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Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2



Richard A. Voeltz

Reflections on Baden-Powell, the British Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, Racism, Militarism, and Feminism

Richard A. Voeltz (Ph.D., UCLA) teaches in the Department of History and Humanities at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. His works have appeared in
The American Historical Review, Journal of Contemporary History, International Journal of African Historical Studies, and others.


In 1994 the Boy Scouts conducted the largest survey in the organization's history, interviewing some 6,300 people in 750 Scout groups, as well as polling the general population. In contrast to the high public esteem the movement enjoys, Scouting seems to be suffering from an identity crisis, convinced that the public perceives it as being "naff, old-fashioned and goody-goody." Chief Scout Garth Morrison said, "Our members have clearly shown that they have vast energy and enthusiasm for Scouting, yet at the same time need to believe more in Scouting's real strength and success. That leads to a reluctance by Scouting to promote itself as a powerful influence on modern society. As a result, you could describe us as a caring but increasingly secret society" (Bowcott).1 There are estimated to be 650,000 Scouts and Girls Guides in the United Kingdom, and the survey found half the population had had some contact with Scouting in the previous 12 months and half the male population was, or had been, members of the Scouts. But some of the traditonal values included in the Scout Promise appear to be outdated. "Many members do not have a clear understanding of what the Scout Promise means," the survey concluded. "Duty to God is less important to them than older members. The concept of duty to the Queen produces similar responses" (Bowcott). Which strongly suggests that the real issue for contemporary Scouts and Guides as for Robert Baden-Powell's originals comes down to what they really are: uniformed military forces for moral uplift or a fun organization where one went camping and had a good time. If making a promise to do your duty to God and Queen, walking old geezers across the street, sitting around a campfire with a charred marshmallow on the end of a stick seems old-fashioned and terminally geeky, then the new Scout motto might very well become "Be Prepared: Baden-Powell, meet Bon Jovi."

The original ideology of Scouting was a combination of nationalism, "citizen training," militarism, social Darwinism, Baden-Powell's vision of social imperialism, nature worship, the Edwardian cult of national efficiency, and a rejection of modern urban civilization. Just how all these elements fit together in Scouting has long been a matter of some contention among historians. There still exists a smoldering academic debate over whether the original purpose of the Boy Scout movement was primarily to train the soldiers of the future or the

citizens of the future, although passion and interest in this debate seems to be waning. Anecdotal evidence alone indicates that there has always been something vaguely paramilitary about Scouting, what with troops, patrols, saluting, marching, and uniforms. And the latter got the color that this image deserves—khaki. Indeed, almost all historians in the late 1960s and early 1970s viewed the movement as primarily militaristic, part of an overall social and cultural aggressiveness found in pre-1914 Britain. Samuel Hynes wrote that "When Baden-Powell organized his Scout movement he did so with one clear motive—to prepare the next generation of British soldiers (27)."2 While John Springhall linked the late Victorian and Edwardian youth movements in Britain to "agencies of protest manipulated in the interests of social groups led by the old and middle aged against the absence of compulsory military service for boys" (Springhall 136). Perhaps it was the agethe peace-loving 1960sbut historians combed through the archives of pre-1914 Britain and found nothing but militarism. Allen Warren fired the first revisionist shot with "Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout Movement, and Citizen Training in Great Britain, 1900­1920" in the English Historical Review (376­98). His article attempts to refute those historians who have placed Scouting firmly within the context of military and imperial values associated with social control, and suggested that it was part of "a whole spectrum of opinion which had the ideal of citizen training at its core and of which the National Service league was the militaristic end" (381). This article provoked a stimulating debate between Warren, John Springhall, and Anne Summers in the English Historical Review. Summers quite correctly draws attention to the VADs' (Voluntary Aid Detachments) links with the early Girl Guide Companies, just as John Springhall points out connections between Territorial activity and scout training in the years between 1908 and 1910.3 Also, if there were no ideological tensions within the movement over militarism, then why would both Sir Francis Vane and later John Hargrave leave Baden-Powell? For both Springhall and Summers there can be no other conclusion than that, "through their involvement in Baden-Powell's movement, adolescent boys and girls were indeed being prepared to respond in an uncritical, and even in an enthusiastic manner, to the outbreak of war in 1914" (Summers 947). This conclusion should sound familiar to historians of Edwardian England, while Warren's revisionism can be construed as a form of "company" history in which he tries to defend the reputations of both Baden-Powell and Scouting against the debunkers.

