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Episode
214

Robert Baden-Powell & The Boy Scouts

Nov 26, 2021
History
-
21
minutes
20th Century
Adventure
The British Empire
Colonialism
Children
Great Britain

Within the course of a few years, Robert Baden-Powell created a global movement that united children from all over the world.

In this episode, we'll take a look at how he came up with the idea, why it was so appealing, and the legacy that he has left on the world.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about a man called Robert Baden-Powell, and the organisation that he founded, The Boy Scouts, or simply, The Scouts.

[00:00:34] There are currently more than 31 million boys and girls in the world who take part in The Scouts, spread across 216 countries and territories. And since its founding in 1908, hundreds of millions more children have been in The Scouts, perhaps including you.

[00:00:55] So, in this episode we are going to look at the amazing history of this organisation and its iconic founder, from the life of Robert Baden-Powell to why he started The Scouts in the first place, from the early days of The Scouts to how it spread all over the world. 

[00:01:14] We’ll look at what being a Scout actually means, how the organisation has changed, and some of the controversies it has had to overcome.

[00:01:24] OK then, The Boy Scouts.

[00:01:29] To understand the history of The Scouts, we must look at the childhood of its iconic founder, an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who was known to everyone simply as “B-P”.

[00:01:44] He was born to an upper class English family in 1857. His father was a well-known mathematician and Church of England priest, and his mother was the daughter of a famous naval officer.

[00:01:59] B-P’s godfather was the famous railway engineer, Robert Stephenson, who invented the steam train

[00:02:07] So, he came from a wealthy, prestigious family. 

[00:02:12] He won a scholarship to a famous private school called Charterhouse, where he developed his love for all things outdoors. 

[00:02:21] Although he was a clever boy, he was reportedly not particularly interested in his academic studies, and would prefer running around in woods, going on outside adventures, and being out in the open.

[00:02:38] As was not unusual for someone with B-P’s upbringing, an upper class young Englishman at the height of the British empire, he joined the army, and spent time out in India, which was, remember, a British colony at the time. 

[00:02:54] He was posted to a variety of different British foreign territories including Malta, South Africa and Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was called during the colonial period.

[00:03:07] He was clearly a talented soldier, and promotions came quickly. 

[00:03:13] It wasn’t until the Boer War, which lasted from 1899-1902, that he really made a name for himself

[00:03:22] As a quick reminder, The Boer War was the war between Britain and two states in modern-day South Africa. Although the British technically won the war, it shone a light on one of the very nasty aspects of imperial rule, especially through the use of concentration camps to imprison the Afrikaans, or Boer, population, and it was considered by many to be the start of the decline of the British empire. 

[00:03:52] During the Boer War, Baden-Powell was in charge of defending a town called Mafeking from the advancing Boer forces. This was a particularly important town to defend because the son of the British Prime Minister, a man called Lord Edward Cecil, was stuck there. 

[00:04:12] It would have been hugely embarrassing, a massive blow to British morale if he, the son of the British Prime Minister, had been captured and killed by the enemy.

[00:04:24] The British forces were surrounded, and under B-P’s leadership they managed to defend the town for 217 consecutive days.

[00:04:35] The word for when a town or castle is surrounded is “a siege”, and it was during the Siege of Mafeking that B-P really made a name for himself.

[00:04:47] Baden-Powell showed himself to be not only a talented military leader, but also an excellent leader of people. He managed to keep up morale in the town, organising games and activities to distract people’s attention from the reality that they were surrounded by enemy forces.

[00:05:08] News of the siege of Mafeking was being broadcast back in Britain, and B-P was becoming a household name. It was a great morale-boosting story for the British public, which was sick and tired of hearing about military defeats and the deaths of young soldiers.

[00:05:28] When reinforcements finally arrived and the siege was over, Baden-Powell returned to Britain a hero, greeted by adoring crowds, rewarded with promotions, and even meeting The King.

[00:05:43] Although he was a soldier, his real passion wasn’t fighting, he was a soldier more out of necessity than anything else.

[00:05:53] After returning from Africa in 1903, and aged 46, he set out on an idea for a training manual aimed at young boys. 

[00:06:05] Baden-Powell believed that one of the reasons for the decline of the British empire was that the youth of the time wasn’t prepared for adult life, they didn’t know how to do things that young men should know how to do, and there wasn’t a strict code or training for the proper behaviour of a young man.

[00:06:28] B-P had written some previous training manuals for military recruits during his time in India, but back in Britain he wanted to go one step further.

[00:06:40] He wanted to test out his theories about activities that young boys would not only enjoy doing, but would benefit from. In August of 1907, four years after returning from Africa, he decided to put these ideas to the test.

[00:06:58] He took a group of 20 young boys to an island off the south coast of England, and put them through a series of outdoor activities, activities that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a scout: camping, exercises, making fires, saving lives, and games.

[00:07:19] It was an immediate hit, the boys loved it.

[00:07:24] The following year Baden-Powell published his ideas based on these activities in a book called “Scouting for Boys”. 

