Papers of Edward William West

Scope and Content

The Papers of Edward William West reflect his interest in Pahlavi language and Zoroastrianism. The majority are handwritten notebooks and other manuscripts in which he did his work. These often have many inserts. There are also loose handwritten notes, some correspondence and some printed material.

Administrative / Biographical History

Edward William West, the oldest of 12 children, was born in Pentonville, London, on 2 May 1824. He was the son of William West, the owner of many cotton presses in India, and Margaret Anderson. His ancestors were "builders and mechanics." He was often ill as a child and therefore home-schooled. He entered a school at Pentonville from the age of 11 to 15. He then started studying engineering at King's College London where he won High Honours in 1842.

His parents had lived in India for some years before their marriage. His father lived in Bombay, and his mother, in Calcutta. In 1844, West went east to superintend the large establishment of family owned-cotton presses in Bombay. He worked there until 1850. During this time, he had a close relationship with his Parsee butler, testament to which is in the unpublished memoir of his brother, Arthur William West, and a box of Edward West's papers, both held at the British Library.

In 1852, he became the Chief Engineer on the Great Indian Peninsular Railway Project. More on this can be found in the British Library.

From as early as 1850, he studied the Kanheri caves in Mumbai. Guide to Kanheri Caves suggests that his most important contribution to academia before he moved to translating the "Pahlavi Texts" was of one of the sealings that "depicted a seated Buddha in Bhumisparsha Mudhra with ornaments around the figure and an inscription underneath" (Wani 6). He presented his findings to the Bombay Asiatic Society on the 12 April 1860 which was then subsequently published in the January edition of the BRAS under the title, "Copies of Inscriptions from the Buddhist Cave-Temples of Kánheri, &c. in the Island of Sulsette, with a plan of the Kanheri caves" (West 1861).

West's legacy remains in his translation of Zoroastrian texts from Pahlavi to English. He was in close contact with the Parsi community in Bombay. Arthur West's autobiography and narration of Edward West's stories show the presence of Parsi butlers in his house and managers in the cotton press.

A commonly accepted speculation regarding West's inspiration to translate the Pahlavi texts was Martin Haug's essay "Essays on the Sacred Language, Writings, and Religion of the Parsis" (Bombay 1862). An edition of the same text "edited and enlarged" by West was published in 1907.

West began his work on a copy of the Avesta, or the scriptures of Zoroaster, accompanied by a Gujurati translation of the Avesta and Dhanjibhai Framji's, 'Pahlavi Grammar' (1855). He then continued his study of Pahlavi with Haug. Haug and West returned to Europe in 1866, when Haug was appointed Professor of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology at the University of Munich. West went to Munich for six years (1867-73) when he spent his time translating the Pahlavi texts of Zoroastrianism. On 17 June 1871, the University of Munich bestowed an honorary doctorate of Philosophy upon him. After a year in England (1873-4) West revisited India (1874-6) in order to procure manuscripts of the important Pahlavi books, 'Dēnkart' and 'Dātistan-i Dēnīk'; he paid a last visit to the Kanheri caves on 6 February 1875.

He meticulously drawn plans of the cotton presses and new developments can be seen in the British Library. The traces of this meticulousness are also observed in his Personal Papers held by the Royal Asiatic Society.

From 1876 to 1897, West worked on translating the Pahlavi Texts Vol. 1-5 for Prof. Max Müller's Sacred Books of the East Series. His work was widely recognised by Zoroastrian and Orientalist scholars from the West and the East. His meticulous notes in these papersshow his commitment to the collation of several manuscripts, many of them kept in poor condition by the archives and libraries. Through his footnotes, he marked the differences and similarities he found in the manuscripts, while paying attention to the interweaving of different languages in a single MS. (i.e. presence of Sanskrit, Persian, and Gujarati).

His service to the profession was widely recognised: The Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1887 made him a corresponding member; he was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and on 6 July 1901 he was presented with the Society's Triennial Gold Medal. The American Oriental Society awarded him an honorary membership. West was also in correspondence with contemporary scholars including Peshotan Bharamji Sanjana. Sanjana was interested in the inconsistencies that West found between his father's manuscript and other copies of the same manuscript.

He died in his eighty-first year at Watford, on 4 February 1905. He was survived by his wife Sarah Margaret Barclay, and by an only son, Max, an artist.


The material is arranged in series thus:

  • EWW/1 - Handwritten Manuscripts
  • EWW/2 - Correspondence
  • EWW/3 - Printed Material
  • EWW/4 - Objects

Access Information

Open. Please contact the archivist using the email address given The archive is open on Tuesdays and Fridays 10-5, and Thursdays 2-5. Access is to any researcher without appointment but it will help if an appointment is made via phone or email. Please bring photo ID

Acquisition Information

It is unknown when the material came to the Royal Asiatic Society. According to the de Menasce article, they were 'refound' at the Society when it moved premises around 1949.

Archivist's Note

These papers were partially catalogued by Aadityakrishna Sathish, archive intern, in 2018 and completed by Nancy Charley, RAS Archivist in 2019.

Conditions Governing Use

Digital photography (without flash) for research purposes may be permitted upon completion of a copyright declaration form, and with respect to current UK copyright law.

Appraisal Information

The material was first listed by P.J. Menasce and appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1950, pp. 53-62, as "A Provisional Handlist of the late E.W. West's Papers Preserved in the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society". It appears he also labelled the material with his system. To a large extent the numbering system was kept the same in cataloguing, but his 56 and 57 were of disparate parts and therefore these were taken out of the numbered system to be catalogued separately.

Custodial History

The papers belonged to West until his death in 1905.

Related Material

Our Library Collections hold several books written by E.W. West. Details can be found on our Catalogue. Photo.23/(008) is of E.W. West aged 71 years.

James Burgess bequeathed a collection of material belonging to the brothers, Edward William, Arthur Anderson, Henry and Clement West. These are portfolios of plans, architectural drawings and notes made by the West brothers in western India between 1844 and 1875. This material is currently uncatalogued.

The material was first listed by P.J. Menasce and appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1950, pp. 53-62, as "A Provisional Handlist of the late E.W. West's Papers Preserved in the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society". It is helpful to refer to this when working with the West material.

Letters and papers of the brothers Arthur Anderson West, engineer, and Dr Edward William West, engineer are held at the British Library.

Geographical Names