English Literature

Baden-Powell of Mafeking by J. S. Fletcher

Baden-Powell of Mafeking by J. S. Fletcher.jpg

Part I.




If it seems something of an impertinence to write about the life of a man who is still alive and apparently determined to be so for many years of energy and activity, it appears to be almost in the nature of a sacrilege to draw aside the veil which ought to shroud the privacy of his family life. Most English folk, whether they show it or not, are deeply in love with the sentiment expressed in Browning’s lines,—

“A peep through my window if some should prefer,
But, please you, no foot over threshold of mine”—

but in the case of the Baden-Powell family many feet have already crossed the threshold, and many hands have drawn aside the curtain. It is not often that the lifting of the veil which usually hides English family life from the world’s gaze reveals as charming and instructive a picture as is found in the contemplation of the people to whom the hero of Mafeking belongs. We all know that it is not necessary to spring from a great family in order to be a great man; we all know, too, that many a great family has produced a great fool. But when a great family does produce a great man the result is greater than could be obtained in any other way. Baden-Powell comes of a family-stock great in many ways, and were there reason or time for it, nothing could be more delightful or instructive than to endeavour to trace the connection between the main features and characteristics of his life and the hereditary influences which must needs have acted upon him. His ancestors have done so many fine things that one feels something like amazement to find their present day representative still adding lustre to the family name. According to the ordinary laws all the strength and virtue should have been exhausted in the stock ere now, but just as Baden-Powell himself is in certain ways a mysterious contradiction to things in general, laughing where other men would weep, and rising to great heights where most men would turn back to the valley in despair, so his family, after many generations of great activity, contradict the usual laws by increasing in strength and giving evidence of that growth and development which, as Dr. Newman told us in a remarkable sentence, is the only evidence of life.

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell was born at 6, Stanhope Street, London, on the 22nd February, 1857. He was the seventh son of the late Rev. Baden-Powell, sometime Savilian Professor in the University of Oxford, and of Henrietta Grace, daughter of Admiral W.H. Smyth, K.S.F. Of his father the future defender of Mafeking can have known little; Professor Baden-Powell died when his seventh son was only three years old. He was a man of great talents, widely known as a profound student in the physical sciences and as an exponent of broad and tolerant theology, a frequent contributor of learned papers to the transactions of the Royal Society, and a whole-hearted lover of nature and of the sights and sounds of country life. One would like to know more of him, and of such intercourse as existed between him and his children. They, however, were separated from him at an early age and were left to the sole guidance and friendship of their mother. It is rarely that children have a mother so well equipped for the performance of a difficult task—Mrs. Baden-Powell is in all respects a great woman and eminently fitted to be the mother of a hero. She, like her husband, came of a stock eminent for its qualities. Her father, Admiral W.H. Smyth, was a well-known seaman of his day, and his children have all achieved eminence in one way or another. One of his sons, Warington, became Mineral Inspector to the Crown; another, Fiazzi, Astronomer Royal for Scotland; a third, General Sir Henry Smyth, after a distinguished military career, was Governor and Commander-in-Chief at Malta from 1890 to 1893. Of his two daughters, the younger, Georgina Rosetta, was married in 1858 to Sir W.H. Flower, the eminent scientist; the elder, Henrietta Grace, had previously married Professor Baden-Powell.

A Merciful Man.

It is often said that a boy is what his mother makes him, and no one will deny that there is a certain amount of truth in the saying. A boy naturally turns rather to his mother than to his father when he first feels the need of sympathy, and it is well for him if his mother has not merely sympathy but perception and understanding to give him. Mrs. Baden-Powell appears to have been singularly fitted to help her children with her love, sympathy, and tact during the earlier years of their youth. Herself a brilliantly clever woman, she recognized intuitively the workings of dawning talent and ability in her own children, and she encouraged and helped them as only a woman of great gifts could. As a linguist, an artist, a musician, a mathematician, and a lover of science and of nature, Mrs. Baden-Powell has many attainments, and it must be evident to the most obtuse that her children received a liberal education in merely knowing her. When Professor Baden-Powell died his widow was left with a responsibility from which the bravest woman might well have shrunk. She had been married fifteen years, and there were ten children of the marriage, and the eldest was not fourteen years of age. That Mrs. Baden-Powell had no shrinking, that she devoted herself to her task with courage, determination, and skill is proved by the results with which the world, for its good, has been familiarized. The training of her children, as far as one may speak of it with reserve and respect, seems to have been marked by the greatest good sense. She took an interest in everything that interested them; she inculcated a strict regard for honour in their minds; she taught them to bear pain as strong men should; above everything she strove to bring all the influence of nature into their lives. Such an education as this could scarcely fail to produce men well fitted to do something, and Mrs. Baden-Powell’s sons have done much. Her eldest son attained considerable distinction as the author of an important work on the Land Systems of British India, and occupied a high judicial post in that country ere his death. Her second son, Mr. Warington Baden-Powell, after serving some years in the navy, turned from the sea to the atmosphere of the Law Courts, and is now a Queen’s Counsel of eminence. Her third son, the late Sir George Baden-Powell, who died in 1898, was, until recent events brought his younger brother’s name more prominently before the public, the best-known member of the family. His record was a particularly brilliant and useful one. He took the Chancellor’s Prize at Oxford in 1876. He was private secretary to the Governor of Victoria, 1877-78; Joint Special Commissioner in the West India Colonies, 1882-84; Assistant to Sir Charles Warren in Bechuanaland, 1884-85; Joint Special Commissioner in Malta, 1887-88; British Commissioner in the Behring Sea Question, 1891; and British Member of the Washington Joint Committee in 1892. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and an LL.D., and represented the Kirkdale Division of Liverpool in Parliament from 1885 until his death. He wrote several important works and papers on scientific, economic, and political subjects, and was created a baronet in 1888. Other sons of this fortunate and gifted mother are Mr Frank Baden-Powell, who, after a distinguished career at Oxford, became a barrister and is well known as an artist of great merit, and Major B.F.S. Baden-Powell, of the Scots Guards, whose invention of war-kites was of great value during the operations at Modder River. Of the seventh son it is the province of this book to speak more fully and particularly than of his brothers, but this brief reference to Mrs. Baden-Powell’s family would be incomplete if it did not include some notice of the sister of all these clever boys, who, clever and brilliant herself, must needs have watched the development of their lives with true pride and affection. I ventured to ask Miss Baden-Powell the other day two questions which seemed to me peculiarly pertinent to the matter I had just taken in hand. The first arose out of a passage in General Baden-Powell’s work on the Ashanti Expedition of 1896, wherein he declares that “a smile and a stick will carry you through the world.” I asked Miss Baden-Powell if this saying formed a sort of keynote to her brother’s character as she knew it. She replied that she found it impossible to conceive of his using a stick in any case. So, in my estimate of him, whatever it may be worth, the stick disappears from Baden-Powell, but the smile remains and has gained much in potency. My second question had perhaps a much deeper significance. I asked if in his sister’s view—and it has been my experience, founded on much cynical observation of things, that if one wants honest criticism of one’s self one can get it, in all truth, from one’s sister—the future warrior was in his boyhood at all phenomenal, if he gave, as some embryonic geniuses unfortunately do give, any notable evidence of the greatness that was coming. And I rejoiced to hear that he did not, that he was a human boy, neither precocious nor a prig—just a healthy, fun-loving English boy, full of kindliness and of delight in the joys of life’s morning.

