Ten mile hikes, camping raids and Scout games: how women helped secure Scouting's survival in the early 20th century

Surrounded by rolling fields not far from England's south coast, the small town of Henfield holds a special place in Scouting history as the home of the world's oldest Scout troop.

Less well known is that the troop was established not by a man, but a woman.

Early Scouting

Audrey Wade was running the town's hockey club when her brother returned home from Africa enthusing about a training programme for boys devised by a fellow officer he'd met on the boat, Robert Baden-Powell.

Inspired, Audrey realised that Baden-Powell's programme would be the perfect way to ensure Henfield's boys were occupied throughout the year, rather than only during the hockey season. She quickly set to work and by the winter of 1907, she had organised the first meetings at a carpenter's workshop in the town, basing the group's activities on Scouting for Boys, which was being serialised in the newspapers. By the time Scouting was officially launched, 1st Henfield already had 30 members.

Scouting may be seen by some as a mostly male organisation, but Audrey Wade and the women who stepped forward to lead Scout groups in the Movement's early years and during the First World War when men were called away to battle, ensured the organization not only survived, but thrived.

"We soon found that in country districts, though boys were plentiful and eager to become Scouts, men for (the position of) Scoutmaster were exceedingly scarce," Baden-Powell acknowledged. "Then women volunteered their services to organise troops and to manage them."

Baden-Powell's wife, Olave, played a key role in advocating for women in Scouting, even after he and his sister had established the Girl Guides in 1910, and early editions of the budding Movement's Headquarters Gazette included numerous articles relating to the role of women, whether on the need for a woman's uniform or whether they should go camping.

Early Scouting

When Boy Scouts themselves started getting involved in the war effort as messenger boys, signallers and coastguards, Olave urged women - whatever their age - to get involved in the Movement and help the Scouts organise themselves more effectively.

“But the demand exceeds the supply, the best of our men being required for the defence of our country. Here is the great opportunity for women, and our Lady workers have risen to the occasion… Many of them, not content with managing their own Troops have taken over other Troops bereft of their Scoutmasters or raised new ones.”

"The enthusiasm of the boys is greater than ever and any number of Scouts could be enrolled were there Scoutmasters available to organise them," Olave said in December 1914. "But the demand exceeds the supply, the best of our men being required for the defence of our country. Here is the great opportunity for women, and our Lady workers have risen to the occasion… Many of them, not content with managing their own Troops have taken over other Troops bereft of their Scoutmasters or raised new ones."

As the war continued, many women were no longer content to remain in the background either in society or Scouting. They began to join in with more and more of the activities they organised for the boys.

Early Scouting

"I think it is essential that a lady taking over a troop of Scouts should be strong enough to join in the games as well as in the work," Eva Rayner, the Scoutmaster of the 56th South West London Troop and 1st Kensington Wolf Cubs, wrote in Work in Wartime for Women. "The boys must feel you are necessary to them in every way; the Troop must never be complete without the Scoutmaster. A ten or twelve mile route march, camp raids, all Scout games as well as the summer camp is as much part of the Scoutmaster's duty as teaching the Scout Law. In short she must imagine herself a man for the time being with the additional advantage of a woman's tact."

As women volunteered to help, Scouting flourished. During the war years, the size of the Scout section increased by 14,000 while Cub membership - started as a pilot in January 1914 - grew to 38,500 by November 1918 with women making up about 65 percent of the group leaders.

"Boys are no harder to manage than girls," observed S.M. Humble in June 1918's Appeal to Ladies to take up Scouting. "They make more row, but give less trouble in the long-run."

Early Scouting

Audrey Wade's brother may be better known among Scouts - he helped organise the first international jamboree and was the first to be awarded the Double Silver Wolf- but it was Audrey's commitment, and that of thousands of other women like her, that ensured Scouting's success in the first decade of its existence, establishing a foundation from which the organisation could become what it is today - one of the world's leading youth movements.

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