B-P: The Man

An Excerpt from:
E.E. Reynolds, B-P: The Story of His Life,
London, Oxford University Press, 1943.


What kind of man was B.-P.? His alert, slightly-built figure was known to countless thousands, and his surprisingly strong voice was equally familiar. Many came to know him more intimately at his hospitable home, in camp, or in the day-to-day work of the movement. One of the first of his characteristics which must have struck most people was his great sense of fun. As a boy at school, and later as a young officer, he was always ready for a joke or a spree. An old Sergeant-Major who was in the 13th Hussars when B.-P. landed in India in 1876, said to me, "On Parade, he was On Parade, but off Parade, he was up to all kinds of devilment." Many are the stories told of his high spirits as a youth, but in much later years he never lost his sense of fun. Even on his first voyage to England after the relief of Mafeking he could not resist the temptation to play a joke on the passengers. It was a luxury ship, and the frequenters of the first-class saloon were very exclusive. B.-P. was quick to sense this, and he decided to test it. When the passengers came into the dining saloon one evening they were horrified to see a most disreputable person fast asleep in one chair with his feet on another. It was enough to shock any first-class passenger. The purser was sent for and asked to remove the objectionable intruder. To their amazement it was B.-P.; perhaps he was just seeing if he had lost his skill in disguise, or perhaps he was laughing at the snobbery of a luxury liner.

One characteristic which was soon apparent to anyone who met him was his versatility – he could do so many different kinds of things, and do them well. This did not mean "Jack of all trades, and master of none". He was, for instance, a master of his own profession – soldiering – and particularly of all that is covered by the word "scouting". He preferred to do things for himself and to look after himself, whether at home or on the veldt or in the wilds of Kashmir. As an artist he showed remarkable skill, particularly in sketching people or animals in action. This was, of course, based on the accuracy of his powers of observation combined with his skill with pencil or brush. Another form of this ability was modeling, the elements of which he learned, as has been recorded, while he was having his portrait painted. It was typical of him that instead of using "official" tools, he improvised what he needed out of a couple of penholders.

He was humanly glad when people were interested in what he was doing, for he never assumed a false shyness; but he himself was equally interested in what others did, and this was part of his charm; as you explained something to him, you felt it was the one subject he was interested in, though he might possibly be able to do it better than yourself. He never stopped learning; he liked, for instance, to visit a factory and see how things were made, and so add to his store of knowledge; and in his later years he took up cine-photography with enthusiasm and produced some delightful films. It was this keen interest in all that was going on around him that made him such an interesting companion.

His recreations as a soldier were polo and pigsticking, in both of which he was an expert; the attraction was the horsemanship needed, and, of course, in pigsticking, the risks. It might have been expected that such a fine horseman would later on enjoy foxhunting. But that kind of sport, with all its social routine, did not attract him, and although he did a certain amount of big-game hunting in Africa and India, he preferred getting to know the lives and habits of wild animals to killing them. He once wrote, "I could never bring myself to shoot an elephant. I would as soon blow up the Tower of London as shoot him." He had a great fondness for all animals; in India he had his horses and dogs, and he even tamed a young wild boar and a panther cub. He would hike out at night to watch wild animals come down to a pool to drink, and he never tired of sketching them in their natural haunts. His main sport became fishing. One of his friends writes:

"I think his chief joy in fishing was that it took him away from the ordinary business of life more effectively than anything else, particularly when the formalities too often connected with sport were bypassed. He was always entranced with the beauty of river life, especially in the Highlands in the autumn, with its gorgeous colouring.

"Even the Boy Scouts had to give place to science and philosophy when the day’s work was finished on the river. I don’t think he was ever so supremely happy as he was when wading deep and waiting for that electrical thrill of taking fish."

Very often the chance of a day’s fishing would be offered as a sure bait to lure him to a Rally when his engagement list was already very heavy.

It will be noticed how his interests were mainly out-of-doors. And it was this kind of life which he preferred. At home he slept in a veranda bedroom; he would be up early and off for a walk with his dogs, and, as far as his work permitted, a day at home – all too rare – meant gardening or practicing casting with his fishing-rod, while one of the dogs excitedly tried to catch the ‘fly’. Visitors were soon brought into whatever activities were the order of the day: there might be a hedge to be trimmed, roses to be pruned, or a path to be rolled. His was indeed a friendly home to visit, and everyone soon felt at ease. The house itself was a museum of treasures and momentos, and with B.-P. as guide, time quickly passed. It was a house, too, of laughter and good fun. One Scout Commissioner relates, for instance, how one morning when he was trying to make up his mind about getting up, the door was suddenly opened and two of the children rushed in and hid under the bed; but not for long, for B.-P. was in full pursuit and tracked them to their hiding-place. Children found him a delightful companion. Here is one memory, for instance, of his early days in India. The writer was a small girl at the time, and in her old age she recalled her first meeting with B.-P. when he joined his regiment in Lucknow in 1877.

"My elder sister and I always ‘inspected’ the new young officers who came out from England, and in the evening of his arrival we walked up the drive to the bungalow where he was to live with two or three others, and found them all reclining in their long chairs in the veranda. We immediately demanded the new subaltern’s name.

"’Charlie,’ he said, laughing at the two funny little girls with their bushy brown hair and inquisitive eyes. And ‘Charlie’ he has been to us ever since.

"He was a great pal to us in those days, as he has probably been to many children since, for he was undoubtedly fond of children. When my father told him not to be bothered with us, his only answer was, ‘Oh, they are the pudding after the meat!", and most evenings when his work was done he would come over to our bungalow with his ocarina, and with one child hanging on each side of him, he would take us out into the quieter roads, playing tunes to us and teaching us to be observant. He sometimes had to be reprimanded for waking my small sister up with his cat-calls and jackal noises.

