Lord Baden-Powell
Lord Baden-Powell; drawing by David Levine

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 futile. The Boers’ one chance of victory in that autumn of 1899 was to drive for the Cape and the seaports before overwhelming British reinforcements could arrive, instead of wasting their men and supplies in interminable and pointless sieges of British outposts. But their folly was good news for Colonel R.S.S. Baden-Powell.

His talents for leadership, and theater, and public relations, were given full rein. Among his colleagues at Mafeking was Lord Edward Cecil, one of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s gifted sons and author of the delightful Leisure of an Egyptian Official. Cecil organized the Mafeking Cadet Corps of young boys, and an idea was born. The war over, B-P spent several more years in the army, retiring as inspector general of cavalry.

In a letter to the Eton College Chronicle in December 1904, he thought out loud. His rather fanciful suggestion was that in their holidays Etonians should model themselves on knights of yore and lead “clumps” or troops as knights once had. The clumps were to be composed of lower-class lads, the sons of their fathers’ tenantry or servants, perhaps. That idea never caught on. But in 1907 B-P ran a summer camp for boys on Southsea Island in Dorset. “The results were such as to encourage the highest hopes as to the possibilities of the scheme when carried out on the large scale,” he wrote. Scouting had begun.

By now B-P was working in collaboration with C. Arthur Pearson, a hugely successful magazine publisher who had cashed in on the press revolution of the turn of the century—“a famous organizer; a great publicity man,” B-P is supposed to have said when he stayed at Pearson’s house. Pearson launched The Scout as the organ of the new movement. Within a year it was selling 110,000 copies a week. On January 15, 1908, Pearson began publishing Scouting for Boys in parts. It came out as a book in May, B-P having given more than forty lectures on scouting within two months. Scout troops sprang up spontaneously all over England. The movement grew, and grew, spreading from one country to another. At the Scouts’ international “Jamboree” of 1920 B-P was declared Chief Scout of the world. He had been knighted in 1909, was made a baronet in 1921, created Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell in 1929, and died in 1941 in his eighty-fourth year laden with honors, six honorary degrees and the Carnegie Wateler peace prize among them.


The Character Factory is not a formal biography of Baden-Powell—the English writer Tim Jeal is at present working on one—or a history of scouting. It is “an attempt to ‘read’ the culture of Edwardian England through one of its representative institutions and the man who started it,” an examination of the social and mental climate from which scouting grew, and of the purposes which scouting might have been designed—consciously or unconsciously—to serve. Mr. Rosenthal’s fascinating and detailed book is also an undisguised demolition of B-P’s reputation, which directly refers to Lytton Strachey.

In fact there is little difficulty in showing the dark side of B-P’s personality and career. The British Empire was not built or run by tenderhearted philanthropists, but there seems to have been a streak of ruthlessness in B-P which is at odds with his carefully constructed self-portrait. During the Matabele campaign, he had an African prince tried after a fashion and shot, pour encourager les autres. The breezy tone of Scouting for Boys can be wearisome at the best of times; it is more than wearisome to read a message from B-P at Mafeking: “I ordered a man to be shot last night and forgot to sign the warrant, shall he wait for tonight?”

However much England venerated the hero of Mafeking, those closer at hand had reservations. In order to keep the comparatively small white garrison fed, rations for the blacks were drastically reduced. Blacks could—and were sometimes forced to—flee the town to run the gauntlet of besieging Boers, or they could stay and starve. Their treatment by B-P, wrote the Times correspondent, Angus Hamilton, was “altogether at variance with the dignity of the liberalism which we profess and are at such little pains to execute,” meaning the hypocritical British pretense that their intervention in South Africa had the best interests of the black majority at heart.

Nor was B-P as much admired by professional colleagues as by readers of the cheap London papers. “More outside show than sterling worth,” wrote Kitchener. “Organizing is as far as I can see the last thing Baden-Powell can do: some of his officers are plainly disgusted and wishing to leave him.” (Mr. Rosenthal might have mentioned the background to this put-down, the fierce enmity between Kitchener and Milner, whose protégé B-P was.) Again, there is the revealing episode of B-P’s dealings with Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton was the proponent of a proto-scouting movement, Woodcraft, and author of How to Play Indian, which B-P shamelessly plagiarized. There was a bitter correspondence between them—or rather it was bitter on Seton’s side, blithely dismissive on B-P’s—and Seton was one of those who deplored what they thought of as the authoritarian tone of scouting.

