SOAS University of London

SOAS Centenary

First expansion and move to Russell Square (1937-69)

College building 1960_centenary_timeline

Under the second Director, Professor Sir Ralph Turner (1937-57), the School began to expand its horizons. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation supported the launch of research in African linguistics and the founding of the Department of African languages and Cultures. The School added 'African' to its name in 1938, and moved to its building at Russell Square between 1941 and 1946. Professor Turner​, who was knighted in 1950, was himself a noted philologist, whose magnus opus, the Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan languages was published in 1966.​

Wartime students at SOAS

The School's linguists were to play an important role in the Second World War. Nancy Lambton, fresh from her PhD and yet to become the foremost Persian scholar of the 20th century, worked as a translator for the British Legation in Tehran. Back in London the War Office joined with the School's Japanese department in 1942 to address the shortage in Japanese linguists. State scholarships were offered to select grammar and public school boys to train as military translators and intelligence officers. Lodged at Dulwich College in south London, the students became affectionately known as the Dulwich boys. While the 'Dulwich Boys' were recruited to serve the war effort by learning Japanese, they went on lay the foundations for post-war entente between the UK and Japan. The rumours of SOAS as a bed of spies continued to rumble under, reinforced by the numbers of staff recruited to serve at Bletchley Park. Alumna Carmen Blacker, who went on to be an influential scholar of Japanese religion and folklore, was bored by her work at Bletchley, catalogue filing cards containing 'any words likely to turn up in a decoded message' and returned to SOAS to teach Japanese.

Pictured below: Mr S H Chileshe, a student teacher from from Kasama, Northern Rhodesia 1946

S H Chileshe from Kasama Northern Rhodesia 1946

​In 1946, the Scarborough Commission recommended a vigorous programme to expand Asian and African studies by developing strong university departments independently of undergraduate student demand. In recognition of SOAS's role during the war, it identified SOAS as the major centre for such studies. SOAS historians, led by Roland Oliver, were the first to tell the history of Africa rather than the history of white men in Africa. In the late 1940s, The School was the first British university to initiate Korean Studies, and since that time the Library has built an extraordinary collection of some 80,000 monographs for the discipline. In 1949, cultural anthropologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf was appointed reader and founded the Department of Cultural Anthropology, which he was to build into the largest anthropology department in Britain. Mayer-Simpson, Professor Furer Haimendorf's archive collections – more than 10,000 black and white photographs, capturing many aspects of tribal culture now lost, and over one hundred hours of 16mm ethnographic film - are among SOAS greatest treasures.

Sir Cyril Philips makes plans

The next impetus to the School's growth came during the Directorship (1957-76) of Professor Sir Cyril Philips (pictured right with students in 1967). The Hayter Committee of 1961 again recommended an expansion of studies in SOAS subjects. SOAS scholars were the first to study formally the People's Republic of China: the founding of the Contemporary China Institute and almost simultaneous fostering of the China Quarterly led the field in UK from the mid-1960s.

​Recognising the need to increase its commitment to 'home' students, the School revised and widened its undergraduate programmes, especially in the social sciences, while keeping the focus on the study of Asia and Africa.

In 1959 Edith Penrose (pictured left) had published her seminal theory on the growth of the firm and as Professor of Economics she laid the foundations for SOAS research and teaching in economics, development studies, management and strategy. From 1960 until 1970, with substantial financial assistance from the Nuffield Foundation, Tony Allott led the Restatement of African Law Project, and the African Law Section of the SOAS Law Department expanded. In 1961 language student Gordon Lonsdale was revealed to be Soviet intelligence officer Konon Molody – at last the rumours appeared proven!

A radical initiative from Cyril Philips was the creation of Area Centres, which provided an interdisciplinary regional approach to teaching and research, to complement the departments. The Area Studies MAs were part of this initiative, though there was resistance to their introduction by some staff who viewed their interdisciplinary as 'too superficial.' Since the mid-1960s, the School has disseminated knowledge to business, to governments, to the general public, and to the media. The School pioneered the Schoolteacher Fellow initiative which brought groups of secondary school teachers into SOAS for extended courses designed to enable them to learn and to spread what they had learned to their pupils.