A century ago, in a forest not far from London, a group of Scouting volunteers made history.
Over a span of nearly two weeks, they experienced a course, devised by Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell, that offered “practical instruction as to how a camp should be run.”
Quite a bit has changed since the world’s first Wood Badge course, held 100 years ago this month.
But quite a bit has remained the same. Wood Badge still brings together Scouters willing to give up free time for the betterment of their Scouts. Its lessons still reach beyond Scouting — improving your life at home and work. And it’s still the most fun you can have getting trained.
Today, I thought we’d look back on that first-ever Wood Badge course. The list below was compiled with the help of Nelson Block, longtime volunteer and BSA historian, and Peter Ford, Heritage Research Officer at the Scout Association Archives at Gilwell Park.
1. The course was 12 days long.
The first Wood Badge course ran from Sept. 8–19, 1919. That’s 12 days.
The length of modern courses is much more friendly to a working Scouter’s pool of vacation time: six days.
2. It took place at Gilwell Park.
But in the early 1900s, the spot about 20 miles northeast of London was a rundown farm.
In 1919, publisher William de Bois Maclaren purchased Gilwell Park and donated the land to the U.K. Scout Association.
Maclaren bought the land for 7,000 pounds — the equivalent of about $438,000 today.
He’s considered the first benefactor of Scouting — a legacy matched today by an inspiring group of men and women whose generosity has ensured the BSA’s vibrant future.
3. Wood Badgers honor Maclaren even today.
The surname Maclaren should sound familiar to Wood Badgers.
Wood Badge participants, and those who have successfully completed the course, wear the Maclaren tartan in his honor.
4. Planning took a break during the first World War.
Baden-Powell began developing the course in 1913 as a correspondence course called “Scouting for Scoutmasters,” published in The Scout Association’s monthly magazine, The Headquarters Gazette.
But planning was put on hold in 1914 with the outbreak of the first World War
5. The course Scoutmaster was 29 years old.
Francis “Skipper” Gidney, an officer who was injured during World War I and the first Camp Chief of Gilwell, served as Scoutmaster for the course. He was just 29.
Many people believe Baden-Powell was the staffer in charge of this first Wood Badge, but that’s not the case. B-P served as an instructor and adviser and only attended the course on Sept. 8 and 13.
6. Participants were divided into three patrols.
There weren’t any Beavers, Bobwhites, Eagles, Foxes, Owls, Bears, Buffaloes or Antelopes at Gilwell in September 1919.
There were only Bulls, Cuckoos and Ravens. The 19 participants were divided into those patrols.
7. The course emphasized practical Scouting skills.
Much of the course involved learning practical Scouting skills, such as patrol jobs, ceremonies, flag courtesy, campcraft, pioneering, nature lore, signs and signals, Scout games, compass work, map-making, and drawing.
Participants also took an eight-hour hike in the forest under “sealed orders” — meaning they didn’t learn of the destination until the hike began.
8. Participants had a celebration in London.
One thing hasn’t changed a bit in 100 years: Scouters love banquets.
In 1919, on the last day of the Wood Badge course, Chief Scout Commissioner Percy Everett hosted a banquet in London for all the participants.
Everett, who was later knighted for his service to Scouting, watched as B-P gave each participant one of the original beads from the necklace of Zulu chief Dinizulu. Participants received their other bead once they completed the second part of Wood Badge.
Today’s Wood Badge beads are replicas of those original Dinizulu beads.
9. John Wilkinson was the first person to complete Wood Badge.
Like today’s course, the 1919 version included two parts: the in-person training and the application of the training in your home unit.
Participant John Wilkinson was the first to complete both portions and therefore the first person in history to be officially Wood Badge trained.
But here’s my favorite part. In true Scouting fashion, Wilkinson gave back to Scouting in big ways. He was Scoutmaster for the first Wood Badge course held outside of Gilwell Park, and he helped develop Scouting in Ireland and Albania.
10. The last surviving person to attend the course died in 2004.
Don Potter was 17 years old when he staffed the first Wood Badge course in 1919.
During his life, he became a prolific artist and sculptor. Potter decorated many buildings and gateways around Gilwell Park, including the iconic wooden gates at the entrance to Gilwell.
When he died in 2004 at age 102, Potter was the last surviving person to have attended the 1919 Wood Badge course.
How one BSA council is celebrating the anniversary
Later this month, the BSA’s Bay-Lakes Council in Wisconsin will commemorate the 100th anniversary of that first Wood Badge course.
The council is hosting a Wood Badge Scouter Reunion, set for Sept. 18–22 at Bear Paw Scout Camp. They’ll play traditional games, have a “critter” parade, cook up some Dutch oven meals and reminisce around the campfire.
They’ll also host a Scouting magazine photographer for a future feature story. Stay tuned.
How to get Wood Badge trained
Ready to take the next step in your commitment to Scouting? Contact your local council to learn more about Wood Badge.