That is exactly what one likes to feel about Baden-Powell’s boyhood. From what one can gather from many sources about his early days they appear to have been marked chiefly by the sunniness of his own disposition. His education was conducted under a tutor at home until he was eleven years old, and he spent much of his time in outdoor pursuits. He learned to ride at a very early age, and was fond of exploring unknown regions in company with his brothers. Much of the future scout’s boyhood was spent at a country house near Tunbridge Wells, and in the neighbouring woods he lived many hours of glorious life. But he appears to have had almost as many pursuits in boyhood as he has shown himself fond of in manhood. He began to draw and paint at a very early age. Before he was three years old he executed a pen-and-ink drawing of camels and camel drivers, the execution of which was wonderful for so young a child. It was quickly perceived in the family circle that he used his left hand, which he has always used throughout his life with equal facility to his use of the right, and his mother consulted Ruskin as to the advisability of checking this propensity. Ruskin advised her to let the boy use his left hand as freely as his mind wished, with the result that he has always been able to work at his sketches and drawings with both hands at the same time, drawing with the left and shading with the right—a performance which is surely rarely equalled. Another of his boyish amusements was to play with dolls, and to make their clothes; another, succeeding, one supposes, the doll era, was to take part with his brothers in the performance of plays. He has always been passionately devoted to dramatic art, and showed his love for theatrical matters at a very early age. It is only what one would expect from his extraordinary versatility to hear that he used to write the plays himself, invariably fitting himself with a “fat” low-comedy part.

Although he was in no sense of the word that most unspeakable thing, a precocious child, Baden-Powell showed in his boyhood some signs of the inclinations which were working in him. Nothing pleased him so much as to explore new ground in the shape of woods and fields; it was an exquisite delight to him to get lost in an unfamiliar part of the country and to be obliged to find a way out. He showed great pleasure in drawing maps and charts, with which he took infinite pains, and he was very fond of cutting figures of animals out of paper, and of imitating the cries and calls of birds and voices of animals. Then, again, he showed at an early age the resourcefulness and dependency upon self which have been such marked characteristics of his military career. He entirely dispensed with the services of a nurse before he was three years old; he kept a very careful account of the expenditure of his pocket money, and in everything seems to have shown a wisdom not at all out of keeping with his light-hearted disposition. It may be that much of his light-heartedness has unconsciously sprung from his thoroughness in doing things. It was fortunate for him that he possessed a great friend in his brother, Mr. Warington Baden-Powell, who, being ten years his senior, was able to give him not merely advice but excellent example. In company with his brothers the future soldier lived a great part of his holiday-time as a sailor, roughing it in small yachts around the coast and over the seas. The yachts were designed by Mr. Warington Baden-Powell, who also acted as skipper, and were managed entirely by himself and his younger brothers. Now and then the small craft and its crew happened upon tight places, and on one occasion, while off Torquay in a ten-tonner named the Koh-i-noor, they had an experience which would have frightened most boys to such an extent that the sea and its perils would have been eschewed for ever. A violent storm broke over them one dark evening, raged throughout the night and far into the next day, and necessitated a battling with wind and wave which only the bravest dare face. But Baden-Powell and his brothers appear to have been boys of infinite bravery and resource. They travelled extensively about the English and Welsh coasts, and spent some of their holidays in Norway, and wherever they went they depended upon themselves for whatever was necessary to be done in the way of cooking, repairing, and boat-mending. No better schooling than this, developing as it did the priceless qualities of energy, self-reliance, and confidence, could have been devised for the boy who was destined in after years to safeguard the honour of England in beleaguered Mafeking.


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