Posted by Helen Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24, 1908 marked the publication of the first instalment of Robert Baden-Powell’s “Scouting for Boys”. There were six fortnightly instalments, which were collected and published in book form later in the same year. Both the magazine and the book version became immensely popular and not just among parents but among boys as well.

The story is well known. Robert Baden-Powell had defended Mafeking and part of his strategy was to mobilize boy volunteers into groups of scouts, thus leaving the fighting to the men. As the Wikipedia entry on the subject puts it:

The youths supported the troops by carrying messages, which freed the men for military duties and kept the boys occupied during the long siege.
The idea of keeping children occupied with something useful that they can perceive to be useful is not a particularly difficult one but has disappeared from most of our educational discussions.

It was not only boys who found the scouting exciting, forming their own groups on reading BP’s words and asking him for help, but also girls, who formed girl guides or girl scouts in some parts of the world. The twin movements spread through the British Empire and North America, then the rest of the world. It is worth noting that the Young Pioneers, set up in the Soviet Union and other Communist and would-be Communist countries, copied the Scout and Guide Movement in many details.

The reasons for these ideas becoming moribund are many and some of our readers may well be able to have a discussion on the subject. One can still see scout groups, mostly coeducational ones, still proud of what they do. But they are ever fewer in number.

Which reminds Tory Historian of an interesting moment in Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Murder Must Advertise”. The somewhat paternalistic advertising agency at the heart of the story employs a number of messenger boys, all from working class families, straight out of school at the age of fourteen or so. The boys are made to do physical jerks every day by a retired sergeant and encouraged to sit and read after lunch. One boy, Ginger, who becomes Lord Peter’s scout, reads Sexton Blake stories, which may have been ludicrous in their plotting but were extremely well written with no concession to childishness or lack of education. And yet Sexton Blake was known as the “office boys’ Sherlock Holmes”.

Ginger also keeps a diary of what he has managed to find out from his mates, which he has to give to his oldest brother, a police officer, as the middle brother accuses him of the unspeakable crime of writing “pwietry”.

Another of the lads spends his time engrossed in “Popular Mechanics” magazine when he is not running errands. They are, of course, too superior to be scouts by this stage. That, as far as Ginger and his friends are concerned is for little ones.


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