Dame Margery PERHAM (1895–1982)

Historian, writer, Africanist

5 Rawlinson Road, Oxford

Margery Perham was born in Bury, one of seven children of Frederick Perham, a wine and spirit merchant, and his wife Marion (née Hodder Needell). She attended St Anne’s School, Abbots Bromley, and won an open scholarship to read history at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1914. She obtained a First and embarked on an academic career as a history lecturer at Sheffield University but the death of her brother in WWI and other unhappy circumstances brought about a nervous breakdown in 1920.

She chose to convalesce in Somaliland where her sister’s husband, Major Harry Rayne, was district commissioner at Hargeisa. She was utterly captivated by Africa and had the opportunity to observe at first hand the practice of colonial administration. When she resumed her career, and returned to Oxford in 1924 as Fellow and Tutor in History and PPE at St Hugh’s, she made the study of colonial governance her special preserve. For some years she travelled extensively on research scholarships all over Africa, the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States and sent back articles for The Times and vivid diary accounts published in much later years as books, such as An African Apprenticeship (1976).

From the 1930s onwards she was increasingly seen as the major authority on African affairs. She became the first Reader in Imperial Studies and founded the Oxford Institute of Colonial Studies (later renamed the Commonwealth Institute) which she directed from 1945 to 1948. The legacy of that foundation is that Oxford continues to be a foremost centre for African studies. She reflected changing attitudes towards the responsibilities of Empire and understood the necessity of decolonisation, advocating the development of each country’s indigenous institutions in readiness for independence. She encouraged and befriended emerging African leaders such as Kofi Busia and Tom Mboya. She served on government committees relating to colonial administration, higher education, and social and economic development. Her views were frequently expressed in letters to The Times (later published in two volumes as The Colonial Sequence) and she was the first woman to be invited to give the Reith Lectures (1961), published as The Colonial Reckoning. As colonial and post-colonial studies grew, she was revered as an éminence grise in the field. In 1965 for her public service she was made Dame Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George (DCMG), the order usually reserved for diplomats.

5 Rawlinson Road5 Rawlinson Road, where Margery Perham lived from 1963

She holds a special place in the annals and esteem of Nuffield College. When the college was founded but not yet built, she was made the first official and only woman fellow in 1939 and helped with planning during the long years it took for the buildings to be completed.

She died in 1982. Her ashes were scattered at Shere on the North Downs where she had a family farm and had written several of her books.


  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, article by Patricia M. Pugh
  • Oxford and Empire by Richard Symonds.

The plaque was installed at 5 Rawlinson Road, Oxford, on 1 June 2019. The speaker was Professor John Darwin FBA, Oxford Professor of Imperial and Global History. Among those attending were Sir Andrew Dilnot, Warden of Nuffield College, and Cllr Altaf Khan, Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford.

  • Photograph taken at the unveiling ceremony, showing Sir David Madden, Councillor Susanna Pressel (who proposed the plaque), Professor John Darwin, Lady Madden, and Emeritus Professor Robert Evans (Chairman of the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board)

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board



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on African affairs

Lived here

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