Pearse, Captain Dennis Colbron BAssistant Commandant of the Humshaugh Camp. Appointed by Baden-Powell to organize regional Scouting committees then later leading Tasmanian Scouter
It has not been an easy task to assemble the life history of this pivotal player in early Scout History. Having obtained one of the earliest key positions he seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, but over a eight year period, with the help of Milestone's readers, enough facts have emerged to make this 'potted biography' possible, though I am very aware that there is still much to learn.
DCP was born in 1883, the son of an artist, a skill which he was to inherit and use to shape his future career. It is, I feel, a reasonable surmise that Pearse joined the army on leaving school because by the age of 24, he was known as Captain Colbron Pearse, a rank which in those days was retained as a courtesy title in civilian life. In 1908, as a civilian, he had established the 1st Hampstead Troop in North East London. His Kangaroo Patrol gave public exhibitions of Scouting as far afield as Cornwell! B-P was greatly impressed by him and arranged with Keary, his publishing company's agent, to attend a demonstration on Wimbledon Common near Keary's home on May 15th 1908. Together they observed a competition between DCP's Hampstead boys and the Putney Troops. (This surely must have been one of the first inter-troop competitions.) The meeting, with B-P's comments, was reported in the May 30th edition of The Scout, and generally the Founder was fulsome in his praise. It was decided that DCP's boys and those from another pioneer troop in the North East, formed by Col. Vaux of Sunderland, should camp together on Vaux's estate at Grindon near Sunderland in late May and B-P visited the Camp on May 27th.
The very first edition of The Scout Magazine had been published on April 18th 1908, and announced a competition, the winners of which were to camp with Baden-Powell that summer at an, as yet, undisclosed venue that later was announced as Humshaugh in Northumberland. On August 9th B-P announced his intention of forming five patrols of six boys from the winning entries and a 'Special Patrol' of six boys, the children of his friends, three of whom had been to Brownsea, making a total of 36. He and Colbron Pearse (See Humshaugh Pages) would be joint Commandants. DCP was also responsible for the Bulls Patrol and is mentioned on an almost daily basis in Scout Henry Thompson's camp diary. (B-P gave all the boys at the camp a diary and had them submit them for his comments at the end of the camp, three of which survive). The camp was used as an exemplar for Scouting and the postcards and magic lantern slides which B-P commissioned were made available to Scoutmasters everywhere through the newly formed Scout Office.
Colbron Pearse with Silver Wolf
DCP returned to London and encouraged by Baden-Powell, who was seeking to provide a structure for the newly emerging Scout Movement by the formation of committees in large centres of population, became the Commissioner for North East London. Later on in 1908 DCP was appointed to act as a travelling 'Organising Secretary', to assist and co-ordinate the emerging Scout Counties. Around this time DCP illustrated several books and wrote an early article on Peace Scouting, published in Young England 1909. A short announcement with DCP's photograph appeared in The Scout in January 1911 to the effect the Pearse had been presented with a Silver Wolf by Baden-Powell. Despite my best endeavours I could discover no further information. It was then that I was contacted by Milestone's reader Russell Malham, a volunteer worker in the Tasmanian Scout Heritage Centre. Russell very kindly sent me a copy of Ray Jeffrey's The History of Scouting in Tasmania which was published in 1990. Fortunately the book has considerable detail about DCP's life on this island which he migrated to in March 1922 and also a snippet about DCP's Silver Wolf presentation. Ray Jeffrey appears to have got his information from Tim Jeal, B-Ps biographer who wrote (but not his B-P biography) that B-P called Pearse "Hon. Silver Wolf" at the Humshaugh Camp, but this is unsubstantiated. It is also claimed that DCP received his Silver Wolf when he resigned from Scouting in January 1911 and again, according to Jeffrey/Jeal, was only the second person in the world the receive it, the first being B-P himself. It may well be that the award was confirmed on DCP's retirement but it certainly was not the second occasion it had been presented. It was normally only awarded to boys who gained the King's Scout badge and 24 proficiency badges but DCP may well have been the second adult to receive it. Unfortunately the reason for DCP's resignation from Scouting is not given.
On arrival in Tasmania DCP established a farm called The Brown House in Clarence Valley on the Derwent River. Four years later in 1926 Pears sold up and moved to Hobart, Tasmania, to become an illustrator and, in 1933, he joined the Tasmanian Museum and Arts Gallery where he was able to use his artistic skills to good effect.
