NBW participant John Whitbourn may have discovered the UK's first Buddhist in the very heartland of NBW's activity: Surrey. The man is Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen, a well-known mountaineer and natural historian of the 19th century. Here are some details and two photos for you, while John and his NBW team continue their investigations.
Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen
Lt-Col Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen (1834 –1923), was an English topographer, geologist, naturalist, ornithologist and surveyor. He explored the mountains in the Himalayas and surveyed the glaciers at the base of K2, also known as Mount Godwin-Austen.
Family tradition holds that Haversham Godwin-Austen was a 'convert' to Buddhism, and as such he may be the first known British lay adherent to Buddhism. His small, Burmese style, Buddhist shrine at Nore, Hascombe, Surrey, is likely to have been erected there around 1901 (although a later date of c. 1920 is possible), perhaps after being situated at each of Godwin-Austen’s successive main residences from 1877 onwards, following his return to England after 25 years in Asia.
Accordingly, the shrine probably constitutes the first ever ‘custom built’ physical structure raised for Buddhist devotional purposes in Britain. It was forgotten and lost to view under brambles after Godwin-Austen’s time, prior to rediscovery in 1962 by a new owner of Nore, actor Dirk Bogarde.
Godwin-Austen’s espousal of Buddhism – and possibly his shrine – therefore predates the earliest formal Buddhist missions to Britain: namely those of the Japanese-sponsored ‘Buddhist Propagation Society’, led by Irish born Captain Charles J. W. Pfoundes in 1889, and that of English convert Charles Henry Alan Bennett a.k.a. ‘Ananda Metteyya’ in 1908. ‘The Buddhist Society of Great Britain & Ireland’ was formed in 1907.
He was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, Surrey, UK. He did military service in Burma and India. More detail on his life is to be found in the Wiki article on ‘Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen’. See also the biography by Catherine Moorehead, The K2 Man (and his Molluscs): The Extraordinary Life of Haversham Godwin-Austen, Neil Wilson Publishing, 2013.