In her open-minded new biography, Dorset journalist Lorraine Gibson unearths fascinating insights into the complex character of Robert Baden-Powell
founder of the Boy Scouts. However, the astoundingly eccentric Robert Baden-Powell was a brilliant military strategist and hero of the Second Boer War, yet later became a pacifist who angered Mussolini and ended up on Hitler’s death list.
A conflicted character, he was a macho man who was obsessed with Peter Pan (he saw the play five times) and who was happy to don a frock and entertain troops as a drag artist.
He was an elitist man of privilege, but one who gave the poorest children opportunities to discover the great outdoors.
It started with a statue
After delving deep into the world of Boy Scouts and their famous founder, journalist Lorraine Gibson, who lives near Brownsea Island, became intrigued by the island’s role in the birth of the Scouting movement. She was hooked. In the pandemic of 2020, she reported on a fight between Scouts and anti-slavery protesters, hell-bent on throwing Baden-Powell’s statue off Poole Quay.
Now, 90,000 mainly lockdown-written words later, her first book, Robert Baden-Powell: A Biography, is published. It’s available from 16th September.
She explains: ‘The more I researched, the more I discovered the dichotomy between his “two lives”, as Baden-Powell called them. His difficult childhood really drew me in – a domineering and unaffectionate mother whom he loved even though she forced him into the army at 19, dashing his dreams of becoming an artist.
‘My book considers a recently discovered telegraph that adds fuel to speculation over his relationship with a fellow soldier that endured for 30 years, until, at the age of 55, he secretly married a 22-year-old woman.’
She adds: ‘This is not so much a warts-and-all tale, but a what-caused-the-warts tale. I leave the reader to make up their mind.”
Researching in the pandemic had many restrictions, but thanks to modern technology Lorraine was able to interview Baden-Powell’s granddaughter, who is still in the scouts in her 80s, and his grandson, as well as his great grandson, who lives in Nova Scotia.
She said: ‘I was blown away by the support I got for my fresh take on the man. I got access to his diaries and school records and when lockdown lifted I had the rare opportunity of seeing archived scouting material curated on Brownsea Island.’
And how was writing her first book? ‘The spare room became my writing turret. My computer was on at 4am and sometimes I would sneak there during the night when an idea came to mind. I was paranoid about losing my work so had back-ups on all manner of devices.
‘The wall was covered in hundreds of Post-It notes and a timeline. My husband and two daughters were very patient. ‘I’d be watching YouTube videos about Baden-Powell while I was cooking, and suddenly rush off to write something.
‘There were a few almost-burnt suppers that year!”
Potentially there are more charred offerings in store for her family: Lorraine is already embarking on another book. She revealed exclusively to The BV: ‘I’m moving from a man in shorts to a man in rhinestone catsuits! I’m a huge Elvis fan and so was my dad.
The title of my next book is Elvis: The King of Fashion. What Elvis wore is so culturally relevant. Ask someone how they imagine Elvis and you can almost guess their age. White suit and capes – the Las Vegas 70s. Black leather in the 60s era and drainpipe jeans in the 50s. I’m really hoping to get to Memphis next year to do some real-life research.’
Robert Baden-Powell: A Biography is priced at £25 and will be available from 16th September.
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