Mr. Rosenthal deplores it also. His central argument is that scouting was in essence a military movement with an imperialistic purpose, having grown out of Edwardian England’s anxieties about defending the empire, and had an ideology “firmly rooted in the self-interest of the upper classes.” In part this is almost too obvious to be worth stating. The sound of sledgehammers can be heard, amplified by Mr. Rosenthal’s earnest and humorless tone. Or, rather, it would not be worth saying were it not for the relentless mendacity of the scout movement. Scouting’s votaries have long insisted that the movement is and ever was pacific, international, and multiracial, when it was in fact founded with obvious military overtones—uniforms and camps—by a famous soldier of the greatest empire on earth.

Rosenthal has no difficulty either in showing B-P’s patent racism, by later standards, toward Africans and Indians. B-P rarely missed an opportunity to remind his young English readers that they ruled an empire whose inhabitants enormously outnumbered them and from whom no insolence should be tolerated: “But you forget that you are dealing with a Briton,” an Indian is told in an anecdote quoted in the first edition—though not in later editions—of Scouting for Boys—“one of that band who never brooks an insult even from an equal, much less from a native of this land.”

It is going farther to suggest that B-P made “a genuine, if modest contribution to early twentieth-century racist thinking.” But then going far is Mr. Rosenthal’s technique, a method of insinuation and conclusion-drawing which sometimes seems both slippery and naive. “I am not suggesting that either the movement as a whole,” he writes, “or Baden-Powell in particular was guilty of anything akin to programmatic anti-Semitism,” while going on to play up anti-Semitic themes. Here and elsewhere he runs the danger—though it is also his device in argument—of anachronistic judgment. I don’t suppose any of us would have enjoyed being a fly on the wall in the officers’ mess of the Thirteenth Hussars in the 1880s when Jews were mentioned. And if Mr. Rosenthal thought that British cavalry officers a century ago shared the political, social, or ethnic attitudes of the average reader of The New York Times today, then he certainly had a nasty shock coming. But all he can really show is that one of B-P’s scouting associates who visited Russia in 1920 was grotesquely anti-Semitic—“A friend of mine, an Englishman, had the pleasure of hanging a Jew a few days ago”—and that B-P himself sometimes equivocated on this as on other subjects.


It is not so much that Mr. Rosenthal is being tendentious as that he misses the point, the point that B-P was distinguished not by sharing many of the prejudices of his age and class but by at least pretending not to. B-P was unusual, an oddball. Part of his appeal was his very quirkiness, and that was surely part of scouting’s appeal also. There were other quasi-military organizations that put boys into uniform. None chose a uniform as peculiar as did B-P. The cultishness of scouting, with its rules and mottoes, was its strength. Mr. Rosenthal finds “Be Prepared”—consciously sharing B-P’s own initials—a sinister slogan. Maybe it is merely odd, in so far as it isn’t actually meaningless.

Some of B-P’s oddities, however, were genuinely sinister. The curious tone of Scouting for Boys shows in B-P’s fascination, not to say obsession, with self-sacrifice to the point of suicide. When he wrote, European complacency had just received its first great shock, in the Russo-Japanese war. B-P greatly admired the Japanese and Bushido and hara-kiri. (By the way, Mr. Rosenthal can’t be allowed to get away with saying that B-P’s colloquial “Japs” suggests British contempt: “as much a term of denigration in 1904 as it is today.” Even today “Jap” scarcely belongs to the rich vocabulary of violent racist abuse. Eighty years ago, from an Englishman, it was almost affectionate. Someone who says otherwise either has a tin ear or is scoring points, or both.) Scouting for Boys quotes with approval the case of a boy who killed himself to save his father (and elsewhere the case of a father whose sense of public duty was so great that he hanged his own son). B-P cites the Japanese soldiers who deliberately blew themselves up with their own explosive charges to open the gates of a fortress. All of this is so curious, so un-English, so alien to European tradition as to deserve closer examination.

