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Encyclopedia > Robert Baden Powell

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, OM, GCMG, GCVO, KCB (February 22, 1857 - January 8, 1941) was a soldier, writer and founder of the world scouting movement.


Early life

Baden-Powell was born in Paddington, London in 1857. He was the sixth of eight sons amongst ten children of a Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford. His father died when he was three.

After attending Rose Hill School, Tunbridge Wells, Baden-Powell was awarded a scholarship to Charterhouse public school. His first introduction to scouting skills was stalking and cooking animals - and avoiding teachers - in the nearby woods, which were strictly out-of-bounds. He also played the piano and violin, was an ambidextrous artist of some talent, and enjoyed acting. Holidays were usually spent on yachting or canoeing expeditions with his brothers.

Military Career

In 1876, Baden-Powell joined the 13th Hussars in India. In 1895 he held special service in Africa and returned to India in 1897 to command the 5th Dragoon Guards.

Baden-Powell enhanced and honed his scouting skills amidst the Zulu tribesmen in the early 1880s in the Natal province of South Africa where his regiment had been posted and where he was mentioned in dispatches. His skills impressed and he was soon transferred to the British secret service. He frequently travelled disguised as a butterfly collector, incorporating plans of military installations into his drawings of butterfly wings.

Baden-Powell was subsequently posted for three years as intelligence officer for the Mediterranean based in Malta. He then led a successful campaign in Ashanti, Africa, and at the age of 40 was promoted to lead the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1897. A few years later he wrote a small manual, entitled "Aids to Scouting", a summary of lectures he had given on the subject of military scouting, to help train recruits. Using this and other methods he was able to train them to think independently, to use their initiative, and to survive in the wilderness.

He returned to South Africa prior to the Boer War and was engaged in a number of actions against the Zulus. Promoted by the time of the Boer War to the youngest colonel in the British army, he was responsible for the organisation of a force of frontiersmen to assist the regular army. Whilst arranging this, he was trapped in the Siege of Mafeking, and surrounded by a Boer army of in excess of 8,000 men. Although wholly outnumbered, the garrison withstood the siege for 217 days, and much of this is attributable to some of the cunning military deceptions instituted at Baden-Powell's behest as commander of the garrison. Fake minefields were planted and his soldiers were ordered to simulate avoiding (non-existent) barbed wire while moving between trenches.

Baden-Powell did most of the reconnaissance work himself and built up a team of native boys to stand guard, carry messages around the garrison for him, and also across enemy lines. Many of the boys lost their lives in this undertaking. Baden-Powell was much impressed with their courage and the equanimity with which they performed their tasks and it was later to set him to thinking. The siege was raised in the Relief of Mafeking on May 16, 1900. Promoted to Major-General, Baden-Powell became a national hero.

After organising the South African Constabulary (police) he returned to England to take up a post as Inspector General of Cavalry in 1903.

Return to England

On his return, Baden-Powell found that his military training manual "Aids to Scouting" had become something of a best-seller, and was being used by teachers and youth organisations.

Following a meeting with the founder of the Boys' Brigade, Sir William Alexander Smith, Baden-Powell decided to re-write Aids to Scouting to suit a youth readership, and in 1907 held a camp on Brownsea Island for 22 boys of mixed social background to test out some of his ideas. Scouting for Boys was subsequently published in 1908 in six installments. Boys spontaneously formed Scout Troops and the Scouting movement had inadvertently started, first a national, and soon an international obsession. The scouting movement was to grow up in friendly parallel relations with the Boys' Brigade. The Girl Guides movement was subsequently founded in 1910 under the auspices of Baden-Powell's sister, Agnes Baden-Powell.

Although he could doubtless have become Field Marshal, Baden Powell decided to retire from the Army in 1910 on the advice of King Edward VII, who suggested that he could better serve his country by promoting Scouting.

In January 1912 Baden-Powell met his future wife Olave Soames on an ocean liner (Arcadia) on the way to New York to start one of his Scouting World Tours.