[00:07:32] It was hugely popular from the outset and is thought to have sold 150 million copies since it was first published, which would make it the fourth most popular book published in the 20th century.

[00:07:48] Soon scouting became a national movement, with scouting organisations popping up all over the country.

[00:07:55] The following year, in 1909, B-P organised a mass rally, called a Jamboree, at London’s Crystal Palace. Tens of thousands of boys turned up, and controversially at the time, so did some girls.

[00:08:13] Baden-Powell’s book was called “Scouting for Boys”; he had intended it to be for boys, not girls.

[00:08:22] Not only did he have what we would now call pretty old-fashioned views about the role of women, but he also feared that allowing girls to participate in The Scouts would make it less attractive to young boys. 

[00:08:38] While it’s easy to look back at this view and call him a terrible misogynist, women in Britain still didn’t have the vote at this time, the Suffragette movement, which campaigned for Votes for Women, was only just getting started, and his views wouldn’t have seemed abnormal at the time.

[00:09:00] To his credit, he did encourage the girls, and asked his sister, Agnes, to lead the girls scouting movement, called The Girl Scouts.

[00:09:11] While B-P’s views on gender equality might be something he is criticised for today, he showed progressive views on social mobility, and right from the start made sure that being a Scout was something that should be open to and encouraged for all boys of all social classes. This was certainly not obvious, given the importance of social class in other aspects of British society at that time.

[00:09:41] B-P’s special talent was speaking to boys in language they could understand. He recognised the sort of things that boys like doing, and scouting activities reflected this.

[00:09:55] He believed that young boys like ritual, they like the idea of a ceremony being performed.

[00:10:03] They like the idea of having something that bonds people together.

[00:10:08] He also noticed that groups of young boys will normally elect some kind of leader, or a natural leader will emerge.

[00:10:17] And he saw that young boys love the idea of adventure, especially adventures they go on as a group.

[00:10:26] All of this was woven into the Scouting movement.

[00:10:30] Plus, if you aren’t aware, when you become a Scout you make a promise. The original promise from B-P’s 1908 handbook read:

[00:10:41] 'On my honour I promise that—

[00:10:43] I will do my duty to God and the King.

[00:10:47] I will do my best to help others, whatever it costs me.

[00:10:51] I know the scout law, and will obey it.'

[00:10:55] What's more, the book read:

[00:10:57] While taking this oath the scout will stand, holding his right hand raised level with his shoulder, palm to the front, thumb resting on the nail of the little finger and the other three fingers upright, pointing upwards.

[00:11:13] This is the scout's salute and secret sign."

[00:11:18] So, B-P knew that this would appeal to young boys. A promise that they could make that would bond them together, unite them with each other, forming their own little secret adventurous gang.

[00:11:33] What B-P seemed to not have understood though was that what he had created was appealing not just for British boys, but for boys and girls from all over the world.

[00:11:46] B-P intended his movement to be a British movement, but soon enough scouting associations appeared all over the world. Within a couple of years there were Scouting groups in countries such as France, the US, Argentina, India, Greece, Mexico, Chile, Russia, and Germany.

[00:12:07] Of course, Baden-Powell couldn’t control all of these new Scouting organisations directly, and so adults were encouraged to lead these decentralised groups, based on B-P’s ideas. It had a lot in common with religious movements, really, but the caveat was that the founder was alive and certainly didn’t claim any sort of divine special powers.

[00:12:36] But, just as the Scouting movement was really starting to take off, The First World War broke out. 

[00:12:44] Baden-Powell was almost 60 at the time, so no spring chicken, not a young man by any means. 

[00:12:52] He didn’t go to fight, he was too old, but tens of thousands of young Scouts, both former and current, did. Many of whom never returned, and this was an experience that was to scar Baden-Powell forever.

[00:13:08] After the end of the First World War Baden-Powell started to see scouting as a way to promote peace between countries, based on unity between Scouts.

[00:13:20] He had been a soldier himself as a young man, so he knew how wars worked, but he thought he could use scouting as a way for boys to better understand boys from other countries, so that when they grew up and became men they were less likely to go to war with each other.

[00:13:41] The 1920s saw the start of the Global Scout Movement, with B-P being given the title of “Chief Scout of The World”. Great jamborees, large parties were organised, allowing boys and girls from all different countries and backgrounds to get together, united through Scouting.

[00:14:02] By 1922 there were more than a million Scouts spread across 32 countries, a number that was to rise to over 3 million by 1939.

[00:14:14] While the 1920s might have been a time for optimism, in much of the western world and also for the Scouts, the 30s were a different matter altogether.

[00:14:26] Starting with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression in the United States and then the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, it was a very different world.

[00:14:39] As far as Scouting was concerned, Baden-Powell was horrified to see the Boy Scouts in Germany banned, and then swallowed up by the Hitler Youth, an organisation that numbered 8 million at its peak, and with a much more military and sinister purpose than the Boy Scouts.