In a letter to B-P written in December 1922, DCP wrote that he was now Publicity Manager for the SA in Tasmania and also kept their records. There were at the time 24 troops with 6 more being formed. In 1926 as Assistant Chief Commissioner, he welcomed B-P to the island as part of the founder's tour of Australia . He maintained an illustrated Scouting section, Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs, in the Illustrated Tasmanian Mail. The following year he participated in the organisation of the All Australian Coroboree at Lake Sorrell and founded a Scouts' Employment agency in Hobart.
DCP was appointed Assistant Chief Commissioner in 1928, Acting Secretary in 1929 and was Secretary from 1925-36.
Colbron Pearse in later life
In 1931 Pearse organised a rally which B-P attended in Launceston, Tasmania Col. Le Breton, B-P's aide, wrote in his diary that DCP was 'very keen and capable'. Judging from his record of achievements, particularly in the way he (DCP) kept Scouting to the fore in the public mind during in his years of office, this was a very fair comment. He became one of the 'group of four' which effectively ran Scouting on the island. His colleagues thought that he was very English, 'a shy, retiring man, very approachable, always willing to go out of his way to help', - which is another way of saying that he 'lived the Promise'. As he grew older he felt that his very Englishness was becoming a problem and gently eased himself out of active leadership, after giving over 30 years service to Scouting in Tasmania. His many other interests and his professional work being more than enough to occupy him. Jeffrey's states that:
"...somehow Scouting missed the opportunity to say thank you in a tangible way."
How sad! DCP with his long understanding of B-P's vision would of course been appreciative of a low cost Thanks Badge. It would have made all the difference. (Author's Note - How often do we do 'miss the opportunity'. Saying 'thank you' was central to B-P's personality, and the need to show gratitude on behalf of our Scouts and their parents has not changed in 100 years.)
DCP retired as Acting Director of the Tasmanian Museum in 1953 and died aged 89 in 1971.
My thanks to Russel Malham and the Tasmanian Scout Hertitage Centre with acknowledgment to Ray Jeffrey from whose book the later image was taken.
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Potter, Donald Steele. 1902 - 2004Participant on first Wood Badge course. Woodcarver and Sculptor
Donald Potter was born on April 21st, 1902 at Newington, near Sittingbourne Kent and when this was originally written in 2003, he was coming up to his 101st year. His daughter, Annie Singleton, read this potted biography in early 2004 and told us that her father, 2 months off his 102nd birthday, had just completed another woodcarving! Sadly, she was to contact us again shortly after, to tell us of her father's passing on June 7th, 2004. Few men are blessed with such a life, especially one such as Don's which was filled with purposeful activity.
Don Potter's father was a school teacher and, though he was not a wealthy man, he was able to send Don to private school. One of his school reports was prophetic:
"Though by no means good at his books, he should do very well in later life. His character is developing along the right lines. He is fitted for an out-of-doors life. . ."
Don considered that he learnt nothing at school. It was the sound of the orchestra that accompanied the silent films he used to see on his visits to the cinema, that motivated him buy a second-hand cello - an instrument he played with distinction for most of his life.
When he was eight Don joined the Wolf Cubs and, by one of those amazing Scouting coincidences (or are they?), he soon fell under the influence of his Scoutmaster, none other than E E (Josh) Reynolds, who was also Don's English Schoolmaster at the time. Reynolds was to become the editor of The Scouter and the Official Historian of the UK Scout Association: His biography also appears on this Page.
Don Potter, wearing his Wood Badge, with B-P
The Potters moved to Chingford, Essex, very close to Gilwell Park, when Don was 13. At that time, during the First World War, the Park was run-down and privately-owned. Don left school in 1917 work in munitions factories, a job he detested. In 1919, W F de Bois Maclaren presented Gilwell Park to the Scout Association. Don with his Troop, which must have been the nearest to Gilwell, was invited on a regular basis to help with the clearing-up. This period coincided with the closure of the munitions factory in which he worked. After the end of the War Don was absolutely delighted to be offered a job as a permanent member of the full-time staff at Gilwell.
Don was in his element; he loved climbing trees and sleeping outdoors, and he was present at the first-ever Wood Badge course, as the photo on the Wood Badge Page on this Site shows. B-P gave each of the course participants two beads from his Dinizulu necklace to mark the fact that they had finished their training. When these beads began to run out, Don himself carved the replicas that were given to later generations of Woodbadgers.
In 1920, Don saw the cowboy Tex McLeod give a demonstration of rope-spinning at a London theatre. Don was entranced, went backstage, and invited him to visit Gilwell. By the end of the year, Don was more than proficient himself and was later to co-write a book on the subject. He was in constant demand to give rope-spinning exhibitions himself, including a star spot in one of Ralph Reader's early Gang Shows, and on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales to Gilwell to accept a statute of a Bison, marking the rôle of an unknown London Boy Scout in the formation of the Boy Scouts of America. These exhibitions were to continue, at home and abroad, until Don was in his nineties!
