Frontiersmen and the Boy Scouts (Topic Aug/Sept 2015)

Daily Mirror August 1907

Daily Mirror August 1907

Crediting the right man.

It is inevitable that over the years an organisation of adventurers such as the Legion of Frontiersmen should attract many myths and legends. It is the task of the official Legion of Frontiersmen – now Countess Mountbatten’s Own in honour of the links with her family from the very start – to tell the truth and expose the fictions. In this Topic page we will go back to the very beginnings of the Legion and explain what happened in those early years. We will also discuss the Legion’s relationship with the Boy Scout movement. In spite of what many writers have claimed, the Legion was a major influence on the formation of the Boy Scouts. The Scouts had no influence on the formation of the Legion, which had been up and running for nearly four years before the Scout movement officially started. In fact the Scouts took many of their early ideas from the Frontiersmen. The Legion of Frontiersmen was the brainchild of just one man, Roger Pocock, and not as has been variously claimed of him working with Lt. Col. Dan Driscoll, with Baden-Powell, with Lord Lonsdale or any number of other distinguished men. That is the point, “distinguished”, for Roger Pocock was far from that. After an early life wandering in Canada and Northern America, he had served in the Boer War as a humble corporal of a most irregular band of Scouts. He had not been a Captain as is often claimed as his captaincy did not come to him until the First War: he was hardly a gentleman coming as he did from the junior branch of a respectable family. Added to which, the unjust rumour kept arising that he had murdered a baronet for his money on a wild expedition to the Klondyke. No wonder there were often attempts to claim that he had formed the Legion in co-operation with some more acceptable gentlemen.

But Frontiersmen did not need to be accepted in polite society: their duty was to serve King and Empire in any way they could. Even the Legion itself in publicity leaflets in the mid-1920s stated that Roger Pocock started the Legion with Driscoll. Admittedly, Driscoll was the greatest leader the Frontiersmen ever had and Pocock had often embarrassed the Legion, especially in 1923 at the abortive World Flight Expedition, but this was totally unfair. Driscoll had arrived in London in late 1906 armed with nothing other than a letter to Pocock, who gave him a paid job in the Legion. Yes, Driscoll did a splendid job, but the Legion had been in existence for nearly two years before Driscoll joined. The Scout movement has only in recent years grudgingly accepted that the Frontiersmen had some influence on them – this in spite of the fact that the first proposed title of the Scouts shown on their first magazine was The Legion of Boy Scouts. In his otherwise excellent The Dawn of the Boy Scout Movement 1908, Colin Walker, who was given access to Legion archives, credits the links with the Legion of Frontiersmen, but even he could not resist throwing doubt on Pocock’s great idea by describing a visit Baden-Powell made to Lord Lonsdale on October 27th 1904 and coming up with the irrational suggestion that:

…it may well have been over tea on October 27th that the noble Lord was able to tell B-P of his intention to join the Legion and his plans for it. (B-P’s diary entry, typically does not contain any mention of the conversation, but does record the tea.)

Legion of Boy Scouts 1908

Legion of Boy Scouts 1908

Other than being without any evidence and impossible, that attempt to enlarge the importance of Lonsdale in the scheme and add Baden-Powell to it gives the appearance of trying yet again to denigrate Roger Pocock’s importance to the scheme. Pocock did not finalise any details of his plan until he returned from Russia and Germany at the very end of 1904 – and in the first week of 1905 his working title, discussed with only a few friends, was the League of Frontiersmen. Such a suggestion, contrary to all the evidence, although written by such an accomplished author has to be rejected. Even Lord Lonsdale himself tried to claim credit in 1917 in an interview with The Cumberland News. ‘”I started the Boy Scouts”, said his Lordship. “Roger Pocock told me of the idea of the Boy Scouts and the Legion of Frontiersmen and I at once took it up and kept it going for some time.”‘ However, Walker does admit that the ageing Lord Lonsdale was “…overplaying his own importance to a very large degree”.

This downgrading of Pocock’s input over the years did not seem to trouble him. How did the idea come to fruition? We need to look at Roger’s 1904 adventure in Russia to see what was the final trigger. The Illustrated Mail was the weekend version of the Daily Mail and gave Pocock the important assignment in December 1904 of visiting Russia to report on the country and its troubles following the recent Russo-Japanese War. Pocock had made quite a name for himself as a journalist and author and the newspaper praised his abilities:

The choice of Mr. Pocock for such a task was particularly appropriate. He is admitted to be one of the finest descriptive writers of the day. Not only is he a capable writer, but a great traveller, who has seen and depicted life in all parts of the world.

A chance encounter with Admiral Fisher’s private secretary Jack Brotherton led to a meeting being arranged with Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, then Director of Naval Intelligence. Prince Louis was delighted with the information and photographs and thus began a relationship with the Battenberg, now Mountbatten, family which continues until this day. How do we know that this is a true story as it has often been chronicled how Frontiersmen could be prone to exaggeration? With Roger Pocock, everything can be proved as he was an inveterate keeper of albums and records. Along with his newspaper cuttings, his photographs and notes were carefully stored and those albums are now preserved at the Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta alongside an archive of the Legion of Frontiersmen that he formed.

This successful visit and amateur intelligence work for the Admiralty was the trigger that persuaded Roger Pocock that the time was right for an organisation of men such as himself: footloose travellers and adventurers who wandered the frontiers of the world who could send back information of use to the State to a central headquarters in London. He had met and knew many such men, especially a few years earlier when he was serving as an irregular scout in South Africa. A letter to major London newspapers appearing on Boxing Day 1904 called for the “‘listing of the Legion” – a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, which over the years the Frontiersmen have adopted as their own:

There’s a Legion that never was ‘listed
That carries no Colours nor crest,
But, split in a thousand detachments
Is breaking the road for the rest.

