My history hero: Robert Baden Powell (1857–1941)

Chosen by adventurer and chief scout Bear Grylls

Robert Baden-Powell in the 1920s. "He was relentlessly positive – with phrases like 'kick the "im" out of the word impossible," says Bear Grylls. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement and first chief scout of the Boy Scouts Association, served in the British Army from 1876 until 1910. In 1899–1900, he successfully defended Mafeking during the famous siege of the same name in the Boer War. In 1908, he founded the Scout Movement, which now has over 30 million members worldwide. His 1908 book, Scouting for Boys, has sold over 100m copies. He spent his final years in Kenya where he died and was buried.

When did you first hear about Robert Baden-Powell?

I was a Cub Scout as a child and had a brilliant time sizzling sausages, earning badges and making new friends. I probably first heard about Baden-Powell then, but it wasn’t until later that I got to know more about him.

What kind of person was he?

Baden-Powell was an inspirational figure. He was quite unorthodox, even eccentric in his methods. As an officer, he trained his men using games, and even awarded badges – methods he later introduced as part of Scouting. He slept outdoors whenever he could and made friends with people across the world from every walk of life. He was also relentlessly positive – with phrases like “kick the ‘im’ out of the word impossible” and even “A Scout smiles and whistles under all circumstances”.

He was a soldier, artist (he drew all those brilliant cartoons in the early Scouting books himself) as well as a thinker and originator of the world’s biggest youth movement. He was also a conservationist and believed that doing things for others is the secret to a happy life.

What made Baden-Powell a hero?

He wasn’t afraid to be different. When Scouting began, the influence of the Victorian era was still strong. Children were to be seen and not heard. Baden-Powell helped give young people a voice; he helped give them an independence and status that they did not enjoy at school or even at home. Above all, he told them that they were important, gave them independence and responsibility, and said it was okay for them to have fun, enjoy the freedom of the outdoors and have an adventure. What really made Baden-Powell a hero was the worldwide influence of his brilliant, original and simple idea. And as Scouting spread across the world, it became a global force for good.

What was Baden-Powell’s finest hour?

Militarily, it must surely have been his defence of Mafeking (now Mahikeng) during the Second Boer War, 1899–1902, when he held out against 8,000 Boers with a ragbag garrison of around 2,000 men. Thanks to his ingenuity, resilience and inspirational leadership, he defended the town for 217 days until relief arrived.

In terms of his Scouting career, perhaps it was the publication of Scouting for Boys, the blueprint for the worldwide Scout movement. Almost all of the components for Scouting – the promise, law, motto, badges and patrol system – were in that book, and are still in use today.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

He was a renowned practical joker, so perhaps I would have been a little nervous to be the victim of one of his stunts!

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Plenty, I hope. I’m a great lover of the outdoors and, like Baden-Powell, I was a soldier, which instilled a sense of self-discipline and resourcefulness. He was also a family man with three children, like me. I try to live my life by his moral code: “Think of others before yourself and do a good turn every day.” It is a sound piece of advice for life.

If you could meet Baden-Powell what would you ask him?

Do you think you should have kept girls in Scouting? He encouraged them to take part in Scouting in Scouting for Boys, and only later suggested a separate movement be formed just for girls – although we now have over 65,000 girls in Scouting.

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Bear Grylls was a reservist in the SAS but is best known as an adventurer and television presenter. In 2009 he was appointed chief scout. Find out more about Bear at beargrylls.com