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


WHEN Charterhouse School was still in London, there was a traditional feud between the scholars and the butcher boys of Smithfield Market just outside. During one of these battles, when brickbats and other missiles were being flung over the wall, a group of smaller boys were cheering on the seniors. Suddenly the door of the school opened, and out stepped the head master, Dr. Haig Brown, or "Old Bill." He too watched for a minute or so, then he said to the onlookers, "If you boys go out by that side gate, you could take them in the flank."

"The gate is locked, sir!"

"True, but I have brought the key."

In a few minutes the sortie was made, and the enemy routed.

Amongst those younger scholars was a slightly-built, sandy-haired, freckled boy who, in after life, was to achieve fame as the defender of Mafeking, and founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Everyone came to know him as "B.-P." His full name was Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell.

He was born on 22nd February, 1857, in London. His father was a clergyman and a professor at Oxford, well known as a distinguished scientist. B.-P.’s mother was the daughter of another scientist, Admiral William Smyth, who claimed descent from the same family as Captain John Smith, the Elizabethan adventurer who helped to found the colony of Virginia in America.

When B.-P. was seven years old he lost his father. The family was not too well-off. There were seven children, of whom the eldest was Warington, aged thirteen, and the youngest, Baden Fletcher, aged one month. B.-P. was the fifth child; he had four older brothers. of whom one died in 1862, and a younger sister and brother. They were a very happy crowd of children and their leader was Warington; they may be thought of as a Patrol, for the brothers were a real band of adventurers. Fortunately their mother believed in letting them find their own amusements as soon as they were old enough, though she must have had some anxious moments.

Warington was very keen about everything to do with the sea; he was trained on the Conway, and it was therefore natural that much of the early training the brothers got with him was in boats and small craft. They could not afford to buy anything very big or very good, but by using their own skill in improving what they could get, they made their craft seaworthy, and had many adventures. Some of these came very near to disaster.

On one trip they were using a 10-tonner called the Koh-i-noor; in this they had cruised round our coasts and had crossed to Norway. On this occasion they were off Torquay when a gale sprang up from the south-west. At first they tried to make Dartmouth, but both sea and wind were too strong. Warington decided that they must wear ship and run before the gale for Weymouth. Night was coming on and the storm showed no signs of dying down. Accustomed as the boys were to the sea, they all, except for the skipper, turned sick. They were lashed with sufficient length of rope to get to their jobs, and Warington kept to the helm and shouted his orders against the noise of wind and towering seas. Through the night and following day they battled on, and at last found refuge under the lee of Portland Bill.

On another occasion they went out from Harwich in a storm to try to find a ship in distress, and they had, as B.-P. said, "a perfectly vile time of it." Warington had the idea that if only they could get to the ship they could claim salvage money, and so afford a better vessel for their own use. They failed to find the ship, but they added to their experience.

In addition to sea-trips the brothers did a good deal of tramping about the country; they carried as little as possible with them, slept in barns or under hedges and haystacks, and cooked their own meals. They all had very practical natures, so whenever possible they would visit a factory or a workshop to see how things were made. One of their most interesting trips was made partly by canoe and partly on foot. Their mother had taken a cottage in Wales for the holidays. The boys decided that the railway was too tame a way of travelling, so they got a collapsible boat and set off up the Thames. They camped each night and, as usual, looked after themselves completely. When they had gone as far up the river as possible, they hiked across country with the canoe to the Avon, which took them down to Bristol. Here, greatly daring, they crossed the Severn, and then went up the Wye, and so eventually joined their mother.

As one of the younger members of the party, B.-P. got many of the odd jobs to do on these trips, such as the washing-up. One experiment he made in cooking was not favourably received. A soup he concocted was so repulsive that he was ordered to "eat this muck himself," and made to do so.

In all these adventures he was picking up useful ideas on how to look after himself and how to take his share of the work—a good foundation for his training as a Scout.