[00:15:00] Now, this is by no means saying that the Hitler Youth wouldn’t have been created without The Boy Scouts, but the presence of The Boy Scouts in the country certainly gave it a headstart, and this was something that deeply troubled B-P.

[00:15:18] By the outbreak of the Second World War he was an old man, and had retired to Kenya. His health was failing, and he died on 8 January 1941, less than a month away from his 84th birthday.

[00:15:34] Of course, the death of Baden-Powell was a great loss for the Scouting movement, but it was strong enough to continue without him. 

[00:15:43] During the second half of the 20th century it continued to grow and grow, with over 31 million people worldwide.

[00:15:52] By 2023, so not so long from now, it aims to, and I’m quoting directly here, “enable 100 million young people to be active citizens creating positive change in their communities and in the world based on shared values”.

[00:16:11] Like any global movement with millions of people that have taken part, it has had its fair share of criticism. 

[00:16:19] Baden-Powell himself has been called a colonial oppressor, a murderer, a supporter of Hitler and fascism, a repressed homosexual, and someone trying to turn little boys into soldiers.

[00:16:33] And in terms of the Scouting organisation itself, it has a long list of controversies

[00:16:39] For starters, the original promise required Scouts to pledge their allegiance to “God and the King”, which has had to be changed for people who don’t believe in a God, or don’t want to swear their allegiance to a monarch.

[00:16:55] In the US, until very recently, 2015 in fact, you couldn’t be gay and participate in the Scouts. The relationship between boy and girl scouts is still being defined, and more importantly there are multiple cases of child abuse that continue to emerge over the long history of The Scouts.

[00:17:18] The child abuse issue isn’t simply a moral or criminal issue, it is also an important financial one for the Scouts in America. There is an ongoing legal case against The Boy Scouts of America involving the abuse of 63,000 boys. 

[00:17:38] As a result, the Boy Scouts of America is trying to declare bankruptcy in order to protect itself from having to pay out literally billions of dollars, which would completely sink the organisation.

[00:17:54] And even all of these problems aside, there is a wider question mark over whether being a Scout has the same appeal as it had 110 years ago. There is now a lot more competition for children’s attention, whether that comes from video games, social media or simply other outdoor activities, such as sports. 

[00:18:19] Membership numbers are dropping significantly in countries like the US, and the organisation is struggling to attract children in the same numbers as it was able to 50 years ago.

[00:18:32] If membership continues to fall at the same rate, then Scouting might become a thing of the past, a cultural relic that had its place but goes the way of the dinosaurs.

[00:18:45] Or, perhaps there might be a phoenix-like rebirth, a reinvention for the 21st century as children and parents look for a break from the always-on digital world and use Scouting as a way to reconnect with a more natural sense of adventure.

[00:19:06] Having spent many hours reading people’s reflections on their time Scouting, it’s clear that for some people it was a traumatic experience, and one that they would like to forget.

[00:19:19] But for many more, for upwards of a hundred million people, it was one that brought them great joy and happiness, long-lasting friendships and memories, and taught them how to be better, more balanced adults.

[00:19:34] And no doubt if Robert Baden-Powell knew how much of a positive impact he had on many people’s lives he would be a very happy man indeed.

[00:19:47] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Robert Baden-Powell and The Boy Scouts.

[00:19:56] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and even if you were a Scout when you were younger, then you learned something new about this amazing global movement.

[00:20:07] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:11] Were you a Scout, and if so what was your experience like? Is it something that you would like your children to take part in, or do you think it’s something that had its time and place but is no longer appropriate for kids in the 21st century?

[00:20:27] I would love to know.

[00:20:29] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:38] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:43] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about a man called Robert Baden-Powell, and the organisation that he founded, The Boy Scouts, or simply, The Scouts.

[00:00:34] There are currently more than 31 million boys and girls in the world who take part in The Scouts, spread across 216 countries and territories. And since its founding in 1908, hundreds of millions more children have been in The Scouts, perhaps including you.

[00:00:55] So, in this episode we are going to look at the amazing history of this organisation and its iconic founder, from the life of Robert Baden-Powell to why he started The Scouts in the first place, from the early days of The Scouts to how it spread all over the world. 

[00:01:14] We’ll look at what being a Scout actually means, how the organisation has changed, and some of the controversies it has had to overcome.

[00:01:24] OK then, The Boy Scouts.

[00:01:29] To understand the history of The Scouts, we must look at the childhood of its iconic founder, an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who was known to everyone simply as “B-P”.

[00:01:44] He was born to an upper class English family in 1857. His father was a well-known mathematician and Church of England priest, and his mother was the daughter of a famous naval officer.

[00:01:59] B-P’s godfather was the famous railway engineer, Robert Stephenson, who invented the steam train

[00:02:07] So, he came from a wealthy, prestigious family. 

[00:02:12] He won a scholarship to a famous private school called Charterhouse, where he developed his love for all things outdoors. 

[00:02:21] Although he was a clever boy, he was reportedly not particularly interested in his academic studies, and would prefer running around in woods, going on outside adventures, and being out in the open.

