The first rule of being a Brownie Guide was never to admit that you were a Brownie Guide. This was the norm in my 1980s childhood, when the Brownie uniform for pre-teen girls comprised a fetching combination of a brown dress and yellow roll-neck skivvy. As much as I enjoyed skipping around a toadstool, crafting forest animals from worse-for-wear pantyhose stuffed with newspaper and completing tasks to increase the number of badges that could be stitched to my uniform, I was nevertheless aware that outside the Guide and Scout realm and its accompanying mythology, such pursuits would fuel several years of school-bus ridicule. The strongest recollection I have of this rule occurred when our Brown Owls informed us that to celebrate Guiding we would be permitted to proudly wear our uniforms to our respective schools. A lone girl from another Brownie pack arrived at my primary school on this day wearing the uniform, replete with embroidered badges for such accomplishments as baking and water safety. She spent the day deflecting scatological jokes and lurking in inconspicuous regions of the playground. Other closet Brownies knew that the last thing that we would do would be to admit that we too were Lullagullas, Tintookies and Woorails in our spare time. But, on reflection, who were we concealing our membership from? Guides Australia estimates that one million Australian women are current or former Guides.
It is now one hundred years since Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell of the British Army sparked the world’s largest youth movements. In May 1908, Baden-Powell, renowned for his military smarts in the Boer War (1899-1902), published a book entitled Scouting for Boys, compiled from pamphlets he issued from January of the same year. Far from being a potentially embarrassing pastime to conceal from friends, for girls joining the movement was initially something of a rebellious act of which many an Edwardian mother disapproved. Baden-Powell had little intention of creating an equivalent organisation for girls, but an unintended consequence of the publication of his book was that girls as well as boys, in countries as distant as Australia and New Zealand, used it as a manual to direct their own “Scout” activities. While the Guiding movement was officially created in 1910, how can we fail to commemorate the plucky girls who independently set about “Scouting” with Baden-Powell’s book in hand?
Some six thousand girls had registered as “Scouts” when Baden-Powell staged a large rally for his emerging contingent of boys at London’s The Crystal Palace in September 1909. From the swift notation afterwards declaring that girls would be shifted to their own organisation, we only imagine to Baden-Powell’s reaction to the sight of patrols of “Girl Scouts” marching up to the rally of boys while wearing Scout hats and wielding staves. How could he toughen the nation’s youth and rebuild England’s military might with girls along for the ride?
Baden-Powell was nevertheless supportive of a separate organisation for girls. In response to the pressing demands of willing girl participants, he created a new movement, with a different purpose and name. Symbolic of its adaptation for girls, the animal names given to Scouting patrols, for instance, were replaced with genteel variants like “Violets”, “Fuchsias”, and “Bluebells”. Not all of the former Scouts accepted these changes without complaint. The official history of the Guides notes the thoughts of one of the first Girl Scouts of the 1st Mayfair Troop: “When Guides first started, we refused to join them, for having been Peewits and Kangaroos, we thought it was a great come down to become White Roses and Lilies-of-the-Valley!” The floral fascination did not end there: Brownie Guides were originally called “Rosebuds” in 1914. (Sadly, the Brownie name was unceremoniously excluded from Australian Guiding in the mid-1990s but lives on internationally. Girl Guiding UK claims that one in three eight-year-old British girls today is a Brownie).
There was not a Girl Guide biscuit or toadstool in sight in Baden-Powell’s original vision of Guiding. In his early suggestions for the scheme, drafted with his younger sister, Agnes, Baden-Powell remarks that girls might be instructed to build the character of the nation: “in hospital nursing, cooking, home nursing, ambulance work; and… in chivalry, patriotism, courage, Christianity, and so on…without necessarily making her a rough tomboy”. Yet despite the best efforts of Agnes, who Baden-Powell entrusted with the running of the Guides in its early years, because of its outdoor focus, it was difficult to break the perception that Guiding encouraged boyish behaviour. The Girl’s Realm magazine from 1909 points to the concerns that some parents held about the Guiding’s outdoor activities making for “rough-and-ready” and “somewhat gypsy-like” girls.
Bowerbirds that children are, earning competency badges was central to both Scouting and Guiding from the start. Some of the first Guide badges were identical to those that boys could attempt (first aid, cook, cyclist, electrician, pioneer, and signaller), while other domestic and nursing badges were introduced for Guides (laundress, matron, needlewoman, sick nurse and child-nurse). But this does not mean that Guides were encouraged merely to darn socks and wipe runny noses: it was also possible for them to gain a badge for their skills in rifle shooting.
Both the Scouts and Guides were formed amidst fears of the decline of the British Empire, which was popularly referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets” for its global reach. The first Guide Handbook, reflecting the need to defend British territory and boost colonial populations, includes chapters on finding and tending to the injured, life on the frontier and patriotism. The hospital component of Guiding was grounded in domestic tasks such as washing, disinfecting, dusting and arranging a larder, but also extended to dressing wounds. Robert Baden-Powell’s biographer, Tim Jeal, mockingly describes the hospital activities of the Guides: “for the sake of future wounded Territorials, Guides were obliged to bandage and re-bandage each other repeatedly. They also had to spend hours practicing bathing babies (large dolls doing duty for the genuine article).”
But at the outbreak of World War I, it was nursing that proved the mettle of 40,000 Guides (half the membership of the Scouts at the same time) and subsequently dramatically boosted its popularity for girls and its ongoing acceptance. The bandaging and re-bandaging that they had been performing on each other was applied during the War as Girl Guides assisted the Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance, relief committees, the Soldiers and Sailors Help Society, cooked and sewed for hospitals, and cared for the children of working mothers.
The organisation initially formed in part to transform “the girls of the factories and of the alleys of our great cities” had earned universal acceptability in the practical application of its training. The first handbook alone should have been enough to sway those with any doubt as to Guiding’s altruistic core. It is crammed with tales of girls conducting rescues: children are winched from the bottom of a well, poison is sucked from wounds inflicted by a mad dog, pupils are freed from a blazing schoolhouse and even drowning boys are dragged ashore. And don’t think that these adventures were daintily depicted. Sometimes rescue was rough for girls. Another story of a girl’s bravery in the face of pyromania sees the heroine lose an arm to an exploding lamp.
Robert Baden-Powell’s much younger wife Olave (she was 23 and he was a sprightly 55 when they married in 1912) gradually assumed more involvement in Guiding after he resumed administrate control from Agnes in 1915, and in 1918 she became “Chief Guide of England”. The historical imperial motivations behind many Scout and Guide activities soon dissipated. The sense of tracking, knot-tying and camp cooking as preparation for life in distant lands faded with the power of the British Empire. The Guide Promise to serve “Queen and country”, however, still remains in place in Australia. My own Brownie hut was adorned with a framed—almost unrecognisably youthful—photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, which held little significance for us as children even in the 1980s.
I now carry a travel pack of tissues and a mobile instead of always toting a hanky and 30 cents to make a call at a phone box, but the central tenet of Guiding, to “Be prepared”, has remained in place for almost a century and lives on, almost without thought, in millions of women worldwide who were once Girl Guides.