Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell was born February 22, 1857 in London, England.
He was named after his godfather, Robert Stephenson, a railway and civil engineer.
Smyth was his mother’s maiden name.
His father, Reverend Baden Powell, was a Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University and died when Robert was three years old.
As tribute to his father, his mother changed the family name to Baden-Powell.
After having been educated at Charterhouse School, Robert Baden-Powell joined the British Army in 1876.
He first went to India with the 13th Hussars as a lieutenant.
By the early 1880’s, Robert’s regiment was transfered to the Natal province of South Africa where he enhanced and honed his military reconnaissance and scouting skills amidst the Zulu.
During one of his scouting missions, Robert came across a large string of wooden beads, worn by the Zulu king Dinizulu, which he later incorporated into the Wood Badge training program as part of his Scouting Movement.
Robert Baden-Powell’s skills impressed his superiors and he became Military Secretary and senior Aide-de-camp for the Commander-in-Chief and Governor of Malta, General Sir Henry Augustus Smyth (who also happened to be his uncle).
He also worked as an intelligence officer and frequently traveled while disguised as a butterfly collector. During these trips Robert was actually incorporating plans for military installations into his drawings of butterfly wings.
Robert then returned to Africa in 1896, and served in the Second Matabele War, to relieve British South Africa Company personnel under siege in Bulawayo.
This was a formative experience for him not only because he had the time of his life commanding reconnaissance missions into enemy territory in the Matobo Hills, but because many of his later Boy Scout ideas took hold here.
It was during this campaign that Robert first met and befriended the American Frederick Russell Burnham, who introduced Baden-Powell to the American Old West and woodcraft.
It was here that Robert began to wear his signature Stetson campaign hat and neckerchief for the first time.
Robert then served in the Fourth Ashanti War along the Gold Coast.
In 1897, at the age of 40, he was brevetted colonel (the youngest colonel in the British Army) and given command of the 5th Dragoon Guards in India.
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 reconnaissance and scout training, much of it a written explanation of the lessons he had learned from Burnham, to help train recruits. Using this and other methods, Robert was able to train new military scouts to think independently, use their initiative, and survive in the wilderness.
Robert returned to South Africa before the Second Boer War and was engaged in further military actions against the Zulus.
And then in 1899, Robert became a national hero successfully defending the town during the 217 day Siege of Mafeking.
Although greatly outnumbered, the garrison held out until relieved, in part thanks to cunning deceptions devised by Robert Baden-Powell. Fake minefields were planted and his soldiers pretended to avoid non-existent barbed wire while moving between trenches.
Robert did most of the reconnaissance work himself.
In one instance, Robert loaded an armored locomotive with sharpshooters and successfully sent it down the rails into the heart of the enemy encampment and back again in a strategic attempt to decapitate their leadership.
During this siege, the Mafeking Cadets, boys aged 12 to 15 who acted as messengers, also impressed Robert with their resourcefulness and courage.
Robert returned to England to take up a post as Inspector General of Cavalry. While holding this post, he became instrumental in reforming reconnaissance training in British cavalry, giving the force an important advantage in scouting ability over continental rivals.
Then upon his return to Africa in 1903, Robert found that his military training manual, Aids to Scouting, had become a tool used by teachers and youth organizations to help young boys learn how to read as well as survive independently in the outdoors.
Robert began discussing the idea of a new youth organization with a number of people, including William Alexander Smith, founder of the Boys’ Brigade.
Robert began discussions on setting up a Boys Brigade Scouting achievement.
To test his ideas, Robert began writing a new book he titled Scouting for Boys, and conceived of an idea for an experimental camp for boys.
Brownsea Island Scout camp
Robert Baden-Powell organized a camp for boys to take place on Brownsea Island during the summer of 1907. Brownsea Island covered 560 acres of woodland with open areas and two lakes. He had visited the site as a boy with his brothers.
Robert invited his lifelong friend, Major Kenneth McLaren, to attend the camp as an assistant.