[00:02:38] As was not unusual for someone with B-P’s upbringing, an upper class young Englishman at the height of the British empire, he joined the army, and spent time out in India, which was, remember, a British colony at the time. 

[00:02:54] He was posted to a variety of different British foreign territories including Malta, South Africa and Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was called during the colonial period.

[00:03:07] He was clearly a talented soldier, and promotions came quickly. 

[00:03:13] It wasn’t until the Boer War, which lasted from 1899-1902, that he really made a name for himself

[00:03:22] As a quick reminder, The Boer War was the war between Britain and two states in modern-day South Africa. Although the British technically won the war, it shone a light on one of the very nasty aspects of imperial rule, especially through the use of concentration camps to imprison the Afrikaans, or Boer, population, and it was considered by many to be the start of the decline of the British empire. 

[00:03:52] During the Boer War, Baden-Powell was in charge of defending a town called Mafeking from the advancing Boer forces. This was a particularly important town to defend because the son of the British Prime Minister, a man called Lord Edward Cecil, was stuck there. 

[00:04:12] It would have been hugely embarrassing, a massive blow to British morale if he, the son of the British Prime Minister, had been captured and killed by the enemy.

[00:04:24] The British forces were surrounded, and under B-P’s leadership they managed to defend the town for 217 consecutive days.

[00:04:35] The word for when a town or castle is surrounded is “a siege”, and it was during the Siege of Mafeking that B-P really made a name for himself.

[00:04:47] Baden-Powell showed himself to be not only a talented military leader, but also an excellent leader of people. He managed to keep up morale in the town, organising games and activities to distract people’s attention from the reality that they were surrounded by enemy forces.

[00:05:08] News of the siege of Mafeking was being broadcast back in Britain, and B-P was becoming a household name. It was a great morale-boosting story for the British public, which was sick and tired of hearing about military defeats and the deaths of young soldiers.

[00:05:28] When reinforcements finally arrived and the siege was over, Baden-Powell returned to Britain a hero, greeted by adoring crowds, rewarded with promotions, and even meeting The King.

[00:05:43] Although he was a soldier, his real passion wasn’t fighting, he was a soldier more out of necessity than anything else.

[00:05:53] After returning from Africa in 1903, and aged 46, he set out on an idea for a training manual aimed at young boys. 

[00:06:05] Baden-Powell believed that one of the reasons for the decline of the British empire was that the youth of the time wasn’t prepared for adult life, they didn’t know how to do things that young men should know how to do, and there wasn’t a strict code or training for the proper behaviour of a young man.

[00:06:28] B-P had written some previous training manuals for military recruits during his time in India, but back in Britain he wanted to go one step further.

[00:06:40] He wanted to test out his theories about activities that young boys would not only enjoy doing, but would benefit from. In August of 1907, four years after returning from Africa, he decided to put these ideas to the test.

[00:06:58] He took a group of 20 young boys to an island off the south coast of England, and put them through a series of outdoor activities, activities that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a scout: camping, exercises, making fires, saving lives, and games.

[00:07:19] It was an immediate hit, the boys loved it.

[00:07:24] The following year Baden-Powell published his ideas based on these activities in a book called “Scouting for Boys”. 

[00:07:32] It was hugely popular from the outset and is thought to have sold 150 million copies since it was first published, which would make it the fourth most popular book published in the 20th century.

[00:07:48] Soon scouting became a national movement, with scouting organisations popping up all over the country.

[00:07:55] The following year, in 1909, B-P organised a mass rally, called a Jamboree, at London’s Crystal Palace. Tens of thousands of boys turned up, and controversially at the time, so did some girls.

[00:08:13] Baden-Powell’s book was called “Scouting for Boys”; he had intended it to be for boys, not girls.

[00:08:22] Not only did he have what we would now call pretty old-fashioned views about the role of women, but he also feared that allowing girls to participate in The Scouts would make it less attractive to young boys. 

[00:08:38] While it’s easy to look back at this view and call him a terrible misogynist, women in Britain still didn’t have the vote at this time, the Suffragette movement, which campaigned for Votes for Women, was only just getting started, and his views wouldn’t have seemed abnormal at the time.

[00:09:00] To his credit, he did encourage the girls, and asked his sister, Agnes, to lead the girls scouting movement, called The Girl Scouts.

[00:09:11] While B-P’s views on gender equality might be something he is criticised for today, he showed progressive views on social mobility, and right from the start made sure that being a Scout was something that should be open to and encouraged for all boys of all social classes. This was certainly not obvious, given the importance of social class in other aspects of British society at that time.

[00:09:41] B-P’s special talent was speaking to boys in language they could understand. He recognised the sort of things that boys like doing, and scouting activities reflected this.

[00:09:55] He believed that young boys like ritual, they like the idea of a ceremony being performed.

[00:10:03] They like the idea of having something that bonds people together.

[00:10:08] He also noticed that groups of young boys will normally elect some kind of leader, or a natural leader will emerge.

[00:10:17] And he saw that young boys love the idea of adventure, especially adventures they go on as a group.

