Every year on February 22, I celebrate both George Washington’s and Baden Powell’s Birthday. Both have shaped my character in many ways as I have grown. Likely you’ve learned a lot about Washington in school, but not so much for BP, as Baden Powell was known.
Many years ago I read and enjoyed a biography of BP called Two Lives of a Hero, and figured that was that. But as time has gone on I have found many additional resources, including two I received this last Christmas. My wife gave me Playing the Game—a Baden-Powell Compendium, which is a collections of his writings. My son gave me a priceless book entitled “The CHIEF SCOUT Sir Robert Baden Powell,” by W Francis Aitken. For me it is collector’s item dating back to its publishing 1912, though mine is not in the best condition. It is so fragile I hardly dared open it, but when I did, I realized it was an early biography of BP. There are delightful anecdotes of his boyhood and descriptions of him as a war hero, and all this just five years after he used his celebrity to start Boy Scouting. On this his 159th birthday, I’d like share some of his life from that book with our readers.
Known as BP, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (properly pronounced bayden-poēl), was born in Paddington, London on 22 February 1857. He was the eighth of ten children born to Baden, a Professor at Oxford University, and Henrietta Powell.
According to Aitken, BP “…is one of our a few really great Londoners.” Further, he explained the stock BP came from this way: “He belongs to a family, every member of which has made some mark in the world. His father the Rev. Prof. Baden Powell was a distinguished scholar and scientist; his mother [was] exceptionally gifted.” His brother, Sir George Baden Powell was important in negotiations between Great Britain and the Transvaal and was adviser to the British government in a Bering Sea controversy. Another brother, Major B F S Baden Powell formerly of the Scott’s guards made a great study of military ballooning. Henry Warrington took up the practice of law and as a barrister. His brother, Frank Smyth, exhibited many of his works of art at the Royal Academy in London, the salon in Paris and many other galleries. BPs only sister A S Baden Powell pursued the arts, music, languages, astronomy and the study of natural history.
According Aitken, “the last thing thought of by the professor and his wife in the early training of their children was ‘book learning.’ The first schooling of these happy young people was in the open air in the quest of wild plants, flowers and butterflies, becoming familiar with the names of foliage and of the trees, the notes of song birds, the habits of animals and fishes, and the signs of the zodiac, all to be discussed at the mothers knee.”
His father died when B-P was only three years old, leaving the family in a challenging situation, but the direction set by his father in outdoor education was fostered further by his mother. Aitken said that as early as five, BP began scouting the woods: “nothing pleased him better than to wonder in the woods near his grandfather’s home near Tunbridge Wells, unless it was in the company of his companions in the delightful and time-honored game of ‘let’s pretend’ to imitate the habits of birds. We get other glimpses of him …sailing around the coast exploring inland waters in a ‘home made’ yacht or boat, in the company of his older brother Henry Warington.”
At 12, he was sent to preparatory school at Rose Hill, where he gained a scholarship to Charterhouse School. Aitken explains, “The bright intelligence and cheery frankness which he showed during the ordeal of the preliminary examination created at once a favorable impression on the headmaster …that was never falsified.
That impression, said Dr. Haig-Brown, was “an exuberant joyousness, but I cannot recall any incident in which this betrayed him into want of respect for his masters or lack of consideration for his school fellows. He became at once a popular boy. This popularity grew as to give evidence of the many accomplishments he possessed—a senior power of mimicry, a remarkable felicity of drawing.” Aitken says that he could “draw two pictures simultaneously [one with each hand, both different]. His sketches were beautiful—not, perhaps evidences of art training, but actual reality.” Aitken also explained, “He was by nature a leader of boys as he has since become of men. His progress in school work was steady and continuous.” He was always eager to learn new skills. He played the piano and the violin. While at Charterhouse he began to exploit his interest in the arts of scouting and woodcraft.
In the woods around the school, B-P would hide from his masters and catch and cook rabbits, being careful not to let tell-tale smoke give his position away. The holidays were not wasted either. With his brothers he was always in search of adventure. One holiday they made a yachting expedition round the south coast of England. On another, they traced the Thames to its source by canoe. Through all this, Baden-Powell was learning the arts and crafts which were to prove so useful to him professionally.
