The Royal Over-Seas League was a product of Empire - and of the vision of its
founder, Sir Evelyn Wrench. Although it has not realised what Mr Stanley Martin,
chairman in 2009, describes in the introduction as Sir Evelyn's 'rather extravagant dream
to be an imperial society of a million members', the fact that it still thrives and has a
clear purpose says a great deal for his vision, and that of those who have guided it during
its first century.
During the first world war the League played an important role in supporting the war
effort by raising money to buy aircraft. More controversially, after that war the League
raised money to support migration initiatives. As the author comments, 'It seems
completely unacceptable to us today that the fate of children's lives should have been
decided in this way'.
What emerges strongly from this history, however, is something very positive about
the ROSL, namely the fact that it was ahead of its time in making no distinction in its
membership on grounds of race, creed or gender. From an early stage, the monthly
journal Overseas (edited by Evelyn Wrench) included a special column for women
readers. The journal made a consistent effort, the author of this history notes, from 1917
until at least 1945 'to relate women to the modern world'. Younger readers of the history
may well say: 'So what?' but when one looks at this in context the League comes across
as very clearly being in the lead.
The League has also been a significant force, since the 1920s, in supporting young
Commonwealth musicians, artists and writers. ROSL ARTS sponsors concert
appearances throughout the Commonwealth, and provides scholarships for overseas
Commonwealth musicians to make study visits to the UK.
Looking to the future, the retiring Director General makes the significant point that
'the League must continue to be relevant to the needs of its members in the changing and
challenging years ahead and must seek new ways to attract younger members, who may
be less emotionally attached to the Commonwealth but have more interest in
international affairs'. That view certainly suggests a vision that is continuing and not set
Drawing on the talents of young people has clearly been a feature of the League
throughout its life. I was fascinated to read of the tour made in 1939 on the League's
behalf to India, Malaya, Singapore and China by Philip Noakes, a 23-year-old
Cambridge graduate, who undertook the role at short notice. His letters and diaries, lent
to the League by his son Robin Noakes, provide a variety of shrewd insights into what
might be called the eve of the end of Empire.
My fascination was greatly enhanced by the fact that I came to know Philip Noakes
well, many years later, when he was head of the Press Office at the Colonial Office at the
time of rapid de-colonisation. He was a man of urbane good humour, immense
knowledge and judgement, who was greatly liked, and trusted, by the journalists whom
he briefed at least once a week.
His choice as the young roving ambassador for the League was clearly another
example of recognising talent and vision.
This history is a fascinating account of a remarkable organisation.