Rumours about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality chiefly concern his relationship with Kenneth McLaren, whom he met in 1881 when McLaren was twenty but looked like ‘a lad of apparently about fourteen’. (Baden-Powell was 24 at the time.) McLaren certainly became his closest friend, whom he gave the affectionate nickname of ‘Boy’ or ‘the Boy’, but there is no evidence either way, that this was or was not a sexual relationship. They did love each other, if that counts. Baden-Powell’s biographer says of him that ‘The available evidence points inexorably to the conclusion that Baden-Powell was a repressed homosexual’ – which presumably means that in an ideal world (for him) he would have had sexual relationships with other males, but that in sadder reality he did not.
There can be no doubt that Baden-Powell was far more interested in men and boys, as comrades, colleagues and companions, than in women and girls. He took it for granted – and publicly said so – that a male couple could make just as happy a life for themselves in living together as any husband and wife; this view always tempered his otherwise wholly conventional and conservative attitudes to marriage as an institution. But his commitment to the masculine principle went further than that. In the face of his typical utterances about men, mere woman pales to insignificance. In Rovering to Success (1922), for instance, he roundly declares that ‘A clean young man in his prime of health and strength is the finest creature God has made in this world’. He liked to watch his boy scouts bathing naked, and was horrified in 1934 when the police decided to crack down on boys’ naked bathing in the Serpentine. A friend of his, A.H. Tod, a master at Charterhouse (of which Baden-Powell was an old boy), amassed a large collection of photographs he had taken of Charterhouse boys in the nude; Baden-Powell was delighted when invited to look through these. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, in their cumulative splendour, they represented the crucial essence of the task to which he had dedicated his life. For him, mens sana in corpore sano was more than just a pious phrase. He applied it, actively and practically, in his concentration on the instilling of regular and assiduous bathing habits in boy scouts, as well as on the design of their uniforms. (Shorts were connected, in his mind, with both freedom of movement and bodily hygiene; he also found them attractive.) A boy with clean habits was likely to be pure in mind, too; which made him worth befriending. A boy who was dirty, and dirty-minded either as cause or in consequence, was all the more worth befriending – so that he could be educated into better habits. It stood to reason.