Baden-Powell, Olave St. Clair, Lady 1889-1977, leader of the world Guide movement, was born 22 February 1889, at Stubbing Court, near Chesterfield, third child and younger daughter of Harold Soames and his wife Katherine Hill. Her father owned the Brampton Brewery Company, but retired before he was forty. Her first nineteen years were spent in ten rented country houses, including Renishaw Hall (owned by Sir George Sitwell, qv.) and Pixton Park (belonging to the Earl of Carnarvon, qv.). She also spent periods in London before her parents settled in Lilliput, Dorset, in 1908. She had no formal education except from a governess, and this only until the age of twelve, but her love of music, animals, and all outdoor pursuits was encouraged. She was an expert horsewoman, keen games player, and competent violinist.
In January 1912, accompanying her father to Jamaica on the Arcadian, she met Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Stephenson Smyth (later Lord) Baden-Powell [qv.], the hero of Mafeking, who had founded the Boy Scout movement in 1908. He had retired from the army in 1910, aged fifty-three, to devote more time to the promotion of scouting. Olave had been born on his thirty-second birthday and he was three years younger than her father. They were married 30 October 1912, in St. Peter's Church, Parkstone. Their son, Peter (died 1962), was born on their first wedding anniversary, 1913, and their daughters, Heather and Betty, in 1915 and 1917 respectively.
Olave Baden-Powell threw all her energies into supporting her husband in his work, acting as his driver and secretary, and accompanying him to his many scouting engagements. During World War I she worked in YMCA huts for the troops in France, one provided by the Mercers Company and another sponsored by the Scouts.
Girls had been forming themselves into unofficial groups of Girl Scouts and demanding recognition, although scouting had been designed only for boys. In 1910 the Girl Guides Association was formed and administered, somewhat inefficiently, by a committee in London. In 1916 Olave Baden-Powell undertook to organize guiding in Sussex and was appointed county commissioner. She travelled by bus, train, car, and bicycle to find leaders and supporters for units all over the county, and was so successful that she was made chief commissioner and asked to do the same throughout the whole of Great Britain. In every part of the country she found the right people to lead this new movement, fired them with the founder's ideals and her own enthusiasm, and left them to organize it locally, with support and advice whenever it was needed but without interference.
As guiding spread overseas, Olave Baden-Powell travelled extensively with her husband during the next twenty-five years, tirelessly seeking and encouraging the best leaders in every country they visited and charming the support of royalty, governments, and influential people wherever they went. She was made world chief guide in 1930 and created GBE in 1932. At the same time she was a devoted wife, protecting her husband from overstrain and bringing up, after her sister's death, her three nieces with her own three children in their home at Bentley, Hampshire, where she kept open house to visitors from all over the world.
Olave initiated friendship cruises when chartered ships carried guiders and scouters from the United Kingdom to meet those of other countries. The first cruise in 1933 called at Holland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, and later cruises visited Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, and the Mediterranean countries.
The uniting principles of guiding needed to be constantly ensured as the movement spread, so that all religious denominations, all races, all political persuasions, and all social classes were brought together into one association in each country. In India, the barriers between European and Indian women, between Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, and other religious divisions, were broken down. In South America, Olave induced a breakaway Catholic Scout and Guide Association to be reunited with their all-denominational national associations. In South Africa, where membership was restricted to white people while coloureds had to join a separate organization, she persuaded them that true guiding had to be an amalgamation of all women and united them into one country, one association which, despite apartheid, still exists today.
After a holiday there in 1935, the Baden-Powells returned to Kenya in 1938 and, following her husband's death in 1941, Olave Baden-Powell became president of the East African Women's League and colony commissioner for the Kenya GGA. She returned to England during the war and was given a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace, from which she continued her world-wide travels, going wherever her presence would give encouragement and promote a wider knowledge of the movement. During her lifetime she travelled hundreds of thousands of miles by air alone. When at home, she entertained, wrote, broadcast, appeared on television, attended conferences and innumerable Guide functions until she developed diabetes in 1970 and was forced into semi-retirement. She died in her sleep at a nursing home near Guildford in Surrey 25 June 1977, and her ashes were buried in her husband's grave at Nyeri, Kenya.
The Girl Guides Association could not be the immense power for good that it is today, with some seven million members in more than a hundred countries all striving for the same ideals, if Olave Baden-Powell had not devoted her life to its establishment and to the advancement of friendship and understanding between women and girls of all nations. She was an instinctive leader and knew that, in a voluntary organization, a consensus of opinion, formed with mutual affection for the benefit of a common purpose, could achieve miracles whilst any hint of dictatorship would destroy it.
Of medium height, with quick movements and continually changing facial expressions, her dark brown eyes were her most noticeable feature, and her wide, ready smile was prompted by genuine amusement or pleasure. Her rather deep voice was emphatic, with clear enunciation. A brilliant raconteur and a deeply interested listener, she was always on the brink of laughter, her lively mind finding humour in the artificial or pompous as easily as in the witty or ridiculous. She was acutely sensitive to the feelings of others and therefore equally in tune with men or women, of all ages and from all walks of life. She radiated vitality and charm, with the strength of simplicity and the natural humility of the truly great.
Among the many honours she received from foreign countries were the Order of Merit (Poland) 1933; Order of White Rose (Finland) 1934; Order of Silver Phoenix (Greece) 1949; Order of Honour and Merit (Haiti) 1951; Order of Bernard O'Higgins (Chile) 1959; Order of the Sun (Peru) 1959; Order of Vasco de Balboa (Panama) 1959; Order of Cedars of Lebanon, 1960; Order of the Sacred Treasure (Japan) 1963; Order of the Grand Ducal Crown of Oaks (Luxembourg) 1965; and the Order of the Estonian Red Cross for her work in helping humanity.
Records at Girl Guide headquarters
Olave Baden-Powell (with Mary Drewery), Window on my Heart (autobiography), 1973
Eileen K. Wade, Olave Baden-Powell, 1971
Contributor: Sheila Walker