Olave's Letters to Agnes B-P
Unearthed amongst the family papers are just two letters (so far) from Olave B-P to her sister-in-law, Agnes, whom Olave replaced as the Head of the Girl Guide Movement.
The first of these two was written on 10th December 1940 :-
The envelope is addressed to:
Mrs Warington Baden-Powell
The Commercial Bank of Scotland Ltd
60 & 62 Lombard Street
The envelope bears an East African stamp, post-marked “Nyeri 14 Sep 1940”and on the back “London 19 Oct 1940”
So is NOT the envelope the letter of 10th Dec was sent in.
The letter looks like a (carbon?) copy, and is unsigned. So was probably never in an envelope anyway ! It was probably a carbon copy that O.B-P made at the time. Interestingly, the text is far neater than O.B-P’s usual typing.
Presumably the envelope was passed to O.B-P on Agnes’s death on 2 June 1945 – possibly containing something else altogether !
December 10th 1940
My dear Agnes
I am afraid that you will probably have felt very worried over the press report of Robin’s illness, and I had half a mind to cable you not to be too anxious, and yet I couldn’t do that because of my very real anxiety for days and weeks.
It is only now that I can write and say that he is, at last, SAFE – and I only trust that he will be still “safe” by the time this reaches you.
This long time that letters take is most trying, and it makes writing letters, especially about illness, MOST difficult.
Now I will tell you about it all, harking back to last APRIL, as, though he was marvellously well through February and March when all our family party was with us, April 16 (Betty’s birthday) was a turning point.
He went out looking at elephant (five of them!) that morning & he was taken ill with sickness and diarrhoea that night, and was quite ill for some weeks, off his food, and feeling rotten.
I didn’t write to tell you or anybody about his rather failing health, as it only worries people, and they can do no good to HIM by worrying; and in fact it is essential NOT to speak of his getting ill as, if it was noised abroad, at once we have endless enquiries which are SUCH a business to cope with.
But there is no doubt that all through this last summer he has been going down in fitness, although feeling tired, and having first one thing and then another and never quite right.
One day he would have a tummy ache; another days tooth-ache; when that got better he would have a touch of lumbago; and then he would feel and perhaps be sick for a day or two; he hated food more and more and would NOT eat; and lastly he didn’t do walks much. He still drew pictures, wrote things, did a few letters, and slept every afternoon; and on every other day I used to take him out in the car for short drives, for a change of scene.
He didn’t want to be bothered with people at all, and though he was happy most of the time, he didn’t begin to MIND about his small never-ending relays of slight ailments.
His heart was growing weaker; and on September 9 I fetched over the Dr quickly, as he felt very seedy indeed.
The doctor told us then that he wasn’t at all satisfied with his
condition, but that nothing could be done.
He said that if I wanted to of course he would welcome having a “second opinion”; but really it was not in any way helpful to bother about having a specialist up from Nairobi, as obviously nothing could make any difference.
He warned me that IF he got a chill or suddenly any sort of illness it would be very serious, as his dear heart MIGHT give out at any minute.
I wrote then to Betty, saying that he wasn’t well, and would Christian (my niece, who was living with Betty in Northern Rhodesia you know) care to return here, to help me to look after Robin.
Suddenly one day, three weeks later they ARRIVED – having motored up, taking six days over the journey in Betty’s car!
It was a LOVELY surprise! Betty stayed a week and then drove herself back alone (with just her two native servants) across Africa to her husband and babies! It did make her seem close being able to come to us by road like that!
Well then, with Christian here to keep him company, and having also got a nurse (a nice trained nurse who has just married, stepdaughter to our doctor) I was able to go for four days to do Guides in Nairobi, etc.
When I got back I found that he had been quite all right, BUT, on one day, when getting ready for bed he had put both feet into one pyjama leg, and had fallen over!
Well then, no sooner was I back than he began getting ILL – not with any definite illness, but just ILL – running a temperature, not eating, and feeling really miserable, the poor lamb.
