Sheila Unwin (1923 – 2009)

sheila unwin in service uniform

Sheila Unwin in WRNS service uniform.

Unwin was born Sheila Mills in Scotland and grew up in Norfolk; her father, Findlay, whom she revered, was a first world war hero who had been decorated with the Distinguished Service Order. After leaving school, where she had excelled academically, she went to St James’s secretarial college in London, where she was very proud of achieving 150wpm shorthand. Her greatest regret was that the war prevented her from going to university.

She was a second officer in the WRNS during the Second World War, most of which she spent in Egypt. In 1945 she was posted to Germany, where she met her husband Tom, a Colonial Service District Officer. They married the following year.

Sheila Unwin became an expert in Swahili and Arab culture. At the age of 86 she fulfilled her lifelong ambition and published The Arab Chest. This personal and academic account explores the origins of these brass-studded wooden pieces of furniture found all over the Gulf and East Africa. (Her research into these chests was first published in the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arab Studies, volume 18, 1988).

This fascination began as long ago as the late 1940s when, after World War Two, she and Tom went to Tanganyika to work on the ill-fated Groundnut Scheme, the British government plan for the large-scale cultivation of peanuts. There they lived in a tent for the first two years of their married life.

During the revolution in Zanzibar in 1964, Unwin rescued an Arab family and, in return, was given first option on a shipment of 60 chests, for which she paid the sum of £600, borrowed from a trusting bank manager.

Unwin became the first Secretary of the British Institute in Eastern Africa,  based in Dar es Salaam. She also travelled alone in the 1960s and 1970s through Ethiopia, Yemen, the Gulf States, Pakistan, Iran, India and Turkey. In the 1980s she joined successive expeditions to Baluchistan as a cultural adviser and published on the lacquer crafts and craftsmen in Makran (BAR International Series 1141: 2003).

She divorced her husband Tom in 1970 and returned to East Africa and, hard up, undertook a soul-destroying job with the United Nations as a stenographer; but in her leisure time she went on archaeological digs with Neville Chittick, her soulmate, whom she had first met in the 1950s. Unwin participated in historic digs in the Manda, Pate and Lamu islands, off the coast of Kenya, where she and Neville bought a house. Unwin purchased tribal beadwork, much of which was donated to RAMM. Her collection was created accidentally; she wanted to alleviate the suffering of those who survived the great drought referred to as Kimududu (1970).

Her donation of predominantly Kamba and Kikuyu beaded adornment from Kenya is rarely found in British museum collections. Many items were labelled by her and included their local names, dates of purchase and the price paid by her. Examples of her donation can be found on the museum’s online database Collections Explorer.

(Written with thanks to her daughter Vicky Unwin)