Academics, Agents and Activists: A history of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1916-2016

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|1st December 2016|Collections & Research|0 comments

Over the next few weeks John Hollingworth, Gallery Manager and co-curator of ‘Academics, Agents & Activists: a history of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1916-2016’, will be introducing this fascinating centenary exhibition currently on display at the Brunei Gallery until 17th December. The exhibition tells a history of the School from the perspective of its people and spaces, highlighting the contributions and experiences of a selection of individuals who represent the diversity and character of SOAS. It also showcases material from the incredibly rich archive collections at SOAS – both the School’s own institutional archive and material held by Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library. The exhibition is organized around the tenures of the School’s Directors, with the second being that of Ralph Turner.

The Turner Years 1937 – 1956:

Portrait of Sir Ralph Lilley Turner MC (1888 – 1983), Director of SOAS (1937 – 1957), 1956. Oil on canvas, by Leonard Boden (1911–1999); commissioned in the 1950s. Ref: SOASAW 2010.0113.01 © SOAS

Professor Sir Ralph Lilley Turner MC (1888 – 1983) became the second Director of the School of Oriental Studies in 1937, and would oversee some of the most eventful years in the School’s history. At this time, the School was located in temporary premises in Westminster, awaiting the move to the new Bloomsbury site, which was being built. In 1938, on the initiative of Lord Hailey (Chairman of Governors), the School’s Charter was amended and the title changed to the School of Oriental and African Studies, enabled by funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.

When war broke out in 1939 the School was transferred to Cambridge, but returned to London in the following year occupying the upper floors of the Bloomsbury premises from 1941, which until 1946 it shared with Ministry of Information – the publisher and distributor of war time information and propaganda.


Portrait of 2nd Lieutenant L. S. Phillips, who studied Japanese at SOAS, 1945. Reproduced by kind permission of L.S. Phillips. © L. S. Phillips

SOAS became a vital centre for language tuition and translation training many servicemen and servicewomen in languages, including the group that became known as the ‘Dulwich boys’. A number of students and staff served in the Intelligence corps and at the Foreign Office, with some performing important work at Bletchley Park, the central site for Britain’s code breakers during World War II. As well as providing language training, staff and students were enlisted for translation of letters and communications for the Uncommon Languages section of the Postal and Telegraph Censorship Department. 32,312 documents in 192 languages were dealt with by the School. In the last year of the war, Alfred Master, the School’s Lecturer in Indian Philology, translated 6,713 letters in thirteen languages.

As the Second World War spread across North Africa, Asia, and the Far East, the need for short intensive courses in a number of languages became urgent and the work of the School in providing language courses increased. 1,674 servicemen and servicewomen passed through these courses between 1942 and 1946.


Photograph of Far Eastern Dept. 22 Sussex Sq., 1945. Reproduced by kind permission of the Dunn Family.

After the War, the Bloomsbury buildings were finished and the School continued to develop boosted by the recommendation of the Scarborough Report in 1946, which advocated an expansion in African and Asian studies in British Universities and identified SOAS as the major centre for these studies. Over the next ten years the School established new departments of Law and Anthropology, a post in the tribal history of Africa and new subjects such as Tibetan language, Cambodian, Near and Middle Eastern History, Zoroastrianism, Islamic Art and Archaeology and Korean Studies, the first in a British university.

In 1950 Sir Percival David presented to the University of London his unique collection of Chinese ceramics and associated library. Administered by SOAS, the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art was opened 1952, at 53 Gordon Square.


Ann Lambton. Reproduced fron the SOAS Bulletin, 1986, Volume XLIX Part 1. © SOAS

In the 1950’s staff included Ann (Nancy) Lambton, whose career from undergraduate to Professor of Persian in the University of London (1953-78) was, entirely and uniquely, spent at SOAS. Her ‘stiff exams’ were universally recognised as the toughest for some 45% of British diplomats posted to Iran who knew Persian thanks to receiving from her instruction at SOAS.

Among the student body was Gordon Arnold Lonsdale who proved to be a Soviet intelligence officer – Konon Trofimovich Molodiy.  Molodiy came to England via Canada where he appropriated the name of a deceased Canadian citizen and established a cover as a London businessman. In 1954 ‘Lonsdale’ enrolled as a student at SOAS studying Chinese. In 1961, MI5 Identified ‘Lonsdale’ and sentenced him to 25 years in prison. He was later traded for a British national held in Moscow and returned to a hero’s welcome in Russia.

In 1953, following the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, she became the Patron of the School. By the 1955 – 1956 session there were 266 full time students registered at the School and 622 students in total.

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About Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

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