Olave St Clair Baden Powell, Baroness Baden-Powell, GBE was born Olave St Clair Soames on February 22, 1889 at Chesterfield, England, the younger daughter of brewery heir Harold Soames (himself descended from a landed gentry family paternally and maternally from a self-made man, Joseph Gilstrap Gelthorpe, who had been Mayor of Newark in Nottinghamshire. She died on 19 June 1977 as Olave, Lady Baden-Powell, or The Dowager Lady Baden-Powell, having outlived her husband, the founder of Scouting, by 35+ years.
Her father - brewery owner and artist Harold Soames - continually moved house as he travelled. He, her mother Katharine (nee Hill), and a number of governesses educated Olave at home. She became keen on outdoor sports including tennis, swimming, football, skating and canoeing, and also played the violin.
In January 1912, Olave met Boer War hero and founder of the Scouts and Girl Guides Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Baden-Powell on an ocean liner (Arcadia) on the way to New York to start one of his Scouting World Tours. She was 23, he 55, and they shared the same birthday. They became engaged in September of the same year, causing a media sensation. To avoid press intrusion, they married in secret on October 30, 1912.
The Baden-Powells had three children - one son and two daughters (who took the courtesy titles of Honourable in 1929; the son later succeeding his father in 1941):
Peter, later 2nd Baron Baden-Powell (1913-1962) and
Hon. Heather Baden-Powell (1915-1986), and
Hon. Betty Baden-Powell (1917-2004) who married 1936 Gervase Charles Robert Clay (b. 1912, and had issue 3 sons and 1 daughter
During World War I Olave left her children to help the war effort in France.
Olave became a County Commissioner in the Girl Guides in 1916, became English Chief Guide in 1918 and was elected World Chief Guide in 1930. The same year she was awarded the British honour of Grand Dame of the British Empire King George V. In 1932 she was awarded the Dame Grand Cross of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (GBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. As well making a major contribution to the development of the Guide / Girl Scout movements, she visited 111 countries during her life visiting Jamborees and national Guide and Scout associations.
In October 1939 Olave moved to Kenya with her husband, where he died in January 1941. In 1942 she braved U-boat attacks to return to a 'grace and favour' apartment in Hampton Court Palace (in which she lived from 1943 to 1976), since her own home Pax Hill had been taken over by the Canadian military. Through World War II she toured the United Kingom. Fortunately she was on a visit when a V2 missile damaged her apartment in 1944. As soon as she could after D-Day, she went to France, toured throughout Europe as the war ended to help revive Guiding and Scouting.
Having suffered a heart attack in 1961, she was finally banned from travelling at the age of 80 in 1970 when she was diagnosed with diabetes.
Olave died on June 19, 1977 at Birtley House, Bramley, England. Her ashes were taken to Kenya to be placed next to her husband's. The Olave Centre for guides was built in north London in her memory.
Scouts and Guides mark Februay 22nd as B-P Day or Thinking Day, the joint birthdays of Robert and Olave Bade-Powell, to remember and celebrate the work of the Chief Scout and Chief Guide of the World.
She was survived by her two daughters, her son having predeceased her.
Olave Baden Powell: Mother Of Millions
Deep Cove Crier February, 1992
(fifteen years after her death)
One of the most loved and fondly remembered women of the 20th century is Olave Baden Powell, founder of the worldwide Guiding movement. Girls and young women today often have few healthy models on which to base their life. One only has to think of the infamous rock star Madonna or the Royal "Fergie" to realize how much we need role models like Lady Baden Powell.
An Unforgettable Smile
Olave Baden Powell, who died in 1977, was a woman who loved and cared for millions, and in return was loved and cared for by millions. Olave energetically led a movement which now includes over 8 million Sparks, Brownies, Guides, and Pathfinders (and over 500 girls in the Seymour/Deep Cove area). She was radically unselfish, always thinking of the other, always thinking of a way to serve her fellow human being. She and her husband Robert both believed that "happiness comes not from what we have but from what we give and what we share", Lady Baden Powell was a wonderful example of what true Christianity is all about: loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. One of the most distinctive things about Olave was her smile. Her smile was not that of politeness put on for an occasion but of honest to goodness enjoyment of what she was doing. It was a most infectious smile. People felt it quite impossible not to give an answering grin when they met her sparkling eyes and smiling mouth face to face.
Though raised in an affluent upper class home, Olave did not find life to be always easy. Her father Harold Soames was a restless artist who uprooted his family six times in nine short years, and was often away painting overseas. The affluent life of leisure bored Olave and left her longing to do something useful with her life. But even her small effort at amusing and teaching handicapped boys was frowned upon by her family, because it interfered with her daily schedule of tennis and squash. Her parents had initial feelings of reluctance over Olave marrying a man more than thirty years older than her. But when her mother Katherine found out that Olave intended to join the Guides and to throw her lot in with "those wild girls", her mother was horrified. The name "Girl Guide" was anathema to her mother. Sadly she never overcame her dislike of Olave's work, even going to such lengths as running away and hiding if she thought Guides were about to appear. Olave was never allowed to be in Guide Uniform in her mother's presence. Her mother's resentment of Guiding was deeply hurtful to Olave, and drove a wedge between an otherwise close relationship.
Initially Olave was not greatly interested in Girl Guides, for she preferred to serve as a Lady Scout Master for a Boy Scout Troop in Ewhurst, England. When she first offered her services to the Girl Guides (at her husband's request), they turned her down because they felt that she was too young and inexperienced! But Olave believed that "... when God wants one to do something, He smooths away the difficulties in one's way." So she persisted and was so dedicated in organizing the Guides in Sussex that they elected Olave as Chief Commissioner for England, In the next 18 months, she recruited 2,840 Guide Commissioners, and organized every county in England! All this was accomplished despite the fact that 19 out of every 20 potential commissioners turned down her request.
Growing Through Grief
"I do not think anyone ever realized," wrote Olave, "how deep and passionate was our love for each other _" So when her husband Lord Baden Powell died at Nyeri, Kenya in 1941, Olave experienced his death as a terrible blow. She longed for nothing but death itself. For the first time in her courage seemed to desert her. Olave felt utterly alone and very restless. She wondered if she would ever find real contentment again. Fortunately her husband had left her four farewell letters that help her recover her peace of mind. She found that by throwing herself into caring for Guides and Scouts, her grief became manageable.
Another great source of comfort to her was her personal faith. Olave was a committed, churchgoer and a very God centered woman. 1 thank God daily," wrote Olave, for the wonderful way in which His Divine Hand led us both (Robert and Olave) to come together ... How richly God blessed us both in giving us our work and each other." Olave was very clear about the priority of the Guide and Scout promise to "do my duty to God" (love and serve God). As Olave's official biography put it, "she had traveled in most countries in the world and taken part in services in great Cathedrals as well as in small churches of many denominations, for "Duty to God" is the Guide's first Promise and this involves worship as well as service." Olave also expressed her Christian commitment by serving as godmother to over 40 baptized children ... a duty she took very seriously. Olave wrote in her autobiography: If I have any message to leave, it is this: Believe in God. He guides and protects you all through life." My prayer is that the practical spirituality of Olave Baden Powell may inspire all of us, whether or not we are guides, to a deeper love of God and our neighbour 'in the Deep Cove/Seymour community.
The Reverend Ed Hird
Rector, St. Simon's Anglican Church