Baden-Powell invited boys from different social backgrounds to the camp, a revolutionary idea for an Englishmen during the class-conscious Edwardian era.
It is uncertain how many boys attended the camp.
In a later article in The Scout (1908), Robert listed 20 boys with his nephew Donald Baden-Powell as camp orderly.
The camp fee was dependent on means: £1 for the public school boys, and three shillings and sixpence for the others.
The boys were arranged into four patrols: Wolves, Ravens, Bulls and Curlews.
As this was the first Boy Scouting event, the boys did not have uniform shirts, but they did wear khaki scarves and were presented with brass fleur-de-lis badges, the first use of the Scout emblem.
They also wore a colored knot on their shoulder indicating their patrol: green for Bulls, blue for Wolves, yellow for Curlews, and red for Ravens.
The patrol leader carried a staff with a flag depicting the patrol animal.
After passing tests on knots, tracking, and the national flag, they were given another brass badge, a scroll with the words Be Prepared, to wear below the fleur-de-lis.
The camp began August 1, 1907 with a blast from a kudu horn Robert had captured in the Matabele campaign. (Robert would use the same kudu horn to open the Boy Scouts Coming of Age Jamboree 22 years later in 1929).
For many of the participants, the highlights of the camp were Robert’s campfire yarns of his African experiences, and the Zulu “Ingonyama” chant, meaning “he is a lion”.
Each patrol camped in an army tent. Their day began at 6:00 a.m., with cocoa, exercises, flag break and prayers, followed by breakfast at 8:00 a.m. Then followed the morning exercise of the subject of the day, as well as bathing.
After lunch there was a strict siesta (no talking allowed), followed by the afternoon activity based on the subject of the day.
At 5:00 p.m. the day ended with games, supper, campfire yarns and prayers. Turning in for the night was compulsory for every patrol at 9:00 p.m., regardless of age.
Each day was based on a different theme: Day 1 was preliminary, day 2 was campaigning, day 3 was observation, day 4 for woodcraft, day 5 was chivalry, day 6 was saving a life, day 7 was patriotism, and day 8 was the conclusion.
The participants left by ferry on the 9th day, August 9, 1907.
In 1910, Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell decided to retire from the Army, reputedly on the advice of King Edward VII, who suggested that he could better serve his country by promoting Scouting.
Following the successful camp, Robert Baden-Powell went on an extensive speaking tour arranged by his publisher, Pearsons, to promote the forthcoming Scouting for Boys, which began the Scout movement.
Scouting began to spread throughout Great Britain and Ireland, then through the countries of the British Empire, and soon to the rest of the world.
On the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Robert put himself at the disposal of the War Office. No command 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.”
After his marriage to Olave St Clair Soames in 1912, Robert’s sister Agnes Baden-Powell and notably his wife helped actively give guidance to the Scouting Movement.
A reunion of the original campers was held in 1928 at the Chief Scout’s home at Pax Hill in Hampshire.
Robert Baden-Powell lived his last years in Nyeri, Kenya, where he died January 8, 1941.
A commemorative stone by sculptor Don Potter was unveiled on the 1st of August 1967 by the Hon. Betty Clay née Baden-Powell, younger daughter of Lord & Lady Baden-Powell. It is located near the encampment area.
In May 2000, twenty trees were planted, one for each boys who attended. During the planting ceremony, the Scout Chief Commissioner for England, along with representatives of the Scouts and the Guides, planted the trees on the seaward side of the original site. The trees were designed to act as a permanent memorial to the camp, as well as providing a series of future wind breaks against coastal winds.
Now WE know em
Note: I am the proud father of two Eagle scouts and have had the honor of serving as Scoutmaster at Boy Scout camp.
Thank you Robert – from all of us that have stood up and proudly recited the Scout Oath:
“On my honor I will do my best,
To do my duty to God and my country,
And To obey the Scout Law,
To help other people at all times,
To keep myself physically strong,
Mentally awake, and morally straight.”