[00:10:26] All of this was woven into the Scouting movement.

[00:10:30] Plus, if you aren’t aware, when you become a Scout you make a promise. The original promise from B-P’s 1908 handbook read:

[00:10:41] 'On my honour I promise that—

[00:10:43] I will do my duty to God and the King.

[00:10:47] I will do my best to help others, whatever it costs me.

[00:10:51] I know the scout law, and will obey it.'

[00:10:55] What's more, the book read:

[00:10:57] While taking this oath the scout will stand, holding his right hand raised level with his shoulder, palm to the front, thumb resting on the nail of the little finger and the other three fingers upright, pointing upwards.

[00:11:13] This is the scout's salute and secret sign."

[00:11:18] So, B-P knew that this would appeal to young boys. A promise that they could make that would bond them together, unite them with each other, forming their own little secret adventurous gang.

[00:11:33] What B-P seemed to not have understood though was that what he had created was appealing not just for British boys, but for boys and girls from all over the world.

[00:11:46] B-P intended his movement to be a British movement, but soon enough scouting associations appeared all over the world. Within a couple of years there were Scouting groups in countries such as France, the US, Argentina, India, Greece, Mexico, Chile, Russia, and Germany.

[00:12:07] Of course, Baden-Powell couldn’t control all of these new Scouting organisations directly, and so adults were encouraged to lead these decentralised groups, based on B-P’s ideas. It had a lot in common with religious movements, really, but the caveat was that the founder was alive and certainly didn’t claim any sort of divine special powers.

[00:12:36] But, just as the Scouting movement was really starting to take off, The First World War broke out. 

[00:12:44] Baden-Powell was almost 60 at the time, so no spring chicken, not a young man by any means. 

[00:12:52] He didn’t go to fight, he was too old, but tens of thousands of young Scouts, both former and current, did. Many of whom never returned, and this was an experience that was to scar Baden-Powell forever.

[00:13:08] After the end of the First World War Baden-Powell started to see scouting as a way to promote peace between countries, based on unity between Scouts.

[00:13:20] He had been a soldier himself as a young man, so he knew how wars worked, but he thought he could use scouting as a way for boys to better understand boys from other countries, so that when they grew up and became men they were less likely to go to war with each other.

[00:13:41] The 1920s saw the start of the Global Scout Movement, with B-P being given the title of “Chief Scout of The World”. Great jamborees, large parties were organised, allowing boys and girls from all different countries and backgrounds to get together, united through Scouting.

[00:14:02] By 1922 there were more than a million Scouts spread across 32 countries, a number that was to rise to over 3 million by 1939.

[00:14:14] While the 1920s might have been a time for optimism, in much of the western world and also for the Scouts, the 30s were a different matter altogether.

[00:14:26] Starting with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression in the United States and then the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, it was a very different world.

[00:14:39] As far as Scouting was concerned, Baden-Powell was horrified to see the Boy Scouts in Germany banned, and then swallowed up by the Hitler Youth, an organisation that numbered 8 million at its peak, and with a much more military and sinister purpose than the Boy Scouts.

[00:15:00] Now, this is by no means saying that the Hitler Youth wouldn’t have been created without The Boy Scouts, but the presence of The Boy Scouts in the country certainly gave it a headstart, and this was something that deeply troubled B-P.

[00:15:18] By the outbreak of the Second World War he was an old man, and had retired to Kenya. His health was failing, and he died on 8 January 1941, less than a month away from his 84th birthday.

[00:15:34] Of course, the death of Baden-Powell was a great loss for the Scouting movement, but it was strong enough to continue without him. 

[00:15:43] During the second half of the 20th century it continued to grow and grow, with over 31 million people worldwide.

[00:15:52] By 2023, so not so long from now, it aims to, and I’m quoting directly here, “enable 100 million young people to be active citizens creating positive change in their communities and in the world based on shared values”.

[00:16:11] Like any global movement with millions of people that have taken part, it has had its fair share of criticism. 

[00:16:19] Baden-Powell himself has been called a colonial oppressor, a murderer, a supporter of Hitler and fascism, a repressed homosexual, and someone trying to turn little boys into soldiers.

[00:16:33] And in terms of the Scouting organisation itself, it has a long list of controversies

[00:16:39] For starters, the original promise required Scouts to pledge their allegiance to “God and the King”, which has had to be changed for people who don’t believe in a God, or don’t want to swear their allegiance to a monarch.

[00:16:55] In the US, until very recently, 2015 in fact, you couldn’t be gay and participate in the Scouts. The relationship between boy and girl scouts is still being defined, and more importantly there are multiple cases of child abuse that continue to emerge over the long history of The Scouts.

[00:17:18] The child abuse issue isn’t simply a moral or criminal issue, it is also an important financial one for the Scouts in America. There is an ongoing legal case against The Boy Scouts of America involving the abuse of 63,000 boys. 

[00:17:38] As a result, the Boy Scouts of America is trying to declare bankruptcy in order to protect itself from having to pay out literally billions of dollars, which would completely sink the organisation.

