I suppose that to most people, my name is synonymous with Girl Guiding. It must seem all the more surprising, therefore, that I should come thus far through the story of my life with scarcely a mention of that Movement.
Scouting, like Topsy, had just growed'. Following the publication of Scouting for Boys in 1908, thousands of youngsters had demanded an organisation to guide them in its practices and precepts. The result was the Boy Scouts Association.
The perusal of Scouting for Boys, however, was not confined exclusively to boys. Their sisters read the book with equal avidity. It opened up new and appealing vistas to these young female Edwardians, visions of a life where women could face the world on equal terms with men, where they would be trained and equipped to cope with what-ever emergencies might arise. The idea chimed in perfect tune with the growing demand for women's suffrage. As this account of my own girlhood must have demonstrated, there was nothing at all for girls to do in the Edwardian era except wait to be married. They had no freedom of action, no training for life, little education compared with boys. Needlework, painting and music were almost the only activities considered suitable for young ladies. Now, after centuries as second-class citizens, women were beginning to dream of freedom and equality with men. Scouting for Boys turned that dream into reality for at least a few girls in 1908—although I myself was utterly oblivious of this trend at the time, being wholly absorbed in my pets, my tennis, my hunting and my romances!
Soon there were little groups of unofficial ‘Girl Scouts' sporting such unsuitable patrol names as ‘Wildcats' or ‘Nighthawks'. In an effort to emulate the Scouts, they marched around, festooned with water-bottles and whistles, their haversacks bulging with bandages, hoping to find some injured person on whom they could practise their newly-acquired skills.
When the Scouts held their first big Rally at the Crystal Palace in 1909, the ‘Girl Scouts' turned up and demanded to be inspected by my husband. He had to do something about them. He could not allow them to be Scouts. That would have scandalised the parents and disgusted the boys! So he decided to organise them into a sister movement which he called ‘Girl Guides' and he asked his sister Agnes to run it.
She was a very gifted woman and extremely clever but thoroughly Victorian in outlook. She organised a Committee from among her elderly friends and asked Mrs. Lumley-Holland to be Chairman. These ladies did their best but they were not really in touch with the younger generation; their ideas were based on the old-fashioned women's organisations. Agnes wrote a handbook adapted from Scouting for Boys, which came out under the title of How Girls Can Help the Empire. I am afraid that Robin and I called it ‘The Little Blue Muddly'. Actually, she did the job very well having regard to the strict conventions of the times. Before 1914, the dead hand of Queen Victoria still rested heavily on anything to do with the female. Whilst encouraging young girls to take a first tentative step towards independence, Agnes had at the same time to allay the fears of their parents that Guides might in any way become ‘unwomanly'. The result was a not very exciting programme. The Guide Committee worked from one room in Scout Headquarters and were, in fact, concerned largely with the issue of badges and the publication of The Girl Guide Gazette. Things did not, therefore, go too well with this young organisation, though the outbreak of war gave more direction and purpose to its activities.
As the war progressed and women played a greater role in the national effort, it was inevitable that the Girl Guides should feel a need for a more up-to-date approach. As yet there had been no organisation on a national scale, only sporadic local growth. Robin began to receive letters from all over the country begging him to do something about Guiding.
It meant a clean sweep of the Committee and that would include Mrs. Lumley-Holland!
He made an appointment to see her at her house, I remember. He was very nervous. It seems incredible that the man who could face Chief Dinizulu or King Prempeh, who had earned the name among the Matabele of ‘The Wolf That Never Sleeps', who could withstand a seven-month siege in Mafeking by the Boers, should be apprehensive of one elderly lady; but such was the case. Not for nothing, however, had he earned a reputation for guile in his campaigns. When he was ushered into her drawing-room and asked to wait, he selected a chair with its back to the light. Thus, when Mrs. Lumley-Holland entered the room, she would be facing the window and he might be able to read from her face something of what was going on in her mind. It was not her face that betrayed her, however—it was the egret in her bonnet. It was all a-quiver! Robin realised that she was even more nervous than he was. After that, he felt confident to control the interview which ended, as he had hoped, with Mrs. Lumley-Holland's resignation.
Robin now set about reorganising the Movement. He succeeded in obtaining a Charter of Incorporation and set up a new Committee of younger women, with himself as Chairman. Agnes became President and held that office until H.R.H. The Princess Mary took over in 1920. Agnes then became Vice-President, which position she held until her death in 1945.
The new Committee began to organise Guiding along Scout lines, using the scheme of de-centralisation that Robin had found worked so well in all his other activities, whether in Scouting or in the Army. There was to be a Commissioner appointed for each county who would be responsible for organising Guiding in an area where she was known and where she herself knew which women to call upon for assistance.
I had already, as early as September of 1914, offered my services to the Girl Guides but had been turned down by Agnes and her Committee. I think they considered me too young. I had swallowed my disappointment at being rejected and had done what I could to help by typing Robin's letters for him. After the reorganisation, however, I felt emboldened to offer my services again. I was in the Guide office one day with him and with the Guide Secretary, Miss Macdonald. 1 asked tentatively ‘Who are you having in Sussex? Could I be of any help?' Little did I realise what would ensue from that casual offer!
