The world scouting movement officially dates back to a demonstration camp held in the south of England in August 1907 by former British military officer, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell.
With about 20 boys from different backgrounds, he tested the principles outlined in the book he was adapting for adolescents. It was based on his earlier military training manual called Aids to Scouting which taught about stalking and observing signs that gave advantage to soldiers. This earlier book, despite its intended military audience, had been used by teachers and youth organisations, and had become a best seller by 1903. Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell’s subsequent draft book for boys also incorporated information about woodcraft from the American Indians as well as wilderness survival.
At that first 1907 camp on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour in Dorset, boys formed themselves into patrols and participated in camping, observation, woodcraft, and learned valuable skills through games. Chivalry and patriotism were emphasised in a personal mental education formula that become known as the scout method.
Scouting for Boys was published in 1908, initially in six fortnightly instalments but then in book form that same year. It set out activities and programmes that could be used by existing youth organisations such as the YMCA and the Boys’ Brigade, a large youth movement drilled along military lines.
The book, like the instalments, was immediately so popular that spontaneous scout troops formed around Britain and in other countries, including in Australia in 1907 and 1908. Unofficial scouting groups date back even earlier.
Girls liked it too. The Girl Guides movement began in 1910, created by Baden-Powell, later to be made the 1st Baron Baden-Powell of Gilwill, and his sister Agnes Baden-Powell. Programs for Sea Scouts and Air Scouts followed for boys. Brownies, for younger girls, came later as did programs for cub scouts and rovers.
Baden-Powell first visited Australia in 1912, 1931 and to attend the first Australian Jamboree in 1934-35.
A distinctive uniform became synonymous with scouting, with parts of it able to be used in basic first aid. The scarf could be used as a sling. At the 5th World Scout Jamboree (WSJ) in The Netherlands in 1937, Baron Baden-Powell gave his farewell to the movement before retiring. The intention of the uniform, he said, was so that it “hides all differences of social standing in a country and makes for equality; but, more important still, it covers differences of country and race and creed, and makes all feel that they are members with one another of the one great brotherhood”.
In his final letter to the Scouts before his death at 83 in Kenya in 1941, Baron Baden-Powell wrote:
“I have had a most happy life and I want each one of you to have as happy a life too … One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so can enjoy life when you are a man … the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it … ‘Be Prepared’ in this way, to live happy and to die happy — stick to your Scout Promise always — even after you have ceased to be a boy — and God help you to do it.”
Scouting for Boys went on to sell more than 150 million copies and became the fourth best-selling book of the 20th century.
There are now estimated to be more than 40 million scouts worldwide who follow the elements of scouting including Scout Law and Promise with the motto ‘Be Prepared’.
In 2007 the centenary of the movement was celebrated in England with a camp, (again) held on 1 August at Brownsea Island, in addition to the 21st WSJ in Chelmsford.
Other participating countries held their own celebrations including Australia. Local scouts in Canberra joined the Chief Scout of Australia – the Governor-General – to renew their scout promise in a commitment to world peace and social betterment. Other events occurred at the Sydney Opera House and in Melbourne.
Scouts Australia, which emerged as the largest group of the plethora of small scouting organisations that sprang up in the early 20th century, was originally known as the Scout Association of Australia. Before that it was the Australian Boy Scouts Association. Its predecessor formed in 1922 was the Australian Federal Council of the Boys Scouts Association which was a branch of the British Boys Scout Association. Girls and young women were admitted to the Venturer and Rover Scout sections from 1973 and from 1988 in Cubs Scout sections. Girls and boys can join the Joey sections which began in some groups in 1990, between the ages of six and seven and a half. (The Girl Guide movement remains a separate girls-only organisation.)
Scouts Australia is a member of the World Organisation of the Scout Movement (WOSM), which was founded in 1922 and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
The WOSM also organises the World Scout Jamborees (WSJ) held every four years. The first was held in London in 1920 at which 8,000 scouts from 32 countries attended.
Starting on the last day of 1987, a week of games and activities were held during the 16th World Scout Jamboree hosted at Cataract Scout Park in Sydney. More than 14,000 scouts attended from 94 countries. Another 33,600 scouts from 155 countries converged on Kirarahama in Japan for the most recent WSJ in 2015.
The next WSJ will be held in West Virginia, USA, in 2019 with more than 50,000 scouts expected to attend from more than 100 countries. Heralding a century of WSJs, Saemangeum, South Korea will host the following WSJ in 2023.