Not known for his high marks at school, B-P nevertheless took an examination for the army and placed second among several hundred applicants. He was commissioned straight into the 13th Hussars, bypassing the officer training establishments. Later, he became their Honorary Colonel.
In 1876, he went to India as a young army officer and specialized in scouting (reconnoitering), map-making and reconnaissance. His success soon led to his training other soldiers. B-P’s methods were unorthodox for those days: small units or patrols working together under one leader, with special recognition for those who did well. For proficiency, B-P awarded his trainees badges resembling the traditional design of the north compass point. Today’s universal Scout badge is very similar.
Later he was stationed in the Balkans, South Africa and Malta. He returned to Africa to help defend the town of Mafeking during its 217-day siege at the start of the Boer War. It provided crucial tests for B-P’s scouting skills. The courage and resourcefulness shown by the young soldiers at Mafeking made a lasting impression on him. In turn, his deeds made a lasting impression in England.
Returning home in 1903, he found that he had become a national hero. He also found that the small handbook he had written for soldiers (“Aids to Scouting”) was being used by youth leaders and teachers all over the country to teach observation and woodcraft.
He spoke at meetings and rallies and while at a Boys’ Brigade gathering he was asked by its Founder, Sir William Smith, to work out a scheme for giving greater variety in the training of boys in good citizenship.
Beginnings of the Movement
B-P set to work rewriting “Aids to Scouting,” but this time it would be for a younger audience. In 1907, he held an experimental camp on Brownsea Island in Dorset to try out his ideas. He brought together 22 boys, some from private schools and some from working-class homes, and took them camping under his leadership. This was to be considered the starting point of the Scout Movement.
“Scouting for Boys” was published in 1908 in six biweekly parts. Sales of the book were tremendous. Boys formed themselves into Scout patrols to try out ideas. What had been intended as a training aid for existing organisations became the handbook of a new and ultimately worldwide Movement. “Scouting for Boys” has since been translated into all of the major languages of the world.
In September, 1908, BP had to set up an office to deal with the large number of inquiries which were pouring in. Scouting spread quickly until it was established in practically all parts of the world.
He retired from the army in 1910 at the age of 53 on the advice of King Edward VII, who suggested that he could now do more valuable service for his country within the Scout Movement.
With all his enthusiasm and energy now directed to the development of Boy Scouting and Girl Guiding, he traveled world wide to encourage growth and give inspiration to his new organization.
In 1912, he married Olave Soames, who was his constant help and companion in all this work, and who became greatly involved in Guiding and Scouting. They had three children (Peter, Heather and Betty). Lady Olave Baden-Powell was later known as World Chief Guide.
Chief Scout of the world
The first World Scout Jamboree took place at Olympia, London in 1920. At its closing scene B-P was unanimously acclaimed as Chief Scout of the World.
At the third World Jamboree, also held in England, the Prince of Wales announced that B-P would be given Peerage by His Majesty the King. From there B-P took the title of Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell; Gilwell Park being the international training center he had created for Scout leader training and camping outside of London.
B-P wrote no fewer than 32 books, most outside of Scouting subjects. He received honorary degrees from at least six universities. In addition, 28 foreign orders and decorations and 19 foreign Scout awards were bestowed upon him.
In 1938, suffering from ill-health, B-P returned to Africa, a place that had meant so much in his life, to live in semi-retirement at Nyeri, Kenya. Even there, he found it difficult to curb his energies and he continued to produce books and sketches.
On 8 January 1941, at 83 years of age, B-P died. He was buried in a simple grave at Nyeri within sight of Mount Kenya. On his head stone are the words “Robert Baden-Powell, Chief Scout of the World” with emblems of the Boy Scout and Girl Guide Badges at its top. Lady Olave Baden-Powell carried on his work, promoting Scouting and Girl Guiding around the world until her death in 1977. She is buried alongside Lord Baden-Powell at Nyeri.
BP prepared a farewell message to all Scouts for publication after his death. His advice was to “try and leave this world a little better than you found it.” It is as relevant—if not more—today and continues to inspire young people all over the world.