Michael Rosenthal in The Character Factory: Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts and the Imperative of Empire goes beyond Springhall and Summers and paints Baden-Powell as not only a militarist, but as a racist, proto-fascist, and anti-Semite as well. Rosenthal well strafes the old Scout bringing up such charges as Baden-Powell having denied food to 20,000 Africans during the siege of Mafeking and a possible physical relationship with Major Kenneth McClaren whom B-P affectionately called "the Boy." Baden-Powell House in London welcomed his book with about as much enthusiasm as rocks under the sleeping bag or twigs in the oatmeal. Defenders of Baden-Powell would get some satisfaction from the 1990 publication of Tim Jeal's massive biography, The Boy Man, The Life of Lord Baden-Powell, where a kinder and gentler Chief Scout emerges. As Jeal makes clear in the Preface he wrote much of the biography with Rosenthal in mind, and one of his chief aims was to debunk all debunkers, especially Rosenthal, who views Baden-Powell as a conservative elitist who wanted to use the Scouts to contrive the complete submissiveness of the working class. But Jeal argues that far from being conservative, many of Baden-Powell's ideas can be considered quite radical. As Ian Buruma observed, "…if the sight of uniformed boys swearing oaths around campfires strikes one as particularly right wing, one might ponder the fact that these spectacles are most common in the few people's republics remaining" (18). For Jeal, the dominant scholarly emphasis on militarism, the "Character Factory," and social control in scouting has concealed an important truth about the appeal of the early Boy Scouts: the great mystical escape into woodsmoke at twilight, something both alluring and potentially pernicious.

Jeal quotes John Burns, the first working man to hold Cabinet rank, attacking the Boy Scouts not for their militarism but because they promised the kind of adventure which discouraged boys from "settling down to ordinary working lives." "Nor was his an isolated voice," Jeal writes, "The Boy Scouts were also accused of being a refuge from the real world which left ex-scouts trapped in perpetual boyhood. For every 'Character Factory' type of criticism, there was one accusing Baden-Powell of irresponsibility for allowing boys too much freedom" (415). Perhaps the distinction between Baden-Powell wanting to train militarists or create good citizens is not that wide, or misses the point altogether, for what are good citizens? Remember as Ian Buruma wrote, "Good citizens of Sparta were not like those of Athens" (18). In 1907 Baden-Powell wrote the following promoting his "Peace Scouts": "The main cause of the downfall of Rome was the decline of good citizenship among its subjects, due to want of energetic patriotism, to the growth of luxury and idleness, and to the exaggerated importance of local party politics" (Buruma 18). As Cato the Elder preached against the soft living and conspicuous consumption of the late Roman Republic and tried to set an example by doing all the hardest chores on his farm and sleeping on a dirt floor, so B-P shunned luxury, having in his bedroom only a bed with a hard mattress, a table, and an upright chair. He never used a valet and always preferred to sleep in the open air. Baden-Powell viewed urban life as decadent, so scouting always contained a strong dose of tribalism and primativism as part of its ritual. Kudu horns, African amulets as rewards, Zulu chants and formations, and "tribal discipline" were all very important to B-P. For the Chief Scout had a profound distrust of the city and over-civilized city-boys. His cure for "weak and unreliant over-civilized boys…was to put back some of the wildman into the boy" (Jeal 421). The Boy Scouts' test were meant to be merely toned-down equivalents of tribal initiation rites.

