A Surrey man is UK’s First Buddhist? (1877)

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. 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.

Henry Haversham 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.

Nore Shrine

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.

The Origins of UK Buddhism

Compiled by John Whitbourn of NBW

1877  Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen (1834-1923). Soldier, explorer, mountaineer and naturalist, born into a long established and distinguished Surrey family. Successively Resident at Shalford Park, Chilworth Manor, Reigate and, finally, ‘The Nore’, Hascombe, Surrey. G-A returned to England from the Far East for good in 1877, after 25 years service abroad. Therefore his presumed espousal of lay Buddhism is most likely to predate 1877. This would make him the first British lay Buddhist. See NBW’s page about the shrine he brought with him, probably in 1877

The Burmese-style Buddhist shrine (i.e. intended as a focus for worship, rather than a ‘stupa’ for containing a relic, as sometimes described) now at the Nore may have been brought back with him from his 1877 Calcutta embarkation point as a physical symbol of, and aid to, his new faith. Certainly, Burmese masons working to commission are attested there at the time. If so, it may have been re-sited with each of G-A’s post-return house moves and thus located at the Nore from around 1901. An alternative possibility is that the shrine could have been presented to G-A from Burma at a later date, circa 1920, in gratitude for his restitution to the Shewesandaw Pagoda in Bagan, Burma, of a ‘old Burmese bell’, in his possession following its seizure by the British as a act of policy during the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 (in which G-A’s grandfather commanded the British forces).

1875 Theosophical Society founded.

1879 Sir Edwin Arnold published his best selling (still in print today) epic poem ‘The Light of Asia’,containing a life of Buddha. Probably the first readily available and sympathetic (albeit controversial) account of Buddhism in English.

1880 Henry Steel Olcott. 1832-1907. American Army colonel who formally converted to Buddhism in Ceylon in 1880 (along with Madame Blavatsky of Theosophical Society fame), although both were previously self-declared as such. Olcott is considered to be first American of European descent to do so. A joint founder of the Theosophical Society, he spent lengthy periods in India and Ceylon and is still a revered figure in the latter. In 1881 he drafted an influential ‘Buddhist Catechism’, which remains in use today.

1881 Pali Text Society founded by three British civil servants posted to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The Society was highly influential in promoting the Theravada School of Buddhism via publishing Pali dictionaries and the Pali Buddhist canon.

c.1884 U. Dhammaloka. c1856-1914? An Irish national, whose previous, Western, name remains unknown. He espoused Buddhism in Burma circa 1884 and was ordained as a monk sometime prior to 1899. He was an active campaigner against British rule in Burma, with particular animus against the activities of Christian missionaries. To date, there are no known links connecting Dhammaloka to the numerically small world of ‘Western Buddhists’, but he is currently the subject of study by ‘The Dhammaloka Project’, supervised by the University of Cork, Eire, which may yet reveal an association.

1889-1892 The Japanese-sponsored ‘Buddhist Propagation Society’ (BPS) was launched in London in 1889 and led for three years by the Irish-born but long term Japan resident and Buddhist convert Captain Charles J. W. Pfoundes, (1840-1907). Pfoundes seems to establish a definitive ‘very first’ date for the initial British public meeting held to introduce and popularise the Buddhist path (Sunday, 10th November, 1889, in the Mile End Road, London). 

c.1889 Charles Henry Alan Bennett. 1872-1923. English ‘convert’ to Buddhism. Pivotal in introducing Buddhism to Britain and, until recently (new research by ‘The Dhammolaka Project’ – see above) was thought to have established the first Buddhist Mission in the UK in 1908. Bennett spent years studying Buddhism in the Far East and travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1898 where he was ordained as a Buddhist monk (‘Bhikkhu’ as per the Theravada school of Buddhism), and is variously described as the first or second Englishman to do so. Thereafter he assumed the name Ananda Metteyya. In 1903 he founded the ‘International Buddhist Society’ in London and published a periodical ‘Buddhism: An Illustrated Review’. Its Vol. 1, Sept. 1903, issue contained his essay ‘Faith of the Future’ (i.e. Buddhism). Latterly, ill-health obliged him to ‘disrobe’ as a monk and curtail his missionary travels, and he remained resident in Britain from 1914 until his death.

1890 Sri Lankan Buddhist ‘revivalist’, Anagarika Dharmapala, perhaps the leading ‘Easterner’ to have a real impact in introducing Buddhism to ‘the West’, made his first visit to the UK.

1893 Anagarika Dharmapala (above) spoke at the ‘Parliament of the World’s Religions’ in Chicago in 1893, delivering a very influential paper entitled ‘The World’s Debt to Buddha’.

1904 Anton Gueth. 1878-1957. German national. Early in 1904 he was ordained a Buddhist monkin Burma, taking the name Nyanatiloka Mahathera. He met both Bennett/Ananda and U. Dhammolaka (see above) before returning to Germany and travelling widely in Europe with the idea of establishing its first Buddhist monastery (there meeting David-Neal – see below). When this project failed to come to fruition, Gueth returned to Ceylon and set up a new monastery where a number of Westerners (four Germans, an American-German, an American, and an Austrian) were ordained between 1911 and 1914. David-Neal also visited Gueth’s monastery to study there. Gueth died in Ceylon/Sri Lanka and received a state funeral.

1911? Madame Alexandra David-Neal.1868-1969. A remarkable Belgian-French female explorer, anarchist and author, who travelled extensively in India and espoused Buddhism around 1911. She met the 13th Dalai Lama on two occasions in 1912 and visited Tibet in 1924. David-Neal was a major figure in the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West via her 30+ published works.

1907 ‘The Buddhist Society of Great Britain & Ireland’ founded. It continued in existence until 1926, therefore temporarily overlapping with the following:

1924 Founding in Britain of The Buddhist Society by, among others, future High Court judge, Christmas Humphreys, (1901-1983), who espoused Buddhism as a young man. Buddhist Society Zen classes started in 1930.

1926 Founding of the London Buddhist Vihara, now in Chiswick, West London, on the initiative of Anagarika Dharmapala of Sri Lanka. 

1927 Dr D. T. Suzuki. 1870-1966. Japanese author, translator and academic visitor to Europe and America. He published the influential ‘Essays in Zen Buddhism’ (3 vols.) from 1927 – 1934 and is generally accepted as the main mover in introducing Zen to the West.

1927 Establishment of the first Buddhist monastic community in Britain, comprising three Sri Lankan monks based near Regents Park.