The Boy Scout movement began 110 years ago on a tiny island just off the southern coast of England, where Robert Baden-Powell, a legendary cavalry officer with eyes “as keen as the hawk’s,” as one historian put it, took 22 inquisitive boys to scamper around the woods he had explored as a child.
To the boys, Baden-Powell was like the Steve Jobs of the outdoors. While he was off at war, boys in England obsessively read and roll played his book “Aids to Scouting,” a handbook for soldiers on tracking, hiding and reconnaissance.
“Scouts can go unseen where parties would attract attention,” Baden-Powell wrote. “One pair of trained eyes is as good as a dozen pairs untrained. Scouts have the most important duties that can fall to individual men in wartime, and they have the best chances of distinguishing themselves in the field.”
Baden-Powell became the father of the Scouting movement, a worldwide phenomenon which took an unexpected turn this week in the United States. With girls being welcomed into the fold for the first time, the Boy Scouts of America announced a new gender-neutral name for the program: Scouts BSA.
Baden-Powell, of course, wouldn’t know what to make of that. In fact, he had no idea how popular his book had become with boys until he returned home from the Second Boer War, during which a garrison he led fended off thousands of enemy soldiers in South Africa for 217 days. He rewrote “Aids to Scouting” for a younger audience, calling it “Scouting for Boys.”
And he decided to test his ideas on some wannabe Scouts, taking them to Brownsea Island where, according to the U.S. Scouting Service Project, he divided them into four patrol groups — Wolves, Bulls, Curlews and Ravens. The days were long. Breakfast was at 6 a.m. — milk and biscuits — followed by hours of Scouting. Dinner was at 8 p.m., then campfire yarns, then prayers and, finally, lights out in the tents.
They could not have had a better teacher.
Harold Begbie, in his biography of Baden-Powell, described his sixth, seventh and possibly eighth sense:
“Once he was riding in the night with despatches for headquarters’ camp, guiding himself by the stars,” Begbie wrote. “Arriving at the place where he thought the camp ought to be, he was surprised to find no sign of it. Dismounting from his saddle, he was thinking of lying up for the night (rather than overshoot the mark) when a distant spark, for the fraction of a second, caught his eye. Jumping into the saddle again, he rode towards the place where the spark had flickered its brief moment, and there he found a sentry smoking a pipe. The red glow of the baccy in the bowl had guided B.-P. with his despatches safely to camp.”
News of Baden-Powell’s experiment, as well as the publication of the new manual, turned Scouting into a full-blown infatuation — like fidget spinners, but with a purpose.
The government and the citizenry thought it was a perfect antidote to “physical deterioration, moral degeneracy, juvenile crime,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Also: “‘wasters’ and ‘slackers.’”
Suddenly, Scout troops began popping up all on their own. Baden-Powell opened an office to field inquiries. The Boy Scouts were now officially a thing, soon to be exported to the United States.
That happened in 1909. An Illinois newspaper man named William Boyce was in London on business and when he tried to tip a boy a nickel for giving him directions, the boy refused, saying “I’m a Scout,” according to Alvin Townley’s history of Eagle Scouts.
Boyce was like, what?
So the Scout took him to headquarters, where he met Baden-Powell.
“During a long conversation,” Townley wrote, Baden-Powell’s “ideas for building character in British youth captivated Boyce and set history in motion: Scouting was coming to America.”
Boyce was hooked.
“When Boyce boarded the trans-Atlantic steamer for home, he had a suitcase filled with information and ideas,” the Boy Scouts of America says in its official history.
He incorporated the group on Feb. 8, 1910. Two years later, on March 12, 1912, the first Girl Scouts of America troop was organized in Savannah, Ga., by Juliette Gordon Low. (The modern-day Girl Scouts are furious about the move to steal their girls, by the way.)
“To help other people at all times,” is part of the Boy Scout Oath. Their slogan: “Do a Good Turn Daily!”
That’s just what the Scout did in England that day, getting Boyce where he needed to go and connecting him with Baden-Powell.
But nobody had a chance to give the Scout any credit.
He disappeared into the London fog.