Within three days he was so bad I had to get in a nurse, and next day a second one, for night duty. As luck would have it a doctor (who had treated him last year in Nairobi) was staying in the hotel here, and I got him in several times a day, as well as our own good Dr Doig.
The nurses were loaned in all haste from the South African War Hospital which has been built near here. I got oxygen from Nairobi, and then he just got worse and worse, had two bad rigors, and for days we just lived from hour to hour, hanging onto his life in grim anxiety.
One minute he might seem better, and within half an hour he would be worse again. I never knew if I went out the house for 10 minutes whether he would be alive when I returned. I
can’t tell you how frightful it was, waiting and watching and wondering if and when he was going to die. For days that didn’t seem any hope that he could recover.
Three times even the grand little nurse said that she didn’t think he could last the day; and of course he was being drugged and having things injected all the time, to keep him more or less unconscious. At first we kept off morphin, but he had it at one time, two days running.
Mercifully now he doesn’t remember it, and though he used to groan and moan in the few waking moments now and again, he didn’t KNOW he was doing so, and we didn’t allow him to suffer PAIN. It was just that he felt so ILL and weak. DREADFUL it was – his temperature and heart leaping about, and frightful sweating. The daytime was bad enough, but the nights were worse!
That went on for days; and then the FUSS began when news of his illness got out through a beastly newspaper man, who cabled to England. I have told the Governor; and we are keeping it quiet, as I felt that with all this awful misery and anxiety in the world these days, one could do no good by adding one more to it; and long continued tension is so frightful.
Cables then began pouring in; and it was not at all an easy time, as I COULD NOT be too re-assuring, and yet I wanted to allay anxiety as far as possible. The Governor & Daphne came up here to open the new hospital, and they saw Robin, and we talked it all over, and eventually issued a statement saying that no further bulletins would be given.
That sounded re-assuring, and the bother of enquiries ceased, and there was quite a relief, even though MY ANXIETY for him went on, and it is only NOW that I do feel he is out of the wood.
He is certainly out of danger now, getting a TINY fraction better each day. I shall have to keep the two nurses for another month I expect; and he cannot stand yet, or move himself over in bed or wash himself or anything like that.
But he CAN now hold his own teacup; and we lift him daily onto our nice trailing couch on wheels, and wheel him out lying on his air mattress and pillows to the Veranda, where he can lie in the sun and see the birds and blazing mass of flowers.
He is of course fearfully thin, and looks worn and frail; but his voice is strong, and now he likes being read to. He sleeps on and off a lot during the day, as well as at night, and we still give him “Allonal” and those harmless soporifics to ensure sleeping comfortably.
The South African army nurses have had to go back to their hospital this week; and I have imported two “civilians”. The cost of these is of course FRIGHTFUL (totalling £23 a week!)
But of course he must have EVERY care & attention.
Even before the actual illness I had begun to have to get up and “tend him” five and six times in the night usually – giving him drink, or turning his pillows or something - and it WAS wearing!
So that whatever the cost I feel I am justified in having a night nurse as well as day, as I MUST myself keep fit for all I have to do.
I just cannot describe what last month felt like. It was a super-nightmare – but, thank God, we are through it now – for the time being.
Of course how far he’s going to get strong and able to live a normal life again is still unknown, and problematical.
He MAY – or he may not. This week it looks as if he MIGHT – but having gone through that ghastly time last month I just dare not think or say how he’s going to pick up.
Actually just now his temperature, breathing, circulation, pulse and heart are GOOD ; and I do dare to be optimistic.
But the doctor warns me that he MAY always be an invalid, and that at any time he might suddenly go down again.
But I WON’T THINK OF THAT now, when we have so mercifully weathered this ghastly time.
He talked about you this morning, and asked me to send you his love and his thanks for your last letter.
How immensely we feel for you in this ghastly time that you are going through. It must be so awfully wearing and tiring quite apart from the horrors of it all. Living here as we do in super comfort and safety it is all just unbelievable to think of OUR England being bombed continuously.