[00:17:54] And even all of these problems aside, there is a wider question mark over whether being a Scout has the same appeal as it had 110 years ago. There is now a lot more competition for children’s attention, whether that comes from video games, social media or simply other outdoor activities, such as sports. 

[00:18:19] Membership numbers are dropping significantly in countries like the US, and the organisation is struggling to attract children in the same numbers as it was able to 50 years ago.

[00:18:32] If membership continues to fall at the same rate, then Scouting might become a thing of the past, a cultural relic that had its place but goes the way of the dinosaurs.

[00:18:45] Or, perhaps there might be a phoenix-like rebirth, a reinvention for the 21st century as children and parents look for a break from the always-on digital world and use Scouting as a way to reconnect with a more natural sense of adventure.

[00:19:06] Having spent many hours reading people’s reflections on their time Scouting, it’s clear that for some people it was a traumatic experience, and one that they would like to forget.

[00:19:19] But for many more, for upwards of a hundred million people, it was one that brought them great joy and happiness, long-lasting friendships and memories, and taught them how to be better, more balanced adults.

[00:19:34] And no doubt if Robert Baden-Powell knew how much of a positive impact he had on many people’s lives he would be a very happy man indeed.

[00:19:47] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Robert Baden-Powell and The Boy Scouts.

[00:19:56] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and even if you were a Scout when you were younger, then you learned something new about this amazing global movement.

[00:20:07] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:11] Were you a Scout, and if so what was your experience like? Is it something that you would like your children to take part in, or do you think it’s something that had its time and place but is no longer appropriate for kids in the 21st century?

[00:20:27] I would love to know.

[00:20:29] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:38] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:43] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about a man called Robert Baden-Powell, and the organisation that he founded, The Boy Scouts, or simply, The Scouts.

[00:00:34] There are currently more than 31 million boys and girls in the world who take part in The Scouts, spread across 216 countries and territories. And since its founding in 1908, hundreds of millions more children have been in The Scouts, perhaps including you.

[00:00:55] So, in this episode we are going to look at the amazing history of this organisation and its iconic founder, from the life of Robert Baden-Powell to why he started The Scouts in the first place, from the early days of The Scouts to how it spread all over the world. 

[00:01:14] We’ll look at what being a Scout actually means, how the organisation has changed, and some of the controversies it has had to overcome.

[00:01:24] OK then, The Boy Scouts.

[00:01:29] To understand the history of The Scouts, we must look at the childhood of its iconic founder, an Englishman named Robert Baden-Powell, who was known to everyone simply as “B-P”.

[00:01:44] He was born to an upper class English family in 1857. His father was a well-known mathematician and Church of England priest, and his mother was the daughter of a famous naval officer.

[00:01:59] B-P’s godfather was the famous railway engineer, Robert Stephenson, who invented the steam train

[00:02:07] So, he came from a wealthy, prestigious family. 

[00:02:12] He won a scholarship to a famous private school called Charterhouse, where he developed his love for all things outdoors. 

[00:02:21] Although he was a clever boy, he was reportedly not particularly interested in his academic studies, and would prefer running around in woods, going on outside adventures, and being out in the open.

[00:02:38] As was not unusual for someone with B-P’s upbringing, an upper class young Englishman at the height of the British empire, he joined the army, and spent time out in India, which was, remember, a British colony at the time. 

[00:02:54] He was posted to a variety of different British foreign territories including Malta, South Africa and Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was called during the colonial period.

[00:03:07] He was clearly a talented soldier, and promotions came quickly. 

[00:03:13] It wasn’t until the Boer War, which lasted from 1899-1902, that he really made a name for himself

[00:03:22] As a quick reminder, The Boer War was the war between Britain and two states in modern-day South Africa. Although the British technically won the war, it shone a light on one of the very nasty aspects of imperial rule, especially through the use of concentration camps to imprison the Afrikaans, or Boer, population, and it was considered by many to be the start of the decline of the British empire. 

[00:03:52] During the Boer War, Baden-Powell was in charge of defending a town called Mafeking from the advancing Boer forces. This was a particularly important town to defend because the son of the British Prime Minister, a man called Lord Edward Cecil, was stuck there. 

[00:04:12] It would have been hugely embarrassing, a massive blow to British morale if he, the son of the British Prime Minister, had been captured and killed by the enemy.

[00:04:24] The British forces were surrounded, and under B-P’s leadership they managed to defend the town for 217 consecutive days.

[00:04:35] The word for when a town or castle is surrounded is “a siege”, and it was during the Siege of Mafeking that B-P really made a name for himself.

[00:04:47] Baden-Powell showed himself to be not only a talented military leader, but also an excellent leader of people. He managed to keep up morale in the town, organising games and activities to distract people’s attention from the reality that they were surrounded by enemy forces.

[00:05:08] News of the siege of Mafeking was being broadcast back in Britain, and B-P was becoming a household name. It was a great morale-boosting story for the British public, which was sick and tired of hearing about military defeats and the deaths of young soldiers.

