That Time Britain's MI5 Employed Boy Scouts As Spies

It's every boy's dream to become a spy (who's also a dinosaur and Spider-Man). And for one glorious year in Britain, every teen boy that could tie a slipknot had the opportunity to become part of a great and hallowed spy organization. And they absolutely blew it. 

The Scout Association
But not in the "Church way" either, let's be clear about that. 

The early 1910s saw the birth of two important British organizations: MI5 and the British (Boy and Girl) Scouts. So perhaps it's no wonder that these nationalistic siblings would develop an instant connection. During the Great War, MI5 started experimenting with the concept of boy spies, young teen Scouts tasked with performing light spycraft duties like information gathering and counter-espionage message distribution. These badge-collecting boys were even given their own offices in Military Intelligence headquarters to serve as backroom staff. Just picture James Bond in short trousers running around 1914 London clutching coded messages -- then picture how much money you'd make selling that YA novel concept.

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Sadly, the Boy Scout initiative didn't last very long. Agents quickly surmised that the boys were too "feckless and noisy," often succumbing to Hardy Boys-esque flights of self-promoting fancy that made their spy reports unreliable and also getting into all kinds of hijinks in the ample downtime between missions. So on September 15, 1915, MI5 fired all of its Boy Scouts and replaced them with … Girl Guides. Opposed to the rowdy boys, these young women were veritable professionals, with Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell noting: "They can be trusted, better than boys, not to talk. If the character of the girl is developed, she will discipline herself not to 'blab' and will 'play the game' not for herself and her own glorification - but in the interests of her side." A bond of trust that carried on into modern times when a former Girl Scout, Dame Stella Rimington, became MI5's first female chief. 

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So what about the boys? MI5 still believed they were the nation's future, so the Security Service decided that these groups of impressionable dinguses needed extra protection. After World War I, MI5 maintained close relations with the Boy Scouts specifically to monitor them for any Red or Nazi infiltrations, the organization being deathly afraid that a foreign brand of jingoistic nationalism (and not their own) would take over the soldiers of tomorrow. Luckily, this paranoia never proved to be warranted, and the idea of a "Communist Boy Scout movement" never took root in the British Scouts. Of course, how much is thanks to the noble efforts of the experienced counterintelligence agents in the nearby Girl Guides troop? Well, those jamboree files still haven't been disclosed to the public.

For more feckless and noisy tangents, do follow Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: The Scout Association

 

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