Was the formation of the Boy Scouts primarily a matter of imperialism or citizenship?

Currently boasting a worldwide, mixed-gender membership of ‘over 31 million’[1], the Scout movement continues in its ability to create healthy, uniformed children. Perhaps it was the simple intention of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the movement, to produce a branch of young citizens who were polite and helpful as well as being loyal to their king and country, in order to teach them discipline and obedience from a young age; however, it is the opinion of historians and critics of Baden-Powell, such as Victor Bailey[2] and Robert MacDonald[3], that there existed greater objectives for the use and creation of the Boy Scouts much relating to defence of the empire and breeding a generation of prêt-à-porter combatants. On the other hand, the imperialist slant of Boy Scout training may have proved unintentional and only as a result of coincidence of the traits of a useful citizen and a good soldier, was the scouting movement abused as a militaristic weapon purporting that Britain was inexorably ready for war in order to protect her empire.

There is no doubt that on the surface at least the Boy Scout movement held an ethos of citizenship and providing young boys with practical skills. Robert Baden-Powell, after all, did eventually become a member of the League of Nations[4], a well-known peace organisation. He often wrote of how the scouts’ priorities were to provide togetherness within the community and within the younger generation, frequently using terms such as ‘brother’ and ‘peace-scout’[5] infusing concepts of family and Christian values of respect and neighbourly attitudes into their Laws. In fact with 29% of scoutmasters being clergymen[6], often meetings of the scouts followed the same moralistic patterns of Bible study groups. Additionally, in his earlier writings on the scouts, Baden-Powell outlines key issues of citizenship similar to public school training of children such as hygiene, morality and loyalty to Britain’s social hierarchy, often resulting in staunch patriotism. This similarity to the British school system might suggest an intention to replicate traditional educational values in order to shape ideal citizens rather than to form the perfect soldier. Furthermore, historical debate on Baden-Powell’s intentions to weave issues of national identity, education and natural science takes place by academic historians such as Bjorn Sundmark, arguing that it is only recent historiographical reviews of his works, including Young Knights of Empire, which have criticised it ideologically claiming that it exclusively represents ideas of empire over citizenship. However, in further analysis it is concluded that contrary to outward intentions Baden-Powell becomes caught up with issues of Marksmanship and masculinity, claiming that ‘manliness is…and antidote to physical and ‘psychological deterioration.’[7]

Alternatively it may seem that the growth of the Boy Scouts existed wholly as an act of rebellion from middle class males who feared the loss of their masculinity, especially for young boys who existed in their early lives trapped in the heavily female environment of ‘home’. Some historians, such as Jeffrey Hantover in his analysis of the intentions of scoutmasters[8], have put forward the case that a desire to validate traditional masculinity away from warfront that was denied by their home occupations created a need for a campaign that offered such a chance. It is significant that the largest occupation groups within scoutmasters by 1912 included 29% clergymen and 10% teachers[9], typically non-masculine professions. By which it is not meant roles to be completed by males, but those that offered a chance to exude strength and complete stereotypically masculine tasks such as outdoor activities, building huts and starting fires. It is proved that ‘adult sex-role anxiety is rooted in the social structure’[10] of their environment; men in overtly feminine roles will seek to validate their own sexual identity since ‘social identities generate the need for self-confirming action’[11]. Such an uprising against the femininity that the artistry of Edwardian Britain exuded caused an attempt for the older generations to attempt to mould a stronger and more ‘masculine’ set of boys[12]. In this, the scout movement would have been created as neither exclusively an act of citizenship or imperialism but rather a combination of the two as a confirmation of the concept of self-imaging. However, it is unlikely gender role confusion would have generated such a rate of growth within scout membership. In terms of membership, perhaps again it is a similar act of self-affirming move to ameliorate one’s immediate environment. After all, it is the imperial slant of the movement, married with its ability to teach young boys practical and behavioural skills, which made it so appealing to the working classes, which were the bulk of its membership.[13] The movement would not have gained such success, arguably, had it been an obviously military movement.

On the other hand, despite belief amongst historians, such as Allen Warren, that Baden-Powell determinedly insisted that the scout movement was a peaceful civilian movement, many military references can be read in works such as his writings on Scout Law.  It is emphasised by Law 4 of the Scout Law that friendliness of the scout boys should bring international peace. Highlighting that the peace would cross nations suggests national, or international, importance of the scouts. Furthermore, whilst it is believed that Robert Baden-Powell and his writings were strongly opposed to the concept of military training in children, in favour of rigorous civic training[14], Baden-Powell’s Young Knights of Empire contradicts this theory, however, with his description of Scout Law. Beginning with a brief introduction regarding what a boy scout should aim to become, Baden-Powell uses undeniably military undertones stating that a boy scout should be ‘ready to take the place of those who have gone away to fight and who have fallen at the Front’.[15] Baden-Powell cleverly avoids promoting the scout movement as a military organisation, but delicately includes ideas regarding defence of the empire and nation. In doing this it is believed by some, such as Victor Bailey[16], that Baden-Powell was attempting to prepare the next generations for times of war and colonial life, as a means of imperial propaganda demonstrating that Britain was persistently ready and preparing for war and that in this it was ever superior. Baden-Powell was obsessed with the fall of Rome and feared the worst for the British empire, he commonly wrote of Rome’s main flaw being weakness at home; in this he compared the advancement of the civilization of the Roman and British empires in order to account for their later decline in physical fitness and in that superiority[17]. The Scout’s imperial and military aspects, therefore, must be relating to its founder’s desire to prepare the British Empire physically to defend itself against attack, as this was the fall of Rome. It was only by preserving a wealth of traditionally masculine men that Britain would ever overcome the ‘onset of moral and physical decadence’[18], which were limiting factors regarding survival of the empire, since Darwinism had taught that only the fittest would survive. At the time of the founding of the Boy Scouts, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was less than fifty years old; being a relatively new publishing of a theory whose concept can be replicated and sometimes abused to fit every path of human thought, Baden-Powell’s possible application of the process of natural selection may well have influenced his attitudes towards Britain’s need for consistent war preparation.

The threat of revolt in the air even as early as the outset of the nineteenth century with the arrival of revolutionary France caused unsettlement in the British empire, already reeling from the loss of several colonies in the years previous and the reputational damage caused by the Boer War some years later. Such a threat to the Empire possibly caused military elite, such as Baden-Powell, to imagine ways of protecting and defending Britain by preparing it for invasion or possible revolution of the colonies. Alternatively, perhaps, it was simply a final attempt to ensure that traditional values outlived the empire. With such progress of civilization, that Baden-Powell was renowned for criticising, and a spread of the concepts of liberty and equality threatening Britain’s long-running social hierarchy that a rerun of the French Revolution threatened, it is possible that enforcing ideals of nationalism and defence of the empire was a part of ensuring traditional values. Despite claiming to be such a civilized nation, Britain valued at its heart its ability to maintain an elite and a sense of superiority by governing others. Loss of physical and practical ability to maintain an empire would clearly result in a more socially unified Britain by wiping out a mass of its subjects, hence generating a youth psychologically and physically ready to become soldiers was fundamental to maintaining ‘Britain’.

Conversely, perhaps it is not the original purpose of the organisation that holds any historical importance but its effect; whether or not the intention was to set up a group for young boys that prepared them physically for the demanding nature of war and set them up ideologically to desire to defend the empire, the effect was such. The movement began in 1907 taking on children aged between ten and eighteen, which meant that by the time the Great War arrived seven years later, and the call for greater conscription came in 1915, almost all of these boys would have been of recruitment age. In 1914, the rush to volunteer for the Front upon the arrival of the First World War proved that scouting had psychologically geared a generation of young men towards fighting for defence of their nation; by January 1915 more than one million men had joined the armed forces voluntarily[19]. Despite attempting to promote peace and citizenship, the Boy Scouts revolutionised concepts of masculinity and adult sex-role anxiety causing a generation of men to grow up in a new, highly masculinised environment, effectively reconfirming the slowly evolving gender roles of the nineteenth century, a century which saw the growth of feminism and campaigning for women’s suffrage.

In conclusion, whilst Baden-Powell’s intentions for the scout movement are commonly debated, it is evident that the Boy Scouts’ founding had a highly imperial leaning. Issues of adult sex-role anxiety and feminine occupations may have conceivably caused need for a self-confirming act of validating one’s masculinity within the role of the scoutmaster, however, this is unlikely the reason for such a rate of growth of the organisation in terms of membership or for Baden-Powell’s founding of the group, being from the traditionally masculine role of leading a ‘distinguished army career’[20]. Overall, it is probable that Baden-Powell founded the organisation as a way to generate a cohort of children prepared to be thrown into high level combat at a moment’s notice in order to provide an image of Britain that appeared constantly ready for war, however to be able to complete this undercover training for the inevitable Darwinist events, Baden-Powell had to present a façade of citizenship, Christianity and morality to achieve such a great membership. In spite of everything, in description of his Scout Laws, Baden-Powell emphasises one key aspect of almost every law that suggests he feared Britain was ill-equipped for invasion – that a scout should always ‘be prepared’[21].