6 Adam Street as it is today

6 Adam Street as it is today.

How much response he received to his letter is open to doubt. On New Year’s Day, 1905, he was comfortably in his “den”, his bachelor flat on the top floor of 6 Adam Street in London discussing, according to his pocket diary, what he first considered as the “League” of Frontiersmen with two friends. These friends were just noted as Hilton and Fyfe. Small beginnings for what was to become an organisation known and respected around the world. Although it is not possible to be sure, Fyfe is believed to have been Henry Hamilton Fyfe (1869-1951), then editor of the Daily Mirror. Fyfe’s name does not appear in Pocock’s later writings. It could be that, if it was indeed he, Fyfe cooled to the idea, especially as over the years his politics moved to the left. Herbert Philip Hilton had been a friend of Pocock’s for a number of years and was one of the few members of Pocock’s ill-fated Klondyke expedition to remain on good terms with Roger Pocock. Hilton was killed in action in the First War. Number four on Pocock’s list of early members, Fred Bowers, like Fyfe does not appear in later records. Number five, Percy Burton had served in the Imperial Yeomanry in the Boer War and may have been one of Pocock’s wartime comrades. Of the first twenty-five members, five were war correspondents plus a number of authors and travellers. Only three of the first twenty-five were from what were then the influential upper classes, Colonel Sir William Serjeant, Sir Henry Seton-Karr, and number fourteen on the list, the Earl of Lonsdale, who was not enlisted until March. So in spite of Pocock’s great efforts, it had taken him over two months to gain fourteen recruits. Certainly the acquisition of Lonsdale was a bonus to the Legion and his influence and that of Lonsdale’s friends boosted recruitment. From a quiet beginning and the idea of one man, Roger Pocock and no other, the Legion began to grow steadily. The seed of the idea may perhaps have been sown in discussions with comrades from round the Empire on the South African veldt, but Pocock’s amateur espionage in Russia caused the idea to germinate. Once the idea had come to fruition then, and only then, did other more influential and well-known men come on board the scheme.

What of the Boy Scout movement? Boy Scouts had one massive advantage over the Legion of Frontiersmen. They were led by a man known nationally as the Hero of Mafeking, whereas in those class-conscious days the Frontiersmen were initially led by an ex-corporal of Irregular Scouts and a man about whose past life there were many questions raised. It has been suggested at various times that Pocock discussed his plans with Baden-Powell, either in South Africa or during 1904-1905. As we know, the Legion has attracted countless rumours, myths and legends over the years and this is a suggestion totally without foundation. Pocock made no mention of any meeting with B-P in any writings, diaries or albums. Knowing how he often wrote about his brief meetings with Rudyard Kipling, it has to be certain that he would have chronicled meeting such a famous man as B-P. Baden-Powell was fervently anti-smoking whereas Pocock was seldom seen without a lit cigarette between his fingers. The favourite way for the Frontiersmen to drum up recruits was to organise Smoking Concerts, events of which Baden-Powell would heartily disapprove. It is pointed out that Roger Pocock was a featured contributor to the very first Scout magazine and to a number of subsequent issues, but it has to be realised that, other than Baden-Powell writing regular articles, it was a commercial project by newspaper magnate C. Arthur Pearson, and became a highly profitable one for him. Pocock was not a character personally to appeal to Baden-Powell. Pocock was a keen member of the bohemian Savage Club and friendly with the journalists and travel authors who were also members: a man with a chequered past with many unanswered questions about it. In addition Pocock’s sister with the stage name of Lena Ashwell was a well-known actress. In Edwardian society, to be a professional actress was not necessarily an acceptable profession. Lena Ashwell had many titled supporters and the King himself is known to have seen her perform more than once. She regularly promoted her brother’s Legion of Frontiersmen to her influential supporters.

Baden-Powell never claimed that the principles behind his scheme for training youth were uniquely his…But in fact, of the many influences he cited, one – Ernest Thompson Seton – was appreciably more important than the others…¹

Seton’s ideas, which he promulgated during the 1880s and 1890s in magazines did have some influence on Roger Pocock. Seton was to become a contributor to the Frontiersman’s Pocket Book,² although there is no record of him being otherwise involved with the Legion. Seton regularly complained to Baden-Powell about what he saw as wholesale “borrowings” from his work. Seton also complained that the Boy Scouts were unduly militaristic. The Frontiersmen, although planning to be prepared for eventual war with Germany, were initially not militaristic. Even in the case of war, the Frontiersmen were mainly to use their scouting skills as they would not accept as members anyone young enough to join the Territorials. When Lt. Col. Driscoll joined the Legion and gradually came to the forefront, the Legion then acquired more of a military structure. As can be seen from the illustration here, early Frontiersmen exercises were planned more for scouting. Because of this Frontiersmen were ideal to become Scout Leaders, which many of them did. Baden-Powell had no real editorial input to The Scout. Roger Pocock was commissioned by Pearson’s editor to write a series of articles on “The Work of Today’s Scouts” for the earliest issues of The Scout magazine.

Two men, one of whom, Robert Baden-Powell, is still remembered by many. The other, remembered by only a few, was Roger Pocock who was born 150 years ago in 1865. Both had a considerable influence on the English-speaking world. And yet in spite of the similarities of their ideas, one for youth and the other for men considered to be past military age, there is no evidence that these two great characters ever met or corresponded directly with each other.

¹ Michael Rosenthal, The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the origins of the Boy Scout movement, (Collins, 1986). Pages 64-81 discuss Seton’s Birch-bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians and its influence on Baden-Powell

² Roger Pocock (editor) The Frontiersman’s Pocket Book (John Murray, 1909) has been re-printed by the University of Alberta Press and is available from the publishers direct or in U.K. from Gazelle Book services

© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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