Eminent Edwardian

The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement

by Michael Rosenthal
Pantheon, 335 pp., $22.95

If they can honestly and accurately recall themselves at twelve, many middle-aged men will have happy memories of the Boy Scouts. If they were dutiful scouts, they will also remember reading Scouting for Boys, the Koran of the scouting movement written by its prophet, Lord Baden-Powell (1857–1941). A distinctive self-portrait of B-P emerges from his own pages: soldierly and salty; quirky, humorous, and kindly. But beyond that: if the young reader was more than just assiduous, he will have been struck by the odd tone of parts of Scouting for Boys, and may have found his interest in B-P’s personality quicken.

Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell was born in 1857, not the son of professional soldiers or of squires but into the bosom of the Victorian professional and intellectual upper middle class. His father, the Reverend Baden Powell, was a clerical don, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford. The boy took his first two given names from one of his godfathers, the inventor of the steam engine. Another godfather was Benjamin Jowett of Balliol. The family circle included Ruskin, Thackeray, Browning, and T.H. Huxley. When the boy was young his father died and in the professor’s memory his widow added to and hyphenated the family’s surname as Baden-Powell, helping to create a myth. He was known as “Stephe” at home, “Bathing-Towel” or other barely tolerable nicknames at school and in the army, but “B-P” was to be his nom de guerre in more than one sense.

B-P was sent to school at Charterhouse, where he excelled at theatricals and spent solitary afternoons in the countryside quietly watching nature, but did little work. For all their connection, Jowett decided that the boy was “not quite up to Balliol form.” In fact, despite his academic indolence and a tendency—in reaction maybe to his background—to mock those who put brains before brawn, B-P was far from stupid. He passed directly into the cavalry and left for India and the Thirteenth Hussars. He was a conscientious regimental officer, became the Raj’s leading exponent of pigsticking, or hunting wild boar on horseback with a lance, and developed his passion for scouting: following others’ trails, living rough, and gathering intelligence by observation.

It was in Africa rather than India that his career took off. He was ordered to the Gold Coast in 1895 and served as a staff officer—and war correspondent—in the Ashanti campaign in what is now Ghana. In the spring of 1896 he helped put down a Matabele rising in what is now Zimbabwe. After briefly commanding another cavalry regiment, the Fifth Dragoon Guards in India, he found himself in October 1899 in what is still South Africa as the Boer War began. There, just before the Queen-Empress’s reign closed, he became one of the heroes of Victorian England by commanding the garrison at Mafeking during its 217-day-long siege by the Boers. As could be seen even at the time, the siege was militarily …

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