Early years (1917-36)
The School of Oriental Studies was founded on 5 June 1916 when it received its Royal Charter as a college of the University of London. The School opened its doors to students at the beginning of 1917. It admitted its first students on 18 January 1917. The School was formally inaugurated a month later on 23 February 1917 by King George V, who came to the handsome building in Finsbury Circus with former Viceroy of India the Earl Curzon of Kedleston and other cabinet officials in attendance.The Royal Charter gave the School a unique mission and a dual obligation – to advance academic knowledge of Asia and to impart instruction of a practical nature, providing the University of London with a rival to the famous Oriental schools of Berlin, Petrograd and Paris. The School immediately became integral in training British administrators and colonial officials for overseas postings across the British Empire.
Rumours that the School's main purpose was to train spies were fuelled early on by a diplomatic spat over the unauthorised entry of lecturer William McGovern into the closed Tibetan city of Llasa. However, though it did (and still does) provide training courses, the School was a centre of scholarship from the outset, undertaking teaching and research into modern and ancient languages, and into the history, geography, customs, laws and literatures of the peoples of Asia. 125 students enrolled in the first year, following courses in Classical, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Syrian Arabic, Bengali, Burmese, Chinese, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Pali and Urdu, Hausa, Swahili and other Bantu languages, Japanese, Malay, Persian, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Turkish. The History of India and Indian Law were also taught.
The School was a very small operation in the years of the first Director (1916-37), the celebrated linguist and former Principal of the renowned Calcutta Madrasah Professor Sir Edward Denison Ross (pictured left, teaching Persian) . A specialist in Persian literature, he was also a scholar of Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and various Turkic dialects. The academic staff, though small, was distinguished. It included Arthur Waley, a member of the loose collective of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists known as the Bloomsbury Group, who
achieved popular and scholarly acclaim for his translations of Chinese and Japanese poetry. Alice Werner taught Swahili and Bantu languages, eventually becoming professor, while one of the first lecturers in Chinese literature was Dora Edwards (right), former Principal of a teacher training college in Mukden, China, who pioneered the study of T'ang fiction. The epigraphist and archaeologist of Sri Lanka, Don Martino de Zilva Wickremasinghe, taught Tamil and Telugu and Lao She, a Chinese language master from Beijing, taught Mandarin from 1924 to 1929.
In 1920-21, of the 274 men and 138 women enrolled by the School, 54 were from India. The first Diplomas were awarded to Mr K A Subramani Iyer (Sanskrit), who was later to become Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University, and Mr Harry Temple Wickham (Persian).
The first DLit was awarded in 1920 to Mr W J Edmonston Scott for his thesis 'The Laws of sound governing the Santal, Basque and Zulu Languages.' In 1921, DLits were awarded to Mr Suniti Kumar Chatterji, who became a noted Indian linguist, literrateur and educationalist, and the Bengali polymath Mr Sushil Kumar De.
Reginald Johnston (pictured right, teaching, 1930s), former tutor to the last emperor of China, was appointed Professor of Chinese in 1931. From the very beginning SOAS led the field of linguistics in the UK, developing tools to understand societies and cultural inheritance by looking at utterance and writing, speech and language. The emphasis on the use of primary sources – written and spoken in the languages of the peoples and cultures we study, persists to this day.The SOAS Department of Linguistics was the first ever linguistics department in United Kingdom, founded in 1932 as a centre for research and study in Oriental and African languages. J R Firth, known internationally for his work in phonology and semantics, was Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor of General Linguistics at the school between 1938 and 1956. Among students in the 1930s were Paul Robeson, US opera singer and civil rights activist, and British explorer and archaeologist Freya Stark.