Another overtone plays gently but audibly here, though not, it seems, audibly to Mr. Rosenthal. Fashions change. He uses most sticks he can find to beat B-P with but doesn’t dwell on the homoeroticism which in England would be many people’s first instinctive association with the words “Boy Scouts.” The procession through the English courtrooms of sad scoutmasters who liked their charges too well has provided decades of newspaper copy and been the source of limitless coarse humor: A hoary Fleet Street joke tells of members of the circulation department of the News of the World who have just returned from unveiling a memorial to Lord Baden-Powell. And without hard evidence it is not unfair to speculate—without evidence, speculate is all one can do—on B-P’s own fascination with boys and “boyology.” In the absence of physical attraction, after all, most adult men find most adolescent youths a pain in the neck, even when they have paternal reasons for fondness. As Evelyn Waugh said, thinking of his own public-school days, most good schoolmasters must be homosexual by inclination: “How else could they endure their work?”

B-P offers wide scope for amateur analysis. He had much to say to his boys on sexual matters, more sometimes than prudish Edwardian printers would allow. He was obsessed by the struggle between continence and self-abuse. The racial organ, as he called it, was to be kept for getting children in manhood, not polluted and diluted by solitary vice. Of course, this obsession is another characteristic of his age, no stranger to us than our own sex experts’ preoccupations may seem to a later generation. (Fashions change; as Professor Thomas Szasz once remarked, masturbation used to be a disease, now it’s a cure.)

Until nearly sixty B-P himself was a bachelor. Then he met Olave Soames, who became Lady Baden-Powell, Chief Guide to his Chief Scout, and outlived him by many years. He had spent fifty years in the company of men and boys. Even given that Victorian and Edwardian England was at once more innocent and more open about intense male friendship than we are, there are surely hints here of a strongly repressed homosexual personality.

Had he developed that theme, it would have been secondary to Mr. Rosenthal’s claims that “presenting itself as a socially progressive force. Scouting was in fact profoundly conservative”; and that this has to be understood in its historical setting. There were in Edwardian England several overlapping currents of opinion. There was the war scare, the threat of German aggression and even invasion, which had begun with George Chesney’s once famous The Battle of Dorking of 1871 and which reached a new pitch in the early years of the century. (It is the subject of A.J.A. Morris’s The Scaremongers, 1984.) For the first time there was a call for national service or military conscription, which England alone of the European powers did not have.

And there were the linked concerns with “deterioration,” and with “national efficiency.” Large numbers of recruits had been called for during the Boer War, and large numbers had been turned down after medical examination. The industrial slums seemed to be producing inferior physical specimens (or perhaps the ruling classes had for the first time noticed what the urban poor were like). “You can’t maintain an A-1 Empire on C-4 men,” as B-P was fond of saying, and ways were sought to improve the C-4s Or perhaps to eliminate them. The “deterioration” panic ran into the eugenics movement, whose high-minded, educated proponents blithely dilated on the threat of the lower classes and races outbreeding and swamping the higher in a way that will make the hair stand on end of us who live after Hitler.

Mr. Rosenthal has busied himself in that most enjoyable form of research, reading the forgotten secondary literature of another age. He recalls Eustace Miles and his Let’s Play the Game, or the Anglo-Saxon Sportsmanlike Spirit (1904): “We treat natives under our power as they are, with that same consideration which a British master of a country-house shows to his own servants in the cricket-field.” There is Paul Jones’s posthumous (to his death in the trenches) Letters of a Public School Boy (1918): “It is only on our amateur playing fields that we become really unselfish” (a claim which is incidentally quite untrue, as anyone knows who has played schoolboy cricket or Rugby). There are also the associations of Loyal British Waiters and Loyal British Hairdressers, whose tasks were “to inculcate a correct conception of duty towards employers and in relation to the Empire,” as well as to keep out foreign workers. Then there was the Duty and Discipline movement. One of its adherents praises the “sanctifying power of the whip.” For another, Lady Massie Blomfield, adolescence was not soon enough to start disciplining the young. She wanted to see the little blighters doing Prussian gym in the nursery: “These baby soldiers will quite enjoy their lesson in obedience and alertness.”

All of this is enlightening as well as, in a macabre way, entertaining. And Mr. Rosenthal is surely right to see the conception of scouting against this background. B-P shared the prevailing concerns with defense, efficiency, fitness, and with the drag that a useless citizenry puts on the useful. The bees, he whimsically remarks, “are quite a model community, for they respect their Queen and kill their unemployed.” He admired discipline, authority, and obedience; in his later years he expressed a compromising enthusiasm for the Balilla, Mussolini’s youth movement, and even wanted to establish fraternal links with the Hitler Jugend. It makes an unattractive story, especially in view of scouting’s official propaganda. (Despite which propaganda, the movement can’t merely be dismissed as yet another closed society. The Character Factory was itself made possible because the Scout Association in London and the American Scout Museum in Kentucky made their archives freely available to Mr. Rosenthal; the guardians of B-P’s reputation could give lessons in openness to those of Freud’s.)