The bravery and calmness of you all is TOO marvellous. How one goes on hoping that it will all end sooner than we dare expect!
I do wonder whether you are seriously considering getting away from England. It would be far nicer if you could of course, but it is difficult to advise from here, as I know nothing of the restrictions and rules that are, I believe, very rigid about people moving about.
Going anywhere on the sea too is naturally a great risk; but personally I think I would rather take THAT risk than stay if I could get away from what must be SO frightful to bear.
But I believe you have to get permits to leave, and that may be a difficulty.
I heard that it was difficult about going to Canada too, as there was the question of money; and two families I know have gone to Australia instead.
Robin’s Colonel’s wife (13th – 18th you know) has gone with her children to South Africa. Had you thought of THAT I wonder, as being the perfect climate and delightful place to live in?
They won’t let people come in here now, as we are a “war zone” and this country is full of troops from the south. We are ourselves 200 miles or more from any front, but just see convoys going through.
It is rather funny that convoys coming up here from the Union pass Betty at Isoka in Northern Rhodesia, so she gives hundreds of men tea from time to time as they come past and gets people to bring up letters to us! So I get news of her in a week quite often, instead of five weeks or more which letters would [normally] take.
Your letter of October 3rd, arrived here on, I think, November 20th; and I wonder when you will get this.
It is all SO different to those pre-war days, when we got home letters in five days by air! It makes us feel very far away and cut off from all of you; but on the other hand of course we have got so dug in here with our own lovely happy life that we feel we belong HERE entirely now, and THIS is “home” to us.
I believe that have been lots of raids round about our ex-home in Hampshire – but no bombs on the house yet, as far as we know.
Heather writes VERY happily, and has been up in the North, staying with friends, whilst John was doing a “course” learning his new job in the R.A.F..
Peter is doing well, also lately moved to GWELO, and he is now third in a staff of five in his “Native Department” there, & his wife is having another baby after Christmas.
They minded very much about their baby “Dawn” only living a few hours you know this time last year, so I hope she will be all right this time. Her brother, who is in the South African army up here, called in to see us this week unexpectedly, a nice interesting man, who had also served up here during the last war under Smuts.
Thank you so much for your kind message to me, in your last letter to Robin. I am very fit – as always – thanks, and awfully busy always.
I play tennis every day hard, for the sake of the exercise and relaxation – singles or fours – and the tennis club is just TWO minutes walk away across a lovely hillside path – very handy; and it helps to keep me fit, and is enjoyable too.
It is beginning to be a bit hot in the middle of the day now, but is always cool in the morning and evening, and it is the MOST perfect climate! How we do LOVE the place – and its deliciousness and beauty!
Oh, just for a moment I must come back to tell YOU – as his sister – about a cheering! (sic) sort of discussion took place when Robin was at his worst last month, and that was a message from the Colonial Office to the Governor here with regard to where our darling was to be buried!
They have offered to let him lie in Westminster Abbey, and I said no – and that GILWELL was the obvious place for his body to rest ultimately after the war if they want.
He would have a military funeral here – for which all arrangements were, I believe, hurriedly made last month – and there is a lovely little cemetery a mile away from this house.
I felt sure that you and of course our children would all agree that it would be horrible for his dear body to be pushed under stones amongst the bones of all kinds of politicians and people in the noise and whirl of a town, with sightseers and trippers tramping overhead. Gilwell, the heart of Scouting, and amongst birds and trees and the quiet of the country – where Scouts SHOULD be – is the right place I am sure; and I wrote and told them so, as the Scout and Guide H.Q. cabled to me about it too. You can imagine what a JOLLY (!) discussions it was in the middle of my anxiety!
OH HOW wonderful it is that that is past now – and I hope that my next letter will be able to tell you of his being up and walking about!
So that is all for now. Robin sends you his love, and thanks for the press cuttings.
