Thompson, Edward John (1886–1946), teacher and writer, was born on 9 April 1886 at Hazel Grove, Stockport, the eldest son of John Moses Thompson (1854–1894), from near Penrith, and his wife, Elizabeth Penney (1851–1928), both Wesleyan missionaries to south India. Mission compounds and Madras beaches were Edward’s earliest memories. In 1892 his father’s failing health forced them home, with five children and a sixth born at their Colwyn Bay parish. After she was widowed, Elizabeth raised them in near poverty at Stockport. From the Wesleyan school there Edward went to the Methodist Kingswood School, Bath, from 1888 to 1902. His record promised an Oxford or Cambridge scholarship and he early saw poetry as his vocation, but poverty forced him into several years of clerking in a Bethnal Green bank. All his life he bitterly regretted that lost educational opportunity; in many respects he was self-educated, although in 1909 he earned an external London University BA. In 1908 he entered Richmond Theological College; after ordination in 1910, he went to Bankura Wesleyan college, Bengal, to teach English literature, ever his absorbing interest.
Thompson’s first period there, to 1916, coincided with Lord Hardinge’s term as viceroy and the crucial changes in Bengal’s politics after annulment in 1911 of Lord Curzon’s 1905 Bengal partition. Thompson viewed those changes in relation to the controversial advance and growing unrest of the educated middle classes. Contrary to government policy, he agreed with his friend Percy Comyn Lyon, Bengal’s education secretary, that more education, not more policing, was the solution. He came to share also Lyon’s view that dominion status, not independence, was India’s best future hope.
Thompson as teacher was a signal success, but Bankura was isolated and its Wesleyan atmosphere oppressive; colleagues looked askance at his poetic aspirations. He found satisfaction in association, from 1913, with the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and in study and translation of Bengali poetry and short fiction, at a time when most Western readers were unaware of the existence of serious, artistic literature in Indian vernaculars. Tagore’s friendship and Nobel prize were inspiring but also exemplified early difficulties in East–West literary exchange. Although Thompson saw poetry as his own vocation, friends such as William Canton, the poet and historian of the British and Foreign Bible Society, had to convince him that he excelled also in prose.
Thompson served as chaplain in Mesopotamia from 1916 to 1918, with the 2nd Royal Leicestershires. Although he doubted that he had a chaplain’s qualifications, he did well in this post, and a Military Cross recognized his conspicuous service to the wounded under fire. His powerful memoir, The Leicestershires beyond Baghdad (1919), testifies to his skill as prose writer, his success as battlefield padre, and his everlasting convictions about the wasteful cruelty of war. In 1918 he was posted to Jerusalem, where he met and married, in 1919, Theodosia Jessup (1892–1970), daughter of the American Presbyterian missionary William Jessup. He returned to Bankura College as acting principal, and found changed educational requirements and colleagues who underestimated the power of Gandhi’s non-co-operation and of student protests. Under those circumstances Thompson saw little hope for progress and in 1923 moved to Oxford as lecturer in Bengali. He resigned Wesleyan ordination and began a writing career. He became a Leverhulme research fellow (1934–6), and honorary fellow and research fellow in Indian history at Oriel College (1936–40). He preserved Indian contacts, and Congress Party leaders trusted him sufficiently that, in 1939, while there on a cultural mission for the Rhodes trustees, he accompanied Nehru to the secret debate on India’s role in the Second World War. As a freelance journalist, he endeavoured to interpret India for the West and the West for India, as in his coverage of the 1930–32 round-table conference.
Thompson followed Indian politics and literature closely. The Amritsar massacre of 1919 so angered him that with other missionaries he joined a minority protest that attracted much animosity. He examined Indian history and culture in works such as A History of India (1927), Suttee (1928), and The Life of Charles, Lord Metcalfe (1937). The Other Side of the Medal (1925) analyses the Indian perspective on the 1857 mutiny, and The Reconstruction of India (1930) pleads for new beginnings in British-Indian relations. From Indian literature, he translated medieval devotional lyrics, and stories from Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore: his Life and Work (1921) and Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist (1926) were the first significant Western assessments of Tagore’s work. The latter earned Thompson a PhD from London University, and some sharp criticism in India because it was not exclusively laudatory. Throughout, Thompson wrote poetry, and his later volumes, such as New Recessional (1942) and 100 Poems (1944), were superior to his earlier work in intensity and precision. His novels, Introducing the Arnisons (1935) and John Arnison (1939), encapsulate his experience of growing up Wesleyan, while six novels with Indian settings use Bankura and other Indian experiences; verisimilitude, striking personalities, and loving descriptions of flora, fauna, and countryside distinguish them.
Thompson attacked mindless prejudice in the strongest terms, but also with wit that could disarm his critics. If he left formal Wesleyanism he kept an evangelistic passion for causes he espoused. High on that list were justice for India and the end of wars.
The Thompsons settled on Boars Hill, Oxford, neighbours of the poet laureate, of whom Edward wrote a biography, Robert Bridges (1944). They had two sons: (William) Frank Thompson (1920–1944), who died in Bulgaria in a secret intelligence unit; and the historian Edward Palmer Thompson (1924–1993). Edward John Thompson died of stomach cancer on 28 April 1946 at his residence at Saunders Close, Bledlow, Buckinghamshire and was buried in Bledlow church.
Wealth at Death: £1875 1s. 2d.: probate, 6 Dec 1946.
(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)