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02 December 2007

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857 - 1941) 1st Baron Baden-Powell OM, GCMG, GCVO, KCB.

Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell. hero of the siege of Mafeking, the founder of the Scouts, and thus of a new type of drag, was also an amateur female impersonator.


He had a very distinguished career with the British army in India, southern Africa and elsewhere, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General.


All through his life Baden-Powell was keen on amateur theatricals, from Charterhouse public school where among other roles he played female operatic roles. With his music master at school he shared the ability of being able to sing in a convincing female soprano. In the army he made a speciality of female roles and would often make his own dresses. His stage speciality was what he called his skirt dance.


From 1881, he had a particularly close friendship with a younger man, Kenneth McLaren, whom he would call 'the Boy', and, after comforting him after McLaren's mother died, the two men became very close. They took a bungalow together and Baden-Powell's letters home were constantly referring to his new friend. They shared many activities, in particular polo and pigsticking.


At this time Baden-Powell wrote a short story 'The Ordeal of the Spear' about two officers, 'an unusually good pair of friends' who both wanted to marry the same woman. They decide that whoever inflicted the first wound in a bout of pigsticking would be the one to propose to her. The 'boy' drew first blood, but before he has a chance to propose, the young woman was thrown from the back of an elephant and trampled underfoot. This allowed the friendship to continue unchanged.


In addition to his drag shows, Steph balanced his love of manly activities with sketching, choosing fabrics and furnishings and designing embroidery patterns. He was quite uncomfortable with women in a context where he might be considered a prospective husband, but could get on with them quite well where all hints of sex were removed, e.g. in considering fabrics and embroidery.


He maintained a number of correspondences with girls, but let them lapse as they matured into women. He did not marry until the age of 55, when he chose an androgynous 23-year-old, Olave Soames.


At a time when British officers were very conscious not to socialize with their men, and hardly treated them as human, Baden-Powell spent much of his free time with the men under his command. He took them scouting, of course he participated in theatricals with them, he also joined them in gymnastic displays involving physical contact, and he gave them counselling. On the other hand this was only extended to young men; middle-aged men where more likely to experience his snobbery.

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