The First Girl Guide

Helen Gardner reckons Agnes Baden-Powell, ‘the Grandmother of the Girl Guides’, was airbrushed out of history and failed to receive due credit for establishing the movement. So she’s thrilled to have written the first biography of Robert Baden-Powell’s sister – a born adventurer. Steven Russell hears the story

THINGS often happen in threes, and they did for Helen Gardner. First, in 1993 a friend gave her a facsimile copy of a handbook called How Girls can Help to Build Up the Empire. It was written by Agnes Baden-Powell and full of good advice for young females in post-Edwardian Britain. Agnes’s story had barely registered on Helen’s childhood radar when she was a young member of the Guiding movement, so she knew little about the woman who had been asked by brother Robert Baden-Powell to put the fledgling organisation on a firm footing. But now she was entranced by this volume and began to appreciate what a major role Agnes had played.

Thing Number Two: “I heard that someone who should have known better was overheard telling a visitor to Guiding premises that Olave [Baden-Powell’s young wife] started the Girl Guides.” Which was rot. In fact, he hadn’t even met his wife-to-be when he asked his sister for help.

Third: “And then, at about the same time, a heritage centre was opened at Guiding HQ in Buckingham Palace Road, with three life-size cut-outs.”(Depicting Baden-Powell – creator of Scouting – Lady B-P and Agnes.)

“Betty Clay, Baden-Powell’s surviving daughter, stopped in front of these and said” – referring to the Agnes lookalike – “‘Well, that’s all wrong! She had red hair!’ They’d given her brown hair.”


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Most people, not least those in Guiding, appeared to believe Olave Baden-Powell had got the ball rolling. “The time had come,” thought Helen, “to write a book.” Specifically, a biography.

Agnes was in her 50s when handed the baton. “She was the age I was then, and I just thought ‘How did she have the energy! What was it that made this woman tick?’ When I realised the extent to which she had been airbrushed out, I wanted to put things right.”

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The tale begins in the autumn of 1909, when Sir Robert Baden-Powell held a rally of Boy Scouts at Crystal Palace. There was a march-past of 10,000 lads . . . and, at the tail end, 2,000 “Girl Scouts” – dressed in khaki and with scarf, haversack and big hat.

This was a bit of a problem. B-P, whose Scout movement was effectively born in 1907 at a trial camp on Brownsea Island in Dorset, had known for some time that it also appealed to females. In principle, that was fine. Trouble was, this was 100 years ago: when single-sex education was the norm and nice girls were strictly chaperoned.

Baden-Powell realised that allowing them in ran a very real risk of killing off the burgeoning movement. “On the one hand many boys would be put off by the inclusion in their fun of girls and, on the other hand, most parents would not dream of allowing their daughters to become involved in a game in which they were doing adventurous activities alongside boys,” says Helen.

B-P knew a separate organisation for girls was necessary. He had approached a couple of ladies about taking on its leadership, but without success. Then he looked at Agnes: just the person for the job. She was then in her 50s, but energetic and a tad eccentric. Agnes spent much time looking after her widowed mother and taking care of domestic arrangements, but was also prominent in public life and was vice-president of Westminster Red Cross.

She did not particularly see herself as a public figure, but the previous year had written a persuasive pamphlet that girls keen to join the Scouts could show to dubious parents. Agnes had also started a Boy Scout troop in 1908, hoping a man would take it over. She was committed to the cause.

Agnes wrote with passion about young women working in noisy and tiring factories. “And at the end of her day’s toil what is the state of the girl’s mind? Somewhat like a slate with all the writing smudged out.” Outdoor interests and hobbies were “equally necessary to healthy girlhood as to healthy boyhood”, she argued.

By the autumn of 1909 there were 6,000 registered Girl Scouts. That November, in the Headquarters Gazette, Baden-Powell set out The Scheme for Girl Guides. It included advice on how to form local branches.

In the spring of 1910 Agnes met friends to consider renting an office and engaging a secretary. A month later an advisory committee was formed and Agnes elected president.

“It is evident” – from the minutes of a committee meeting – “that despite the family’s shortage of cash Agnes was underwriting the burgeoning movement,” reports Helen. “She had found an office . . . and had temporarily guaranteed the rent. She had also paid for a stock of badges which she had supplied . . .” At the end of May, Baden-Powell and his sister formally announced the formation of the Girl Guides.

Companies generally did their own thing, however, and the committee soon realised clear guidelines were needed. “Agnes had her next task. Her response was to produce a threepenny leaflet called Pamphlet A. This set out the rules of Guiding . . .”

It was still a fight to convince everyone that Guiding was a suitable activity for girls, though.

“Another pamphlet was needed from Agnes. Pamphlet B, also at the price of three pence, was a promotional leaflet, the sort of thing a girl could take home to her parents to explain the fascination of Guiding. It starts off ‘Girls! Imagine that a battle has taken place in and around your town or village . . . What are you going to do? Are you going to sit down, and wring your hands and cry, or are you going to be plucky, and go out and do something to help . . .’”

Later, in the middle of 1912, she published her first proper guidebook. How Girls can Help to Build Up the Empire mixed large chunks of her brother’s Scouting for Boys with chapters on homecraft and womanly activities.

It does sound rather quaint to modern ears, admits Helen – “nevertheless, it is a remarkable book for its time and would have done much to reconcile some of the more reluctant parents to the great game of Guiding, as well as instilling the spirit of adventure in their daughters”.

So far, so swimmingly. It wasn’t to last.

Early in 1912 Baden-Powell sailed to America. On the first evening, at the captain’s table, he met Olave Soames – a 22-year-old who would become his wife. B-P, one of the heroes of the Siege of Mafeking during the second Boer War, was more than 30 years her senior.

That spring, the practical Agnes was already drawing back from committee work – an arena in which she wasn’t naturally comfortable. She did, though, do a lot of travelling on Guiding business: visiting companies around the country, and attending competitions and rallies in her capacity as president.

That provoked some tension with the committee, which hummed and ha-ed over her travelling expenses. There were other differences of opinion. Signs of “insufficient liaison between Agnes and the executive committee were becoming apparent”, says Helen. B-P’s sister, for instance, thought Guides should parade with Scouts. The committee took the opposite view. It also said Guides should not sleep under canvas because of the danger to health. Agnes had been doing that since childhood, “and would continue to do so into her eighties”.

Things came to a head. On April 1, 1913, the committee passed a resolution ‘that as the president is unable to attend the executive committee meetings, the committee has resolved with much regret to resign office, as it cannot continue to work without her presence”.

Helen explains: “There was a row which went on over several months about the nature of the presidency, and in this the committee appeared to be driving Agnes into a corner. In the end the status of the president was reduced to that of a general inspector, acting under the command of the committee. It was also made clear that expenses would be paid only for trips authorised by the committee and that the president was debarred from entering into any official correspondence.

“It is quite evident that the committee was determined that Agnes should no longer have any authority.”

Baden-Powell was by now well aware of trouble at the core. He drew up plans to have the Guides run under a charter and called a meeting of the executive committee. “It would seem quite clear from the minutes that Baden-Powell was determined that his sister would continue as president and, equally, that he had a fair idea who would not be on the new council.”

He would be chairman and the new enlarged committee would be drawn from men and women experienced in education and training. “Clearly the executive committee, as Guiding had known it, was out.”

Things seemed to calm down – although her able sister-in-law now had a significant influence on Agnes’s future.

Olave made her Guide Promise towards the end of 1915 and got involved in committee work, showing successful leadership. The following year, at her husband’s suggestion, she became Guide County Commissioner for Sussex.

“She took the county by storm and, within a very short time, had appointed a compete network of commissioners and secretaries, something which made a great impact way beyond Sussex,” writes Helen. “Thus, it was not surprising that, when she attended the first County Commissioners Conference that October, there was a clamour for her to be appointed Chief Commissioner for the country.”

It was later proposed. Agnes gave way “with her customary, gentle generosity and the lady who had started the Girl Guides was now, completely, a figurehead president”.

Olave took up her appointment with enthusiasm, offering a younger perspective, and within three months the number of Guides had trebled. She gradually took control of more aspects of the organisation.

“It seemed to some that it was almost as if there was an attempt to obliterate all evidence of Agnes’ hard work in starting the movement,” suggests Helen. “Indeed, when there was a reception for the Girl Guides at Buckingham Palace, Agnes was not invited. As she was still president she had every right to be there and she went to the reception regardless, but was denied admittance. For someone who figured regularly in the Court Circular this must have been doubly humiliating.”

A month later, Olave became Chief Guide.

“Over the following eighteen months Agnes had to endure sitting through various council meetings during which her remaining status was stripped from her. The Annual Report for 1919 reported her resignation from the role of president, giving a pleasant tribute to the work she had done.

“Agnes’ last appearance on the national scene was at the London Guide Rally when it was announced that Princess Mary had accepted the position of president and that, in future, Agnes would be a vice-president . . . To all intents and purposes her role in Guiding had ended.”

Helen talks about the relationship between Agnes and Lady Baden-Powell. It’s clear B-P’s wife didn’t much like How Girls can Help to Build Up the Empire, calling it the “little blue muddly”. In later years Olave was to be quite disparaging about Agnes. Unfairly, thinks Helen, who believes the young woman lacked self-confidence and felt out of her depth among the Baden-Powells.

“Agnes was a very sophisticated person. She moved in the first circles. She was a very accomplished person: several musical instruments . . . many languages. Olave’s one accomplishment, aged 22, was that she could play the violin – and Agnes even did that better than she did.

“Although they seem to have started off in a very friendly way, Olave seems to have come to resent her. I just think Olave felt threatened. But Agnes never ceased to be supportive to her.” When Lady B-P was suggested as Chief Commissioner, for instance, Agnes wrote to her, saying there was “no-one better fitted for the post”.

Agnes was deeply hurt by the way she had been treated by some members of the organisation. “The hierarchy may have decided to dispense of her services but the movement at large was proud of her as she was of it, and continued to want her. For the rest of her life Agnes would refer to herself as ‘the Grandmother of the Girl Guides’.”

In 1917 she’d been appointed County Commissioner for Essex, and continued in that role until 1925.

Agnes died in the early summer of 1945. Obituaries spoke of her as Girl Guide Number One.

Helen says there was, later, widespread ignorance of the extent of Agnes’s influence.

Even before she began writing the book, Helen was giving talks about her subject. “The number of people in Guiding to whom I said I was writing a biography of Agnes Baden-Powell . . . ‘Oh yes, I met her in 1956.’ I said ‘Oh no you didn’t; she was dead by then!’ They think Agnes is Olave!”

She’s thrilled she’s helped put the record straight.

“There’s a photo in the book of the family grave, which has a little basket of daffodils on it. That was as a result of the Anglia Trefoil” – a group for older folk who want to maintain links with Guiding – “who visited the grave, discovered her name wasn’t on it, and took this basket of flowers to leave there. There’s now a paragraph on her, with a photo, in the Brownie Guide Handbook.”

Helen quotes Rose Kerr’s book Here Come the Girl Guides, which sums things up neatly. “Without her courage, originality, and untiring labour in the early years, the feminine offshoot of the Boy Scouts would never have found its feet and become the great force which it is today.”

n The First Girl Guide: The Story of Agnes Baden-Powell is published at �20 by Amberley Publishing

Agnes: a one-off

Born December 16, 1858

Father Baden, a university professor-cum-clergyman, was the son of a squire who had been High Sheriff of Kent

The family originated in the Mildenhall area of Suffolk

Agnes’s brother Robert Stephenson Smyth – the man we know as Baden-Powell – was born in 1857

Their father died in 1860, leaving 35-year-old widow Henrietta with seven children and little guaranteed income

Their mother was financially and socially astute. “Appearing to be better off than they were was part of Henrietta’s strategy for helping her sons to get on in life,” says Helen Gardner

Agnes, educated at home with a German governess, excelled at violin and other instruments, and languages

By the age of six-and-a-half she was able to write a three-page letter to her mother, using classic German script

She liked activities such as shooting, fishing, sailing, camping and flying, “to the point of expressing a wish after the cessation of hostilities of the Second World War to learn to fly this new flying contraption called a helicopter; she was then 80-plus years of age.

“Because of her interest in flight, Agnes was for some years the only female member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and once held the air height flight record because of her ballooning experiences, thanks to her brother Baden”

She also became interested in radio and was friendly with Marconi, who developed it

It’s possible she took part in some of his early experiments and it’s rumoured he once proposed

Agnes was passionate about natural history, keeping bees in the sitting room, in a mahogany hive she designed. It had a glass front and the entrance fitted through the window!

She dutifully looked after her mother and domestic arrangements, never marrying

Agness holidayed in Suffolk in 1900 – sailing, cycling, playing tennis and golf

In the summer of 1911 she went to Felixstowe on holiday with her teenage niece and nephew

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