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Oldham Papers

Identifier: GD2

Scope and Contents

The collection contains: Oldham's correspondence (1892-1965) including references to Oldham's conversion and his work in India with the YMCA, to his work to promote co-operation between missions and denominations such as through the 1910 World Missionary Conference, the 1937 Oxford conference and the World Council of Churches, to German missionaries in World War 1 and Germany in the 1930s, to Indian and African (particularly educational and East African) issues, to the establishment of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures and other research projects, and to publications and lectures by Oldham; material relating to the Moot including minutes (1938-1947), papers and reports; articles, papers, addresses, notes and other material by Oldham (c 1909-1957) including drafts of books and material on the Advisory Committee on Native Education in Africa (1931-1934); pamphlets, press cuttings, reports, minutes and other items collected by or about Oldham including obituaries; extracts from journals by Betty Gibson recording trips with Oldham (c 1921-1928); engagement diaries of Oldham (1921-1956) and his colleague Kathleen Bliss (1943-1980); notes made by Bliss and other biographers on research into Oldham's life, correspondence of Bliss about Oldham biographies, archives sources and reminiscences (1960s-1987) including some items from Oldham's family; and photographs.


  • Creation: 1892-1990


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Conditions Governing Use

Contact the repository for details.

Biographical / Historical

Joseph Houldsworth Oldham, pioneer of ecumenical missionary and social concern, was born in 1874 of Scottish parents in India. He was educated in Edinburgh and at Oxford from where he graduated in 1896. A religious conversion prompted Oldham to travel to India in 1897 to work with the YMCA where he stayed for three years, marrying Mary Fraser in 1898. Illness forced them to return in 1901 and Oldham went on to study theology at New College, Edinburgh and in Germany. On his return to Scotland he was twice an assistant minister but was unable to secure his own ministry. In 1908 he became organising secretary for the 1910 World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, regarded by many as the starting point of the modern ecumenical movement, and he was subsequently secretary of the Conference Continuation committee. In 1912 Oldham founded the International Review of Missions which, under Oldham's editorship until 1927, established itself as the most prominent missionary periodical in the world.

During World War 1 Oldham worked to keep the spirit of internationalism alive through his writings and became a trusted adviser of the government on missions and German missionaries in particular. With the return of peace Oldham continued to promote the cause of co-operation between mission boards. He became the founder and secretary in 1921 of the International Missionary Council. He also travelled widely (often with his secretary Betty Gibson) and was especially concerned with education and the issues raised by colonial administration in Africa. His knowledge of both India and Africa thrust him into the role of mediator between Europeans, Africans and Indians in Kenya and his principle that African native interests should be paramount was embodied in government policy in 1923. Also in that year Oldham was a key figure in the establishment of a committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa. His Christianity and the Race Problem was published in 1924 and was his most substantial and successful book. After organising the first conference of missionary educators and colonial administrators in 1926, he was instrumental in securing funds for the founding of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. From 1931 to 1938 he was its administrative director and responsible for much of the work which made Lord Hailey's African Survey possible.

Oldham continued, often in partnership with Lord Lugard, to advise on government and administration in Kenya, however he also remained concerned about the future of the Christian missions and the church. As a layperson Oldham grew more convinced of role of the laity in this future and the need for a co-operative relationship between religious and secular groups and, to this end, encouraged small study groups as a means of research. He was, from 1934, chairman of the research committee of the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work and a key figure at the 1937 Oxford conference. His efforts were to influence Christian thinking for a generation and lead to the formation of the World Council of Churches.

