A young boy, who didn’t like school at the Charterhouse, sneaked out in the woods behind it to hunt rabbit. He rarely caught them, but this time he did. He started a small fire, cooked the rabbit, and ate it, always ready to put the fire out and hide to avoid being caught by his teachers. This adventure typified the early life of Lord Robert Baden-Powell of Gilwell. A boy who could be described as wayward and unruly was actually developing the basic skills that he would use for the rest of his life. Not only did these skills help him personally, but they formed the framework for a training and education program for young soldiers and, later, for boys of all ages. Despite having a difficult time in school, Robert Baden-Powell became an accomplished military leader and eventually founded the Boy Scouts, the largest youth organization in the world, which continues to grow worldwide.
The principles that Lord Baden-Powell would develop as the foundation of scouting were formed in his early life. Born in Paddington, London, on February 22, 1857, his full name was Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, although he was known as B-P. The third youngest of ten children, his father died when he was three, leaving the family little money and instilling responsibility in B-P at an early age. Homeschooled initially and later sent to respected public schools, B-P did not like book learning and spent as much time as possible outdoors. Holidays were shared with his brothers on adventures, like sailing around the coast of England or canoeing up the Thames. He considered fishing as one of the best rewards for hard work. When he wasn’t engaged in the outdoors, he enjoyed reading detective novels and National Geographic magazines, drawing and acting. Through this informal education he became self-reliant and resourceful.
Robert Baden-Powell’s early life learning outdoor skills and seeking adventure helped him when he joined the military. He started his military career in 1876 in the 13th Hussars, a cavalry regiment, and would later become their Honorable Colonel. He was stationed in India, the Balkans, South Africa, and Malta. He successfully faced dangerous situations as a secret agent in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the East and was recognized for his skill in exploration and path finding. He was eventually put in charge of training young recruits, but he was disappointed by their poor physical fitness. While acknowledging that they had book knowledge, they lacked everyday skills.
Using uncustomary training methods, he put his young men into small groups with a leader and rewarded those who succeeded. He concentrated on making them think on their own and learn how to survive in the wild. Then, from 1895-1899, he wrote a guide to train soldiers (“Aids to Scouting”). Next, he became a hero after successfully defending Mafeking, Africa in 1899 during the Boer War. This was an important check of the scouting skills he had taught his soldiers; his men were brave and creative, which impressed him and his superiors. In 1903, he came home from the military and was honored as a national hero. In 1908, he became Lieutenant General. He was knighted in 1909. He received numerous medals throughout his military career for his exemplary performance. He retired from the military in 1910 as a distinguished military leader.
Baden Powell’s military accomplishments helped greatly in beginning scouting. His military training guide became a best seller after his heroic efforts at Mafeking and was used by youth leaders and teachers throughout England to teach observation and woodcraft. In 1907, he held the Brownsea Island Experimental Camp which involved 22 boys from both private schools and the working class, most of whom were sons of friends. It was a camping experience, during which he tested his ideas about teaching leadership and skill training, as well as building character. This is considered the birth of scouting. Using what he learned from Brownsea, he published Scouting for Boys in 1908, which was originally intended to be a guide for existing organizations.
Boys began to organize into Scout Troops on their own throughout England, and, in September of 1908, B-P had to set-up an office to manage the response. One year after he published Scouting for Boys, 10,000 Boy Scouts, as well as a number of Girl Scouts, attended the first big rally. The following year, B-P left the army to focus all his attention on the scouting movement at the suggestion of King Edward VII, which marks the official start of Boy Scouts. There were 500,000 scouts worldwide by 1911.
The first international gathering of scouts was held in 1913. By 1920, at the first International Scout Jamboree in London, there were 8,000 scouts from 34 different countries and B-P was named Chief Scout of the World. At the third World Jamboree in 1929, he received the title of Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell because Gilwell Park was where he had his international training center for scout leaders. Today, there are over 25 million scouts worldwide. B-P is said to have had the biggest influence on Britain’s boyhood. He wrote 32 books and received numerous awards and honorary degrees. He was often nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Lord Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell of Gilwell was honored for his many scouting accomplishments and received worldwide recognition. First, he started out by being a wayward student at the Charterhouse School who cut class to hunt rabbit. Next, working from the outdoor skills he learned in childhood, he built a successful military career, receiving many honors and recognition. Then, again using his childhood experiences, he developed a training program for young men entering the military. Finally, as a result of his military accomplishments, he was encouraged and inspired to work with young boys, founding Boy Scouts and eventually building it into the largest worldwide organization for youth. Even though his early life could be considered unruly and willful, it gave him the foundation on which to base scouting. He was one of the greatest educational innovators the world has ever had and has truly earned the title “Chief Scout of the World.”
Baden-Powell, Heather. Baden-Powell: A Family Album. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986.
“Baden-Powell, Robert Stephenson Smyth, 1st Barron Baden-Powell of Gilwell.” The Encyclopedia Americana. 2004 ed.
“B-P – Chief Scout of the World.” April 2010. World Scout Bureau, Inc. 8 Apr. 2010 .
Orans, Lewis P. “ Robert Baden-Powell, Founder of the World Scout Movement, Chief Scout of the World.” 27 July 2009. The Pine Tree Web. 31 Mar. 2010 .
Smith, M.K. “Robert Baden-Powell as an Educational Innovator.” Infed.org. 3 Sept. 2009. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. 8 Apr. 2010 .
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