By 1911, Scouting was growing enormously, mainly from the bottom up.  It’s creator, General Robert Baden-Powell a retired half-pay General (with little money of his own) could not afford the sort of administration structure it required.  Some Scoutmasters were wearing the most outrageous ‘uniforms’ – including spurs!  Some were accepting boys as young as seven, others would not allow entry until thirteen.  Many lacked the most basic understanding of of how to work with boys, and some had not even bothered to read any of BP’s books!  It was clear that the Scouting Movement could not progress without clear rules and formal training for its Scoutmasters.

That same year, B-P began training Scout leaders through a series of formal lectures.  But this career soldier wanted an “outdoor classroom” where Scouts and leaders could learn hands-on.  His experience as a regimental commanding officer had led him to conclude that his men responded well to hands-on training in small groups. He wrote, “The secret of getting successful work out of your trained men lies in one nutshell – in the clearness of the instructions they receive.”

During a business trip to London, Scottish businessman and District Commissioner William de Bois Maclaren was saddened to see that Scouts in London’s East End had no suitable outdoor area.  Over dinner with Baden-Powell in 1919, he pledged the funds to buy a camp that could be used by Scouts and Scouters, telling him, “You find what you want and I will buy it.” 

Baden-Powell asked a small committee to find a suitable camp.  They found Gilwell, a run-down estate in the Epping Forest Preserve.  B-P, impressed with their description, agreed to the purchase and the wheels were set into motion.


The Epping Forest Preserve and the History of Gilwell

The Epping Forest Preserve (north of London) is thought to have been given legal status as a royal forest by Henry III in the 12th century. (This status allowed commoners to use the forest to gather wood and foodstuffs, and to graze livestock, but only the king was allowed to hunt.)  Both King Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, hunted in the Epping Forest (certainly including the property what we today know as Gilwell); Henry built a hunting lodge in the Epping Forest Preserve in 1543, which Elizabeth later renovated.  This lodge is today a museum and is a short distance from today’s Gilwell.

But the history of what we call “Gilwell Park” (which is a working Scout camp and training center owned by the UK Scouts) can be traced to 1407, when John Crow owned what he then called “Gyldiefords”.  Sometime between 1407 and 1422, Crow sold the land to Richard Rolfe, and the area became known as Gillrolfes (“Gill” being Old English for glen and “Rolfe” the surname of the owner.)  After Rolfe died in 1422, the two areas of the property came to be called “Great Gilwell” and “Little Gilwell” after “Gill” (“glen” or “meadow”) and “well” (from the Old English word “wella”, which is a well or a spring). 

Therefore, the name “Gilwell” or “Gill well” literally means “glen well” or “meadow well” or “meadow spring.”  For over 300 years, a farm house stood on the property, until it was replaced by a much larger manor house built in 1754 called Osborne Hall (right).  Osborne Hall was later expanded and renamed “Gilwell Hall” by the Chimney family in 1793, its wealthy, influential and aristocratic 18th-century owners, who called their entire estate “Gilwell.”  Today the manor house is simply called “The White House”.

Due to its aristocratic owners, Gilwell Manor and the Gilwell Estate was often visited by King George III, and later by his son King George IV.  But the area is rich in other kinds of history.  Twenty years before the new manor house was built, highwayman Richard “Dick” Turpin had hid in the forests and had preyed on travelers to and from London who used Hoe Lane, the “highway” that traveled across the Gilwell Estate.  (Dick Turpin was a man who engaged in a wide variety of criminal acts, including burglary, cattle rustling, horse theft, highway robbery and murder before being executed in York on April 7, 1739.)  That same London “highway” of 300 years ago is today a simple dirt road that winds through Gilwell Park.

But by 1919 Gilwell Estate and Gilwell Hall had fallen into serious disrepair and its most recent owner had put it up for sale.  And thanks to a very generous financial gift, Scouting was about to get its first camp.


Scouting gets its first camp- and it’s first Wood Badge

Working with Maclauren, the estate agent and the seller, the UK Scouts worked out the financial details of the purchase of the estate, and a price of £7,000 was eventually agreed for the purchase of the property.  Maclaren donated the entire amount, plus an additional £3,000 for improvements to the estate. (His £10,000 donation in 1919 would be worth £370,000– $568,000 in US dollars– in 2008 figures.)  By anyone’s accounting, it was a generous donation.  In addition to his financial support, Maclaren remained a very “hands on” volunteer (as most Scouters are!), and was often seen at the park performing much of the maintenance himself. 

The camp was formally purchased in June, and opening ceremonies were held on July 26, 1919, including a rally of 700 Scouts.  The first camp participants were “Rover” Scouts, who had been allowed to start the repairs in April of that year. 

