There are quite a few stories about the history of Guiding which have been published in the official Girl Guide Association history books, especially those written and published before 1978. Problem is, if you do a little research and fact-checking, then you find that the history books contain quite a lot of what is quite clearly myth. And a lot of people’s knowledge of Guiding history is based on what they were told when they were Guides, by Leaders who retold the stories from the official books, naturally assuming them to be accurate. We can’t criticise them for telling us what was in the official books, but if we know the facts then we can work to get the truth out there – in many ways it’s a far more exciting story that the myth is!
So, here are 6 common Guiding history myths, and the true answers . . . apologies in advance to anyone I upset . . .
Olave Baden-Powell founded Guiding, or, Robert and Olave Baden-Powell are ‘the founders’.
Two commonly-repeated myths, but both clearly wrong. You can either say that Robert Baden-Powell founded Guiding, or you can say that Robert Baden-Powell and Agnes Baden-Powell together founded Guiding, depending on your interpretation. But either way, what is 100% clear is that Olave did not have any role whatsoever in the founding of Guiding. Robert had the original idea for Boy Scouts, Agnes used the idea as a basis to set up Girl Guides as a separate movement. Olave had no connection or involvement with Scouting before 1912, or Guiding before 1915, as she states herself in her autobiography – so that’s the whole of the Girl Scout era plus the first 5 years of Girl Guides, during which time both the Guide and Brownie sections were created and established, and many of the structures and programmes both created and refined. So anything which happened in Guiding prior to Olave becoming a County Commissioner in 1916 was clearly done on Agnes’s watch, and under Agnes’s leadership. And anyone who joins something five years after it started, no matter how large or lengthy their contribution thereafter, cannot be termed a founder.
There were a dozen girls at the Crystal Palace rally.
Well, yes. . . you could say there were a dozen girls at the Crystal Palace rally, given that there were actually over 1000 Girl Scouts there, most of which were there quite legitimately having applied for tickets in the approved way. Oh yes, those who held tickets were welcomed in the gates regardless of gender, and at that early date over 1000 Girl Scouts made it to the Crystal Palace Rally on that Saturday and were amongst the 10,000 Scouts present – given that only those in London and the surrounding Counties could realistically have got there given public transport in those days, how many thousands of Girl Scouts must there have been spread around the UK and potentially beyond, by that time? Especially given that a goodly number of Girl Scouts also attended the Scottish Rally at Scotstoun Stadium, earlier that year?
Robert Baden-Powell’s first encounter with Girl Scouts was at the Crystal Palace Rally, and he was surprised to discover that they existed.
Clearly not true on either count. The Rally was held in September 1909, whereas Robert wrote about Girl Scouts in his personal column in “The Scout” magazine in January 1909 acknowledging the many Christmas Cards he had received from Girl Scouts – so there is no question that he knew they existed in significant numbers – and in that column he also praised their skills, so it would seem strange that people claim either he did not know they existed, or was in some way disapproving of them. (Also, the column referred to Girl Scouts in initial capitals with no quote marks or other caveats.) During the period 1907-1909 Robert Baden-Powell travelled around the UK speaking at public meetings about Scouting, and there are numerous accounts of both boys and girls approaching him after his speeches to enquire about how to start Scout troops, getting a positive reception, and being inspired to found both Boy and Girl Scout troops immediately thereafter. That would suggest that he gave a positive reception to all who approached him as potential leaders in Scouting, regardless of gender of the Leader, or of the youngsters they proposed to recruit.
It was the girls who gate-crashed the rally demanding “Something for the girls” who forced the start of Guiding.
Perhaps they were one of the factors, but they were by no means the only factor. It is likely that Miss Violet Markham was at least as significant. Fact is that in that era, mixed activities (other than for nursery-age children) were considered totally inappropriate for boys and girls who were not siblings. State schools still had separate entrances for boys and girls to go in, and where mixed classrooms existed, the class was segregated - private schools were invariably single-sex. Although boys had a fair bit of freedom, the behaviour rules for girls were very strict, especially among the middle and upper classes. Yet when “Scouting for Boys” was published, girls as well as boys were able to obtain copies, and some girls took up the ideas with enthusiasm and formed their own Patrols, whether with parental approval or not. These Girl Scout Patrols were sometimes accepted into existing Scout Troops, with the Scoutmasters happy to assess tests and award badges, others met separately from the boys but were attached to a Scout Troop, with the Scoutmaster visiting the Patrol meeting to do badge testing, some again were independent. In the autumn of 1909 a heated correspondence started up in “The Spectator” magazine, initiated by Violet Markham, who wrote of a local Scout troop where allegedly both boys and girls attended and took part in drill until a late hour of the evening. She objected both to the mixed group and to the late hour the meetings ended. Responses to this initial letter (and an editorial) deplored this and pleaded with Baden-Powell to confirm that he wholly disapproved of such mixed activities. This negative publicity against mixed troops in Scouting is as likely to have been at least as strong a factor as was the misbehaviour of a small group of Girl Scouts who, having turned up at an all-ticket event both late and without tickets, chose to march through the gates in a literal gate-crashing ploy, all in clear breach of the Scout Law.
Girl Guiding was initially fairly unsuccessful, and it was only when Olave took over that it got going.
Well, once Agnes took the helm in 1910 and started both to organise the existing Girl Scouts and rapidly adapt Scouting into a group parents might approve, it grew more rapidly than Scouting was growing at that point, and in spite of the difficulties brought by the outbreak of the 1st World War, it continued to grow rapidly throughout the 1910-1916 period. Olave did do a lot of work from 1916 onward to develop the County structure which Agnes had started, but it is difficult to say how much of the growth post-1916 can be attributed to Olave’s input and how much would have been on-going from the work which Agnes had already done in travelling the country visiting units and making speeches at public meetings. So it wouldn’t be fair to say that everything was hopeless before 1916 and wonderful after, or that everything positive was clearly Olave’s work . . .
Agnes was old-fashioned, and Olave brought in the energy that was needed to transform Guiding.
Certainly there was a significant age difference between them – when Olave became Chief in 1916 she was 27, and Agnes was 58 – but although Agnes might appear a product of her generation, even a brief look at the list of her hobbies would create a rather different impression from the prim Victorian lady the old photos might imply – metalwork, bicycle stunt riding, aviation with both balloons and aeroplanes, astronomy, first aid, radio communication, camping, nature study would all suggest that Agnes was clearly an up-to-date lady in tune with modern times, who did not lack for energy or range of experience and ideas, and Agnes did put a good bit of her time (and money) into Guiding . . . the difference between them lay more in their personalities, not their ages or attitudes. Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that Agnes was a year younger than Robert, and no-one seems to have questioned whether he was too old-fashioned, or lacking in the drive to get the Scout movement going on a sound footing . . .