I WAS talking lately on the telephone to a friend who remarked that if she were a millionaire she would give to every Scout in the movement a proper Scout hat and ask him to wear it. "What a joy it would be," she said, "to see Scouts dressed as Scouts, even if only on formal occasions."
I suppose the lid does not really matter so much as what is inside the box, but to the Founder the hat, like every other part of a Scout’s uniform, had a significance that was almost spiritual. Boys who first wore it had to put Up with a good deal of ridicule and, by "sticking it out," had achieved for their uniform a general admiration and respect.
Even in Scotland, where boys would have much preferred to wear their bonnet, they gave in to their Chief’s ruling out of a sense of loyalty and in order to preserve uniformity throughout the Scout world.
The hat distinguished the Scout from every other boy in the world.
I see in this [wrote the Chief], a value far above a mere pernickitiness in dress. A like uniform hides all differences of social standing in a country and makes for equality; but, more important still, it covers differences of country and race and creed, and makes all feel that they are members with one another of the one great brotherhood.
By his hat, his shorts and his staff was a Scout known, and his uniform was no mere fancy dress, but was carefully designed with a view to its practical usefulness for his work. It came to be recognised as the outward sign of something for which Scouting stood.
In early days much of the uniform was made at home. An ordinary shirt could be dyed and a pair of father’s trousers cut down to shorts; but the hat had to be bought; and, because it had to be saved for and taken care of, it was prized and treasured and worn with three dents to remind the Scout of his three Promises.
The Scout hat originally got its initials "B.P." from the words "Boss of the Plains", the hat manufactured by Stetson. It was worn by the members of the South African Constabulary (raised and commanded by B.-P. during the South African War) as being both distinctive and practical. It shaded the face from sun, protected it from heavy rain, shaded the eyes when scouting at a distance, was useful for watering horses, for fanning a fire, for carrying water in emergencies, and in many other directions. It suited all climates and is still worn by the members of the Royal Canadian North-West Mounted Police.
Many suggestions have been made for celebrating the centenary of the Founder’s birth and the golden Jubilee of Scouting. I can think of none that would have pleased him so much as the wholesale return of the movement to the Scout hat, which he defended as vigorously as he did Mafeking!
Like the hat, each part of the uniform had its special significance and romance. It is difficult today to realise what a sensation was caused in 1908 by the appearance of Scouts in shorts. Small boys at that time wore "long-shorts" extending below the knee, while older boys wore breeches or long trousers. In introducing shorts the Founder had to fight a certain amount of opposition, for he was told that boys would get cold through having their knees uncovered. His reply to this took the form of a sketch showing a pair of bare knees, with noses attached, and handkerchiefs blowing the same.
All kinds of epithets were hurled after Scouts, and a boy had to be tough to take these with a smile. "It doesn’t matter if you are called ‘Crusty knees’," wrote Roland Philipps in his Letters to a Patrol Leader, "so long as you are not crusty inside." As the Scout movement developed and shorts became common wear, even by men, the habit of wearing them spread throughout the country. Freedom of movement, so necessary in scouting, was soon found to be an asset in games and shorts proved an economy for the mothers of growing boys.
The Scout scarf, worn with a triangular piece at the back, was designed for its practical use, and not for any artistic merit that it might possess. To protect the back of the neck against hot sun; the nose and mouth against dust; as an emergency handkerchief; or pad: as a triangular bandage; as ties or straps for a stretcher: there were few uses to which a scarf could not be put. In games it served as a distinguishing mark or "flash"; or in sudden cold weather it could be re-tied to protect the chest.
An extra knot in front was to remind a Scout to do his good turn for the day: when this was done he untied it.
The original Scout scarf was green, like that of the S.A. Constabulary; but as troops sprang up everywhere, distinctive colours were adopted, giving a pleasing variety of rainbow-hue in any large assembly. The "Gilwell scarf", with its patch of Maclaren tartan, is one variety now known in many lands, and was one which the Founder was proud to wear. On her travels round the world the Chief Guide delights to meet this scarf in many out-of-the-way corners of the Commonwealth and world.
The origin of the Scout garter is interesting and may well have been lost sight of. A plait of wool, of the same colour as the stockings, tied below the knee, had a double purpose. It both supported the stocking and supplied its mending wool. Threads from it could be pulled out for other purposes too, such as tying up bunches of flowers, etc.
The staff was an integral part of the uniform and was carried by every Scout. Its uses were too numerous to mention, but were constantly described and illustrated by the Founder. They included the making of stretchers, the rescuing of skaters who had fallen through thin ice; the fording of rivers, the climbing of hills; the gauging of heights and distances. A Scout’s staff was, like himself, one of a number yet having its own characteristics.
He could notch it to mark his progress up the Scout ladder, or use it as other people would use a scrapbook or diary. The Chief, in writing of the staff, said:
To the outsider’s eye the Scouts’ staves are so many broomsticks, but to the Scout they are different. His staff, decorated with his own particular totem and signs, is typical; like his staff, among a mass he is an individual having his own traits, his own character, his own potentialities. He may be one of a herd but he has his own entity.
The staff had been a part of the Chief’s own equipment in all his overseas adventures and had proved an invaluable companion. One of his favourite home-made mottoes was that "A smile and a stick will carry you through every difficulty".
The Scout staff was so much a part of the original uniform that the first Girl Guides, in imitating their brothers, not only called themselves Scouts, but also carried staves. At Heather Baden-Powell’s christening at Ewhurst in 1915 the girls of Roedean School, complete with Scout hats and staves, formed the Guard of Honour!
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© Lewis P. Orans, 1997