(Baden-Powell never lived at Gilwell Park but he often camped, lectured, taught courses, and attended meetings. He emphasized the importance of Scouters’ training at Gilwell Park for Scouting by taking it as the territorial designation in his peerage title of 1st Baron Baden-Powell of Gilwell in 1929 when the barony was conferred upon him by the King.) 

Six weeks later, on September 8, 1919, nineteen men assembled by patrols for the first training camp, led by Captain Frank  Gidney (not by B-P, as some erroneously report, although he did visit the course.) 

Click here for details on the first training course.

Click here for more details on early Wood Badge.

When they had finished their training, Baden-Powell gave each man two simple wooden beads (not one bead as some have reported) from a necklace he had found in a deserted hut while chasing Zulu chieftain Dinizulu when on campaign in South Africa in 1888. 

When the original beads supplied by Baden-Powell started to run out in later courses, only one bead was awarded, and the participant was instructed to carve a second bead.  But eventually new ones were whittled to maintain the tradition and two beads were awarded again.  Because of these beads, the course came to be known as the “Wood Badge Course.”

The photo on the right are Baden-Powell’s six Wood Badge beads, which he had originally envisioned to be worn around the campaign hat, instead of around the neck.  The photo above is a 2008 photo of the first training field, with the huge “Gilwell Oak” seen on the right.  The photo below is the first course photo, including Course Director Frank “Skipper” Gidney who can be seen on Baden-Powell’s right.

Wood Badge is taught all over the world.  The two simple Wood Badge beads are one of the few widely recognizable Scouting emblems worn by Scout leaders all over the world.  The Wood Badge Maclauren tartan, which honors the gift of Gilwell Park, and the Wood Badge Woggle, with the Axe and Log, are widely recognized symbols of Wood Badge world-wide.

American Wood Badge

In 1936, an experimental Wood Badge Course was conducted in the United States at the Schiff Scout Reservation, with William “Green Bar Bill” Hillcourt as its Scoutmaster. (Hillcourt was truly one of the “unsung heroes” of the early American Scouting movement, developing major portions of our handbooks and junior leader training materials.)

In 1948, the first American Wood Badge Course was introduced in the United States as advanced training for trainers of Boy Scout leaders. Later, the program was extended to include troop committee members, commissioners, and Explorer (now Venturing) leaders. 

Experiments began in the late 1960’s with a leadership development Wood Badge course emphasizing 11 leadership skills or “competencies.” This program was launched in 1972 in support of a major revision of the Boy Scout program. The first experimental Cub Scout Trainer Wood Badge was field tested in 1976 and was established as the official advanced training program in Cub Scouting. In 1978, an evaluation of Boy Scout Leader Wood Badge revealed a need for greater emphasis on the practical aspects of good troop operation, mixed with a variety of leadership exercises. The course content was revised in 1994 and incorporated key elements of Ethics in Action which was introduced into Boy Scout training and literature over the last several years.

In 2000, the Boy Scouts of America once again examined the content and goals of Wood Badge, wanting to create a “Wood Badge for the 21st Century.”   A national committee of volunteers was formed, and it was decided that separate Wood Badge courses for Cub Scout and Boy Scout Leaders would end and that a new “Wood Badge for the 21st Century” would be created with an emphasis on leadership skills and the latest in training techniques for all volunteers- Cub Scout, Boy Scout and Venturing.

The new 21st Century Wood Badge course benefits Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Venturing, district and council leaders with all levels attending together demonstrating that scouting is a family of interrelated, values-based programs that provide age-appropriate activities for youth. Course content for Wood Badge for the 21st Century includes Living the Values, Bringing the Vision to Life, Models for Success, Tools of the Trade, and Leading to Make a Difference.  But as in all Wood Badge training in the past, these modules are taught using classroom, example and hands-on sessions so that the participants can not just hear it or see it- they can live it.

Has Wood Badge changed over the years since Baden-Powell first designed it in 1919?  Of course it has!  Scouting today is a much more diverse program, with more minority members, minority volunteer leaders, women volunteers, and coeducational Venturing crews.  Today’s training uses even more hands-on games, newer technologies, and teaches more environmentally friendly “low impact” Leave No Trace outdoor skills.

But what about the youth we serve?

While many challenges facing youth will always be the same, including peer pressure, the need for acceptance, the need to learn social skills and to generally “figure out who you are”, today’s teens (including Cub Scout aged members) deal on a daily basis with drugs, gangs, violence, sexually transmitted diseases, language barriers, cultural barriers, and handicaps.  These youth want to learn, and they want to fit in. 


But most importantly, the youth we serve deserve a trained leader.  Wood Badge believes that training to be a successful Scouting volunteer is an ongoing process.  We invite you to help us to continue to write the history of Scouting though your own hard work and efforts on behalf of the service to youth.  We salute all of our Scouting volunteers and congratulate you in your decision to participate in Scouting’s most advanced adult leader training.