Today is the 156th birthday of Lord Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), founder of the world’s Scout movement, who wrote part of his historic work Scouting for Boys at the Mill House on Wimbledon Common.
When the book was published in 1908, Baden-Powell was already a household name in Britain.
An Army officer commissioned into the 13th Hussars at a young age, he had won national fame some years earlier for having led the defence of Mafeking during its 217-day siege by the Boers in South Africa.
A host of popular merchandise could be found branded with his image. But it was his expertise in scouting, map-making and reconnaissance that had won through rather than just fighting the enemy.
His reputation developed from his unorthodox training of soldiers, using small patrol units under a single leader and issuing badges for proficiency.
This approach formed the basis of a handbook he had written for soldiers back in 1899 entitled Aids to Scouting.
It was soon picked up outside the Army by civilian youth leaders and in 1907 Baden-Powell decided to rewrite it especially for young civilian boys. He also organised an experimental camp on Brownsea Island in Dorset where 22 youngsters from assorted backgrounds could try out his lessons in outdoor survival away from the comforts of home.
The camp would become an inspiration to millions of youngsters worldwide in the following years.
Among his admirers was the Honourable Mrs Maria Fetherstonhaugh, a soldier’s wife and novelist. She and her husband had met him while on holiday in Malta.
The Fetherstonhaughs had a somewhat troubled marriage and in 1905 she had bought the Mill House, behind Wimbledon Windmill (see Heritage story 14 December 2012) as a retreat where she could keep her unusual menagerie including monkeys and penguins.
She took the house over on the death of the previous owner, Colonel Tully, commandant of the 4th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment who had organised tournaments nearby on the Common. So the place had a military background and seemed highly appropriate to offer Baden-Powell as a quiet getaway where he could write his new book.
He was quite a catch. Mrs Fetherstonhaugh visited him every day but neither this nor the presumably noisy menagerie seem to have put him off his stride and the book was duly published in six fortnightly parts. It was a huge immediate success both in Britain and overseas, eventually being translated into no fewer than 35 languages.
Scouting for Boys inspired a fashion for the formation of Scout Troops and in September 1908 Baden-Powell established an office to handle the flood of enquiries following his book’s publication.
Two years later King Edward VII advised him to leave the Army and concentrate on the emerging new Scout Movement. He did so and henceforth travelled the world, encouraging the formation of Boy Scout and Girl Guide Troops everywhere as a healthy way of life for the next generation as they grew up.
In 1920, at the first ever international Scout Jamboree at Olympia in London, Baden-Powell became Chief Scout of the World. His much younger wife Olave would later become the World Chief Guide. In due course he became Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell, the name of the training centre he had established for scouts. He would go on to write no fewer than 32 books in all.
Although Baden-Powell himself did not live in Wimbledon after writing his famous book, his elder brother Frank did. He was resident at No 32 Parkside for some 11 years until his death in 1933, renaming the place Milden House after the Baden-Powell family home at Mildenhall, Suffolk. A big game hunter, he kept a stuffed giraffe there. The family link also continued until recently. Frank’s son Robert Harold later lived in a flat in Worple Road until his death in 1998.
Lord and Lady Baden-Powell moved to Kenya in 1938 where he died on 8 January 1941.
His final letter to the Scout Movement included the words: “…try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. 'Be Prepared' in this way, to live happy and to die happy — stick to your Scout Promise always — even after you have ceased to be a boy.”
Olave carried on his work until her own death in 1977.
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