However, it was carving and working in wood which was to become Don's trademark. He carved totem poles, gates, gateways and constructed the Gidney Cabin. This traditionally-constructed log cabin was built by Don in honour of Francis 'Skipper' Gidney, Gilwell's first Camp Chief and is still in existence. It was Gidney who had bought Don his first set of wood-carving tools.
By the age of twenty, Don Potter was recognised by Baden-Powell himself as a craftsman of distinction. He camped at B-P's house at Pax Hill, Bentley, in Hampshire and undertook carving commissions for him, utilising fallen Pax Hill oaks said to be 1,200 years old. In 1926 Don was bought to the attention of readers of the Scout Magazine in the September 26th edition where he was described as a A Real Scout, and experienced outdoors backwoodsman. He is pictured blowing a 'Borneo blowpipe'. A month later The Scout again featured Don, describing him as Troop Leader Donald Potter - A Chingford Scout. He is pictured carving a font for a local (to (Chingford) church from a piece of 12th century oak.
For the World Jamboree of 1929, Don designed totems for the five British Dominions of Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand. Each totem was surmounted by a Scout fleur-de-lis and had carvings appropriate to the dominion concerned. On the back of each totem were the words Friendship Jamboree 1929 R. B-P, originally written by the Chief Scout and then deeply incised by Don. The totems were presented by the Chief at the Jamboree at Arrowe Park, Birkenhead. The photograph, showing all five totems, came from the official Jamboree Souvenir Handbook, which gave full credit to Don for his work, describing him as "Mr Don Potter, the Scout Carver of Gilwell Park Training Centre, Chingford, Essex." A Milestones correspondent, Bob Rodgers, a one-time volunteer archivist in the Canadian National Archives and author of 75 Years of Scouting in Canada told us in early 2004 that the totem Don carved for the Dominion is safely preserved. It is to be hoped that the other examples of Don's work are similarly preserved in Scouting Museums around the world.
Don began to work in stone as well as wood and recognised that, if he was to perfect his skills, he would need the guidance of a Master. He was to meet Jacob Epstein, who had himself studied in Paris with Rodin and, in 1931, on the advice of his old Scoutmaster Josh Reynolds, he approached Eric Gill, to study under him. Gill was an engraver, designer of typefaces and sculptor who had carved the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral. He offered Don a six month's trial, but Don stayed as his pupil for six years. During this time, Don's experience widened, as he worked under Gill's direction and he undertook commissions in his own name. Importantly, he was also able to meet and be influenced by other leading sculptors. In 1934, Don began to take on his own pupils and worked at Oldfield School in Swanage, Dorset. In 1941, he started to work at Bryanston near Blandford Forum, also in Dorset, and one of the foremost Art and Craft schools in the country. He worked there until 1982, an amazing 41 years! The list of his associates and pupils whilst he was at Bryanston is impressive - Sir Terence Conran, founder of the Habitat furniture design shop empire, is amongst many who rank Don as the major creative influence in their lives.
Don married in 1945, and he and his wife Mary had two children, Anne, born in 1947 and Julian, who has inherited his father's musical abilities, born in 1952. Anne recalls that her father learnt transcendental meditation in the 1960's and practised it on a twice-daily basis. She is convinced that this was a contributory factor in her father's longevity.
Don never forgot his Scouting roots and was a regular visitor to Gilwell. He was given three major commissions by the Scout Association, the Memorial Stone on Brownsea Island, the larger-than-life-sized statue of B-P outside Baden-Powell House, London and a large granite bust of B-P for the Dominican Republic. No one could be better qualified to have undertaken this work. Don not only knew B-P well but, as a Scout, had an understanding of what 'The Founder' meant to his Worldwide Movement. There can be no doubt that Baden-Powell would have approved as he had often and publicly recognised Don's artistic abilities. Don Potter, like his old master Eric Gill, never signed his work, so many of the people who walk up to and touch his monuments at Brownsea and B-P House have no idea of the identity of the sculptor, or his Scouting links.
His work will surely stand as a marker to a wonderful talent and a great Scout, for many generations to come.
As a tribute to Don, and to his mentor, Eric Gill, this biography has been set in Gill Sans 11pt, with headings in Gill Sans Ultra Bold 13pt and the quoted passage in Gill Sans Condensed 11pt bold.
For a full account of Don's life, I can recommend Don Potter: an inspiring century by Vivian Light, published by Canterton Books in 2002.
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