When did the Boy Scouts start?

Writer and volunteer Scout leader Nina Hoole reveals the history of a movement that changed the lives of thousands of boys

Black and white photograph of 1st Padiham (St Leonard's) Scout troop in the 1930s

From 1 to 8 August 1907 Robert Baden-Powell, a British Army officer and veteran of the Boer War, held a trial camp on Brownsea Island, Dorset, for 20 boys from diverse backgrounds.

They learnt tracking, knots, first aid and chivalry, took part in sporting activities, and were captivated by his campfire yarns.

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Encouraged by the camp’s success, Baden-Powell published the manual Scouting for Boys the following year, in six fortnightly instalments. Each issue was full of pictures, games and tales, with illustrations of the qualities and behaviour needed to be a good citizen. Young people across the country were so inspired that they formed themselves into patrols of Scouts, and persuaded adults to be their Scoutmasters.

Baden-Powell had originally envisaged his scout-training scheme as an add-on to existing clubs such as the Boys’ Brigade (created in 1883) and YMCA (founded in 1844 as the Young Men’s Christian Association). He had to quickly develop a system of organisation, instruction and badges to keep up with these enthusiastic new Boy Scouts. By 1909, more than 6,000 girls had registered to be Boy Scouts, so in 1910 he asked his sister Agnes to set up the Girl Guides. Women were leaders in Scouting from the start, but girls couldn’t join as youth members until the mid-1970s.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2020

Catering for all ages

Younger and older sections were introduced to meet demand: Wolf Cubs for younger brothers, and Rover Scouts for older Scouts reluctant to leave. Originally there was no upper age limit for Rovers, prompting an article that was published in the Lancashire Evening Post in 1933 to remark upon one who was 60 years old.

From 1928 the modern group structure was set up linking a venue’s Wolf Cub pack, Scout troop and Rover Scout crew under a Group Scoutmaster. Local associations were formed to manage the growing number of Scout groups in an area, and they put on events, outings and competitions, as well as recommending awards for gallantry and meritorious service. Regional newspapers reported on large camps, galas and competitions, and the retirement of prominent local leaders.

Weekly Scout meetings gave boys the opportunity for leadership and learning new skills, as well as adventure and escapism. A Scoutmaster ran the troop, delegating some of the responsibility for training and behaviour to older Scouts who were elected as Patrol Leaders. They in turn were in charge of a patrol of about six boys.

A new recruit was known as a Tenderfoot, and had to pass a series of tests before he could be invested as a Scout. He could work towards becoming a Second Class and then a First Class Scout by learning skills such as first aid, signalling and tracking.

Weekly fun

The handbook How To Run a Scout Troop had already reached its third edition by 1923, and suggested activities for a year’s meetings (you can download it for free here. The emphasis was on variety, giving ideas on “how to train the Scout with a view to the First Class Badge without boring him to tears”. Navigation exercises, outdoor cooking, nature lore and lots of active games reinforced learning while maintaining interest. Boys could also earn proficiency badges in areas that appealed to them such as Handyman, Marksman, Blacksmith and Poultry Farmer. Employers were said to look upon these favourably when teenage Scouts applied for work.

Coventry Archives holds the logbooks of the 14th Coventry Rover Crew, which describe several years of meetings, badges and camps. Debates, slide shows from guests, and instruction on knotting and splicing all featured.

When the First World War began, former Scouts who enlisted in the armed forces were found to already possess many of the practical skills required. But the numbers of male leaders shrank as Scoutmasters joined the war effort, and some troops were mainly run by the teenage Patrol Leaders. Rover crews were depleted as members signed up or were conscripted. Meetings were swapped from weekday evenings to Saturday or Sunday mornings because of blackouts and evening raids, and meeting places were changed because of bomb damage. Female leaders, already common as Cubmasters, became more prominent as Scoutmasters too.

Also, the Admiralty requested Boy Scouts to assist with coast-watching duties. Other boys helped at Red Cross centres, acted as cycle messengers, and sounded the ‘all clear’ after air raids as buglers. In the Second World War they acted again as air-raid messengers, telephonists, first-aiders and fire watchers. They also helped evacuees, filled sand bags, fitted out gas masks, and collected scrap paper and metal in their trek carts. Some Rover Scouts even donated blood. Poignantly, at 14th Coventry Rover Crew’s annual supper in 1943, “cards and autographs were signed by all to be sent to Rovers away from home”.

Black and white photograph of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, standing in the middle of a group of uniformed Scout leaders under an archway constructed for the 1929 World Jamboree in Birkenhead
The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, is in the centre of this photograph of the World Jamboree in Birkenhead in 1929
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Camping in wartime

During wartime there were fewer opportunities for camping trips, a source of great regret because the independence and freedom of being away with friends built strong memories and resilient characters. For example, 14th Coventry Rover Crew’s logbook describes how a storm ravaged their campsite in Brittany in 1938: “The green hawk tent in which slept Charles, Bernard and Albert had blown down and only a clothes line attached to it prevented it from completing a solo channel flight.”

However, Lancashire Archives holds the logbooks of 1st Altham Scout Troop, which give an indication of how Scouting was affected. Just a few pages into the 1939 logbook, war broke out: “Lighting restrictions, our first experience of the blackout. Scouting curtailed somewhat.” In 1940 “we decided not to hold a summer camp this year in view of the food rationing scheme”. But the following year “we decided definitely to have a summer camp, war or no war”. Among the many named photos contained within, rich details of camp life emerge, including digging latrines, boating and “having to render first aid to other campers nearby”. Also, some troops held their camps on farms to help out with the harvest.

The Second World War had a major effect on another highlight of the Scouting experience. Every four years a World Scout Jamboree is held, where Scouts from across the globe come together for a large-scale camp lasting up to two weeks. The first was in London in 1920, and the UK also hosted World Jamborees in Merseyside in 1929 and Warwickshire in 1957. Both of the latter camps had more than 30,000 attendees, and many British Scouts were able to attend. The 6th World Scout Jamboree was due to take place in France in 1941, but was postponed until 1947 because of the war. Happily, more than 25,000 Scouts from over 70 countries met on the banks of the Seine.

There was also the chance to travel abroad to attend camps and smaller Jamborees overseas, as long as a Scout troop could raise the funds. Kandersteg International Scout Centre was built in Switzerland in 1923, and still offers year-round opportunities for Scouts to get together without waiting for a World Jamboree year. Such experiences have undoubtedly shaped young people’s outlook on the world, and broadened their understanding and respect for other cultures. Information on all of the World Scout Jamborees until 2007 is available here, and there is footage from even the earliest Jamborees at British Pathe.

After the Second World War, Scouts were called into service to help at the 1948 London Olympics, and were prominent at various royal occasions. The fundraising ensemble performances known as Gang Shows, which started in the 1930s, were very popular, while in 1949 ‘Bob-a-Job Week’ was launched to help raise funds for Scouting, but by the mid-1950s the number of boys in Scouting was starting to decline.

Nevertheless, over the years Scouting has evolved with the times; as Baden-Powell himself commented, “Scouting is a movement, because it moves forward.” Some of his attitudes now make him a controversial figure, and his statue in Poole in Dorset was nearly removed by the local council in June because of fears that campaigners might tear it down, while weekly meetings today are very different to the ones he ran. But adventure, developing skills for life, and helping others are still at the heart of the movement. In the UK, the number of Scouts has been growing for the past 14 years, and now stands at more than 400,000, while there are over 50 million members worldwide.

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Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2020