Baden-Powell believed that to stop the rot of urban decadence, and everything that goes with it, such as sleazy politics, crass materialism, arid intellectualism, and the dirty business of making money, one could simply drop out and head for the hills or the woods. An early Scout leader, John Hargrave, saw "…the Boy-Poltergeist in Baden-Powell—that made rapport with primitive gang spirit of boyhood—And thousands ran after it to camp. They made their escape from a dreary, half-dead commercialized and deadly dull civilization, and during the weekends anyhow pretended to be backwoodsmen…Baden-Powell tapped the primitive urge that is cribb'd, cabin'd and confined by civilized herd conditioning. He tapped it and unlocked it. And for a while it ran free" (Jeal 416).4 And that primitive urge could really run wild for Baden-Powell, as for example, when he remarked, "Can't you see the smoke rising from the Sioux lodges under the shadow of the Albert Memorial…or the buffaloes roaming in Kensington Gardens" (Jeal 421)? B-P's admiration for tribal people verging on orientalism was only matched by his high regard for medieval knights—at least as they existed in his mind. So what were Baden-Powell and his Scouts in their own minds? "…Knights-errant vowing to succor the weak and needy? Zulus greeting their chief with tribal rallying cries? Future soldiers of the Empire promising allegiance? Or just boys enjoying the outing of a lifetime?" Jeal concludes, "A bit of all these things, just as Baden-Powell had intended when he dreamed up his extraordinary scheme…" (423). Purity, self-reliance, self-control, comradeship, discipline, play, and love of nature, these are the principles of Baden-Powell's philosophy. Strictly military aims were never at the core of scouting, rather Baden-Powell had bigger fish to fry than conscription or national service. What he really wanted was the creation of the warrior spirit in peacetime, the spirit of the knight or the Samurai, the code of Bushido, and he sincerely thought that world peace—even utopia, a sort of international Never Land without women—could be obtained through some premodern warrior spirit. The spirit of James Barrie's Peter Pan permeated early scouting, as Robert MacDonald put it, "…innocent boys led by innocent scoutmasters, boy-men showing the way to a safe and good-natured wilderness." (206). And Baden-Powell's warrior spirit resembles the teaching of Robert Bly, author of Iron John and very much associated with the men's movement in contemporary America, who writes of "kingless, warriorless boys" and who believes that "warrior energy" now needs to be applied "in relationships, in literary studies, in thought, in emotion," if no longer in battle (156). Robert Bly comes across as a kinder and gentler Chief Scout who has been refashioned and gone New Age.5

Was Baden-Powell's scouting innovation really as innocent as Jeal and Warren would have one believe? And as for the Girl Guides, Warren shows particular irritation with radical and feminist historians who insist on viewing the founding of the Girl Guides as a function of the connection between imperialism and motherhood—the "mothers of the empire" idea. Rather, Warren argues that "the Guides had a two-fold aim: to put women in a higher position as citizens, and to train them to be the comrades of men rather than continuing as dependents" ("Mothers" 96). Are historians going to have to abandon completely the idea that Edwardian society was comprehensively imperialistic and militaristic as well as socially nervous? Have we seen the last American graduate student eagerly going through archives to prove yet another part of British society or culture was tainted by militarism prior to 1914? John Spurling for one will have none of it. In a review of Robert H. MacDonald's Sons of the Empire he writes, "…over whether the original purpose of the Boy Scout movement was primarily military or not, he takes a calming middle position and is careful throughout to drop just enough journo-scientific words (mind-set, discourses, parameters, signs, masculinist) to demonstrate that in dissecting a rank imperialist phenomenon he is wearing the regulation surgical mask and rubber gloves" (23). The embers of this debate still glow. Was Baden-Powell a racist and anti-Semite? Jeal makes a strong case that Baden-Powell was no more racist or anti-Semitic than a lot of Englishmen of his generation, and using the word "Jap" in an early edition of Girl Guiding might make him politically incorrect today, but hardly offers prove that he was a blatant racist. More disturbing however, and more difficult to explain away with ease, was a diary entry for 6 October 1939 made after reading Mein KampfB-P wanted to know his enemy: "Lay up all day…A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organization, etc…." (Jeal 550). Baden-Powell would live only two more years.

Is Scouting just fun and games, or was Baden-Powell a protofascist? Making "The Boy-Man" and his nostalgic, back to nature, flannel-shirt movement into something sinister rather than just boyish romance based upon some personal eccentricities of the founder seems improbable, but I am reminded of something feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich once wrote: "Men alone in groups are bad company" (Levine 62). Baden-Powell's blend of tribalism, romanticism, idealism, initiation rights, an identification with the pristine primitiveness of nature, and most significantly, a pre-modern warrior mentality that rejects contemporary urban life as decadent and essentially wicked, invites trouble given the proper social setting. I cannot but concur with Ian Buruma who quotes Baden-Powell, "This nation does not need more clerks in the overcrowded cities of this little island….No! The nation wants men and wants them badly, men of British blood who can go out and tackle the golden opportunities, not merely for benefiting themselves, but for building up and developing those great overseas states of our Commonwealth" (20). The empire is of course long dead, and Buruma chillingly concludes, "One shudders to think what might happen if the energy of British youth, jobless, ill-educated, ready for any action, were to be turned against the clerks whom B-P so despised" (20). Baden-Powell's vision was that of an enchanted, imaginary, perpetual childhood, and as James William Gibson has written in Warrior Dreams, "Without enchantment—without access to a magical kingdom of some kind—the responsibilities of adulthood are simply too much: people break down and flee in one direction or another" (306). And one does not have to go to exotic climes to find magical kingdoms. Both the men's movement and the militia culture in the United States offer versions of enchantment. At "wildman" weekends men talk about their fathers in a "pre-industrial" environment. They also beat drums, chant, wear face paint, make masks, build lairs, and stage fistfights. But Gibson observes that, "Despite the movement's good intentions, these weekends resemble the Soldier of Fortune conventions in Las Vegas: Both are visits to theme parks, places in which experiences and their larger meanings come in packages labeled in big print" (306-07). Warrior mythology can just as easily lead to the paramilitary magical kingdom, as to those of Iron John or Baden-Powell's movement, and even to the extreme of the murderous rampage of Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane, Scotland, or Martin Bryant who went on a shooting spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania killing 35 people. Warrior play and mythology needs to be disenchanted.



1 According to Newsweek, a similar sort of insecurity hit the movement in the United States when atheists, girls, and homosexuals wanted to become Scouts. As for boys who do not believe in God, or America, or any of the other values enshrined in the Scout's credo, Scout spokesman Blake Lewis said in 1991, "if you start allowing people to choose the rules they want to obey, you start becoming a faceless, valueless organization" ("Fighting the Pack Mentality" 63).

2 In a bit of revisionism David Fowler in The First Teenagers: The Lifestyle of Young Wage-Earners in Interwar Britain argues that historians have focused far too long on the ideological origins of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides and the related issue of whether youth movements in general were a form of social control inflicted on working-class boys and girls by middle-class adults. Rather Fowler urges historians to focus on the youths themselves. In the interwar years why did large numbers of youths, particularly working-class wage-earners, turn off to these movements that were designed as an antidote to commercialized entertainments? Because they simply had better and more exciting social activities to pursue.

3 Also see Anne Summers, Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854­1914.

4 According to Allen Warren, John Hargrave's departure from the Scouts can be explained by his more primitivist and pantheistic view of nature. Warren writes that for Hargrave's "only direct contact with nature through the application of woodcraft philosophy was the only way to achieve social and spiritual regeneration. For Baden-Powell, the outdoors was more modestly an environment in which individual character training and good citizenship could best be developed" (Springhall, Summers and Warren 950). Jeal would seem to indicate that B-P's thinking was in fact much closer to Hargrave's conception.

5 For further discussion of the parallels between British scouting with its American counterparts and with the "Iron John" men's movement in America, see also Richard A. Voeltz, "From Baden-Powell to Bly: Scouting and the Men's Movement."


Works Cited

"Fighting the Pack Mentality." Newsweek 20 May 1991: 63.

Bly, Robert. Iron John. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990. Bowcott, Owen. "Scouts Struggle with 'Naff' Image." Manchester Guardian Weekly 11 Dec. 1994: 8.

Buruma, Ian. "Boys Will Be Boys." New York Review of Books 15 Mar. 1990: 17­20.

Fowler, David.The First Teenagers: The Lifestyle of Young Wage-Earners in Interwar Britain. London: Woburn Press, 1995.

Gibson, James William. Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Hynes, Samuel. The Edwardian Turn of Mind. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1968.

Jeal, Tim. The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Levine, Art. "Masculinity's Champion." U.S. News and World Report 8 Apr. 1991: 61­62.

MacDonald, Robert H. Sons of the Empire: The Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Rosenthal, Michael. The Character Factory: Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts and the Imperatives of Empire. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Springhall, John. "The Boy Scouts, Class, and Militarism in Relation to British Youth Movements, 1908­1930." International Review of Social History 16 (1971): 125­58.

Springhall, John, Anne Summers, and Allen Warren. Debate: "Baden-Powell and the Scout Movement before 1920: Citizen Training or Soldiers of the Future?" English Historical Review 102 (1987): 934­50.

Spurling, John. "Being Prepared." Times Literary Supplement Nov. 1993: 23.

Summers, Anne. Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses 1854­1914. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Warren, Allen. "'Mothers of the Empire'? The Girl Guides Association in Britain, 1909­1939." In J.A. Mangan, ed., Making Imperial Mentalities: Socialisation, and British Imperialism. Manchester Eng.: Manchester UP, 1990. 96­109.

."Sir Robert Baden­Powell, the Scout Movement, and Citizen Training in Great Britian." English Historical Review 101 (1986): 376­98.

Voeltz, Richard A. "From Baden-Powell to Bly: Scouting and the Men's Movement," Interdisciplinary Humanities 10.1 (Winter 1993): 39­47.


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