This month Oxford is marking 120 years since the birth of Margery Perham, twentieth-century Britain's best-known Africanist.
Nineteen-year-old Margery Perham arrived from Yorkshire to matriculate at St Hugh's, Oxford in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. Exactly ten years later she would return to her old college as a newly appointed tutor in modern history. She arrived back having suffered profound personal loss in the War, been an assistant lecturer at Sheffield University, and taken a life-changing journey to British Somaliland.
In 1929 she accepted a year's travel grant by the Rhodes trustees to return to Africa, where she spent more than five years travelling extensively. She became active in lobbying on the subject of colonial affairs, defending the High Commission territories and championing 'indirect rule'. She did much to promote the notion that colonial administration should simply provide a scaffolding, to be removed in due time, within which indigenous institutions could grow.
By 1939 she was the first official, and female, fellow of Nuffield College. Her teaching at this time was almost entirely devoted to the first and second Devonshire courses for colonial servants, though later she played a part in the development of universities for the new African leaders and experts, and helped in the initiation of the Oxford Colonial Records Project.
She became the nucleus and memoranda-writer for a group which secured government funds and asserted the university's role in colonial studies. Her books, reports and papers provided the basis for the Oxford Institute of Colonial Studies, to which she was appointed Director, 1945-1948. Her published works include Native Administration in Nigeria (London, Oxford University Press, 1937) and Lugard...The life of Frederick Dealtry Lugard, etc.. (London, Collins, 1956), West African passage. a journey through Nigeria, Chad, and the Cameroons, 1931-1932, ed. A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (London, Peter Owen, 1983), and Pacific prelude. a journey to Samoa and Australasia, 1929, ed. A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (London, Owen, 1988). She also helped plan the project which emerged as An African Survey. A study of problems arising in Africa south of the Sahara by Lord Hailey, etc. (London, Oxford University Press, 1938).
At the Alumni Weekend, a morning prayer in Dame Margery's honour will be held at 9.30am at the Nuffield College chapel, ahead of the seminar.
The article is reproduced from the University of Oxford’s Alumni Weekend information with kind permission. Image from Nuffield College.