[1] ‘World Scouting’, Scouts <https://members.scouts.org.uk/supportresources/search/?cat=52,209&gt; [accessed 10 March 2014].

[2] V. Bailey, ‘Scouting for Empire’, History Today, 32.7 (1982), pp.5-9.

[3] R. H. MacDonald, Sons of Empire: The Frontier and the Boy Scout Movement, 1890-1918 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), pp.3-30.

[4] V. Bailey, ‘Scouting for Empire’, History Today, 32.7 (1982), pp.5-9.

[5] R. Baden-Powell, Young Knights of the Empire Their Code and Further Scout Yarns (Project Gutenburg, 2003), p.4.

[6] ‘BSA and Girls in Scouting’, BSA Discrimination <http://www.bsa-discrimination.org/html/girls-top.html&gt; [accessed 19th March 2014].

[7] B. Sundmark, ‘Citizenship and Children’s Identity in The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and Scouting for Boys’, Children’s Literature in Education, 40 (2009), pp.109-119.

[8] J. Hantover, ‘The Boy Scouts and the Validation of Masculinity’, Journal of Social Issues, 34.1 (1978), pp.184-195.

[9] ‘BSA and Girls in Scouting’, BSA Discrimination <http://www.bsa-discrimination.org/html/girls-top.html&gt; [accessed 19th March 2014].

[10] J. Hantover, ‘The Boy Scouts and the Validation of Masculinity’, Journal of Social Issues, 34.1 (1978), p.193.

[11] Ibid.

[12] F. G. Chalmers and A. A., Dancer, ‘Art, Boys and the Boy Scout Movement: Lord Baden-Powell’, Studies in Art Education A Journal of Issues and Research, 48.3 (2007), pp.265-281.

[13] V. Bailey, ‘Scouting for Empire’, History Today, 32.7 (1982), pp.5-9.

[14] A. Warren, ‘Sir Robert Baden-Powell, the Scout Movement and Citizen Training in Great Britain, 1900- 1920’, The English Historical Review, 101.399 (1986), pp.376-398.

[15] R. Baden-Powell, Young Knights of the Empire Their Code and Further Scout Yarns (Project Gutenburg, 2003), pp. 2-59.

[16] V. Bailey, ‘Scouting for Empire’, History Today, 32.7 (1982), pp.5-9.

[17] S. Pryke, ‘The Popularity of Nationalism in the Early British Boy Scout Movement’, Social History, 23.3 (1998), pp.309-324.

[18] Ibid.

[19] ‘Conscription’, WW1 Facts <http://ww1facts.net/people/conscription/&gt; [accessed 20th March 2014].

[20] ‘Lord Baden-Powell’, Scouts < http://scouts.org.uk/about-us/history/lord-baden-powell/&gt; [accessed] 20th March 2014.

[21] R. Baden-Powell, Young Knights of the Empire Their Code and Further Scout Yarns (Project Gutenburg, 2003), pp.1-59.

2 thoughts on “Was the formation of the Boy Scouts primarily a matter of imperialism or citizenship?

  1. You do realize that Scouting was directed at the world – the colonies as well as the tiny island where the Empire was headquartered? Indian Scouts. African Scouts. Romanian Scouts. Norwegian Scouts. There are now more Scouts in Muslim Indonesia than any other nation. So if what BP called “Peace Scouting” was to be a tool of empire, why was it not restricted to the UK? Your article is revisionist drivel.


    • Sorry that I have seen this after a month of it being posted. I appreciate your comment: that my article is ‘revisionist drivel’. However, as with most of my blog, this is not an article, but is instead an essay that I submitted to uni. I was bound by the constraints of the assignment to discuss the scout movement in Britain at that time, and did not construct the question myself.

      You will also be pleased to note that I did quote the current worldwide membership of the scout movement, not just its British base. Also, that I was instructed in the enquiry question to place emphasis on the formation of the scouts. Hope this has cleared things up


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s