[Olave Baden-Powell, unsigned]
B-P died at 05:45 on Wednesday, 8th January, 1941 – less than a month after this letter was written.
This second letter to Agnes was written on 13th March 1941, some seven weeks after the death in Paxtu, Nyeri, Kenya of B-P, Agnes's last surviving sibling.
13th March, 1941.
My dear Agnes,
I have just got your very kind letter. It was good of you to write as you did, especially when I understand that you are none too well. You say that you are sitting up in bed, but I cannot understand from this, whether you are actually ill, or whether you are writing perhaps before getting up in the early morning.
I am so very sorry to realise that you have had your house bombed at last. What an awful experience to see your home even partially destroyed, but how lucky that you were not in it at the time.
Here we are feeling very pleased at the turn of the tide of the war in Africa. We are now able to do away with our blackout, which has been such a bore for the last few months; but when we think of what you are going through, it just makes us ache for you, and it seems almost wrong to be living in such safety and comfort, whilst you are suffering such frightful hardships and anxieties.
Yes, although naturally I am battered and can hardly bear the separation from my Beloved, I know that it was best for him not to have any longer period of invalidism. And I cannot be thankful enough, that he had such happy last years here in this lovely little home.
He was completely happy, and adored this place and the sunshine, and was always busy painting and enjoying the garden and little picnics and so on. So that though I shall never get over the being without him, I know I should have no regrets, and only gratitude, for having had him with me for more years than one might have expected.
I have had most wonderful letters from all ends of the globe, showing how intensely he was loved the whole world over by old and young alike. It has been, and still is, being quite heavy work, answering the hundreds and hundreds of kindly messages from friends both known and unknown.
I’m staying on here for the time being, coping with those heavy mails as they come, and in mid May, I shall motor down the 1000 miles to Northern Rhodesia, to stay with Betty for a few weeks.
I propose then to come back here via the Congo and Uganda, and am then taking on some extra work for the East African Women’s League, so as to have some extra occupation over and above all the Guiding work I can do as well, from here.
I do not plan to return to England yet, as there is no special nitch for me there. Pax Hill is in the hands of the army and will be sold as soon as possible, as I can never want to live there again without him.
Later on, when Hitler allows, and you have won the war, I shall hope to travel a good deal, and to do all that I can to promote Scouting and Guiding, as I feel this is the task that my Darling has left to me.
I had a sweet letter from Hilda [see below], and was so glad to hear that she was well and so comparatively safely settled in Cornwall for the time being.
A great number of other relations have also written very sweet letters.
Heather is now living at a little cottage in Gloucestershire whilst her husband is stationed there. She told me in her last letter, how kind you had been in sending a gift for Christmas.
Again thank you very much dear Agnes, for your kind letter.
P.S. My Beloved Darling’s Will was only a few lines, leaving everything to me, and making me Executor. He had practically no capital; and the royalties of his books he leaves to the Scouts and Guides.
He left a memo suggesting giving a few small mementos to Donald and Bobbie, etc. (walking sticks, and a silver cup and so on) but all our possessions are stored, so all that will have to wait till my return to England after the War.
Fortunately I have my own small income, so I am all right, & later on if I need more I can make some by lectures probably.
Donald was the son of B-P's brother Sir George B-P. He had a son Francis, who had two sons, Ed and Toby. Curiously, B-P's grandson Robert, 3rd Lord B-P, when he ded on 28th Dec 2019, left "everything" to his second cousin Ed, and nothing to his brother Michael, the 4th Lord B-P.
Bobbie was the son of B-P's brother Frank B-P.
Hilda was Cecily Hilda Farmer, the widow of B-P’s brother (Henry) Warington (Smyth) Baden-Powell (3 FEB 1847 - 24 APR 1921). They were married 13 September 1913.
In 1954(?) Hilda went to stay with Olave B-P at her apartment In Hampton Court Palace, and fell and broke her hip. She was bed-ridden there for about a year before dying on 7 May 1955.