Sewell, William Gawan

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises the letters, diaries, drafts of published works, papers and photographs of William Gawan Sewell, relating largely to his time in China. Material on the West China Union University includes histories, brochures, detailed descriptions, plans and photographs.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Gawan Sewell was born on 6 July 1898, in Whitby, Yorkshire. He was born into an old Quaker family. He was educated at Ackworth School, Whitby County School and took his M.Sc. in chemistry at Leeds University. In 1921 he was appointed Demonstrator and Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Colour Chemistry at Leeds University. In 1922 he married Hilda Guy, a fellow student at Leeds (Botany and Education). They were to have three daughters and one son (the eldest daughter died in Chengdu at the age of seven).

In 1924 he resigned his University post to go, with his wife, to the West China Union University, Chengdu, Sichuan, as part of the Friends Foreign Mission Association (later the Friends Service Council). After a years language study he joined the Department of Chemistry, eventually becoming the Head and Associate Dean of the College of Science. In 1927 he was evacuated from Chengdu. After some time in Shanghai, he spent two terms teaching at Lingnan University, Canton, before returning to Sichuan.

From 1942 to 1945, he and his family were interned by the Japanese at Stanley, Hong Kong. After recuperation in England he returned to Chengdu in 1947. In 1949, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, he was one of the few foreign teachers invited to stay. He continued his teaching at the West China Union University, returning to England in 1952.

After leaving China, he worked for eleven years (1952-1963) as Assistant Registrar (London Representative) of the University of Ghana (formerly the University College of the Gold Coast). He retired in 1964, and spent his time involved chiefly with China and Quaker committees. He was for several years a Vice-Chairman of the Friends Service Council, a Chairman for one year. He paid three visits to New Zealand, which gave him the opportunity of lecturing on China. In 1974 he visited eastern China. He died on 13 January 1984.

His publications (with the Edinburgh House Press) include Land and Life of China, (1933); Turbid Waters, (1934); China Through a College Window, (1937); Strange Harmony (An Account of Internment), (1946); I Stayed in China, (1966); The People of Wheelbarrow Lane, (1970); China and the West: Mankind Evolving, (1970).


The material has been arranged into the following sections: reports to the Society of Friends in London; internment of the Sewell family in Hong Kong; diaries and notebooks of William Sewell; family letters; published and unpublished writings of William Sewell; West China Union University, mission work and general conditions in Sichuan and China; miscellaneous bulky items; lectures and articles by William Sewell; material in Chinese; miscellaneous printed and typewritten matter on West China Union University and China; maps and guides etc.

Conditions Governing Access


Acquisition Information

Donated in 1981


Predominantly English, but a few items are in Chinese.

Other Finding Aids

Unpublished handlist

Separated Material

Associated Material held elsewhere: Papers of William Gawan Sewell relating to his work as a Quaker, held at Quaker Peace and Service, The Library of the Religious Society of friends, Friends House, Euston Road, London.

Conditions Governing Use

No publication without written permission. Apply to archivist in the first instance

Related Material

Related Collections at SOAS: Press-cuttings (1933-1935), including items by William Gawan Sewell, held in the archive of the Conference of British Missionary Societies [ref: CBMS/H/PB22/87; CBMS/H/PB23/88; CBMS/H/PB28/93; CBMS/H/PB36/101]