Sunday, February 22, 2009

World Chief Guide

Olave Baden-Powell, a key figure in the history of the Girl Guides, was born 120 years ago today. Coincidentally, it is also the birthday of her husband, Robert Baden-Powell, who launched the whole scouting movement a century or so ago. Girl Scouts and Guides celebrate this day each year as World Thinking Day. Olave must have kept some kind of diary since there are a few extracts online. More revealing, though, is a diary entry about (not by) her doing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’.

Olave St Clair Soames was born on 22 February 1889 - exactly 120 years ago today - and was the youngest daughter of Harold Soames, a brewery owner. In 1912, aged only 23, she married Robert Baden-Powell, then 55, having met him on a liner sailing to New York. During the early years of the First World War, Olave spent a few months in France, but mostly helped her husband with secretarial services and by driving him to meetings. From about 1916, though, she became involved in working for the Girl Guides, becoming Chief Commissioner, then Chief Guide, and then, in 1930, World Chief Guide.

In 1918, Olave and her husband moved to Pax Hill, near Farnham, Hampshire, where they lived for 20 years and brought up three children. In 1939, they went to live in Kenya, where Robert died in 1941. The following year, she returned to live in Hampton Court Palace (since Pax Hill had been taken over by the Canadian military) and stayed there after the war. Thereafter, she continued touring to promote the Scout and Guide organisations. From 1942 until her death in 1977, she is said to have travelled the world five times taken 653 flights.

Today - 22 February - is also World Thinking Day for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. It was chosen as such over 80 years ago, in 1926, precisely because of the joint birthday of Olave and Robert. This year’s theme is ‘stop the spread of AIDS, malaria and other diseases’; last year it was ‘Think about water’; and the year before it was ‘Discover your potential by taking the lead, growing friendships, and speaking out’.

A guide to archives on the history of Scouting can be found on PAXTU, the International Web Site for the History of Guiding and Scouting, and this lists many diaries left by Robert Baden-Powell. The same site has similar documents for the history of Guiding, but there is no mention of Olave’s diaries. However, there must be some, for the Olave Baden-Powell tribute website quotes a few short extracts. Here are three (exactly as they appear on the website).

‘St. George's Day., Attended Scout and Guide celebrations of freedom in Paris. Toured through Normandy with General Lafont, Chief Scout of France. Continued through Alsace and Lorraine, and on VE Day crossed into Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, England, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland.’

‘West Indies, British Guiana, Cuba, Mexico, the Unites Staets, Canada and Newfoundland. Travelled 3,720 miles by sea, 6,355 miles by train, 16,610 miles by air, and 3,565 miles by road. Made 231 speeches to audiences varying in number (from 30 to 20,000, gave 62 press interviews or radio talks. Attended World Conference at Evian, France. Visited Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, and Holland.’

‘Visited Holland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Denmark and many parts of the British Isles; in a five months' tour of Africa travelled over 23,000 miles by air and visited 20 territories.’

And here is another brief entry, apparently from Olave’s diary (found on the Historical Boys’ Clothing website), just after the death of her husband in 1941: ‘He looked so sweet and perfect in death as he was in life - utterly utterly noble and good and dear and wonderful, great and faultless.’

Here, though, is a diary entry that gives a much better picture of Olave. It’s taken from the diary of the late Lorna Collins (quoted in Guiding in Australia - May 1989) and can be found on this Olave Baden-Powell tribute website.

June 1967
‘A rally had been organised for Saturday 25 June at the Perry Lakes Stadium. Girls had come from widespread country areas and there was the concern that as they assembled at the stadium, they would be very wet and very cold. So it was decided to have a warm-up activity in which everyone could join. The Chief - always greeting people: ‘How are you? How are you?’ - could see that the people were being asked to stand and they weren’t, so she got up, and of course, then every one got up and did ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. When it was through the Chief called ‘again’ and everyone did it again. And so everyone was warm and happy and they sat down and the rally proceeded. Now the next day the Chief was to leave by plane for London. All the goodbyes had been said, all the hands shaken and all the VIPs kissed and she went up the gangway, stood at the top and waved, and of course everyone waved to her. One would think that that would be the end, but there at the doorway to the plane the Chief started ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and those back on the ground joined in.’

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