Baden-Powell, Olave (1889–1977)

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Baden-Powell, Olave (1889–1977)

Organizer of the English Girl Guides and leader of the international Girl Scout movement. Born Olave St. Clair Soames in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, on February 22, 1889; died in 1977; youngest daughter of Harold Soames; married Sir Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy Scout movement and chief scout, who was made a baronet, and, in 1929, elevated to the peerage as the first Baron Baden-Powell of Gilwell), in 1912; children: Peter (b. 1913);Heather Baden-Powell (b. 1915);Betty Baden-Powell (b. 1917).

The daughter of an independently wealthy world traveler and student of Norwegian history, Olave (feminine of Olaf) St. Clair Soames spent her childhood in 17 different homes. With the exception of violin lessons, her formal education ended at the age of 12. After her society debut, in 1912, she accompanied her father on a trip to the West Indies. Aboard ship, she met Sir Robert Baden-Powell, 32 years her senior, who was known as "the Scout Man" for founding of the Boy Scout movement. According to a letter to her mother, he was "the only interesting person on board." The couple married in the fall of that year. Settling in Sussex, England, Baden-Powell tended to her growing family and helped her husband with the burgeoning Scout movement. During World War I, she also ran a YMCA canteen in Calais.

Around 1909, in response to the large number of young girls who wanted to be scouts, Sir Robert had approved a Scout movement for girls which he put in the hands of his sister Agnes Baden-Powell . While Agnes organized the Girl Guides in England, Juliette Gordon Low established the Girl Scouts in the United States. In 1916, Olave Baden-Powell was asked by the Girl Guide Association to become guide commissioner of Sussex. Making the most of an outgoing, charismatic personality, she organized, publicized, and solicited leadership for the new movement. Through letters and personal visits, she encouraged involvement, stressing that "training girls to be good citizens was important war work." With the Boy Scout organization as a model, she set up local committees in each town to encourage organization. In the various districts, she selected commissioners to direct activities and provide a liaison with headquarters. Becoming chief commissioner in 1917, she extended the network of organizations to every county in Great Britain, as well as overseas, and brought the units together in a strong unified society. Using her experience as a commissioner, in 1917 she published Training Girls as Guides, a manual for leaders.

Baden-Powell was unanimously elected permanent chief guide in 1918. She began plans for an International Council which would function as an information center on the world Scouting movement, and as a means to further integrate the many groups. With the help and cooperation of colleagues abroad, the meeting of the first International Council was held in February 1920 with representatives from 20 nations. In July of that year, the Council organized an International Conference for the exchange of ideas at St. Hugh's College, Oxford. Leadership delegates from Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Sweden, the British dominion, Switzerland, and the United States were in attendance. This led to formulation of a World Association in 1926, with a permanent headquarters and staff. As a tribute to her leadership, Baden-Powell was made chief guide of the world at the 1930 World Conference.

Another important aspect of the Scouting movement was the establishment of international camps, the first of which were held in Switzerland and Normandy. In 1924, 1,100 Guides and Girl Scouts—half from overseas—spent the summer camping at Foxlease, England. The girls from foreign countries were distributed among 30 groups of English girls, allowing all nationalities to mingle.

As chief guide and chief scout, the Baden-Powells became world travelers, making numerous journeys to visit their scattered troops. In 1919, they undertook a trip around the world, followed by two more in the '30s. They also arranged for several hundred leaders in their organizations to travel and observe the scouting movement in other countries; in 1933, they led a group on a good-will cruise of the Baltic ports, followed in 1934 by a trip to the Mediterranean region. Olave Baden-Powell documented her travels in two books, Travelogues and Guide Links.

Due to Sir Robert's failing health, the couple retired in 1938 to Kenya, East Africa. After her husband's death in 1941, Baden-Powell returned to England to lend her expertise to the World Bureau, headquartered in London. During World War II, both the Girl Guides and the Girl Scouts in Allied countries were involved in every aspect of the war effort, from selling bonds to working in hospitals and canteens. By 1946, the international Scouting movement had reached remote parts of Africa and even the minute island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic. During a visit to the United States, Baden-Powell called the growth "reinspired," and cited the movement as significant in promoting world peace and fellowship.

Baden-Powell, Agnes (1858–1945)

English co-founder of the Girl Guides. Born in 1858; died in 1945; daughter of Baden Powell (1796–1860, Savilian professor of geometry, known for his research on optics and radiation); sister of George Smyth Baden-Powell (1847–1898, Conservative MP), and Robert Stephenson Smyth, 1st baron Baden-Powell (1857–1941).

In 1932, Olave Baden-Powell was made a Dame of the Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire. Her years of service brought countless other honors from many countries, including the Order of the White Rose from Finland and the Order of the Sun from Peru. In 1973, she published her autobiography, Window on My Heart. At the time of her death in 1977, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts had 6.5 million members.


Rothe Anna, ed. Current Biography, 1946. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.

suggested reading:

Baden-Powell, Olave St. Clair with Mary Drewery. Window on My Heart (autobiography), 1973.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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