85 Years of the British Council  ©

Adapted from ‘Sir Reginald Wildig Allen ('Rex') Leeper’ by Walter Stoneman bromide, 27 September 1948 © National Portrait Gallery and Benjamin Zephanaiah © Adrian Pope, adapted from the original

DECEMBER 2019

The British Council turns 85 this month. For an institution of that age we like to think we are in great health. From our humble beginnings in 1934, we now have offices in 108 countries around the world, creating opportunities, making connections, and building trust for the UK.

There are many things which make us unique. First and foremost is the passion and commitment of our people to fulfill the British Council’s mission, and I am extremely proud of the work that they all do. Speaking of our people, we owe our existence to one individual in particular: an Australian called Sir Reginald Leeper who worked for the Foreign Office. It was his foresight, ingenuity and influence which led to our creation. 

Sir Reginald convinced the Foreign Office of the importance of cultural relations, and of the need to fund work in that sphere.

In 1931 he arranged lecture tours and book donations to nearly 30 countries, and in 1933 he contributed to the setting up of a Cultural Relations Committee – with the Board of Education and the Department of Overseas Trade. On 5 December 1934 he set up the first meeting of the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries, which was renamed the British Council in 1936. And of course in 1940 we came out of the Foreign Office and got our Royal Charter.

These first years were a tumultuous period. In the wake of the Great Depression, economic hardship led to a rise in extreme ideologies and ultimately to the horrors of the Second World War. 

The British Council was formed to counter some of the distrust and intolerance, and to “create a basis for friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and other countries”. We remain committed to that vision.

From those early steps came the British Council of today: a modern, vibrant, creative organisation, still making opportunities and connections and building trust. As poet Dr Benjamin Zephaniah has said in his poem to mark our 85th anniversary, ‘Now 85 years have passed, and our dear Council still has future plans.’ The British Council does indeed look forward to continuing to deliver for the UK and our friends and partners around the world in 2020 and beyond. 

Sir Ciarán Devane, CEO, British Council

See also