Miss Macdonald put me in touch with Miss Maude and Mrs. Jennings who were organising Guiding in Crowborough and Brighton respectively. They asked me to see what I could do in my own part of Sussex. So, warrantless, with scant knowledge as yet of Guiding but with great enthusiasm, I plunged in. I started Guide Committees all over my District with such success that I was asked to take on the Division of Rye. It was thrilling. Guiding began to catch on with the same enthusiasm that had accompanied Scouting a few years before. Girls saw in it opportunities to be of positive service to their country. Soon individual women were starting companies and organising local supporters' committees. In March 1916, I was granted a warrant as County Commissioner for the whole of Sussex. I flung all the energy of my twenty-seven years into the work. There was never any shortage of girls; the problem, as always in voluntary work, was leaders. Out of twenty letters I wrote, perhaps only one would meet with any response. I had to persuade, cajole, and sometimes even beg for help, support, money, premises to meet the ever-hungry demands of the growing Movement.
I suppose if I had not had the good offices of an excellent and trusted Nannie for the babies, I could not have done so much. I see from my diary that, in addition to travelling constantly about the county to find and enthuse suitable young women to be Guide leaders, I was in addition touring the country with my husband and supporting him in his Scouting. In July alone I went with him to Bath and Bristol, to Oxford, to the Isle of Wight, on a tour of Hampshire, and deputised for him for a week's tour in the North of England when he was unwell.
Later, when our children were at boarding school, we were at pains to arrange our tours as far as possible to avoid school holidays or, if that were not possible, to take the children with us if it could be arranged. In these early days, however, with all the urgency of building up the two organisations that were making such a positive contribution to the national effort, we felt obliged to put our personal lives aside as so many other members of the community were doing. Even so, there was a great deal of fun to be had as well.
Later, as the two Movements grew, the numbers at Scout and Guide Headquarters increased to such an extent that two days had to be set aside for entertaining them. They were such happy parties and it is a pleasure for me today to meet elderly people who were once on the staff and who remember those summer outings.
Miss Alice Behrens, a woman of outstanding character and a Guide leader up north, helped Robin with the new organisation. She used to stay with us whenever she came south. I remember one weekend in the summer of 1916; Robin was going fishing—a favourite recreation. Alice and I walked down with him to the river. We sat on the bank in the warmth of the late afternoon and talked, in between casts, of the subject that was dear to us all.
‘Alice,' said Robin, reeling in his line for another cast. ‘It's time you got your Commissioners together to talk. You ought to be planning how you can make Guiding grow into a national movement of greater value, as my Scouts have grown. Why don't you have a conference? Choose a good centre somewhere in the middle of the country and call them together.'
That was how the Matlock Conference of October 1916 came about. There were twenty-six Commissioners at that first gathering. Today there would be more like twenty-six hundred. I attended as County Commissioner for Sussex and spoke on the subject of ‘Organisation'.
To my intense surprise, I returned home as Chief Commissioner, having been elected to that office at the Conference. Later, in February 1918, I was made Chief Guide.
It was an enormous challenge and one that I was proud and happy to accept. It seems quite incredible that in so short a space of time between my marriage in 1912 and the Matlock Conference of 1916 I should have travelled so far. The shy, diffident girl had developed into a confident woman. I can only thank my husband for this transformation. Not that he influenced me in any conscious fashion; he never said ‘Do this' or ‘Do that'; he expected me to make up my own mind about things, to write my own letters and speeches, to run my own show. But he had this marvellous ability to awaken in me qualities and talents I had no idea I possessed. He built up my confidence; he gave me encouragement; he inspired enthusiasm.
It was as if all the pent-up longing for a purpose in life had at last found an outlet. The abortive attempt to enroll as a nurse; the intermittent help given at the I.C.A.A. Home in Parkstone; even the three months' service with the Y.M.C.A. in France— all these were as nothing compared with the sense of ‘belonging' I felt when I started Guiding. Again, so much of what I had dismissed as a wasted girlhood now, in a roundabout way, showed itself to have been a preparation for the life that lay ahead.
All the many friends I had made—and kept—from Devon to Sussex, from Cumberland to Berkshire during the family peregrinations, were to help me now as I travelled from one end of the country to another finding Commissioners, organising, coaxing, enthusing, ‘spreading the word'. Even if the friends were not themselves prepared to put on uniform, they could often introduce me to someone who would.
All the walking and riding and tennis that had filled my earlier years contributed to the robust constitution that has enabled me to cope with a punishing programme for nearly sixty years.
The love of the out-of-doors, fostered by the cycle rides and picnics on Exmoor, the days out shooting with my father, the primrose and blackberry forays—all these enabled me to appreciate that part of Guiding which seeks to inculcate in youngsters a joy in nature and in open-air pursuits.
Even the peripatetic existence I had as a child enabled me to adapt readily to the constant changes of scene forced upon me by public life. Indeed, until about a year ago, I do not think I had spent more than five successive nights in one bed since my marriage!
It was wonderful to be working ‘in harness' with my husband, striving towards a common goal, imbued with the same ideals. We had the same sense of values, the same sense of humour, our ideas were in accord on everything. Working together, we could achieve much more than the sum of what either of us could have achieved separately. We were leading brother and sister Movements, we could travel together and contribute to each other's work. There could scarcely have been a happier arrangement.
There had to be a snag somewhere!
As usual, it came from my mother. She was so very Victorian in her outlook. She condemned suffragettes and any form of ‘Women's Lib.' whatsoever—even the comparatively modest freedom Robin offered to girls through Guiding. She just did not understand him or his motives—or the change he had made in me. It was bad enough my marrying and leaving home; it was worse to put on a Scout uniform and go to France—but at least that was only for three months. But to take up Guiding ... !
I wrote sadly in my diary:
Lewis P. Orans, 2004