14 July 2015

The Boer War, Baden Powell and the Boy Scout Movement

At the start of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army could not send enough troops in time. While it seems absurd to us to go into war without troops, the British Army compromised, instead sending Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (1857–1941) to the Cape Col­ony to raise regiments of Mounted Rifles from local British citiz­ens. Baden Powell and his officers had three tasks: to resist any Boer invasion of KwaZulu-Natal Province, to draw the Boers away from the coasts to enable British troops to land and to encourage the locals from supporting the Boers. Things did not go well. In 1899, each conflict ended in defeat for the British and their allies, and victory for the Boers.

The worst disaster could easily have occurred at Mafeking, right on the boundary where the British Cape Colony and the Boer Transvaal met. During this Siege of Mafeking, Colonel Baden-Powell and his 2,000 men defended the town as best they could from the 5,000 Boers who continued to shell the town and tried to starve it into surrender. Siege was the correct word. It lasted for six horrible months in 1899-1900.

Col Baden Powell
Second Boer War

The Mafeking Cadet Corps, 1899-1900

Because of the shortage of manpower in the town, 16 volunteer British adolescents in The Mafeking Cadet Corps were used to a] support the troops, b] carry messages around the town and to out­lying forts, c] help with the wounded and d] act as lookouts, warn­ing the townspeople when the Boer siege guns were firing. These tasks freed up adult men for military duties and kept the brave cadets occupied during the Siege. The cadets were easily identified because they wore military-type uniforms and hats. At first they used donkeys, but as the siege ran on, food became scarce and the donkeys became dinner. From then on, the cadets used bicycles instead.

When did the city’s Cadet Force start? The town's newspaper, the Mafeking Mail, was already discussing the local Cadet Force well before Col Baden Powell entered the town with his soldiers in September 1899.

As it turned out, the Siege of Mafeking was the most famous and unexpected British victory in the Sec­ond Boer War. People across the British Empire celebrated wildly; people who had never heard of Col. Robert Baden-Powell now considered him a national hero. The Relief of Mafeking was not due to the Cadets, of course, but by the end of the siege, dozens of the Cadets were awarded the Defence of Mafeking military bar.

Baden-Powell had never been married and had known nothing about caring for adolescent boys. But he was clearly very impressed by the Cadets and often used them in his military books as an example of bravery in war time. And at home he had also been familiar with the organis­ation called The Boys' Brigade, founded by his friend William Alexander Smith back in 1883. Members of the Boys’ Brigade were encouraged to combine drill and fun activities with Christian values.

Yet it was only on his return to Britain in 1903 that Baden-Powell found that one particular military manual, Aids to Scouting, had done very well sales-wise and was being used in Britain by teachers and adult leaders of youth organisations. With encouragement from William Alexander Smith, Baden-Powell decided to re-write Aids to Scouting to suit a younger market. This final document described outdoor activities, character development, citizenship and personal fitness as the core values of boy scouts. And it omitted all military content.

Scouting for Boys
written by Baden Powell
in 1903 and again in 1908

Two important events happened in 1907. Firstly Baden-Powell went on an extensive speaking tour arranged by his publisher, Arthur Pearson, to promote the new book. He was well received wherever he travelled in Britain. Secondly Baden-Powell organised a camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour Dorset to test out his ideas for a Boy Scout Movement. Only 20 lads turned up: half from local Boys' Brigade compan­ies and half school boys whose fathers knew Baden Powell. But in a very important sense, this camp marked the formal beg­inning of the scouting movement.

The next year, 1908, scout packs were established across the country, all following the principles laid out in Baden-Powell's book. I don't think the ex-colonel from Mafeking and the Boer War had expected to be so successful, so quickly, in Britain. The first national Scout Rally was held at Crystal Palace in 1909. 

In 1920, the first worldwide Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia in West Kensington, under Baden-Powell’s leadership. Soon after, Baden-Powell was created a Baronet.


Leon Sims said...

And the first Australian Jamboree was founded at Frankston in 1934 with Lord Baden Powell attending. The area honours the site naming a road "Baden Poell Drive" which I often use while on one of my training rides. I attended the 2013 Jamboree at Maryborough QLD and the 24th Jamboree will be held in NSW at Cataract Park. The Scouting organisation is one of my favorite customers and I'm very impressed with their values.

Joe said...

Were there girl guides in Baden Powell's vision for young people in Britain?

Hels said...


YES! My brothers and I also went to a youth movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We loved it and to this day, I can still pitch a tent and build a camp fire. The skills (if not the values) learned back then last for a lifetime.

The reason it seemed to take so long to establish an Australian (national) Scouting Organisation was that it was a state-based organisation for quite a while. But by the early 1920s, we were getting our act together. How cool it must have been in 1934 when Lord Baden Powell turned up in Melbourne to encourage and support the locals.

Hels said...


I imagine there were no girls in either The Mafeking Cadet Corps in South Africa or in the Boys' Brigade in Britain. So perhaps the thought never occurred to Baden Powell to include girls. But it didn't take long. Once girls started to demand access to the new organisation, his sister Agnes Baden-Powell formed the Girl Guides movement in 1910, just a couple of years after the Boy Scouts started.

elegancemaison said...

Yet again a post of yours touches on my life. I live about an hour from Poole Harbour and have passed Brownsea Island many times - mostly on the cross-channel ferry to Cherbourg but also in a small sailing yacht.

As for B-P, I joined the Girl Guides in Australia in 1958-60 when my father was posted there with the RAAF. My early teenage pals and I all thought "Scouting for Boys" was the most hilarious book title ever. ( Sorry to lower the tone, Hels.)

the foto fanatic said...

The first scout patrol in Queensland was formed c1908. A Jewish boy scout & girl guides troop was formed in 1927 at the Margaret St synagogue and believed to be the first in Australia: http://hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/125581.

I was a scout in the late fifties early sixties and apart from being enormous fun, the movement taught me life skills and values.

For some reason the organisation became a bit naff to later generations.

I recognise that this will sound like pontificating baby boomer speak, but it would not be the worst thing for today's kids and teenagers to become involved in scouting or something similar.

Hels said...


we may have met in Australia! I too was learning how to make damper on a camp fire from 1958-65 :)

Don't you love seeing your life spelled out somewhere in the blogasphere? My favourite modern building in all of Britain is the Isokon building in Hampstead. I opened up someone's blog and there it was, in full technicolour, just I remembered from previous visits.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

the question of changing values and practices is one that faces any long established organisation. Does the value system of a British military commander in Victorian South Africa still appeal to baby boomers in Queensland in 1960 or Czech atheistic lads in 2000?

Scouting has always the following principles: law and promise, learning by doing, teamwork, personal development, love of nature, adult support, service to the community. The values of trust and personal honour help to develop responsibility, self-reliance, reliability and leadership. But does the modern 15 year old care about personal responsibility, self-reliance, reliability and leadership?

Just as well Duty to God and military skills are no longer part of the Scouting creed. Those values may appeal to our modern 15 year old even less than personal honour.

Ann ODyne said...

If it was good enough for Her Majesty it was good enough for me and I loved being a Brownie "We're the Pixies here's our aim: lend a hand and play the game" and being a Girl Guide prior to 1963 and a big hand for the unpaid dedication of all the A-ke-las [Dib-Dib-Dib] who taught us knots and campfire cooking, semaphore and first aid. I still have my badges 52 years later. 'be prepared' and 'Help People' were the aims now superceded by most children having smartphones.
Can you imagine modern little girls going door-to-door after school, for the fundraising campaign 'Willing Shilling' offering to to tasks (ironing, shoe polishing, weeding, sweeping) in return for money? The Scouts had Bob A Job. more adventure than anything on a smartphone.

Hels said...


I am so glad you remember it all, and remember it fondly. I drive my children nuts with memories of those days, but then I can do camp fire cooking and first aid where they cannot! And another thing. The friendships made back then often lasted for decades.

Back in 1969 my future husband and I met at a camp site in Ballarat! It may not have been the most elegant of places to find a life partner, but we were the 8th wedding to eventuate from that camping conference. I am feeling quite nostalgic now :)

Mandy Southgate said...

I love this post! I had to Google your spelling of 'Mafeking' because we know it in South Africa as 'Mafikeng' and I see it is now spelled 'Mahikeng' to comply with the historical pronunciation of the word.

History lessons in South Africa were always a bit of a minefield. The official stance was decidedly pro-Boer and anti-British, anti-Zulu and anyone who stood in the path of the Great Settlers and Transvaal Republic.

The problem was that in English speaking schools, our teachers were primarily of British descent. I remember going on a school trip to Mafikeng in primary school and my teacher quite emotionally recounting the siege. It was a powerful moment.

Hels said...


I understand the different readings of history very well. What you said about the official stance being decidedly pro-Boer, anti-British and anti-Zulu filters through the text books and gives students a particular slant that may be very different from EXACTLY the same war as seen in Britain or Australia.

And historical perspectives change with time. Gallipoli (in Turkey, 1915) was the most important battle in the history of Australians and New Zealanders - it was seen as "creating" a nation, teaching mateship, forging eternal bonds with king and God. Now it is still a treasured memory for our two nations, but forging eternal bonds with king and God have been practically forgotten.

Mandy Southgate said...

It was really interesting - we learned about Gallipoli in school too but it was only on meeting Antipodeans in UK that I realised how important it was to them!

Hels said...


Never will we see a more contested history as in Charleston re the flying of the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds. Half the population sees the American Civil War as a war to protect the right to own slaves in the South. The other half of the population largely discount the slavery argument and refer instead to the principle of States' Rights against the domineering Federal Government. Depending on which text books the students read, they may or may not see the Confederate flag as the symbol of white supremacists.