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Woodward, Frank Lee (1871–1952)

by Nigel Heyward

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Frank Woodward, n.d.

Frank Woodward, n.d.

Frank Lee Woodward (1871-1952), headmaster and Buddhist scholar, was born on 13 April 1871 at Saham Toney, Norfolk, England, third son of William Woodward, a country parson, and his wife Elizabeth Mary Ann, née Lee. Educated by his father, Frank entered Christ's Hospital (the Bluecoat School), London. After winning distinction as a classical scholar, sportsman and organist at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (B.A., 1893; M.A., 1902), he taught in several English public schools and regarded his profession as 'the noblest of them all', as 'a means of learning' and as 'a means of service'.

While at Stamford School, Lincolnshire, Woodward began studying Western and Eastern philosophy. In 1902 he joined the Theosophical Society, 'the most important event' in his life. Inspired to accept Buddha's teachings, he became a friend of Colonel H. S. Olcott, co-founder and president of the society and a pioneer of Buddhist education in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1903 Woodward was invited to become principal of Mahinda Buddhist College, Galle, on the south-western coast of the island.

There Woodward set 'a very high tone'. A strict disciplinarian, he knew every pupil in the school, each of whom he nicknamed after a character in Shakespeare's plays. He lived frugally, like a Buddhist monk, and was respected for his experience, academic ability and lack of ostentation. The school grew rapidly and had to be relocated. He contributed generously from his monetary inheritance, and designed, supervised and assisted with new buildings which included a science laboratory. The teaching of the Buddha dharma and Sinhalese language and history were important in the school: Woodward had Sinhalese accepted as a subject for the Cambridge local examinations. He advised the director of education in Ceylon and was actively associated with the movement for establishing a university.

By 1919 he was looking for peace and seclusion in which to continue his translations of the Buddhist scriptures for the Pali Text Society. Woodward settled near Launceston, Tasmania, and about 1927 bought a house in a neglected orchard in the Rowella district on the western bank of the Tamar River. A vegetarian, a mystic and a man of whimsy, he practised yoga, wore a turban and lived alone, surrounded by Buddhist scriptures on thousands of palm-leaves. Maintaining an extensive correspondence, he recorded the scores in every match played by the Bluecoat School's Old Blues Rugby XV.

Among scholars, Woodward is revered for translating eighteen of the forty-two volumes of the Pali texts into English and for compiling the vast concordance of the Pali canon which occupied the last fifteen years of his life. At the popular level, his volume, Some Sayings of the Buddha (Oxford, 1925, 1939), has contributed to a wider understanding of Buddhism. Reduced to near poverty, Woodward died on 27 May 1952 at Beaconsfield Hospital, West Tamar, and was cremated. A former associate Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam viewed him as a great apostle of Mahayana Buddhism who had 'combined in a rare degree … the active spirit of the West with the mysticism of the East'.

Select Bibliography

  • D. H. P. Gunawardena, F. L. Woodward (Colombo, Ceylon, nd)
  • I. P. Oliver, Buddhism in Britain (Lond, 1979)
  • L. McIntyre et al, Rowella—Kayena (West Bay—Richmond Hill) from 1805 (Launc, 1987)
  • P. Croucher, Buddhism in Australia 1848-1988 (Syd, 1989)
  • Platypus (University of Tasmania Literary Magazine), 1952
  • Examiner (Launceston), 10 Aug 1983
  • N. J. Heyward, A Buddhist Scholar (manuscript, 1954, copy in ADB file).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nigel Heyward, 'Woodward, Frank Lee (1871–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 November 2022.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2022

Frank Woodward, n.d.

Frank Woodward, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


13 April, 1871
Saham Toney, Norfolk, England


27 May, 1952 (aged 81)
Beaconsfield, Tasmania, Australia

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