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Lord Baden-Powell: Scouting for Boys

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An early Boy Scout troop, Western Springs, Illinois.  They looked more like a military outfit then than they do these days.

Today the term “Boy Scout” is often used to suggest someone who is honest, moral and squeaky clean, almost to the point of insufferability.  I was a Boy Scout back in the 1980s, and I can vouch that that description couldn’t be universally applied to all my fellow Scouts, certainly not all the time.  But there’s more to Scouting than that.  The initial appeal of Scouting wasn’t so much a club for paragons of virtue, but rather an outlet for boys looking to tough it out.

Scouting started in the early 20th century.  The Boy Scouts officially launched in Great Britain in 1907, but its origins reach back about a decade earlier, during the Boer War.  Britain was fighting unrest in the Cape Colony (now South Africa).  Early in the war, the Boers besieged the small town of Mafeking, which was held only by the Mafeking Cadet Corps.  The Cadet Corps was a body of boys and young men who weren’t soldiers, but who supported soldiers by carrying messages between military units, and scouting the area, taking notes about the terrain and the placements of friendly and enemy troops.  The Cadet Corps was not trained for military service, but regardless, they held Mafeking during the siege by a much larger army of Boers from October 1899 to May 1900.

The Mafeking Cadet Corps was followed with great interest in the papers back in England.  This David-and-Goliath struggle was exciting, and the hero of the story was the army colonel in charge of the Corps, Lord Robert Baden-Powell.  After eight years, the siege finally broke, and the Cadet Corps were the unlikely victors.  As a result, Lord Baden-Powell became a national hero.
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The Mafeking Cadet Corps, Mafeking, South Africa, 1899.

Baden-Powell had been interested in military scouting for a long time, first taking an interest in it when he was stationed in India in the early 1880s.  In 1899, he published a small book called Aids to Scouting, about the basics of military scouting.  His fame following the Siege of Mafeking boosted sales of his book.  After the Boer War was over and Baden-Powell returned to England, he was surprised to learn that Aids to Scouting was very popular with boys, and was also widely used by teachers and youth organizations.  One youth organization, the Boys’ Brigade, had begun.  The Boys’ Brigade was a paramilitary organization, keen on military drills.  Baden-Powell felt the organization could do better if it was less focused on military maneuvers and more focused on military scouting.

In 1907, Baden-Powell went on a speaking tour around England, promoting his new book, Scouting for Boys.  This wasn’t an updated version of Aids to Scouting, but a whole new idea.  This book had little in it about soldiering, and was more focused on non-military activities, like camping and hiking and backwoods survival.  He credited for inspiration a 1902 book called The Birchbark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, written by the Canadian Ernest Thompson Seton.  The book is responsible for much of the woodworking and camping that Boy Scouts are known for today.  The two men met and took a group of boys on the first Scout camping trip.  It was a hit.

Baden-Powell’s original intention was not to create an organization.  He figured his book would be used by existing organizations.  Members of these different youth organizations flocked to the first Scout Rally, held by Baden-Powell in London’s Crystal Palace in 1909.  Boys dressed in their own groups’ uniforms showed up, and some girls, as well, calling themselves “Girl Scouts”.  Baden-Powell retired from the army the next year and devoted himself to the Boy Scouts Association, which he founded that year, boasting roughly 10,000 members.  These were all boys, of course, but girls weren’t shut out.  Lord Baden-Powell’s sister, Agnes Baden-Powell, founded a parallel organization called the Girl Guides.  In some countries, like the United States, the Girl Guides would go by the moniker Girl Scouts, but it was all the same idea.

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The first Scouting family, left to right: Peter Baden-Powell, Robert Baden-Powell, Heather Baden-Powell, and Olave Soames Baden-Powell (1923)

Scouting for Boys has seen numerous versions in Britain, and different countries have their own version of the book.  (I still have my old American Boy Scout Manual somewhere.)  The original book in many ways doesn’t resemble the subsequent versions.  Baden-Powell, for all the kindness of his organization, instilled some views in the book that aren’t quite mainstream today.  He exhibited a kind of class prejudice that still exists today, stating for example that bees form a “model community, for they respect their Queen and kill their unemployed”.  No doubt you can find people today who feel this way, but seldom are they so brash when saying so.  His take on foreign cultures could be a little jarring, too.  He gave tips on traveling in Europe, pointing out that “A Frenchman will take off his hat when he addresses a stranger,” and “the Dutch fisherman, big and brawny as they are, take up the whole street when walking down it.”

In Baden-Powell’s vision, the Boy Scout should be tough.  He had advice to offer on several subjects that later editions of Scouting for Boys would not include:

Slaughtering cattle: “If you are a beginner in slaughtering with the knife, it is sometimes useful to first drop the animal insensible by a heavy blow with a big hammer or the back of a felling-axe on top of the head.”

Stopping a runaway horse: “don’t run in front of it with your arms waving. Rather run alongside it, catch hold of it, seize the reins and bring it up against a wall or a house to compel it to stop.”

Saving a suicidal man: “When a man has gone so far as to attempt suicide, a scout should know what to do with him. In a case where the would-be suicide has taken poison, give milk and make him vomit, which is done by tickling the inside of the throat with a finger or a feather…In the case of hanging, cut down the body at once, taking care to support it with one arm while cutting the cord… A tenderfoot is sometimes inclined to be timid about handling an insensible man or a dead man, or even of seeing blood. Well, he won’t be much use till he gets over such nonsense.”

I’ll admit that in my Scouting days, I didn’t see much blood or save any lives, or even interact with animals that much.  I guess they just don’t make Scouts like they used to.

Baden-Powell's original scouting manual, 1900s


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