Agnes Baden-Powell

Agnes Baden-Powell and her incredible contribution to the Girlguiding Association is largely forgotten. Many young girls have grown up mistakenly believing that ‘the founders’ of the Scouting and Girlguiding Associations were Robert Baden-Powell and his wife, Olave Baden-Powell. I find myself being one of these girls and the discovery saddened me. It was, therefore, time to dig deeper and share the achievements of the rightful founder of the Girl Guides movement.

Robert Baden-Powell made many attempts to include girls within his new Scouting Association. Sadly, the social ideals of the Edwardian era meant that many disapproved of Girl Scouts. It was considered an outrageous idea for girls to engage in active outdoor activities of any kind. Their place was at home. Women ran the household, took part in appropriate hobbies such as needlework, and looked forward to the prospect of marriage with a family. So Robert turned to his sister, Agnes, for support in creating a new organisation especially for girls.

To choose Agnes was an enlightened choice. She had spent many years keeping house for her widowed mother, and so, became skilled in all the household duties expected of girls at the time. Agnes did, however, take part in some unusual hobbies and interests for a woman. For a long time, she had an interest in aviation – both balloons and aeroplanes – and helped her brother to source and repair engines. Other interests she had included needlework, bicycle stunt riding, astronomy, and camping. They formed the perfect combination for the task ahead.

The task bestowed on Agnes was a hard one. This was a time when girls rarely went out alone without a chaperone and many doctors still believed that physical exercise could damage a girl’s health. Agnes responded by creating a programme that met all these needs. The new programme was a skilful masterpiece that balanced what the girls wanted to do with what their parents wanted to see them doing. It was not long before she had a rented office from which to work from. She then set up an executive committee with keen, experienced, and influential charity organisers from distinguished positions within society to help her move forward.

In May 1912, Agnes published How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire which contained many of the much-loved Girl Scout activities from the days before Girl Guides. This time, however, they were masked with the idea of preparing girls for life in all areas of the British Empire. The book went on the assumption that even the most respectable girls might need to learn to cope without the support of servants at some point. There was an emphasis on home skills, nursing, and child care to encourage society that being a Girl Guide would not distract girls from their duties and responsibilities at home. It was a huge success and attracted favourable reviews. Two years later, the Girl Guides Gazette appeared for leaders, and replaced the single pages that had been in other publications.

Things started to change after her brother married Olave Soames in 1912. Keen to become more involved, Olave Baden-Powell started her own Scout Troop with the help of her servants and volunteered in France at a rest hut. In 1916, she became County Commissioner for Girl Guides in Sussex. It was at this point that she gradually started to replace existing committee members with her friends. Olave thought the committee members to be old-fashioned and wanted to replace those that Agnes had appointed to give the organisation some respectability. The First World War was changing life for everyone. Perhaps, change in some way was needed to move forward. The sad outcome was that within two years Agnes quietly disappeared from Girl Guiding and Olave became the new public face of Guiding.

Agnes stepped down as President to allow HRH Princess Mary to take over the position. Then, in February 1918, Robert Baden-Powell published Girl Guides. The book replaced one written by Agnes only two years previously. It is perhaps because of this that Agnes is rarely mentioned in official publications. Even modern day newspaper segments, written one hundred years later, focus more on Olave Baden-Powell and other high-profile members of Girl Guiding instead of Agnes. It is sad to see the contributions of this incredible woman fade into the forgotten realms of history.

There’s an excellent detailed account of how the Scout and Guide Associations started here. You can¬†find out more about Girl Guiding UK on their website, where you will find information on what the organisation does today.

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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