Lord Baden-Powell, the Scout-Spy

16–18 Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster, London

There are many blue plaques on Queen Anne’s Gate, which originally was Queen Anne Square until it was merged with Park Street in 1874. The large mansions became government offices, before returning to private residential use only recently. A good-sized house here sells for around £25 million. One of them was used for spying by the future founder of the world Scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell, the 1st Baron Baden-Powell, a lieutenant-general in the British Army and many honours including GCMG (God Calls Me God) — how did all of this happen?

During the years 1884 and 1901, 16–18 Queen Anne’s Gate was used by the Intelligence Branch of the British Army. Inside these two terraced town houses, the British Army planned some amazing operations.

As Frederick Forsyth has pointed out, secrecy and patriotism have long been tenets of the British culture. Where Americans might look for information overseas for a fee, small or otherwise, the British can be counted on to do work, even dangerous work, for free. And thus, British officers, alongside members of the public, took their large cameras and ostentatious drawing materials around the world, posing as humble tourists. In fact, they were spying.

Incredibly, one of those tourists was a man who would later become famous for starting the boy scouting movement, which continues to this day. “Be prepared!” his young protégés are told, and so they are. Baden-Powell was alert too, and became famous for his work in Dalmatia, home of the more famous dogs, now part of Croatia.

He pretended to be an entymologist, an insect expert, and began to draw vivid pictures of butterflies and their wings. Interspersed between these innocuous drawings he added detailed studies of a fortress at Cattara, including its guns and other defences.

Such tasks and missions helped to build up Britain’s knowledge of her empire, and beyond, as any good spy knows that today’s allies are tomorrows enemies. Although information was harder to obtain in some ways back then, even Google Streetview cannot reproduce the detail that Baden-Powell would have included in his painstaking drawings. And still today, true ‘in-the-field’ espionage requires more than a drone and a high-definition camera.

The fun of a spy walk is that it is different every time. Sadly, time constraints mean that we sometimes cannot cover this story in full detail. This is just one of the many hidden secrets of Queen Anne’s Gate.