The British Empire Library

The Royal Overseas League: From Empire Into Commonwealth, A History Of The First 100 Years

edited by Adele Smith

Courtesy of OSPA

Bill Kirkman (Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge)
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 in stone.

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.

British Empire Book
Adele Smith
IB Tauris
978 1 84885 010 8


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