During the Second World War he continued to encourage debate about lay responsibility in society. Through the meetings of his 'Moot' with such figures as T.S. Eliot and John Baillie and through his Christian Newsletter he initiated much new thinking about Christian responsibility in modern society. From his efforts the Christian Frontier Council developed. Oldham retired from public life to Dunford, Sussex but continued to write, particularly about Africa, and was involved with the formation of the Capricorn Africa Movement. He was awarded honorary degrees from Edinburgh (1931) and Oxford (1937) and appointed CBE in 1951. Oldham's wife died in 1965 and Oldham himself died in 1969 at St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex. Dr Kathleen Bliss, who collected much of the Oldham material together, worked with Oldham from the establishment of the Christian Newsletter and Christian Frontier Council and later worked for the Church of England Board of Education. She was a close friend of Oldham's and had intended to write his biography but died in 1989 before she could complete it.


27 boxes, 2 volumes, 2 files and 1 letter.


The papers are arranged in six main sections in broadly chronological order. Items collected or copied by Bliss and others have been filed with 'original' Booth items so it is difficult to identify the provenance of each item. The sections are as follows: 1) Boxes 1-11 contain correspondence (1829-1990) including copies of relevant letters from the John White papers; 2) Boxes 12-14 contain Moot papers (1938-1950); 3) Boxes 15-23 contain material relating to works by Oldham and others including biographical items about Oldham; 4) Boxes 24-25 contain miscellaneous items including photographs, journals and reports on visits abroad and documents relating to various other topics; 5) Boxes 26 and 27 contain diaries; 6) items 28 and 29 are printed books. Photographs have been filed with other material in boxes 11 and 24. MSS 5026 (1934-1958, possibly material from Gibson: various reports and printed items on Africa and a letter from Oldham to Gibson about the IMC history) and 5027 (1931-1934: material on the Advisory Committee on Native Education in Africa) are filed separately. There is a single item, a letter from Oldham to H.R. Mackintosh about the IRM (1916) filed in MSS BOX 25.3.3.

Physical Location

MSS OLD; MSS 5026-5027; MSS BOX 25.3.3

Other Finding Aids

The Index to Manuscripts held at New College Library mentions the collection. A full handlist, created by Dr Willaim Naphy in 1993, with index and synopsis of correspondence is filed in the New College Inventory of Manuscripts under MSS OLD.

Custodial History

The papers were collected together by Dr Kathleen Bliss from the early 1960s as part of her research for a biography of Oldham. They came from Oldham himself (or members of his family), from his secretary Betty Gibson, from members of the Moot, from friends and colleagues of Oldham or were copied by Bliss from other archival collections. The original Oldham papers are not complete, some were destroyed by Oldham and others, particularly those dealing with East Africa and Lord Lugard, were given by him to Margery Perham and are now in Rhodes House Library, Oxford. Bliss died in 1989 and her literary executor, Professor Duncan Forrester of New College took charge of the papers.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers in the MSS OLD group were presented to Edinburgh University New College Library by Professor Duncan B. Forrester in 1989. The MSS 5026-7 material was donated by him in 1999.

Related Materials

Correspondence and notes about related sources can be found in the collection itself, particularly in boxes 11 and 21. The inventory to the Oldham papers at New College Library lists some related archives in Lambeth Palace Library and at the Public Record Office. Betty Gibson did not give all of her papers to Katherine Bliss, she presented more material, including letters and journals describing trips with Oldham, to New College Library in 1979. This is kept separately from the Oldham papers (reference MSS GIBS). Oldham himself gave some of his papers relating to East Africa to Margery Perham and these are now in Rhodes House Library, Oxford (reference MSS. Afr. s. 1829). The papers of John Baillie, also at New College (MSS BAI) also contain material of relevance to Oldham in particular papers on the Moot and the WCC. The National Library of Scotland has an extensive missionary collection including some Oldham correspondence. London University Institute of Education holds papers relating to The Moot and references to these and other sources can be found at the National Register of Archives.


The biographical history was compiled using the following material: (1) Anderson, G. H. (ed.). Bibliographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998. (2) Williams, E.T., Nicholls, C. S. (eds.). Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.


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Repository Details

Part of the New College Library Special Collections Repository

New College
Mound Place
Edinburgh EH1 2LU. Scotland
+44(0)131 650 8379