Baroness Olave St. Clair Baden-Powell
The story of her life began when she was born on the 22nd of February 1889 in Chesterfield to local artist Harold Soames and his wife Katherine. Despite a fairly nomadic childhood, locating often from house to house, she enjoyed a rich and privileged upbringing under the care of her family and governesses and took a keen interest in a wide variety sports, played the violin and enjoyed other activities. By twenty three, however, Olave met a man that would change her life and encourage her to focus her sights on a highly rewarding career.
Olave became Olave Baden-Powell and began a rewarding career with the Scouts and the Girl Guide movement.
In 1912, Olave met Robert Baden-Powell, a war hero from the Boer War and the man that initiated the Scout movement, while they were both aboard the RMSP Arcadian on their way to America. Despite their large age difference – Robert being exactly 32 years older than Olave – they were soon infatuated with each another and announced their engagement. This speedy, surprising relationship shocked many and was labelled a scandal by the media; however, this just encouraged the couple to marry sooner and they held a secret ceremony that year on the 30th of October. As she began her new life known as Baroness Olave St. Clair Baden-Powell with Robert she started working as his secretary and later took on duties as his driver after he gave her lessons.It was not long, however, before Olave found herself playing a vital part in the Scouting movement in a career move that would define the rest of her life.
Baden-Powell became one of the most respected and influential figures in the world of guiding following her decision to aid her husbands work with the scouts. With the help of her housekeeper and gardener she began as the Scout Leader for the scouts of the Ewhurst Troop in 1913 and by 1916 she had risen to the rank of County Commissioner for the Girl Guides, finally achieving the prestigious title of Chief Guide in 1918 in a ceremony where she was awarded a golden “silver fish” – the second of its kind to ever be produced. By the 1930s her reputation had spread and she was becoming a respected figure not just in England but across the guiding world. She received an even higher honour by being made a Dame, and Peru and Finland also awarded her one of their own highest awards – the White Rose and the Order of the Sun. This worldwide recognition is no surprise when you consider that Olave visited associations and events in 111 countries during her lifetime.
As dedicated as Olave was to the guides and her work, you could not fault her dedication to her growing family. Olave raised three children with Robert; Arthur Robert Peter, who later become Baron after his father’s passing, Heather and Betty, both of which received honorary titles due to their status. Additionally, when Olave’s sister died in 1919 the Baden-Powell’s brought up her three daughters as their own.
Olave’s wartime efforts and their influence on her career.
When people look back upon Olave’s life they will understandably think solely upon her work with the guides and her family connections but her work and experiences during the war should not be forgotten. During the First World War it was suggested that scouting staff should use YMCA huts as recreational centres for the soldiers. Olave joined the volunteers that headed to France between 1915 and 1916 and she attended the hut at Val-de-Lievres in Calais that was connected to, and funded by, her husband Robert. Here Olave aided the soldiers by providing everything from hot drinks to simple conversation and she even managed to put the musical talent she had acquired in her youth to good use by playing the violin in Christmas shows. Olave would have certainly continued her work in France for longer but she was ordered back to Britain when she fell ill.
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In 1939, when the Second World War began,Baroness Olave St. Clair Baden-Powell’s life was greatly different. By this point she was much further removed from the conflicts and efforts because she was middle aged and living with Robert in Nyeri, Kenya. This changed in 1941 when Robert died and Olave decided to take the risk of moving back to England. During the remainder of the war she spent her time touring the country, narrowing escaping death when a missile hit her apartment during one of her trips in 1944, and her Pax Hill home was given over to the Canadian military. As soon as the war was over she returned to France to help rebuild the movements she had worked so hard for all her life.
Olave’s later life, death and ongoing legacy.
Olave’s love of travelling and her desire to continue her work continued well into her old age and it was not until she was forbidden from further international by her doctor that she finally stopped. This decision was due to the onset of diabetes when she was 80 but it is clear that medical intervention must have been necessary because a heart attack nine years previous had done nothing to dissuade her. On the 25th of June 1977, Olave died from complication due to her diabetes at her home in Bramley but even death could not stop her making one final trip; her ashes were transported to Kenya so she could be buried in Robert’s grave and be beside her beloved husband once more.
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The memory of Olave and the Baden-Powells has never been forgotten by the organisations they formed and there are memorials, funds and special days in her honour. North London is now home to a centre for guides in her name, the Olave Baden-Powell Bursury fund was established in 1979 and there is also a Blue Plaque in her honour near her former Chesterfield home. Some may cite the couple’s plaque in Westminster Abbey as the greatest memorial but the honour that is arguably the most fitting is a day celebrated by the Guides and Scouts called Thinking Day. It is held every year on February 22nd, the birthday of both Olave and her beloved husband Robert.