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Papers of John William Arthur

 Fonds — Multiple Containers
Identifier: Coll-207

Scope and Contents

The collection consists mainly of correspondence and papers (1907-1949) including letters from Arthur to his mother; circular letters and newsletters from the Kikuyu mission; sections from Arthur's diaries and notes on his travels throughout East Africa; reports on missionary conferences; memoranda by Arthur and others on native affairs such as the labour question, land tenure, education and female circumcision; minutes, memoranda and papers of the Kikuyu Association and the Kikuyu Mission Council; and papers relating to parliamentary commissions and court cases, and to Arthur's position as an unofficial member of the Kenyan Executive Council. The collection also includes printed pamphlets, journals, articles and ordinances on native questions, the mission and East Africa in general (1902-1954); press cuttings (1918-1952); and photographs of Kenya, the mission, and individuals (1907-1916).


  • Creation: 1902-1954

Language of Materials

English, Kikuyu or Gikuyu.

Conditions Governing Access

Screened; open. Please contact repository for details in advance.

Conditions Governing Use

Contact the repository for details.

Biographical / Historical

John William Arthur, Church of Scotland medical missionary in East Africa, was born in Glasgow in 1881 the son of John W. Arthur, a Glasgow businessman. He was educated at Glasgow Academy and at Glasgow University from where he graduated M.B. Ch.B. in 1903 and took his M.D. in 1906. He was appointed to the post of medical missionary at the Kikuyu Mission, British East Africa (Kenya), in 1906, arriving at the mission on 1 January 1907. He opened the mission's first hospital and also became involved with its evangelical and educational work. Arthur succeeded Dr Henry E. Scott as head of the mission on the latter's death in 1911 and, after his ordination in 1915, he concentrated increasingly on ministerial rather than medical practice. He oversaw the mission during a period of notable growth, when he joined the mission staff there were no baptised Christians among the Kikuyu, by the time of his retirement the members of the Christian community numbered nearly 11,000. One of the many Africans influenced by Arthur and the mission was Jomo Kenyatta. During the First World War Arthur organised the Kikuyu Missions' Volunteer Carrier Corps for service in German East Africa and became the commanding officer. He was awarded the OBE in 1920 for his services. Arthur came to be accepted as one of the foremost spokesmen of missionary opinion in East Africa and worked enthusiastically for inter-mission co-operation. He also worked with the colonial government, applying pressure from within for reforms. He was a close advisor of J.H. Oldham and was involved in the conference in London in 1923 that declared the paramountcy of African interests in Kenya. He sat on various councils and served, from 1924-1926, as representative of African interests on the Legislative Council of Kenya and from 1928-1929 on the Kenyan Executive Council. Arthur was particularly concerned with problems of education, land ownership and labour reforms, and was involved in debates over the practice of female circumcision. From 1929 Arthur sought to strengthen the mission's resistance to the practice but his call for sanctions against Christians who practised it caused a Kikuyu reaction which adversely affected the membership of the church. Arthur resigned from the Legislative Council and his reputation as a voice of African interests was damaged. He retired in April 1937 and acted for a period as personal assistant at St Columba's (Church of Scotland), Pont Street, London. He then served as minister of Dunbog, Fife, a post which he held for around ten years. When he retired from Dunbog, Arthur took up residence in Edinburgh acting as locum tenes at the Tron Church for a year and spent the last year of his life as chaplain to the Astley-Ainslie Hospital. During his later years Arthur gave a number of interviews and papers on Kenya and East Africa, writing, for example,East Africa in Transitionin 1942. He returned to Kenya briefly in 1948 for the jubilee celebrations of the Church of Scotland mission. Arthur was a noted athlete and mountaineer. Whilst in Kenya he devoted most of his spare time to mountaineering and became president of the mountain club of East Africa. He married in 1921. He received an honorary degree of D.D. from the University of St Andrews in 1946. John William Arthur died in Edinburgh in 1952 at the age of 71.


4 boxes

6 Volumes


The material is arranged in four boxes, the first two (Gen. 762-763) contain most of the papers and correspondence arranged in roughly chronological order with a file of 'undated' material (Gen. 763/45-66), the third box (Gen. 764) consists mainly of printed pamphlets and articles, and the fourth box (Gen. 765) of press cuttings. Six albums of photographs (Photo. ill. 92-97) are stored separately.

Other Finding Aids

Alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives. A list of Arthur Papers is filed in Gen. 763 but does not relate to the papers surviving in this collection. Also in Gen. 763 is Documents on East African Social and Political Affairs. This lists (not in order) most of the reports, memoranda and other items concerning Africa in the collection. The collection is mentioned in the Edinburgh University Library subject checklist (C3) Manuscripts on Africa.

Custodial History

After Arthur's death the Reverend Robert Macpherson, also a missionary in Kenya, reported that Arthur had left two large boxes of papers. Macpherson separated these into personal and mission papers, and arranged the latter into four groups and listed them (see Gen. 762 and Gen. 763/45-46). A decision as to the eventual disposal of the documents was postponed. Very few of the items on Macpherson's list seem to be in the collection at Edinburgh University. It is likely that the original collection, some of which related to the mission before the arrival of Arthur, including the Kibwezi phase, and to other missionaries, such as to David Clement Scott, was split either before or after its arrival at Edinburgh. According to Dr Brian McIntosh in his doctoral thesis The Scottish Mission in Kenya 1891-1923 (Edinburgh University, 1969) the Arthur papers were shorn of any document of a controversial or personal nature before they were deposited.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were presented to Edinburgh University by Arthur's wife in 1964 through Professor George Shepperson, Professor of Commonwealth and American History at the University of Edinburgh.

Existence and Location of Copies

Edinburgh University Library Special Collections has microfilm copies of the collection (Mic. Dup. 82, 355, 1275 and 1740) and a copy was sent to the Kenyan High Commission in 1982.

Related Materials

Mrs Arthur also presented to Edinburgh University Library in 1963 a printed bound collection of her husband's circular letters from the mission (1907-1914, reference SD 1059). Other collections at Edinburgh University Library with some relevance are the papers of George A. Grieve (Gen. 766/3-5) and Arthur Ruffell Barlow (Gen. 1785-1786) both missionaries at Kikuyu, and the Berriedale Keith papers (Gen. 145/2/51-2) which include Arthur material. The Library's African Studies (CAS) collection has a collection of pamphlets and printed materials relating to the church at Kikuyu. The National Library of Scotland has a large collection of missionary records, including some letters from Arthur. Dr Brian McIntosh in his doctoral thesis The Scottish Mission in Kenya 1891-1923 (Edinburgh University, 1969) lists sources for the history of the Kikuyu mission.

Papers of John William Arthur (1881-1952)
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
George Square
Edinburgh EH8 9LJ Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379