Professor Sir Cyril Philips

Historian of India who as Director of Soas oversaw a period of dramatic change and expansion


Cyril Henry Philips, historian and university administrator: born Worcester 27 December 1912; Assistant Lecturer, School of Oriental Studies (later School of Oriental and African Studies), London 1936, Director 1957-76; Chief Instructor, Department of Training, HM Treasury 1945-46; Professor of Oriental History, London University 1946-80, Deputy Vice-Chancellor 1969-70, Vice-Chancellor 1972-76; Kt 1974; Chairman, Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure 1978-80; Chairman, Police Complaints Board 1980-85; Chairman, Council on Tribunals 1986-89; married 1939 Dorcas Rose (died 1974; one daughter, and one son deceased), 1975 Joan Marshall; died Swanage, Dorset 29 December 2005.

Cyril Philips was an academic leader of exceptional ability who made an important contribution to the promotion of the study of the societies of Asia and Africa, in Britain and elsewhere, particularly in his position as Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University from 1957 until 1977.

He also served as the university's Vice-Chancellor, from 1972 to 1976, and subsequently as chairman of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure and in other public offices until his final retirement in 1990.

Philips (known as "Phil", even to his wives) was born in 1912 at Worcester of Welsh descent. He was brought up chiefly in Liverpool and Birkenhead. His mother was an alcoholic and his father a railwayman, and his early life was a contest with adversity from which he did not begin to escape until his academic talents blossomed at Liverpool University. In 1921 his father, attracted by the high wages offered, had taken a job as a railway driver in India and Philips had spent four years in Bihar.

His experience of India guided his choice of subject for postgraduate research: he selected that of 18th-century Indian politics in London and he chose the then small and struggling School of Oriental Studies ("African" was added to the title only in 1938). There were very few full-time students and many of those were from overseas; the staff, he decided, consisted of some brilliant scholars and "the biggest single bunch of eccentrics in Europe", and Philips began to wonder if he had wandered into a blind alley. Fortunately for the school he persevered and in the course of time was appointed to the academic staff.

The Second World War was the making of Philips. He entered the Army as a rather diffident, uncertain young private and emerged as a lieutenant-colonel who had had a most successful career in army education and who knew what he wanted to do.

Soon after his return to the school he was appointed to the Chair of Oriental History with the headship of the Department of History. He went on to build up one of the largest and (at the postgraduate level) most powerful departments of history in the UK, introducing new courses and methods of teaching and shaping the direction of research into Asian and African history. In 1957 he became Director of the school.

The war had also transformed the school. Britain's experience of finding itself at war with a country (Japan) the language of which was virtually unknown in the United Kingdom had given the school a wholly new salience in the official mind. The 1946 report of the Scarbrough Commission recommended, among other things, a major expansion in provision for the study of Asia and the school benefited mightily from the subsequent largesse.

Unfortunately, the expansion was haphazard and it came to an abrupt end in 1952. When Philips became Director, he found himself with a large staff of relatively young teachers, many of whom were in subjects for which no likely student demand existed and which were in any case unsuitable vehicles to form the basis of undergraduate degrees, with no money to employ others, and very few students. The school was plainly vulnerable. Moreover it lacked adequate accommodation for students or staff and had no proper library or reading room.

Philips virtually remade the school in the following years. With the help of the great American foundations, he raised the money to build a major new library building with classroom and staff accommodation. He defeated opposition from conservationists, who feared the destruction of Woburn Square, in a dramatic and emotional speech at a meeting of the University Convocation in 1969. Again with the assistance of the foundations, he obtained the money for the creation of new posts in the social and political sciences, leading to the building of new academic departments and to the gradual alteration in the character of the school from being a school dominated by classical and language studies to one in which modern, non-language studies had the preponderant role.

Finally, under his direction, the student population changed fundamentally, first with an influx of British undergraduates and secondly with the arrival of large numbers of overseas students to study the new taught master degrees. In all this work, Philips was helped by the changing national climate, including the increased demand for university education and the new funds for Asian and African studies which were made available following the recommendations of the Hayter sub-committee of the University Grants Committee, but it was Philips's genius which controlled and directed the tide of development. Through its library and its extra-mural work, its seminars and its language resources, he made the school the centre of a national expansion of the study of Asia and Africa.

As Vice-Chancellor of London University from 1972, Philips found himself in a very difficult situation. He had understood his job to be to implement the reforms that were to be proposed by the powerful Murray Committee, which had been charged with recommending changes in the governance of the Byzantinely complex university. Sadly, the Murray recommendations, when they arrived, were found to be wholly unacceptable to the colleges, because they proposed a major shift of power from the colleges to the centre.

Philips was left to struggle, without any adequate support, to find a new way ahead which was acceptable to all. This, with much skill, ingenuity and relentless labour, he eventually did, devising new and useful structures including a joint planning committee. By the time he resigned, the future was much clearer, although he remained convinced that the last, best chance of a real and lasting reform of the university had gone.

By 1977, Philips's career at Soas and London University was at an end, not altogether happily, but he had still to give 12 years of valuable service to the public. Someone, at least, had recognised his great talents and he was appointed Chairman of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. He made a great success of this work: in three years he produced a unanimous report which led to enduring legislation. He went on to chair the Police Complaints Committee, to monitor the working of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and to preside over the Council of Tribunals, a body the ramifications of which must have reminded him of London University. He retired finally in 1991, to live out his days peacefully in Dorset.

Philips's career as an historian was inevitably restricted by his work as an academic leader. His first book, The East India Company, 1784-1834 (1940), was a richly documented study of the politics of India in London, which was immediately acknowledged as a definitive study. He was never again able to find so much time to pursue research in the archives and his later work took more often the form of editing documents, for which he was dependant on the assistance of researchers, or inspiring collective works. But he never acknowledged defeat and continued to promote seminars and to plan new work.

In his retirement he wrote an entertaining and informative autobiography, Beyond the Ivory Tower (1995). In fact, he recognised in that book that his rightful home, that which could provide him with the greatest satisfaction, had been in the university and that he had been wise to turn down the attractive offers he had received from industry and the Civil Service, although it is as certain as anything can be that his talents would have carried him to the top in any field of endeavour.

M. E. Yapp

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