[00:05:28] When reinforcements finally arrived and the siege was over, Baden-Powell returned to Britain a hero, greeted by adoring crowds, rewarded with promotions, and even meeting The King.

[00:05:43] Although he was a soldier, his real passion wasn’t fighting, he was a soldier more out of necessity than anything else.

[00:05:53] After returning from Africa in 1903, and aged 46, he set out on an idea for a training manual aimed at young boys. 

[00:06:05] Baden-Powell believed that one of the reasons for the decline of the British empire was that the youth of the time wasn’t prepared for adult life, they didn’t know how to do things that young men should know how to do, and there wasn’t a strict code or training for the proper behaviour of a young man.

[00:06:28] B-P had written some previous training manuals for military recruits during his time in India, but back in Britain he wanted to go one step further.

[00:06:40] He wanted to test out his theories about activities that young boys would not only enjoy doing, but would benefit from. In August of 1907, four years after returning from Africa, he decided to put these ideas to the test.

[00:06:58] He took a group of 20 young boys to an island off the south coast of England, and put them through a series of outdoor activities, activities that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a scout: camping, exercises, making fires, saving lives, and games.

[00:07:19] It was an immediate hit, the boys loved it.

[00:07:24] The following year Baden-Powell published his ideas based on these activities in a book called “Scouting for Boys”. 

[00:07:32] It was hugely popular from the outset and is thought to have sold 150 million copies since it was first published, which would make it the fourth most popular book published in the 20th century.

[00:07:48] Soon scouting became a national movement, with scouting organisations popping up all over the country.

[00:07:55] The following year, in 1909, B-P organised a mass rally, called a Jamboree, at London’s Crystal Palace. Tens of thousands of boys turned up, and controversially at the time, so did some girls.

[00:08:13] Baden-Powell’s book was called “Scouting for Boys”; he had intended it to be for boys, not girls.

[00:08:22] Not only did he have what we would now call pretty old-fashioned views about the role of women, but he also feared that allowing girls to participate in The Scouts would make it less attractive to young boys. 

[00:08:38] While it’s easy to look back at this view and call him a terrible misogynist, women in Britain still didn’t have the vote at this time, the Suffragette movement, which campaigned for Votes for Women, was only just getting started, and his views wouldn’t have seemed abnormal at the time.

[00:09:00] To his credit, he did encourage the girls, and asked his sister, Agnes, to lead the girls scouting movement, called The Girl Scouts.

[00:09:11] While B-P’s views on gender equality might be something he is criticised for today, he showed progressive views on social mobility, and right from the start made sure that being a Scout was something that should be open to and encouraged for all boys of all social classes. This was certainly not obvious, given the importance of social class in other aspects of British society at that time.

[00:09:41] B-P’s special talent was speaking to boys in language they could understand. He recognised the sort of things that boys like doing, and scouting activities reflected this.

[00:09:55] He believed that young boys like ritual, they like the idea of a ceremony being performed.

[00:10:03] They like the idea of having something that bonds people together.

[00:10:08] He also noticed that groups of young boys will normally elect some kind of leader, or a natural leader will emerge.

[00:10:17] And he saw that young boys love the idea of adventure, especially adventures they go on as a group.

[00:10:26] All of this was woven into the Scouting movement.

[00:10:30] Plus, if you aren’t aware, when you become a Scout you make a promise. The original promise from B-P’s 1908 handbook read:

[00:10:41] 'On my honour I promise that—

[00:10:43] I will do my duty to God and the King.

[00:10:47] I will do my best to help others, whatever it costs me.

[00:10:51] I know the scout law, and will obey it.'

[00:10:55] What's more, the book read:

[00:10:57] While taking this oath the scout will stand, holding his right hand raised level with his shoulder, palm to the front, thumb resting on the nail of the little finger and the other three fingers upright, pointing upwards.

[00:11:13] This is the scout's salute and secret sign."

[00:11:18] So, B-P knew that this would appeal to young boys. A promise that they could make that would bond them together, unite them with each other, forming their own little secret adventurous gang.

[00:11:33] What B-P seemed to not have understood though was that what he had created was appealing not just for British boys, but for boys and girls from all over the world.

[00:11:46] B-P intended his movement to be a British movement, but soon enough scouting associations appeared all over the world. Within a couple of years there were Scouting groups in countries such as France, the US, Argentina, India, Greece, Mexico, Chile, Russia, and Germany.

[00:12:07] Of course, Baden-Powell couldn’t control all of these new Scouting organisations directly, and so adults were encouraged to lead these decentralised groups, based on B-P’s ideas. It had a lot in common with religious movements, really, but the caveat was that the founder was alive and certainly didn’t claim any sort of divine special powers.

[00:12:36] But, just as the Scouting movement was really starting to take off, The First World War broke out. 

[00:12:44] Baden-Powell was almost 60 at the time, so no spring chicken, not a young man by any means. 

