George French was born in London on 17 October 1855. Shortly afterwards his father was sent to India with the army. When George was 5 both his parents and two younger sisters died of cholera and George was sent back to England to his grandparents. Four years later his grandfather also died and George spent two years in a workhouse. Eventually he was sent King Edwards Orphan School in Witley where he received a good education and began organising boys to stage various plays.
At age 15 George enlisted as a drummer boy in the army. He was sent to India where he later became a schoolmaster and developed a love for animals, having a pet bear and almost being killed when he took home two cheetah cubs and was followed by the mother. After the battle of Islandlwana in 1879 George again joined the army and was at the battle of Ulundi in the medical corps.
In 1880 George he left the army and obtained a teachers certificate at the Cape Education Department. He became headmaster at Constantia School in Wynberg, later moving to George Town and then Graaff-Reinet. During this time he married.
In 1894 he became principal of Claremont Public School which was then situated at the old town hall where the Werdmuller Center now stands. Here he led a cadet corps and numerous youth camps and hikes. For many years the school was known as French’s school.
In 1908 Fred and George Stern showed him Scouting for Boys and asked him to form a scout troop. 1st Claremont was formed on 3 March 1908, a date which is well evidenced. The first camp was in March on Bolton’s Farm, Lansdowne Road. As the troop grew many other camps were held including what must have been a memorable 300 mile trek through the Cape Mountains using mules and carts during 3 weeks of travelling.
George took to scouts with a passion and in addition to running 1st Claremont, assisted by his son Cyril, he was part of the Executive Committee of the Cape Colony, edited the South African Scout and invented many scout games. In 1913 he was awarded the Silver Scout by Baden-Powell himself. The October 1913 edition of the Headquarters Gazette said “The Chief Scout has been pleased to confer the Honorary Silver Wolf on Scoutmaster George French, of Claremont, Cape of Good Hope. Mr French, who raised a Troop as early as March, 1908, may be considered one of the principal pioneers of the Movement in South Africa, and has been unremittingly devoted to it since its commencement. He wrote the greater part of, and edited, the South Australian* Scout, for more than two and a half years, and has lectured on the Boy Scout Movement in seventeen towns. He has also published about sixty Scout games and a preparation series for all badges.”
George was not re-elected to the Executive of the Scout Council at its meeting in 1911 although he was nominated. How he felt about this we do not know.
In 1919 he retired from teaching and also from 1st Claremont (he was 64 at this stage). His wife died in 1920 and he remarried, moving around the country, teaching and assisting various scout groups. He kept up his interest in nature, collecting snakes which he milked for the snake park in Port Elizabeth. He read a great deal, loved Shakespeare and gave many Punch and Judy shows for charity.
In 1955 George celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends in Durban. He lived only another 4 months and died on 16 February 1956.
- note by Noreen Auerbach, daughter of George French, 1985
- The South African Scout, 1909
- Headquarters Gazette (London), October 1913
- various newspaper articles from the Star, Rand Daily Mail, 17-19 October 1955
- correspondence from Fred Sterne and Charles Stern, 1968
- article in Smoke Signals Magazine, 1st Claremont Scout Troop, March 1983, from a note c. 1968, author unknown