These expeditions took place during the holidays. In 1872 Charterhouse School moved from London down to new buildings at Godalming, and there B.-P. had further opportunities for his early scouting. A stretch of woodland near the school was out of bounds, but it drew B.-P. with his love of the out-of-doors like a magnet. Here he enjoyed stolen hours watching birds and animals and learning their ways; he snared rabbits, skinned and cooked them over small fires, for he knew that too much smoke would give him away. He learned how to climb trees and conceal himself from inquisitive schoolmasters, and be soon came to know that the first lesson in stalking is to be able to "freeze," for a motionless creature is rarely noticed.

He was popular at school, but he did not stand out either as a scholar or as a player of games. He took part in every activity and was generally above the average. In sport his best achievements were as goalkeeper, but he had his own peculiar ways. Thus he would at times let off a great war-whoop, and he always took a spare pair of boots on to the field with him, as he discovered that by changing at half-time his feet got less tired. He never did things simply because other people did them; he liked to experiment with his own ideas and did not bother very much about what criticisms were made. It is not surprising, therefore, that his fellows thought him a bit odd.

The head master, Dr. Haig Brown, encouraged his boys to accept responsibility; he was not very fond of rules and regulations, and he trusted the boys to carry on without a great deal of interference. B.-P. afterwards expressed his gratitude for this, because it meant that each boy had the chance to follow his own bent, and possibly Dr. Haig Brown knew more about those visits to the copse than B.-P. suspected! One side of the school life was very congenial to B.-P. The head master was a great believer in theatricals and concerts, and these were regularly organized. It was not long before B.-P. showed his talent as an actor and singer. He had a great fund of humour, and this found full expression on the school platform. In addition to taking part in the plays, he sang and recited—the humorous monologue was his strong point, and frequently this would be made up on the spot.

Another skill of his also gave pleasure. He could make funny sketches as well as do more serious kinds of drawing and painting. From his earliest days he found that he could use either hand equally well, and sometimes as a trick he would draw the picture with his right hand and shade in with the left at the same time. From his handwriting it is difficult to tell which hand he was using.

He certainly enjoyed his schooldays, but by the time he had to leave—he was then in the VIth Form and second Monitor in his House—he had not really made up his mind what he wanted to do. His chief idea was that he would like to travel, and it was this more than anything else which took him into the army. While it was being discussed whether he should go up to Oxford as his elder brothers had done, he sat for an army examination, and to his surprise—and to that of those who knew him—he passed so high up on the list that he was excused the usual training course at Sandhurst, and received a commission straight away as a Sub-Lieutenant, or Ensign, in the 13th Hussars. As the regiment was then stationed in India, he immediately got his desire to travel. He sailed from Portsmouth on the 30th October, 1876, and landed at Bombay on the 6th December.

He quickly settled down to his new life, for his lively spirits and good humour made friends for him wherever he went. The children of the officers found in him a cheery companion ever ready for fun. They were always welcome in his bungalow, and liked to watch him painting a picture; then he would march them out to the music of his ocarina and encourage them to use their eyes. He himself was particularly keen on observing the ways in which animals lived, and this habit was lifelong; he would go off to some quiet spot in the jungle and lie concealed to see the wild beasts come down to a pool to drink—the deer, the jackals, tigers, elephants, and the boars. The knowledge he gained in this way was later to prove of value in his scouting.

Although he was popular with his fellow-officers, he did not make the mistake of doing things just because they were in the fashion. He took an independent line, for instance, in the matter of expenses. At that period a subaltern received a salary of £120 a year, and it was assumed that any officer in a crack cavalry regiment had private means. B.-P. knew that his mother was not too well-off, so he was determined to become self-supporting as quickly as possible. He cut out all needless expense; thus amongst other economies he gave up smoking because of the cost, and later on, when he could afford to smoke, he did not do so because he found that the habit affected his sense of smell in scouting. He used his skill as an artist to add to his income, and wrote and illustrated many articles for magazines.

B.-P. was a first-class horseman, and this is not unconnected with his love of animals, for a good horseman must have a real liking for his mount. It is not therefore surprising that he took quickly to the two great sports of polo and pigsticking. Good horses trained for these activities are expensive, so B.-P. would go to out-of-the-way places and buy up raw ponies and then break them in, and train them for polo. The task was not an easy one, but he learned a great deal about horses in the process; then he had the added satisfaction of selling a well-trained animal with advantage to his own purse. In pigsticking he became so expert that in 1883 he won the Kadir Cup—the most coveted trophy for the sport.

In days when there were no wireless or gramophones, regiments had to make their own amusements, and entertainments and theatrical shows of all kinds were popular. Here B.-P. was always in demand. He could sing a comic song, or act, or make up topical skits that would bring down the house. His skill as an artist also came in useful as a designer and painter of scenery, and it was not long before he became the producer of comic operas and plays. Rehearsals had sometimes to be carried out under difficulties, and on one occasion The Pirates of Penzance was prepared out of doors with swords stuck in the ground to mark the stage area; in case of sudden attack by tribesmen, the swords could then be quickly seized.

All this was the lighter side of life; B.-P. devoted himself to his military career with the thoroughness with which he did everything. His first eight months in India were spent at Lucknow, where he took an intensive course, passing out with a first class, with a special certificate in surveying. At the end of two years he was sent home on sick leave, and this was extended so that he could take a musketry course; again he was placed in the first class.

On his return to India in 1880 he rejoined his regiment, which had been moved up to the North-West Frontier; this was the year of Lord Roberts’s famous 300-mile march from Kabul to Kandahar, but by the time B.-P. reached the regiment the fighting was over. He did, however, get the useful experience of active service conditions. One part of military work had early captured his enthusiasm—scouting; and he had taken every opportunity of making himself more efficient and of passing on his knowledge to his men, who found this new kind of soldiering more exciting than drill. This training proved its value, for attacks might be made by the Afghans at any time of the day or night, and constant scouting was necessary to detect their whereabouts. Then one day the horses broke loose in a storm; all but one were recaptured, but B.-P. was determined to find the missing horse. He rode round the camp in a wide circle until he came across the tracks of a galloping horse; these he followed up into the mountains where the tracks were difficult to distinguish, but at last he found the horse, and brought it back to camp.

When the order came to march back to the base, B.-P. told his Colonel that he knew a short cut that would save the men and horses both time and fatigue. The Colonel accepted this suggestion and found it was correct. Incidents such as these drew attention to the young officer, and when special service was needed his name naturally came to mind. Quick promotion followed, and at the age of twenty-six he was gazetted Captain. This meant more office work, which he did well although it was little to his taste; as it kept him indoors a good deal there was not so much time for his various interests, but he still managed to get away for occasional trips into the mountains, alone save for a few native servants.

In maneuvers B.-P.’s skill as a scout—especially at night—was always useful to his regiment. On one occasion, for instance, he was with the attacking party; the scouts managed to find out where the defenders’ outposts were, but were unable to get through. They settled down for a few hours’ sleep, but B.-P. decided he would make one more effort to find out the disposition of the forces. So he crept through the outposts in the dark and crawled along until he discovered where both the main body and the reserve were stationed. At the farthest point he left a glove behind a bush, then he crept back to his men. The next day he was able to give an exact account of the position, much to the surprise of the defenders, who had claimed the day. They thought at first he had made a lucky guess, but when he told them where to find his glove, they had to admit defeat.

He was, as ever, in constant demand for all entertainments, and at one of these he completely deceived his Colonel and the other officers when he arrived in the disguise of a visiting General. His joke was only revealed when he went up to the platform and sang the Major-General’s song from The Pirates of Penzance.

In 1883 the Duke of Connaught came out to India, and B.-P. was appointed to his staff, and this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. The regiment was ordered home in the following year.

  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.

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