Olave St Clair Soames in a picture likely taken by her husband around the time of their marriage
Olave St Clair Soames in a picture likely taken by her husband around the time of their marriage

She was a very boyish young woman of 23, he 55, and they shared the same birthday. They became engaged in September of the same year, causing a media sensation. To avoid press intrusion, they married in secret on October 30, 1912. It is said that Baden-Powell, who never had any other adventures with women, opted for this late marriage to a woman almost young enough to be his grand-daughter in order to deflect persistent rumors about his pederasty. Letters of his remain, expressing interest in pictures of nude boys. Likewise, old scouts have testified as to his erotic interest. (Michel Lariviere, Homosexuels et Bisexuels Celebres p. 53)

On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Baden-Powell put himself at the disposal of the War Office. No command, however, was given him, for, as Lord Kitchener said: "he could lay his hand on several competent divisional generals but could find no one who could carry on the invaluable work of the Boy Scouts." It was widely rumoured that Baden-Powell was engaged in spying, and intelligence officers took great care to foster and inculcate the myth.

Baden-Powell was made a Baronet in 1922, and was created Baron Baden-Powell, of Gilwell in the County of Essex, in 1929, Gilwell Park being the International Scout Leader training centre. He was appointed to the Order of Merit of the British honours system in 1937, and was also awarded 28 decorations from foreign states.

In a short verse he wrote, he mischievously described how to pronounce his surname:

Man, Nation, Maiden
Please call it Baden.
Further, for Powell
Rhyme it with NoŽl.

Under his dedicated command the world Scouting movement grew. By 1922 there were more than a million scouts in 32 countries; by 1939 the number of scouts was in excess of 3.3 million.

The Baden-Powells had three children - one son and two daughters (who gained the courtesy titles of Honourable in 1929; the son later succeeding his father in 1941):

  • Peter, later 2nd Baron Baden-Powell (1913-1962) and
  • Hon. Heather Baden-Powell (1915-1986), and
  • Hon. Betty Baden-Powell (1917-2004) who married 1936 Gervase Charles Robert Clay (b. 1912, and had issue 3 sons and 1 daughter)

Soon after he had married, Baden-Powell had begun to have problems with his health, suffering several bouts of illness. In 1934 his prostate was removed, and in 1939 he moved to a house he had commissioned in Kenya, a country he had previously visited to recuperate. He died in Kenya, at Nyeri, near Mount Kenya, on January 8, 1941.

Scouts and Guides mark February 22 as B-P Day, the joint birthdays of Robert and Olave Baden-Powell, to remember and celebrate the work of the Chief Scout and Chief Guide of the World.


  • Robert Baden-Powell "Scouting for Boys", London, 1907
  • Hilary Saint George Saunders, "The Left Handshake", London, 1948
  • William Hillcourt (with Olave, Lady Baden-Powell) "Baden-Powell, Two Lives Of A Hero", Putnam, 1964
  • Tim Jeal "Baden-Powell, Founder of the Boy Scouts", London, 1989

External Links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell
  • B-P's quotes at Wikiquote (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Baden_Powell)
  • Baden-Powell (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/B-P.htm)
    • Baden-Powell Family (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-family-index.htm)
    • Last Message to Scouts (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/reynolds-apdx.htm)
  • Jamborees (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-jamborees.htm)
  • Photo Gallery (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-pix-gallery.htm)
  • Library (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-library.htm)
    • World Tour (http://www.pinetreeweb.com/bp-beyond-00.htm)
  • eTexts (http://www.gutenberg.net/catalog/world/authrec?fk_authors=2144) of Baden-Powell's works, at Project Gutenberg


Preceded by:
New Creation
Baron Baden-Powell
Succeeded by:
Arthur Baden-Powell

  Results from FactBites:
Baden-Powell, Chief Scout of the World (1650 words)
They are focused on the genealogy of the Powell family.
Links are provided to pages for three of B-P's brothers: Baden, Warington and Sir George Baden-Powell as well as to the genealogy of the Smyth and Warington families.
Reynolds, B-P: The Story of His Life, is a major source of biographical information about B-P. It is one of several works by E. Reynolds documenting the life of the Chief Scout and the early days of the Scout Movement.
Robert Baden-Powell as an educational innovator (4589 words)
Robert Baden-Powell placed a special value on adventure; on children and young people working together - and taking responsibility (his 'patrol' building on the idea of 'natural' friendship groups and 'gangs'); on developing self-sufficiency; and on 'learning through doing' (he was deeply suspicious of curriculum forms).
While Robert Baden-Powell's analysis of the social and moral situation in Britain certainly diverged from the more progressive thinking of Christian Socialists and many of the workers involved in the settlement movement, there were important commonalities.
Robert Baden-Powell also stresses 'the value of patience and cheery good temper; the duty of giving up some of one's time and pleasure for helping one's country and fellow-men; and the inner meaning of out motto, "Be Prepared"' (1909: 295).
  More results at FactBites »



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