The History of Higher Education in Bloomsbury and Westminster

Institute of Commonwealth Studies

Institute of Education, University of London

King's College London

London School of Economics

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Royal Holloway, University of London

School of Oriental and African Studies

Senate House Library, University of London

University College London

University of Westminster


In 1909 a Committee of Enquiry headed by Lord Reay, a former Governor of Bombay, published a report recommending the creation of a School of Oriental Studies as part of the University of London. Despite bureaucratic delays and the upheavals caused by the outbreak of the First World War, the School was finally established in June 1916. In February the following year, “to the strains of music, both Western and Oriental”, the School was formally opened by King George V. According to its Royal Charter, the School’s purpose was “to give instruction in the Languages of Eastern and African peoples, Ancient and Modern, and in the Literature, History, Religion, and Customs of those peoples, especially with a view to the needs of persons about to proceed to the East or to Africa for the pursuit of study and research, commerce or a profession..”.

Earliest known portrait of David Livingstone, painted c. 1841, shortly before he went to Africa as a missionary

During the 1930s, there was an increasing focus on African studies, culminating in a substantial donation from the Rockefeller Foundation to support an African linguistic research programme. As a result, the title of the School was changed in 1938 and from henceforth it was known as the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Readers in the Library at the School of Oriental Studies, then sited in Finsbury Park

The School’s first home was in the old London Institution building in Finsbury Circus, conveniently close to the City for those wishing to take up the Commercial Certificate courses SOAS then offered. But, as SOAS moved away from these short commercial courses towards the development of its university courses, the School was delighted to be offered space for a new building within the Bloomsbury precinct by the University of London. The Finsbury Circus building was sold in July 1935, but work on the new building just off Russell Square had barely begun when war broke out in September 1939. Although initially the School found itself in disarray at the start of hostilities, the outbreak of war in the Pacific actually created a demand for its services, particularly in language training, and this only served to enhance and confirm its reputation.


After the war, the Government realised that it needed to examine the education provision for the study of Oriental, Slavonic, East European and African languages, and set up a Commission under Lord Scarbrough in 1945. His Report the following year recommended that the whole field of Asian and African studies should be developed in London as against a restricted range of subjects in other universities, and there was a considerable expansion of the School’s activities. In 1961, another Commission, under the Chairmanship of Sir William Hayter, reviewed progress made since the Scarbrough Report and made recommendations of its own about future developments.

The SOAS building in Bloomsbury


One of the Hayter Report’s prime recommendations was that SOAS Library should be regarded as a national resource. Accordingly, in 1973, a new library building was opened and this encouraged the expansion of the collections, particularly archives and manuscripts. The first large archive to be accessioned was that of the London Missionary Society (now the Council for World Mission), including material relating to the most renowned missionary, David Livingstone. Today SOAS holds the largest collection of missionary archives in the UK. The Library has also specialised in the acquisition of archives relating to East Asia, including the papers of a number of former members of the Chinese Maritime Customs and the China Consular Service. Amongst the latter are those belonging to Sir John Pratt, including letters to his younger brother, the legendary horror movie actor, Boris Karloff.

Students on the lawn at SOAS

Today SOAS remains the only higher education institution in the UK specialising in the study of subjects concerned with Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East. There are around 3,200 students from more than 100 countries. For more information about the School and the Library, please go to . For further information about the School’s missionary archives collection, please go to .


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