Leslie's Guiding History Site


The World Centres

Our Chalet

During the early years of Guiding, the movement was entirely centred in the UK.  There was some logic to this - after all, London was the city in which the founder of the movement had been born and continued to live, and Britain was the country where Guiding was created and first established.  When the initial international committees were founded they were naturally dominated by the more experienced British Leaders, and thus despite Guiding's rapid international spread, business was done mainly in Britain, and in English.

Guiding both spread and developed in other countries in various ways.  Some early members people took Guiding abroad with them when they travelled, others translated the early handbooks into other languages - and there was soon a lively interchange of written correspondence with the UK, and much practical use made of visiting trainers from the UK travelling for extended periods to spread Guiding in the Countries which were taking it up.  Although World War I provided some interruption to this process, the establishment of Foxlease as a permanent training centre, followed by the first World Camp, held there in 1924, confirmed Guiding's international footing.  But - Foxlease belonged to Britain, and each of the various other headquarters and training centres which were springing up around the world belonged to their respective countries - yet there was a growing desire to have a building which belonged equally to all the Countries in the Guiding family, and not just to one.  The notion of a 'Castle in Spain'.  As so often, though it was a lovely dream, the practical question of how to fund such a house, at a time when the world economic climate was extremely adverse, kept the idea as no more than a pipe dream discussed wistfully at successive World Conferences without any tangible progress. It was on the agenda once again in 1929, and all were still agreed that it would be wonderful if it could be done, but they still hadn't the means.  It took someone who could solve both problems, to get things moving.  Helen Storrow from the USA shared the dream with the other delegates - but unusually, she was also in a position to play 'fairy godmother' and make the dream happen.  She offered to provide all the money to pay for an international Guide house - provided it was located in Switzerland.  Given Switzerland's long tradition of political neutrality, it's good transport links, and it's position in central Europe - and the willingness of the Swiss Association to support it's presence once built - the funding was a welcome present, and all participants were happy to agree with her proposed host country.  As so often, however, solving one problem immediately brings another - whereabouts in Switzerland?

There were a lot of things that people wanted of this dream 'world house'.  They wanted it to bring inspiration, and world friendship.  So Mrs Storrow, and a Swiss Leader, Ida von Herrenschwand (often known as Falk) set out to try and find such an inspiring location in June 1930.  They visited many places before Mrs Storrow fell in love with a beautiful location near the town of Aeschi.  However Falk had some doubts about the site - she entirely agreed that it was a beautiful spot where one might find serenity and inspiration - but she recalled that in her youth her enthusiasms were more for outdoor sports such as hiking and skiing, rather than for contemplation and admiring beauty - and Aeschi was a long way from the mountain areas where hiking was available, and too low-lying for any winter sports either.  At the next World Conference Mrs Storrow presented her findings and photographs, and the location was admired - but it was soon noticed by the Chair, Robert Baden-Powell, that during the presentation Mrs Storrow had done all the talking about their exploration and it's results.  When he directly asked Falk for her opinion, though uncomfortable at doing so, she had no choice but indicate her misgivings about lack of outdoor activity options - at which point Baden-Powell advised that if she felt this location was not perfect, then she should set out again to seek the place that was.  Armed with a long wish list from the committee, Falk set out on a further search, and found a spot at Adelboden, which offered both peace for the soul, and outdoor adventure options.  She quickly telegraphed back, and in June 1931 the World Committee gathered in Adelboden to inspect the suggested site.  They celebrated finding their location with a tea party.  Building work commenced, but soon an extra challenge was added - for Mrs Storrow decided she wanted to have a mini chalet built, next to the new building.  In spite of the extra work, the architects coped, and on 31 July 1932 Our Chalet was formally opened by Olave Baden-Powell and Helen Storrow.  Falk was appointed as first Guider in Charge, and Our Chalet became a recognised international meeting place for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.  During World War II it closed to regular guests, but it nevertheless played an important role in helping to reunite refugees who had managed to gain entry to Switzerland, through it's international connections.  As soon as war in Europe ended, it resumed it's role again in welcoming the Guides of the world.  In the decades since, further buildings have been added on site, to cope with the increasing numbers of visitors, both the many groups of day visitors who arrive throughout the year to visit the site, and the lucky few who can have a chance to stay overnight in the Chalet itself.

