunch at the Savoy Hotel. Nonchalantly, he incorporated some of Seton’s ideas into Scouting for Boys.

Biographers are divided about both B-P’s intention and the effect of his indifference to what would today be regarded as intellectual property. Michael Rosenthal, an American, fell barely short of accusing him of plagiarism. Tim Jeal, a Briton, seemed more aware of the distinction between Seton’s limited aims of woodcraft, conservation and emulation of a vanquished race and B-P’s more uplifting vision of good citizenship and the nurturing of values on which he believed the empire rested. While B-P was “thoughtless and none too scrupulous in his earlier dealings with Seton, he later did his utmost to conciliate”. Although B-P played no part in the creation of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), in an act of enormous generosity he granted it the rights to Scouting for Boys and other assets – a fortune in copyrights.

Perhaps because of the friction with Seton, who continued to insist he was the true founder of Scouting, B-P was never quite comfortable with the way BSA developed, particularly the influence on it of the Young Mens’ Christian Association and its robust commercial motivation. His dealings with non-Europeans, inside the empire or not, reflected the casual racism of his times. Many of his views were strictly codified but interpreted pragmatically to the point of contradiction. The Scout Law prescribed equality and the point was emphasised in one of the sketches he constantly used to put ideas across, of a Scout hurdling across barriers labelled (in addition to the detested Grumpiness) – Selfishness, Racial Jealousies and Religious Differences. But in Mafeking he had cut African rations to allow more food to whites and let black offenders be hanged without compunction. He was sanguine about the segregation that many countries, especially his beloved South Africa, imposed on Troops. He admired Japanese Bushido (an honour code) but resisted Hindus becoming Scouts because he did not believe (quite wrongly) that their language had a term that would equate with the key concept of Honour.

Intrigued by ‘girlitis’

One major incompatability in the early Scout movement was sex, always, like many aspects of Scouting, shrouded in euphemism. B-P deplored the “girlitis” that seemed to afflict male adolescents. In the earliest days, some Troops admitted girls – 6,000 of them. Intrigued but puzzled, he eventually became convinced that a separate organisation was needed. In 1910 the Girl Guides was formed with his sister Agnes at its head. A corrosive family row developed over her conduct and the new Lady Baden-Powell soon took over as chief guide.

Girlitis struck B-P himself in the athletic form of Olave Soames. He was 55 and she 23 when they married in 1912. They had three children. There might have been more except for B-P’s insistence on sleeping outdoors in all weathers, on a balcony or in a tent. Married life was inseparable from Scouting and Guiding. The Scouts’ wedding present was a Standard car for which 100,000  boys contributed a penny. In 1929, with four million Scouts and Guides around the world, enough pennies were collected to buy a Rolls Royce.

That occasion was the great International Jamboree at Birkenhead to mark 21 years of Scouting. It was one of the century’s milestones. Baden-Powell became a baron and read the Lesson to 3,000 Scouts in Westminster Abbey. The Prince of Wales, sheepish in shorts even baggier than B-P’s, topped the list of distinguished visitors. Prime Minister Lloyd George declared: “No social development of our time is more attractive in its aim or far reaching in its effect…”. The vast hordes of international Scouts heading for the World Scout Jamboree in Chelmsford in August 2007 suggests he was right.

Dr Anthony Delano is a visiting professor at the London College of Communication. 
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This article was first published in the April 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine