The Way It Was

Text by Robert Peterson
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Baden-Powell's First Scouting Books

After learning that boys were using his small military manual, Aids to Scouting, as a guide to outdoor fun, the British war hero decided to write a book with a much greater purpose.

Boy Scouting was the brainchild of a man of many parts—soldier, author, artist, actor, visionary—named Robert S. S. Baden-Powell. He was the hero of the siege of Mafeking during the Boer War (1899-1902) in which the British army subdued rebellious Dutch colonists in South Africa.

Just before the 217-day siege began near mid-October in 1899, Col. Baden-Powell had sent the corrected proofs of his little book for soldiers about reconnaissance and scouting to a printer in London. Written in simple language, free of military jargon, the 138-page book was titled Aids to Scouting for NCOs and Men.

Games And Stories

A military scout is "a special man," he wrote, "selected for his 'grit' and trained for one class of work only, and that is reconnaissance. His work is not fighting, but getting information about the country and the enemy."

A scout needs to have pluck, self-reliance, and discretion—all leading to confidence in one's ability. "But you won't get these qualities by sitting down and waiting for them to come to you," he warned would-be military scouts. "You must put your mind into it and learn them up in peace time."

Baden-Powell had a talent for simplifying directions and telling little stories—mostly about his own experiences as a scout in India and South Africa—by way of illustrating skills like finding your way in strange country, using your senses to observe everything around you, concealing yourself from the enemy, following tracks and reading their meaning, sketching maps, and making reports to superiors.

The Training Of Boys

For testing these skills, the book's appendix included games with names like Spider and Fly, Flag Stealing, Quick Sight, and Chart and Compass Races.

No doubt those scouting games—along with the fame of Baden-Powell as the hero of Mafeking—contributed to the popularity of Aids to Scouting, among the general public. Within months, the book written for soldiers had sold 100,000 copies, a remarkable number for a military manual.

After Mafeking, Baden-Powell was promoted to major-general and continued the campaign against the Boers. When the war ended in 1902, he was assigned to organize the South African Constabulary to police the young country.

He returned home to England in 1903 and was astonished to find that Aids to Scouting was being used by boys' groups as a guide to outdoor fun. At the urging of several youth leaders, he decided to adapt the manual for the training of boys.

Like many of his contemporaries, Baden-Powell believed that Britain's youth lacked strong physiques and moral fiber, and that hooliganism was rampant. He studied everything he could find concerning the training of boys, from the code of King Arthur to the contemporary Boys' Brigade in England and Ernest Thompson Seton's Camp Games and Dan Beard's Boy Pioneers in the United States. He also drew on his experience training men for law enforcement in South Africa.

Testing A 'Scheme'

The result was a paper titled "Boy Scouts—A Suggestion" outlining his thinking on "ways to help in making the rising generation, of whatever class or creed, into good citizens at home or for the colonies."

Youth leaders were favorably impressed, and Baden-Powell determined to put his "scheme" to the test. In the summer of 1907 he recruited 13 boys from upper-class schools and nine working-class youths from the Boys' Brigade and took them camping on Brownsea Island off Britain's southern coast.

This first Scout camp was a rousing success, both from the boys' point of view and as a test of Baden-Powell's ideas.

The Boy Scout scheme was fleshed out in Scouting for Boys, published in 1908. Written and illustrated by Baden-Powell, the pocket-size book promised lots of outdoor adventures and told boys how they could serve their country and their fellow men through Scouting.

Campfire 'Yarns'

Scouting for Boys introduced the Scout Promise (Oath), Scout Law, motto, badge, Scout sign and salute, and the handshake. It told how to form a patrol and how to earn advancement.

More important, readers learned how to hike and camp, tie knots and do pioneering projects, track and stalk animals, find directions, and signal with Morse code and flags.

All this information was imparted in punchy little "Yarns for Boy Scouts" so that a reader could study what interested him and skip what didn't.

For example, in Camp Fire Yarn No. 5 on "Life in the Open," Baden-Powell advised that Scouts on "exploring expeditions should never, if possible, sleep under a roof—that is to say that on fine nights they would sleep in the open wherever they may be; or in bad weather, would get leave to occupy a hay loft or barn...As a rule you should have some object in your expeditionŠSay a mountain in Scotland or Wales, or a lake in Cumberland, or possibly some old castle or battlefield."

Baden-Powell biographer Tim Jeal points out, "For thousands of boys who had never slept away from home, and for many more who had never left their home towns even for a day, this idea of going off with friends on an ambitious expedition was intoxicating."

Tens of thousands of copies of Scouting for Boys were snapped up in the first year (Jeal reports that the precise number is unknown) and Scout troops began organizing all over the British Isles. Within weeks, copies were appearing in America and many other countries.

A worldwide movement was under way.

Contributing editor Robert Peterson's The Way It Was column about Baden-Powell's Brownsea Island experimental camp appeared in the September 1999 issue of Scouting. It and other past columns (back to September 1998) are available in The Way It Was section of the Archive of Past Issues.

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