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Werner, Alicefree

(1859–1935)

Werner, Alice (1859–1935), teacher of Bantu languages, was born in Trieste, then part of the Austrian empire, on 26 June 1859, one of seven children in the family of Reinhardt Joseph Werner (1817–1874) of Mainz, teacher of languages, and his wife, Harriett (1822–1904), daughter of John Taylor, a baker. The Sinologist Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner (1864–1954) was her younger brother. Alice's father, a naturalized British subject since 1852, indulged his wanderlust during Alice's first fifteen years, and thus she experienced a constant change of scene and sound, living in New Zealand, Mexico, the United States, and Europe, until the family settled in Tonbridge in 1874.

Alice Werner was educated privately, and then attended Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1878 to 1880 as a Goldsmiths' scholar, but left, with no tripos, in order to teach at Truro high school. She also wrote for periodicals and undertook translating. From 1893 to 1895 she visited the Church of Scotland mission in Blantyre, Nyasaland, to do linguistic work and prepare school textbooks, and Pietermaritzburg, Natal, where she acquired Zulu and Afrikaans. Following the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 she gave private classes in London in these languages—classes which were transferred to King's College, London, in 1901; in 1910 these were formally recognized by the University of London, the first British university to promote the teaching of Bantu languages (Swahili had been taught in Berlin since 1887). From 1911 to 1913 Alice Werner visited British East Africa on a Mary Anne Ewart travelling scholarship from Newnham. She spent much of her time in Swahililand, where she met the poet and scholar Muhammad Kijumwa al-Bakry, who provided her with manuscripts and information about the language and literature of the Swahili-speaking people. From 1913 she held a two-year research fellowship at Newnham, while continuing to teach at King's.

After the School of Oriental Studies opened in 1917 Alice Werner was appointed lecturer and subsequently reader in Swahili and other Bantu languages (with her sister Mary as lecturer from 1918 to 1930). In 1919 she completed her London doctoral thesis (submitted in 1929), 'Introductory sketch of the Bantu languages', drawing on her first-hand knowledge of south, central, and east Africa. In 1922 she was promoted professor in Swahili and the Bantu languages, the first such chair in the British Isles; she then established the school's diploma in Swahili studies (1924), the first qualification of this kind in a British university. She was awarded a DLitt in 1928 by London University. When she retired in 1930, having served the school devotedly for its first twelve years, she was appointed CBE, and was awarded the silver medal of the African Society.

Werner's editions of Utendi wa Ayubu ('The life of Job'), subsequently reprinted in a Dar es Salaam newspaper, became the first of the Swahili epics to reach a wide public both in Europe and along the east African coast. Her publication of The Advice of Mwana Kupona in 1934, a poem from northern Swahililand, was the first literary composition by 'an East African native woman' to be published in Great Britain. Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933) was probably her most popular book.

Werner never met W. E. Taylor, whose obituary she wrote; while not rivalling his mastery of Swahili, she excelled him in her wide command of Bantu languages. Werner died at her home, 74 Parkway, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, on 9 June 1935. She was unmarried.

Sources

Archives

  • SOAS, papers

Wealth at Death

£74 8s. 6d.: probate, 16 Aug 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales