Leslie's Guiding History Site



Robert Baden-Powell

Robert Baden-Powell, 1857 - 1941, was the founder of Scouting. 

Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell was born on 22 February 1857 in London, a son of university professor Baden Powell, and his young third wife Henrietta.  Reverend Powell died when Robert was aged 3, and shortly afterwards the family name was altered to Baden-Powell by his widow.  Robert attended Rose Hill Prep School, then followed his brothers to Charterhouse, where he did not shine academically, but enjoyed acting, drawing, sport, and also exploring out-of-bounds woods near the school.

Having failed in several attempts at maths exam resits (both at school and at crammers), it became clear he would be unable to follow his elder brothers to university as he had hoped, so he opted to sit for the army officer entrance exams.  His high marks earned him a direct place in the 13th Hussars as a cavalry officer without having to attend officer training school first.  Baden-Powell served in the British Army from 1876 until 1910, mainly in India and Africa (as living expenses were less abroad than in the UK, enabling him to send money to his mother to help maintain the family home). In 1899, Baden-Powell was in charge of the army in the town of Mafeking and organised it's successful defence during a long siege.  In order to free up men for fighting, an officer working under him had the idea of recruiting the local boys, setting them to work as bicycle messengers, delivering messages between the defence posts around the town (sometimes under gunfire), and everyone was soon impressed by their ability and reliability.  This developed into a regularly-established postal service for civilians as well as soldiers, with specially-made stamps.

Once back in the UK to a hero's welcome, Baden-Powell soon became involved with the Boys' Brigade, and also met Ernest Thompson Seton, who had started the "Woodcraft Indians".  Baden-Powell thought that some of the outdoor activities he had enjoyed in his youth, and in the army, along with many of the ideas he had found in Seton's woodcraft book and from other sources, could provide useful pastimes for boys such as those in the Boys' Brigade.  He wrote Scouting for Boys, which was published in 1908, initially in fortnightly installments then in book form.  During the writing process, he tested some of his ideas through a camping trip on Brownsea Island in Dorset with working-class youths from the local Boys' Brigade in the Dorset area, and sons of his upper-class friends, in August 1907.  (Contrary to the myths, there were definitely no boys from the east end of London present at this camp).

Individual boys and girls bought the new book and spontaneously formed Scout troops of their own, and so the independent Scout movement inadvertently started, first as a national, and soon an international obsession.  Girls as well as boys took up Scouting, and Baden-Powell welcomed them all, noting in a January 1909 edition of "The Scout" magazine that some of the girls were 'really capable Scouts'.  In September 1909, following a long build-up including many front-page articles in "The Scout" over several issues, the first UK-wide Scout Rally was held at the Crystal Palace in London.  Several thousand Boy Scouts and over 1000 Girl Scouts applied for tickets and attended.  Following some negative publicity given to a small group of Girl Scouts who opted to literally gate-crash the rally because they had failed to apply for tickets, and some general negative reaction to girls participating in mixed-sex activities (a hot topic in that suffragette era), Baden-Powell approached his sister Agnes to create a separate organisation for girls, the Girl Guides, on similar lines to the Scouts, and she reluctantly accepted.

In January 1912, Baden-Powell met Olave Soames, on the ocean liner Arcadian, when heading for New York on one of his Scouting World Tours.  She was 23, and he was 55. They married quietly on 31st October 1912, at St Peter's Church in Parkstone, Dorset.

At the outbreak of World War I, the 57-year-old Baden-Powell volunteered his services to the army, but was told that he would be of most use organising the Scouts, who were involved in all sorts of war service, including assisting the coastguard with coastal defence patrols.

In 1920, the 1st World Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia, and Baden-Powell was acclaimed Chief Scout of the World.  He was created a Baronet in the 1921 New Year Honours and became Baron Baden-Powell of Gilwell, in the County of Essex, on 17 September 1929, Gilwell being the location of the recently-established national Scout training centre. After receiving this honour, Baden-Powell usually styled himself "Baden-Powell of Gilwell".

At the 5th World Scout Jamboree in 1937, Baden-Powell gave his official farewell to Scouting, as his health was failing.  22 February, the joint birthday of Robert and Olave Baden-Powell, continues to be marked as "Founder's Day" by Scouts and as "Thinking Day" by Guides.

The Baden-Powells had three children, Arthur Robert Peter (Peter), later 2nd Baron Baden-Powell (1913-1962), Heather (1915-1986), and Betty (1917-2004).  In 1938, he and his wife Olave retired to a cottage he had commissioned on an estate in Nyeri, Kenya, as it was felt that the warm dry climate would benefit his failing health.  Robert Baden-Powell died on 8 January 1941 and is buried in Nyeri, in St. Peter's Cemetery.  When his wife Olave died, her ashes were sent to Kenya and interred beside those of her husband.

Following his death a 'final message' was published.  It read:

"To my brother Scouters and Guiders.  

Cecil Rhodes said at the end of his life (and I, in my turn feel the truth of it), 'So much to do and so little time to do it.'  

No one can hope to see the consumation, as well as the start, of a big venture within the short span of one lifetime.  

I have had an extraordinary experience in seeing the development of Scouting from it's beginning up to its present stage.  But there is a vast job before it.  The Movement is only now getting into its stride.  

(When I speak of Scouting I include in it Guiding also.)  

The one part which I can claim as mine towards promoting the Movement is that I have been lucky enough to find you men and women to form a group of the right stamp who can be relied upon to carry it on to its goal.  

You will do well to keep your eyes open, in your turn, for worthy successors to whom you can, with confidence, hand on the torch.  

Don't let it become a salaried organisation; keep it a voluntary movement of patriotic service.  

The movement has already, in the comparatively short period of its existence, established itself on to a wide and so strong a footing as to show most encouraging promise of what may be possible to it in the coming years.  

Its aim is to produce healthy, happy, helpful citizens, of both sexes, to eradicate the prevailing narrow self-interest, personal, political, sectarian and national, and to substitute for it a broader spirit of self-sacrifice and service in the cause of humanity; and thus to develop mutual goodwill and co-operation not only within our own country but abroad, between all countries.  

Experience shows that this consumation is no idle or fantastic dream, but is a practicable possibility - if we work for it; and it means, when attained, peace, prosperity and happiness for all.  

The 'encouraging promise' lies in the fact that the hundreds of thousands of boys and girls who are learning our ideals today will be the fathers and mothers of millions in the near future, in whom they will in turn inculcate the same ideals - provided that these are really and unmistakably impressed upon them by their leaders of today.  

Therefore you, who are Scouters and Guiders, are not only doing a great work for your neighbours' children but are also helping in practical fashion to bring to pass God's Kingdom of peace and goodwill upon earth.  So, from my heart, I wish you God-speed in your effort.

Robert Baden-Powell."

Agnes Baden-Powell

Agnes Baden-Powell, 1858 - 1945, was the founder of Guiding. 

Agnes Smyth Powell was born on 16 December 1858 in London.  She was the ninth child of university professor Baden Powell and his third wife Henrietta Powell, and the third daughter of the family - but the only daughter to survive infancy.  Agnes was 2 years old when Rev Powell died - to honour him, his widow Henrietta changed the family surname to Baden-Powell a few years later. 

 Despite her mother being an active campaigner for girls' schools, Agnes did not get to go to school as her brothers did, but was educated at home, and she developed a large number of interests, including natural history, astronomy, beekeeping, carpentry, metalwork and aviation - both by balloon and by aeroplane - along with her younger brother, Baden Baden-Powell.  She also played various musical instruments including violin and piano, and spoke several languages.  With Baden she made balloons - she hand-stitched the silk for the canopies - and they made many flights together. Later she helped him with aeroplane-building and by sourcing and repairing lightweight aeroplane engines in those pioneer aviation days. Agnes was an honorary companion of the Royal Aeronautical Society from 1938.

She was for some years President of the Westminster Division of the Red Cross, and worked for the League of Mercy and Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, among many other interests.  In addition, a great deal of her time was taken up with looking after her mother, and running the household for her mother and brothers, as was expected of an eldest daughter in those days.

Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Scouting in 1907, organised a gathering of Scouts at the Crystal Palace in London in September 1909. As well as several thousand Boy Scouts, over 1000 Girl Scouts attended.  Some adverse comment regarding the presence of the Girl Scouts forced Robert to move towards setting up a separate organisation for the girls - popular opinion at this time was prejudiced against girls taking part in mixed activities, fearing it would make them immodest, impolite tomboys - and negative publicity risked damaging the growing good reputation of the fledgling Boy Scout movement in an era when the activities of militant suffragettes were regularly appearing in the headlines.  Robert approached his sister to set up the new organisation for girls, Girl Guides, and although Agnes was initially wary of taking on the role, her personality was useful in counteracting the fears of the public. A friend wrote of her:


"Anyone who had come into touch with her gentle influence, her interest in all womanly arts, and her love of birds, insects, and flowers, would scoff at the idea of her being the president of a sort of Amazon Cadet Corps."  On the other hand, her interests in aviation, cycling, metalwork, telegraphy - and the experience of being brought up as the only girl in a family of brothers - meant she both enjoyed and excelled at the outdoor activities of Guiding such as cycling and camping too - she apparently excelled at bicycling through hoops and other cycle stunts and tricks!


In 1909, Robert and Agnes Baden-Powell published Pamphlet A and Pamphlet B - these were precursors to the handbook and gave an initial outline of how Girl Guide Companies should be set up and run.  Agnes rented a room within the Boy Scout Headquarters, and set up an office to register the Guide units and members - within four months there were 6,000 girls registered as Girl Guides. In 1912, Agnes brought about the formation of the first Lone Company and was the de facto President of The Girl Guide Association, devoting a great deal of time to the organisation, and travelling around the UK to give talks and promote the new movement. 


During this time, Agnes also wrote the Guides' first handbook.  Entitled "The Handbook for the Girl Guides or How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire", and published in 1912, it was a reworking of the "Scouting for Boys" book written by her brother five years earlier, but fully adapted and rewritten to manage the delicate balancing act of appealling to the girls who had flocked to join Scouts, whilst appeasing the concerns of their parents about unladylike pursuits - it was a great success at both tasks. 


It was in 1912 that Agnes first met Olave Baden-Powell, when Robert brought her to meet their mother in the family home.  It is clear from Olave's biographies that Olave immediately disliked Agnes, from the date of that first meeting onwards, and this seems to have continued.  In 1914 the Rosebud section was started (renamed Brownies a year later).  The Girl Guide Movement was given official recognition in 1915, and Agnes was made President at the same time, officially in overall charge of Guiding.  In 1916, Senior Guides were started, later renamed Rangers, and Guiding was growing rapidly.


In 1916 Olave Baden-Powell, then the comparatively new Sussex County Commissioner (she had been in post for only a few months), was voted into the new role of Chief Commissioner (effectively in charge of UK Guiding), with Agnes' post of President being reduced from that of working head of the organisation, to a largely honorary role. 


In 1917, following pressure from Olave Baden-Powell, Agnes resigned the Presidency in favour of Princess Mary, who was a keen supporter of the Girl Guides.  Agnes continued as Vice-President (although she was often excluded from events she might have expected to be invited to) and she enjoyed camping and outdoor activities up until her death in June 1945.  She was buried in the Baden-Powell family grave in Kensal Green Cemetry, London (although she is not listed on the headstone there).  Unfortunately, many of the records from her time in charge of Guiding were destroyed, and many in Guiding today are not aware of her key role in creating and establishing Guides, Brownies and Rangers, travelling across the UK promoting the movement, establishing the headquarters and setting up the organisation, writing the first handbook, and encouraging the international growth of Guiding in a range of countries.

Olave Baden-Powell, nee Soames

Olave Baden-Powell, 1889 - 1977, was UK Chief Commissioner/Chief Guide from 1916 to 1930, and then World Chief Guide from 1930 to 1977.

Olave Soames was born in Chesterfield, on 22 February 1889.  She was the younger daughter of Harold and Katherine Soames, and had a wandering childhood as the family moved house most years - her parents struggled to find the 'ideal house'.  She was educated at home by a regularly-changing series of governesses, with her formal education ending entirely when she was 12, and she enjoyed walking, swimming, music and her many pets.  In 1912, her father set off on a lengthy cruise on the RMSP Arcadian, to recuperate after a bout of ill health, and took Olave with him as his companion.  At dinner they were seated next to Robert Baden-Powell (by then famous both for the role he played in the Boer War, and for having founded Scouting), who was on a world tour to promote Scouting.  Soon, despite the 32-year age gap, Robert and Olave were meeting regularly on deck, and exchanging private letters.

Shortly after both had returned from the cruise, Olave visited Robert's mother in London, and also met Agnes, who looked after her mother - Olave took an instant dislike to Agnes.  Robert and Olave were married quietly in Dorset, in October 1912 (six weeks before the date which had been advertised, to avoid excessive media attention).  They had 3 children, Arthur Robert Peter (known as Peter) in 1913, Heather in 1915, and Betty in 1917.  Olave and Robert moved into Ewhurst Place, near Robertsbridge in Sussex, in April 1913. Olave accompanied Robert on many of his Scouting tours and to events during this time. During 1915 Olave assisted directly with the war effort in France - Robert had seen the usefulness of the YMCA's recreational huts for soldiers and persuaded the Mercers' Company to pay for a hut at Val-de-Lievres, Calais.  It was staffed by adults connected with Scouting, and Olave was a member of the staff team who worked there.  She persuaded her mother to (reluctantly) look after the children for the time she would be away.  Olave left for France on 7 October 1915, when Heather was 3 months old.  Olave's work included serving cocoa and cigarettes and chatting to those who came in.  During this time, Robert organised the Scouts to sponsor another hut.  Olave and two others started up this Scout hut at Etaples after Christmas 1915, but at the end of January 1916 Olave was ordered home due to sickness.

Although she is most famously connected with the Girl Guides, Olave's first offer to help them, in 1914, was turned down due to her inexperience - she had never been involved with Guides, but after this setback set up a Scout unit with some of her household staff.  After the reorganisation of the Guides in 1915, she offered her services again, this time obtaining the post of County Commissioner for Sussex, and she then immediately started both organising Guiding within the County, and also writing to her friends to encourage them to apply to become County Commissioners in other Counties, and then seek places on the management committee, which several successfully did. In October 1916, the first national conference for County Commissioners was held, and it was here that the Commissioners voted in Olave as Chief Commissioner, ousting Agnes Baden-Powell from the head of the movement.  In 1918, Olave was acclaimed Chief Guide, a title she much preferred to that of Chief Commissioner.  She was also presented with a gold version of the Silver Fish award.  Olave was elected as World Chief Guide in 1930, at which point she relinquished her role as UK Chief Guide (hence in all pictures after this time she is seen in the special uniforms she designed for the role, rather than in UK uniform). As well as making a major contribution to the development of the world Guide/Girl Scout movement over the following years, during lengthy international tours she visited 111 countries, attending Jamborees and visiting national Guide and Scout associations to promote the movement.

In October 1938, Olave and Robert had moved to Nyeri, Kenya, as it was felt the climate would benefit his failing health; he died there on January 8, 1941.  In 1942 she returned to Britain, and as her house had been requisitioned for the duration of the war, she was granted a grace-and-favour apartment in Hampton Court Palace (in which she lived from 1943 until she moved to a nursing home in 1976).  Through World War II she toured Britain regularly, and as soon as she could after D-Day, went to France and on through Europe, where she was greeted by crowds of newly-liberated Guides.  The decades thereafter were filled with international travel as she visited her Guide family around the world by train, plane and boat.

She suffered a heart attack in 1961, and was finally banned from international travel in 1970 when diagnosed with the diabetes from which she died on 25 June 1977, at Birtley House nursing home in Surrey where she had spent her last year.  Her ashes were taken to Kenya to be placed on her husband's grave.  She was survived by her two daughters (her son having predeceased her in 1962 from leukaemia).