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Philips, Sir Cyril Henry (1912–2005), historian, university administrator, and public servant, was born on 27 December 1912 at 57 Church Road, Worcester, the only son and elder child of William Henry Philips (b. 1884), a railwayman from Glamorgan, and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, née Kimberley (b. 1888), a Londoner. His sister, Margaret (Peggy), was born in 1921, the year in which his father became employed as an engine driver in Bihar in British India, where Philips spent the following four years. Living conditions were hard and in 1925, leaving his father in India, his mother brought the children back to live in Birkenhead, where financial struggles continued. Philips had begun primary school at Mersey Park and in Bihar had attended Asansol College, and now continued his education at Rock Ferry high school. Supported by a teacher training grant, he went on to read history at Liverpool University in 1931, graduating in 1934 with a first-class degree. After completing his teacher training requirements he went in 1935 to the School of Oriental Studies (from 1938 the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS) in London, where he wrote his PhD thesis, subsequently published in 1940 as The East India Company, 1784–1834. By that time he had been appointed to the academic staff of the school as an assistant lecturer in Indian history and had married (in September 1938 in Wallasey) Dorcas Rose, a teacher whom he had met as a fellow student in Liverpool. She was the daughter of John Rose, of Wallasey. Philips's marriage, which gave him great happiness, also contributed to an estrangement from his mother. He and Dorcas had a son and a daughter.

The quiet progress of Philips's life was greatly changed by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, his service in the army from 1941 to 1945, and his rise to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Army Education Corps and commandant of the Army School of Education, where he revealed considerable talent not only as an innovative teacher but also as an organizer. At the end of the war he received attractive offers of employment in industry and in the civil service but, after a short spell in the Treasury, as chief instructor in the department of training, he chose to return to academic life and SOAS, where he was in 1946 appointed professor of oriental history and head of the department of history. He never regretted the decision and the school benefited greatly from it because during the next thirty years (including twenty years, 1957–77, as director) he transformed that institution into the leading academic centre in the Western world for the study of classical and modern Asia and Africa.

In 1947 SOAS began a period of substantial, but haphazard, expansion in the wake of the report of the Scarbrough commission of 1947. Many academic posts were created but few undergraduate students came to SOAS; by 1957 the institution looked expensive and vulnerable. With the aid of money from American foundations Philips as director launched a major programme of expansion. What was later named the Philips Building (formally opened in 1976 and housing the school's magnificent library) was essentially his creation: it was his passionate speech at a meeting of the University of London convocation on 20 February 1969 that narrowly defeated the strong opposition of conservationists to the Bloomsbury development. Philips also expanded modern studies in the school, established departments of economics and politics and of geography, and endeavoured to attract more students to SOAS by developing new and attractive programmes of study. One distinctive instrument by which he sought to bring students to SOAS was a department of extramural studies, which also served another of his aims, namely to spread the study of the societies of Asia and Africa more widely throughout Great Britain. His membership of the University Grants Committee (1961–71) further enabled him to promote the growth of Asian and African studies in other universities in the United Kingdom.

From 1971 to 1976 Philips served as vice-chancellor of the University of London, of which SOAS was a constituent college. The post was part-time and had been largely ceremonial, but Philips found himself in troubled waters when he was obliged to deal with the fallout from the Murray report, which recommended a strengthening of the central organization of the university, a proposal that ran counter to the long-standing and irresistible movement within the university towards the decentralization of power to the colleges. With little help from the university administration and in the face of discordant voices within the colleges, Philips strove to find a way forward. Overburdened with work as he was, personal tragedy also struck when his wife, Dorcas, died in August 1974. Philips, who had been knighted earlier that year, struggled on with his customary determination and eventually found a formula that commanded general support within the university, although the details could not be settled for some years as parliamentary legislation was required. On the personal front he found new support and happiness with Joan Rosemary Marshall, an officer of the university, seven years his junior, and daughter of William George Marshall, landscape gardener. They married on 30 August 1975.

In 1976 Philips gratefully gave up the vice-chancellorship and returned full-time to SOAS. Times had, however, changed: the expansionist mood of the 1960s and early 1970s had been replaced by financial caution in the governing body under its new chairman, Lord Gore-Booth. A clash between Gore-Booth and Philips, an unrepentant expansionist, was inevitable and in 1977 Philips decided he had had enough and resigned. But others had seen something of his outstanding abilities and an invitation soon came to chair the royal commission on criminal procedure (1978–80), setting him on a new career in public service. The royal commission was concerned with pre-trial procedure, that is to say with the role of the police in investigating and prosecuting crime, and therefore was an extremely sensitive subject with political ramifications. Philips's handling of the commission was masterly and set new standards for royal commissions by his insistence on commissioning basic research on which conclusions were founded, by setting out clear principles, and by the strongly practical emphasis of the report (Parl. papers, Cmnd 8092 of 1981), surprisingly signed by all the members. The report led to subsequent legislation regulating police procedures and establishing an independent prosecution service, although not the local service Philips had wanted. Further public service work followed as chairman of the Police Complaints Board (1980–85), monitor of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1984 (1985–6), and chairman of the Council of Tribunals (1986–9).

Philips, who was always known as Phil even to his wives, was small in stature, wiry in build, hard-working and abstemious by disposition, companionable enough but essentially private by inclination, fond of walking alone or with someone close to him. In short he was a serious man, a liberal whom experience had left mistrustful of the claims of authority. As monitor of the anti-terrorism act he did not hesitate to challenge the conduct of the police. He was very much a historian: in the royal commission report Philips may be recognized in the remark that ‘it is the British tradition to assume that institutions can best be understood by the manner in which they are seen to emerge from their history’. His own career as a historian, despite all his efforts to keep it alive through seminars and publications, eventually suffered from the demands of administration. As an academic administrator he stood in the first rank, combining as he did several talents: to see clearly the nature of a problem, to devise a solution, to create the structures required to implement that solution, to assemble the necessary resources, and to drive the work through to a successful conclusion.

In 1991 Philips and his wife retired to live in Swanage, Dorset. He died at their home, 77 D'Urberville Drive, on 29 December 2005. His health had been declining for many years. He was survived by his wife, Joan, and his daughter, Margaret (Meg). His son had died in 1957 following an accident at school.

M. E. Yapp


School of Oriental and African Studies: annual reports, 1935–1978 · C. H. Philips, Problems, policies and progress, 1957–1961 (1961) · C. H. Philips, The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1917–1967 (1967) · University of London Bulletin, 32 (March 1976) · C. Philips, Beyond the ivory tower: the autobiography of Sir Cyril Philips (1995) · D. Arnold and C. Shackle, eds., SOAS since the sixties (2003) · The Times (9 Jan 2006) · M. Yapp, ‘Tribute to Professor Sir Cyril Philips’, SOAS Information Sheet (16 Jan 2006) · The Independent (19 Jan 2006) · The Guardian (2 Feb 2006) · proceedings at a memorial service, DVD, 22 Feb 2006, SOAS · WW (2005) · Burke, Peerage · personal knowledge (2009) · private information (2009) · b. cert. · m. cert. [1975] · d. cert.


LSE, papers relating to royal commission on criminal procedure · SOAS


obituary photographs · photograph, SOAS; repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£138,745: probate, 14 Aug 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales