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Sir Harold Walter Bailey (1899–1996)

by Christine Mary Shervington

This article was published online in 2020

Harold Bailey, by Gab Carpay, 1970

Harold Bailey, by Gab Carpay, 1970

ANU Archives, ANUA 226-946-9

Sir Harold Walter Bailey (1899–1996), philologist and professor of Sanskrit, was born on 16 December 1899 at Devizes, Wiltshire, England, second of three sons of Fredrick Charles Quinton Bailey, general labourer, and his wife Emma Jane, née Reichardt. Harold began his education locally at Parnella House School. When he was ten the family migrated to Western Australia. He grew up with no further formal schooling on a remote farm in the wheat belt at Nangeenan, near Merredin. The multi-volumed Harmsworth Encyclopaedia and four other books containing lessons in French, Latin, German, Greek, Italian, and Spanish, provided the wherewithal for Bailey to nurture his passion for languages. Another volume, outlining the basics of twenty other languages, augmented by newspaper wrappings on parcels, lettering on tea chests from India, and a book of Bible selections, focused his interest in Asian languages, including Tamil, Arabic, Japanese, and the ancient Iranian language Zend (Avestan). He also learnt Russian from a neighbour.

Encouraged by his parents, Bailey undertook two years' private tuition with the classical scholar C. V. M. Owen in Perth. In 1922 he matriculated at the University of Western Australia (BA Hons, 1926; MA, 1927), taking classics, alongside English, logic and ancient philosophy, and history. He also taught (1924–25) at Guildford Grammar School and tutored (1926–27) in Latin and Greek at the university. In 1923 he won the Lady Hackett prize for classics and four years later an inaugural Hackett studentship to support postgraduate work. Awarded a free passage to Britain, he opted to go to the University of Oxford (BA, 1929; DPhil, 1933; MA, 1964) to undertake oriental studies, including Sanskrit, Zend, and Indo-European comparative philology. He was a non-collegiate (later incorporated as St Catherine’s College) student and won the inaugural Nubar Pasha Armenian scholarship in 1928. His doctoral thesis examined the ancient Pahlavi text Bundahišn (Creation).

In August 1929, while still studying, Bailey was appointed lecturer in Iranian studies at the School of Oriental (and African) Studies (SOAS), University of London. During the mid-1930s he formed a publication plan to read and publish texts in Khotanese (from Chinese Turkestan of the Indian/Buddhist tradition). In the decades that followed, the project resulted in several published volumes as well as a dictionary. In 1936 he was appointed to the chair of Sanskrit at the University of Cambridge, and became a fellow at Queens’ College (life fellow 1956, honorary fellow 1967). He was the first graduate of the University of Western Australia (founded in 1911) to become a university professor.

Modest, courteous, and somewhat retiring, Bailey was a popular figure at Queens’, inspiring affection in those who knew him. He was a generous scholar, known for sharing his research materials, yet he shied away from controversy and tended to avoid academic debate. In the lead up to World War II he was approached by the War Office to translate letters for censors when required. From 1942 he spent almost three years attached to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Oxford and London, examining foreign language newspapers for details of possible strategic value to the war effort. He inspected Albanian and Armenian material, and Russian and Ossetic in the postwar period. Returning to Cambridge he resumed research and teaching. Students recalled his mnemonic skill as well as his teaching methods that were ‘the very reverse of interactive’ (Emmerick c. 2001, 42). He travelled widely to attend conferences and conduct research and maintained an association with Australia, visiting several times over the decades.

Though Bailey claimed not to be religious, he was drawn to the beliefs of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism and displayed a love of sacred texts. He never married, lived and dressed simply, abstained from alcohol, and generally did not eat meat. While austere, he was sociable and especially enjoyed hosting tea parties. He taught himself to play the violin and then the viola so he could play in a quartet (sometimes quintet), which met regularly in his rooms before his retirement. His other hobbies included chess in his early life, walking holidays in Wales, cycling, and later gardening.

Bailey continued his association with SOAS, serving on its governing body from 1946 to 1970. A fellow of the British Academy in 1944, he was also a corresponding member of the Danish (1946), Norwegian (1947), and Swedish (1948) academies. He served as the president or chairman of several organisations including the Philological Society (1948–52), the Royal Asiatic Society (1964–67), and the Society for Afghan Studies (1972–79). The RAS awarded him its gold medal in 1971 and the Denis Sinor medal in 1993. He had been knighted in 1960 and was presented with honorary doctorates by the University of Western Australia (1963); the Australian National University (1970); the University of Oxford (1976); and the University of Manchester (1979).

In 1967 Bailey retired from his Cambridge chair. Freed from teaching commitments, he refocused on his research. In 1978, with four other scholars, Sir Harold founded the Ancient India and Iran Trust, which was built on his extensive and rare library. The organisation’s headquarters was established in a large Victorian house at 23 Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge, to host conferences, public lectures, and visiting fellows, among other activities, and to accommodate the library, which would grow to over fifty thousand items. In 1981 Bailey moved to the house and became chairman of the trust.

By then Bailey was widely considered to be one of the greatest ‘Orientalists’ of the twentieth century. Reportedly able to read more than fifty languages, he was the world's leading expert in Khotanese, interpreting and editing documents from the Middle Iranian language of the kingdom of Khotan in Chinese Turkestan. One obituarist observed that ‘he extended our understanding of all the ancient Indo-Iranian language groups and thus, indirectly, of the folklore, history, and religions of Central and South-Eastern Asia’ (Rush 1996).

Towards the end of his life, Bailey’s eyesight failed and, although his mind remained alert, he could no longer type and his handwriting became illegible, frustrating his ability to publish. On 11 January 1996 he died at Cambridge and was cremated. He bequeathed small legacies to establish prizes in Asian studies at the University of Western Australia; Queens’ College, Cambridge; and St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Queens’ College commissioned his portrait (1972) by Ronald Way.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Austin, M. N. ‘Sir Harold Bailey.’ In Westralian Portraits, edited by Lyall Hunt, 235–39. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press for the Education Committee of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations, 1979
  • Bailey, Sir Harold Walter. Interview by Christine Shervington, October 1981, State Library of Western Australia
  • Bivar, A. D. H. ‘Obituary: Professor Sir Harold Bailey, FBA.’ Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 6, no. 3 (November 1996): 407–10
  • Emmerick, Ronald Eric. ‘Harold Walter Bailey, 1899–1996.’ In A Century of British Orientalists, 1902–2001, edited by C. Edmund Bosworth, 11–48. Oxford: Oxford University Press, c. 2001
  • Kahrs, Evind. ‘In Memoriam: Sir Harold Walter Bailey.’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 20, no. 2 (1997): 3–6
  • Osborn, Eric. ‘Sir Harold Walter Bailey, 1899–1996.’ In Annual Report, 52–55. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1996
  • Rush, Alan. ‘Professor Sir Harold Bailey.’ Independent, 12 January 1996. Accessed 6 July 2020. Copy held on ADB file
  • Sheldon, John. ‘Bailey, Harold Walter.’ In Encyclopædia Iranica. Last modified 24 August 2011. Accessed 28 May 2020. Copy held on ADB file
  • Sims-Williams, Nicholas, and George Hewitt. ‘Obituary: Sir Harold Bailey, 1899–1996.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 60, no. 1 (1997): 109–16

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Citation details

Christine Mary Shervington, 'Bailey, Sir Harold Walter (1899–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 May 2024.

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