[00:12:52] He didn’t go to fight, he was too old, but tens of thousands of young Scouts, both former and current, did. Many of whom never returned, and this was an experience that was to scar Baden-Powell forever.

[00:13:08] After the end of the First World War Baden-Powell started to see scouting as a way to promote peace between countries, based on unity between Scouts.

[00:13:20] He had been a soldier himself as a young man, so he knew how wars worked, but he thought he could use scouting as a way for boys to better understand boys from other countries, so that when they grew up and became men they were less likely to go to war with each other.

[00:13:41] The 1920s saw the start of the Global Scout Movement, with B-P being given the title of “Chief Scout of The World”. Great jamborees, large parties were organised, allowing boys and girls from all different countries and backgrounds to get together, united through Scouting.

[00:14:02] By 1922 there were more than a million Scouts spread across 32 countries, a number that was to rise to over 3 million by 1939.

[00:14:14] While the 1920s might have been a time for optimism, in much of the western world and also for the Scouts, the 30s were a different matter altogether.

[00:14:26] Starting with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression in the United States and then the rise of totalitarianism in Europe, it was a very different world.

[00:14:39] As far as Scouting was concerned, Baden-Powell was horrified to see the Boy Scouts in Germany banned, and then swallowed up by the Hitler Youth, an organisation that numbered 8 million at its peak, and with a much more military and sinister purpose than the Boy Scouts.

[00:15:00] Now, this is by no means saying that the Hitler Youth wouldn’t have been created without The Boy Scouts, but the presence of The Boy Scouts in the country certainly gave it a headstart, and this was something that deeply troubled B-P.

[00:15:18] By the outbreak of the Second World War he was an old man, and had retired to Kenya. His health was failing, and he died on 8 January 1941, less than a month away from his 84th birthday.

[00:15:34] Of course, the death of Baden-Powell was a great loss for the Scouting movement, but it was strong enough to continue without him. 

[00:15:43] During the second half of the 20th century it continued to grow and grow, with over 31 million people worldwide.

[00:15:52] By 2023, so not so long from now, it aims to, and I’m quoting directly here, “enable 100 million young people to be active citizens creating positive change in their communities and in the world based on shared values”.

[00:16:11] Like any global movement with millions of people that have taken part, it has had its fair share of criticism. 

[00:16:19] Baden-Powell himself has been called a colonial oppressor, a murderer, a supporter of Hitler and fascism, a repressed homosexual, and someone trying to turn little boys into soldiers.

[00:16:33] And in terms of the Scouting organisation itself, it has a long list of controversies

[00:16:39] For starters, the original promise required Scouts to pledge their allegiance to “God and the King”, which has had to be changed for people who don’t believe in a God, or don’t want to swear their allegiance to a monarch.

[00:16:55] In the US, until very recently, 2015 in fact, you couldn’t be gay and participate in the Scouts. The relationship between boy and girl scouts is still being defined, and more importantly there are multiple cases of child abuse that continue to emerge over the long history of The Scouts.

[00:17:18] The child abuse issue isn’t simply a moral or criminal issue, it is also an important financial one for the Scouts in America. There is an ongoing legal case against The Boy Scouts of America involving the abuse of 63,000 boys. 

[00:17:38] As a result, the Boy Scouts of America is trying to declare bankruptcy in order to protect itself from having to pay out literally billions of dollars, which would completely sink the organisation.

[00:17:54] And even all of these problems aside, there is a wider question mark over whether being a Scout has the same appeal as it had 110 years ago. There is now a lot more competition for children’s attention, whether that comes from video games, social media or simply other outdoor activities, such as sports. 

[00:18:19] Membership numbers are dropping significantly in countries like the US, and the organisation is struggling to attract children in the same numbers as it was able to 50 years ago.

[00:18:32] If membership continues to fall at the same rate, then Scouting might become a thing of the past, a cultural relic that had its place but goes the way of the dinosaurs.

[00:18:45] Or, perhaps there might be a phoenix-like rebirth, a reinvention for the 21st century as children and parents look for a break from the always-on digital world and use Scouting as a way to reconnect with a more natural sense of adventure.

[00:19:06] Having spent many hours reading people’s reflections on their time Scouting, it’s clear that for some people it was a traumatic experience, and one that they would like to forget.

[00:19:19] But for many more, for upwards of a hundred million people, it was one that brought them great joy and happiness, long-lasting friendships and memories, and taught them how to be better, more balanced adults.

[00:19:34] And no doubt if Robert Baden-Powell knew how much of a positive impact he had on many people’s lives he would be a very happy man indeed.

[00:19:47] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Robert Baden-Powell and The Boy Scouts.

[00:19:56] I hope it's been an interesting one, that you've learnt something new, and even if you were a Scout when you were younger, then you learned something new about this amazing global movement.

[00:20:07] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:20:11] Were you a Scout, and if so what was your experience like? Is it something that you would like your children to take part in, or do you think it’s something that had its time and place but is no longer appropriate for kids in the 21st century?

[00:20:27] I would love to know.

[00:20:29] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:38] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:43] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.



[END OF EPISODE]