"On wet evenings we would sit in his room and he would draw, paint or sing to us."

Here is another incident showing how quickly B.-P. got on good terms with children:

"The Chief and Lady B.-P. spent a night or two as my parents’ guests during some Scout Rally. It was after lunch that I, aged five, and my brother, aged three, were brought in to pay our respects to the visitors. The Chief was in uniform and standing with his back to the fireplace. My stolid young brother, who at that age hated getting himself dirty, strode straight up to the Chief and, placing a pudgy finger on one of his freckled knees, said in an accusing tone, ‘What those dirty spots?’ The Chief rocked with laughter, and then proceeded to hold us enthralled for some time with animal stories and the like. This first meeting with him made a very vivid and lasting impression on me, very young though I was."

Many a Boy Scout and Girl Guide can recall meetings with B.-P. which they treasure in their memories. Here is one example out of thousands.

"The Chief was to land at Southampton, and the local Troops, etc., were line up outside the dock gates to welcome him. As a callow youth of seventeen, I had to stand in front of our school contingent, and to my joy when he came along the Chief stopped, shook hands with me and began speaking. I found myself looking into those kindly eyes of his and telling him that before long I was to leave school, etc. etc. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘whatever you do, don’t leave the boys,’ and he repeated seriously several times, ‘Stick to the boys’."

Another incident also illustrates his extraordinary memory for people and places – his long training in observation developed this power.

"In the summer of 1925 two village boys who belonged to my just-started small Troop at Drayton St. Leonard, near Oxford, were walking down the street at Dorchester during their school lunch-hour; they had Scout buttonhole badges. A touring car pulled up near them on the kerb, and the man driving called to them and said, ‘I don’t suppose you know who I am.’ When they replied that they did not, he said, ‘Well, go and have a look on the front of my radiator.’ There they saw a mascot with ‘Presented to Sir Robert and Lady Baden-Powell on the occasion of their marriage’. They came back to the side of the car, and B.-P. shook hands with them, asked them how long they had been Scouts, whether they had been to camp yet, what Troop they belonged to, and many other questions. Of course they were thrilled, and for some time this chance meeting was the talk of the village. Over six months later I happened to have the good fortune to meet B.-P. for the first time, in Oxford, on the evening of the day on which he laid the foundation stone of Youlbury. When he heard I came from Drayton St. Leonard, he at once said, ‘How’s your Troop getting on? I was so glad to meet those two Scouts of yours last summer,’ and sent them messages of good luck."

B.-P. could remember people by their back-view, by the way they walked, and by their voices – again the result of his experiences as a scout. The following example bears this out.

"I recall the Friday evening of the 1937 Gilwell Reunion. It was fairly late when I had eaten my supper and washed out my billy-can, and I was walking up the drive towards the house in the dark when I overtook two figures just inside the gates, and said ‘Good evening’ as I passed them. In answer, a torch was flashed on my back, and to my astonishment I heard a well-known voice say ‘It’s Brown, isn’t it?’ I turned, and by the light of their own torch could see that it was the two Chiefs.

"Now I had been introduced to him at the Reunion the year before, but had had the chance to say little more than ‘how d’you do’ to him, so that it is little short of amazing that he should have been able at once to put the right name to my back-view and my voice."

Is it surprising that such a man had innumerable friends? But the winning of new friends did not mean forgetting old ones. An officer who served under him in India before the Mafeking days writes:

"His friends of course must have been as the sands of the sea. In his last letter to me written from Kenya early in 1940 he apologizes for its brevity but says he has over 80 letters besides hundreds of cards that require answers, yet he gives me all the news of his family and of several mutual friends out there. I do not know if I was especially favoured, or if so why, but I always marvelled that, among his world-wide activities, he could find the time for private letters; but one of the characteristics of B.-P. was that among his multitude of young friends he never forgot his old ones."

The marvel is that he could find time for all his activities and interests and for such a wide correspondence. He managed it by making use of every spare moment. Amongst his papers are many notes scribbled on odd sheets; he may have been waiting for a train and some idea came to him; down it went to be passed on and discussed, and often the result would be some fresh development in Scouting.

But he was never satisfied with the amount of work he did, and as the years passed and the natural limitations of age set in, he felt that he could not do all he should to encourage the men and women in the movements; he even went so far as to suggest that he should resign from being Chief Scout of this country and appoint someone else, while he would remain Chief Scout for the movement outside Great Britain. The suggestion was received with such horror by the few who were consulted that he went no farther with the proposal. But the fact that he could seriously think of such an idea shows two things: his sense of duty was highly developed and he had no use for passengers; secondly, in spite of Jamborees and Rallies with their rapturous receptions, he did not realize how deep was the personal affection all Scouts had for him; he thought himself as a Leader of a Movement in an almost impersonal way, and he argued quite simply that if the Leader could no longer do his job, then someone else should take his place.

He had, in fact, that simplicity and sincerity of character which are the marks of all truly great men.

  E. E. Reynolds, B-P: The Story of His Life is a major source of biographical information about B-P. It is one of several works by E. E. Reynolds documenting the life of the Chief Scout and the early days of the Scout Movement.
  The Baden-Powell Library. A Selection of excerpts from the works of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and works relating to his life and career
  Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Founder of the World Scout Movement, Chief Scout of the World. A Home Page for the Founder. Links Relating to Baden-Powell on the Pine Tree Web and elsewhere. Text Only Index.

  Return to the Pine Tree Web Home Page

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Last Modified: 11:04 AM on February 16, 1997

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