Our Ark/Olave House/Pax Lodge

Although the World Association was headquartered in London, and the World Bureau was established there in the early 1930s, it soon became apparent that a further building in London would be required - the World Bureau regularly received requests from Guiding people seeking to stay in the London headquarters building whilst visiting Guiding's 'homeland', which they could not fulfil as there was no space in the building to offer accommodation.  During the World Committee meeting in July 1937 it was agreed that a World Centre in London would fill this need, and that it should take the form of a Guide hostel, to host visitors to the 'home of Guiding' in the UK.  As the World Bureau also needed more space than it's premises allowed, a building which could house both would be the ideal solution - but it came down to that age-old problem, money.  So a 'Pennies Appeal' was launched across all WAGGGS member countries, on the basis that if every member could send a penny each on Thinking Day, it would raise enough to purchase a suitable building.  Soon there was enough money to buy a former hotel, at 11-13 Palace Street in London, with one house to serve as the World Bureau, and the other two to form the new World Centre, to be named "Our Ark".  On 2 May 1939, the building was ready and the Lady Mayoress of London performed the opening ceremony.  But already, war clouds had long been gathering, and Our Ark was to perform a more vital role than had been envisaged.  For the coming of war only four months later brought Guide refugees from various countries in Europe to London in search of safety, and continued to do so over the next few months and years.  Throughout the war these refugee Guides, known as "Golondrinas" (swallows) were provided with a welcome, a home and a meeting-place in "Our Ark" during their stay in Britain.

During the 1950s the number of visitors steadily increased, and both the World Bureau and World Centre were outgrowing their space.  At the World Conference in Brazil in 1957 it was decided to appeal to all members to raise the money to house both the World Bureau and Our Ark in a larger premises.  Members from all over the world sponsored bricks, and the British Girl Guides raised the money for the garden.  World Centre premises were found at 45 Longridge Road, formerly a small hotel, however it was then arranged for the World Bureau moved elsewhere in London, and the whole premises were given over for the World Centre.  In 1963 the new premises in Longridge Road were opened by Olave Baden-Powell, and named "Olave House" in her honour.

By 1978, numbers were increasing again, and thoughts were turning to a further move, again seeking to unite the World Centre and World Bureau on one site.  So the new project formed, and within three years a new site had been found in North London.  However it took a long time for both fundraising, and for permissions.  So it was that on 6 May 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of Our Ark and the centenary year of Olave Baden-Powell's birth, the foundation stone of "Pax Lodge" was unveiled by her daughter Betty Clay.  On 15 March 1991 the official opening was carried out by HRH The Princess Benedikte of Denmark.   The London World Centre is the only one which has existed in three different locations in one city, and borne three different names.  And where the other World Centres focus on themed activity 'sessions' of several days, Pax Lodge continues to operate as a Guiding hostel, for people to have shorter or longer stays while visiting the city. 

Our Cabana

So there were now two World Centres - but both were in the same continent, Europe.  It was in 1946, at a training session in Cuba, that thoughts turned seriously to the possibility of a World Centre located somewhere in the Western Hemisphere.  Options were explored in Cuba, Panama and the USA, but the thinking was to find a country which would offer a location with a range of cultural experiences, visitor sites, and a central location, along with a Guiding country willing and able to act as hosts.  Thus, Mexico was chosen to house the new World Centre.  The opening ceremony was held in July 1957 by Olave Baden-Powell, who opened the large blue and gold 'Chiefs Doors', and the site was expanded in 1969 with the addition of extra dormitories and a hall. 


But as the work to complete the third World Centre was being accomplished, thoughts were also turning to the question of a fourth, in Asia, and at the WAGGGS International Commissioners meeting in New Delhi in 1956 the proposal was put forward, and it was agreed at the World Conference a year later, to build, in India.  In 1963 the building plans were approved at the World Conference, the name Sangam being chosen from the Sanskrit language because it means "coming together".  On 16th October 1966 it was opened by Olave Baden-Powell.


For many years, there was talk of a fifth World Centre, in Africa.  It was the one major continent which did not have one, despite the large and growing number of Guiding members in the continent.  At the Africa Regional Conference in 2010 it was decided to explore options to bring the 'World Centre experience' to Africa in some way, but the difficulty was that no one country could afford to act as hosts of a permanent building - nor was it clear whether such a building would be financially viable.  It was at the World Conference in July 2011 that a novel suggestions was made - a 'portable' World Centre which would hold events in different African countries - any of the countries could apply to host a 'world centre' event on a topic of their choice.  A two-year pilot war organised, and the results ratified at the 2014 World Conference.  The World Centre has so far been hosted by Ghana, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Nigeria and Benin, with more events planned in a number of other countries around the continent.