All of this is well and good. The trouble is Mr. Rosenthal’s perspective. He presumably has a preference between “soundly progressive” and “conservative” forces, but, much more to the point, he evidently believes the distinction between them obvious and clear cut. As a result he misses the irony staring him in the face. He quotes several chilling texts from the apostles of “race regeneration.” One of the most important texts was published in 1907. It described and lamented the high birth rate among “Irish Roman Catholics, and the Polish, Russian and German Jews, on the one hand, and…the thriftless and irresponsible,” on the other. It looked forward to the day when “the production of healthy, moral, and intelligent citizens is revered as a social service.” Only then, by a “sharp turn,” could the nation avoid “race deterioration, if not race suicide.” These sentiments appeared in Fabian Tract No. 131, and their author was Sidney Webb.

Mr. Rosenthal passes over this authorship without comment, though he must know who Webb was. One says “must,” though in fact there are elsewhere smaller and larger slips that betray a slight unfamiliarity with the British and historical background. The “First Lancashire Rifles,” the Glasgow volunteer regiment in which William Smith of the Boys’ Brigade is said to have served, sounds as if it should be Lanarkshire. Less trivially, Mr. Rosenthal quotes as follows from a letter in which B-P condemns those who take “a new and original line” and advises others to follow his example as a war correspondent when he would “play up to my Press Censor’s wishes”:

Labby [name of correspondent?] tried his carping system the other day on what the British Public are inclined to consider a toughly fought, glorious war.

Any politically conscious Englishman in 1900 would have recognized the nickname of Henry Labouchere. Labby was a rich Etonian playboy turned radical politician; publisher of the muckraking Truth; the “Christian Member for Northampton” in his own ironical phrase—the other member for the borough was the freethinking nonjuror Bradlaugh—for which he sat as an ultra-radical on the outside fringe of the Liberal party; an eloquent critic of imperialism; a bitter foe of the Jewish mining magnates of Johannesburg in particular and a bare-knuckled anti-Semite in general. That wasn’t his only prejudice. His “Labouchere amendment” led to the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, and numberless other Englishmen for decades to come, for homosexual acts committed in private. Labby’s biography is worth reciting because it suggests that things aren’t as simple as Mr. Rosenthal might suppose. Was Labouchere a man of the left or the right? Was he a progressive or a conservative force?

And what was Sidney Webb? Eugenics with proto-Nazi implications was only an episode—though not an aberration—in the career of that founding father of the Labour party and of British socialism: an early Fabian; author of numerous grimly factual books and articles; author also of “Labour and the New Social Order” before the 1918 election, the party’s first openly socialist manifesto; minister in the first two Labour governments of the 1920s; lampooned with his wife and colleague Beatrice by H.G. Wells in The New Machiavelli (though, really, a couple who could spend their honeymoon attending the Trades Union Congress in Glasgow were beyond satire). The two of them in their last years wrote Soviet Russia: A New Civilization (their book was published first with, then without, a question mark at the end of its title).

There are few men who have influenced twentieth-century England as deeply as either Baden-Powell or Sidney Webb. Both were the products of their age, and they impinge on each other more than by coincidence. There was little of militarism in Webb’s makeup, less of Marxism in B-P’s (although, and despite the fact that Mr. Rosenthal doesn’t mention it, the influence of Charles Kingsley’s Christian Socialism on B-P is surely palpable). Both fit into the general ethos of Edwardian progressivism. Descending from it come the Boy Scouts, military conscription (introduced in 1916), and the British welfare state. If the improving purpose of the scouts bears a direct relation to the eugenics movement, so do the orange juice and cod-liver oil administered by the authorities to English babies since the war.

In the end, despite B-P’s own less attractive prejudices, scouting has turned out to be what it is today, which is what it claims to be: an authentically internationalist, multiracial, and, at least in England, notably classless movement. It is a nice irony that both its present-day character and the distant echoes of racist eugenics give it a fair claim to find its origins at least in part in Fabian progressivism.

This Issue

June 26, 1986