BBC-Documentary “Miss Simpson’s Children”: How a Woman ran a Refugee Organisation


Photo credit: The Lotte Meitner-Graf Archive

The onslaught on Jewish scholars in Germany as well as the increasingly difficult situation for other  jurists in the occupied parts of Europe forced many among them to seek refuge abroad. However, British immigration policy was strict and geared towards excluding everyone who couldn’t support themselves. Additionally, specific professional groups were favoured over others, based on how urgently their skills were needed on the British labour market. Therefore, universities in many cases provided the only opportunity for foreign scholars to gain entry to and win a livelihood in Great Britain. The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (the former Academic Assistance Council, AAC) was a private Oxford-based organisation that supported refugee scholars in finding employment at British universities and successfully settle in Great Britain.

A recent BBC-documentary by David Edmonds sheds light on the biography of Esther Simpson, the Assistant-Secretary of the Society from 1933 to 1944. Born in 1903 as the daughter of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants and herself a Quaker, she studied at Leeds University and turned herself into a “sought-after secretary-cum-translator-cum-interpreter”. When she left her position as a secretary of the World Alliance of YMCAs in Geneva in 1933 for the worse paying job at the AAC, she acted out of the conviction that she could make a valuable contribution. Simpson was aware that the organisation, in limiting its assistance to scholars, made choices over life and death based on academic achievement, however, she believed that “[e]ach [refugee organization] could only do so much but of course I felt terrible about the plight of others.” (1992) Over the course of the next eight years, she guided almost 2600 refugee scholars through the difficult and often overwhelming process of establishing a new life in Britain.[1] The assistance for émigré jurists often proved to be extraordinarily difficult because naturally, many among them had specialised in German law. However, some criminal law experts such as Max Grünhut and Hermann Mannheim found a position at the University of Oxford and the London School of Economis respectively, also thanks to the Society.

Based on interviews and archival material, Edmonds characterises Simpson as an efficient, yet compassionate women who spent her life supporting others. This image of motherly devotion is central to the human interest story that he presents to his audience. While it makes the documentary very relatable, it also feeds into gender stereotypes of women being more emphatic and cooperative than men. As a historian, I would have liked to learn more about the social and economic structures that allowed Simpson to take such a central role even before the war. Is her story unique or representative for women of her age and background? We also need to be critical about the extent of the explanatory power of an individual’s biography for historical change. While Simpson’s role in shaping the SPSL’s agenda and institutional processes certainly deserves more attention than it has previously received, other factors such as governmental policies and financial conditions affect how non-governmental institutions can implement their goals. Despite these minor concerns on my part, the documentary does a great job in painting a vivid picture of a fascinating women central to many émigrés’ lives in the London Moment.

A more detailed, written account by David Edmonds can be found in the Jewish Chronicle.

[1] Oldfield, Sybil. “Simpson, Esther (1903–1996).” Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography, May 25, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/64023.


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