For all the Scouts and Guides around the world, 22nd February is 'World Thinking Day', which is also, not coincidentally, the birthday of both the Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell and his wife Olave.
I grew up as a Girl Scout to later become a Scout leader, and I have heard countless stories about 'B-P' and Olave, especially on Thinking Day, and Olave (1889–1977) was always presented as the founder of Girl Guides.
You can imagine my shock and embarrassment when I read that Robert's sister, Agnes (1858–1945), founded the Girl Guides. 'Agnes who?'
In my twenty years as a member of the Scouts, I hadn't heard her name once, and I felt the moral responsibility to investigate who this lady was.
Agnes' life is fascinating and her story is that of a rather unconventional Victorian woman. Daughter of Reverend Professor Baden Powell (1796–1860) and Henrietta Grace Smyth (1824–1914), Agnes was educated at home by her mother, while all her brothers went to respectable schools. Her mother Henrietta, a very resourceful woman, was interested in girls' education and made sure that Agnes received the best preparation possible.
Agnes learned 11 languages, among which were Greek and Persian, she studied music, excelling in violin and becoming proficient in another seven instruments, and also had a keen passion for natural history. In 1900, The Royal Magazine published an article about the so-called 'Baden-Powell bees', illustrating the bizarre beehives built by Agnes and her mother, including one in the shape of a bike!
However, you shouldn't think of Agnes as a secluded child, only devoted to her books, because she was at the same time a brilliant student, a skilled artist, a good athlete, and a bit of a tomboy.
As the only daughter of Henrietta and Professor Baden Powell, Agnes spent her childhood playing with her brothers, particularly Baden and Robert, taking part in sports competitions or other 'boyish' games. She won many prizes for bicycle gymkhanas and races, and also rode a bike through a hoop.
The artistic gene ran through the family: Agnes's father, Professor Baden Powell used to sketch others present at meetings, and her mother Henrietta and grandmother Annarella Smyth were talented too. Baden, Henrietta and Annarella contributed to Admiral Smyth's book Ædes Hartwellianæ, or Notices of the Mansion of Hartwell (1851), although none of the drawings is attributed.
Quite inevitably, Agnes inherited her family's artistic talent and became incredibly skilled in handicraft. She also won an award for a repoussée work mirror she had made – she realised both the metalwork design and the circular wooden plaque – having certificates in woodwork too (of course!). In the photograph below, Agnes can be seen engraving a spoon. The shot might have been taken around 1900–1910.
Agnes was a most prolific artist and realised many watercolours, especially during her travels later in her life. Agnes's drawings are very consistent and proficient; she used A4 or A5 sheets of rough rag paper and adopted an extremely bright palette.
Compared to her brother Robert, who was a skilled cartoonist and watercolourist, Agnes seemed to prefer depicting landscapes and rarely painted the human figure.
The watercolour below was most likely realised during one of her many adventures, the 1905 cruise when she boarded on the Arcadia with 20 other people, to watch and study the solar eclipse from the Mediterranean sea.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, Agnes had travelled many times around the country, was a respected intellectual, and was well connected in the high society – including with the Royal family. But how did Agnes become involved in her brother's scouting activities?
Agnes was certainly an uncommon Victorian woman and, after spending about 50 years under her mother's wing first, and then looking after her mother, she probably felt the need for an adventure of her own. The simple role of 'guardian' didn't sit well with Agnes, who had a thirst for knowledge and action. However, she was a woman, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, unmarried women who travelled on their own, went camping or competed in acrobatic bicycle races were frowned upon. Agnes didn't seem to care too much about respectability, and that's what makes her extraordinary.
In 1909, two years after the very first scout camp, a Scout Rally was held at Crystal Palace, London. Some 11,000 Scouts participated and 2,000 girls sneaked in wearing the Girl Scouts' uniform to demand B-P's attention. The call for an association that included girls was heard loud and clear by Robert.
Even though Robert didn't see any issue in opening the Scouts to girls, he decided it was best to have two separate organisations, because of the pressure and doubts from parents and the press. Therefore, after unsuccessfully asking two ladies to help him with the foundation of the Guides, B-P turned to his sister Agnes.
Agnes was a dynamic, accomplished and intelligent woman, but she was already past the age of 50. Nonetheless, she accepted this new demanding challenge with enthusiasm: in 1910 Agnes founded the Girl Guiding movement and started her new role as its President.
Agnes put great energy into the creation of the organisation, recruiting other ladies to constitute the governing bodies, travelling all over the country to meet Section leaders, and writing pamphlets and articles to fight the scepticism around the idea of having girls training in the open air and sleeping in a tent.
In 1912 Agnes wrote How Girls Can Help to Build the Empire, a handbook for Guides partially derived from Robert's Scouting for Boys, with additional sections on nursing and 'womanly' activities. She aimed to 'get girls to learn how to be women – self-helpful, happy, prosperous, and capable of keeping good homes, and of bringing up good children'. Regressive as it sounds today, we shouldn't forget that it was 1912 after all and that Agnes also encouraged girls to be brave and not to rely completely on men.
At last, Agnes was proving to the world what she was capable of, but it was too good to last!
Soon after her marriage with Robert, his wife Olave took an interest in Guiding and in 1915 made her Guide Promise. In a matter of a few years, Olave, much younger than her sister-in-law and extremely ambitious, managed to push Agnes out of the association, helped by the Girl Guides Committee that didn't appreciate Agnes's independence. When in 1918 Olave was elected Chief Guide of England, Agnes was officially relegated to an honorary and symbolic role.
Agnes never stopped feeling part of the organisation, and even after she was removed from all her charges, she kept travelling and meeting Guides around the world. Agnes liked to call herself the 'Grandmother of the Guides' and loved to stay in the Guides' company – she continued camping and sleeping in a tent up after the age of 80.
Unfortunately, in her long and successful life, Olave managed to obliterate almost every memory of Agnes, despite the latter's passion and contributions towards the movement.
Only in recent years, some Guides-enthusiasts started to awaken the memory of Agnes's achievements by publishing articles and photos about her. Not long ago the Agnes Baden-Powell Guild was created and they are now raising money to add Agnes's name to the family monument in Kensal Green cemetery, north London, where for reasons unknown, her name has never been added.
Even though Girl Guiding was an important part of Agnes's life – she died at 87 and had been a Guide since she was 52 – there is much more to Agnes beyond that. Bringing back the memory of her achievements will inspire many girls and women.
In her busy life, Agnes joined the British Red Cross soon after it was established, won the British Red Cross War Medal for her sterling service during the First World War, and by the Second World War, she was Vice President of the Westminster Division.
Agnes also loved flying, and with her brothers Baden and Robert, she flew many times with balloons they built together. How many women born in the Edwardian era could claim to have ridden an air balloon?
Later, Agnes became interested in building planes and travelled around sourcing spare engine parts. During the Second World War, she lived with the hope of a rapid conclusion of the conflict so that she could have the chance to learn to fly a helicopter but, unfortunately, she passed before that day came.
I believe that Agnes earned with flying colours her place amongst the most inspirational women of the last 100 years, and her name should appear next to that of women like Sophie Blanchard (1778–1819), professional aeronaut, or Maria Montessori (1870–1952), physician and educator. Agnes started what is today the biggest organisation for girls and women, with 500,000 members around the world, and she deserves to be known and celebrated.
Chiara Betti, Collections Database Officer at Art UK
Helen D. Gardner, The First Girl Guide, 2010