The History of the Anglo-Thai Society

Researched and compiled by Dr Orapin Dawson and M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse. Written by Stephanie Zarach

The history of the Anglo-Thai Society

By the 1960s, Thailand was beginning to emerge as an important centre for trade, investment and influence in South-East Asia. The headquarters of institutions such as the South-East Asia Trade Organisation (SEATO) and the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (now the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), were located in Bangkok and the world was beginning to take notice of a rapidly developing country.

The influx of large sums of money, a result of the US military’s presence during the Indo-China War, made a significant impact on Thailand. Considered a stable point in South-East Asia, the country attracted a great deal of foreign investment particularly from the US and Japan, enabling it to sustain a strong annual economic growth rate. Bangkok, a relatively small city in 1950, with canals and samlors (three wheeled bikes) still the main mode of transport and a population of one million, was changing fast by 1960. A hectic construction programme of factories, housing, hotels and roads was put in place, with tuk-tuks (a motorised version of the samlor) a regular mode of transport as they are today. Air conditioning began to be installed in some buildings with improvements in infrastructure, notably in water and electricity supplies

A major signal that Thailand wanted to develop relations with other countries and would welcome businessmen and tourists was given when, in 1960, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit embarked on an ambitious programme of state visits to countries in Asia, the US and Europe. The King himself described his purpose:

‘This overseas visit is undertaken to serve the country. It is my duty as Head of State. It is common knowledge that during this period every country, big or small, must depend on one another. The peoples of every nationality are related. We should therefore know each other’s characters and create mutual understanding. I shall show the people of those countries that the Thai people feel friendship for them. I shall try my utmost to let them know about Thailand and create goodwill towards Thai people.’


The King and Queen of Thailand arrived in London on 19 July 1960 by train at Victoria Station, where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, greeted them on the platform. Other members of the Royal Family, including the Princess Royal, Duchess of Kent, Duchess of Gloucester and Duke of Kent, were introduced to the King and Queen of Thailand as well as politicians of the day: Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, Home Secretary R A Butler and Selwyn Lloyd, who was then Foreign Minister (but became Chancellor of the Exchequer a few days later).

A full state procession from Victoria Station to Buckingham Palace along the Mall, with Queen Elizabeth and the King of Thailand in the first carriage and Queen Sirikit with Prince Philip in the second, delighted the crowds, which included many Thais, all waiting patiently under their umbrellas in the rain. The Royal guests stayed in Buckingham Palace. Queen Sirikit recalled later that Queen Elizabeth had organised souvenirs from Thailand to be ‘arranged for us in our suite. These included water bowls and saucers, golden trunks, small snuff boxes, cigarette cases, swords with engraved scabbards, gold-plated tea sets, and other items to decorate our living quarters at Buckingham Palace so that we would feel at home while we were there. These had been gift items from King Rama IV to Queen Victoria, sent through royal ambassadors led by Phya Montri Suriwong and escorts like Mom Rachothai and presented to Queen Victoria in 1857 (BE 2400)’.2

Their Majesties were received as guests of the Lord Mayor, Sir Bernard Waley Cohen, at The Guildhall in the heart of the City of London. Princess Alexandra, who had visited Thailand many times, and representatives from the City were present. The King reiterated that his hope was to bring Thailand and Britain closer together for mutual benefit.

The Anglo-Thai Society (‘the ATS’ or
‘the Society’) was formed in 1962 following
 the King of Thailand’s visit to Britain, which 
had helped to create an ideal setting for the
 enrichment of the relationship. There were 
already close ties between the two Kingdoms 
and Thai people had long been living in Britain.  Samaggi Samagom, the Thai Association
 (which later became the Thai Students’
Association), was established by King Rama
VI to bring Thais living in Britain together through a variety of events and activities, and dated back to 1901. More Thais were coming to live in the UK and the 1960s was a time when more British tourists were venturing beyond Europe.

Amongst the original founders of the Society were Prince Chula Chakrabongse, the Thai Ambassador H.E. M.L.Bheektip Malakul, Dr Roland Bramley and John Weston. The Society was set up in the last quarter of 1962 with support from the Royal Thai Embassy, a group of former British Ambassadors to Thailand, British people who had returned from work in Thailand, Thai and British businessmen in Britain and Samaggi Samagom. Prince Chula Chakrabongse became the first President of the Society, Dr Bramley was the first Chairman (1962-1967) and Dudley Woodruff was the first Honorary Secretary. The major aim of the Society was ‘to promote the study of all aspects of Thailand and its people’. As well as its links in the UK, the ATS also had strong links with the British Club and Old England Students’ Association (OESA) in Bangkok.

Activities arranged in the first decade of the Society’s life set a high bar for the future. The tradition of holding an AGM and a reception at the House of Lords began in 1964 and it is still one of the main events each year. Lord Inchcape hosted the first of these events and through his kindness, the Society’s Executive meetings were held at the Inchcape Company offices. Lord Simon hosted at the House of Lords in 1968 and he was followed in subsequent years by Lord Ranfurley (1971-1973), Lord Killearn (1973 - 1994) and Lord Geddes (1995 to date). Lord Geddes remains one of the Society’s Patrons. The Annual Dinner Dance, usually held at the Café Royal
in the 1960s, became a regular
event each October/November
and moved to the Grosvesnor
House Hotel in early 1970s. The
presentations of four Student Awards-Postgraduate, Undergraduate, A-Level and O-Level, were made at these dinners. The ATS also established the precedent of raising funds for children and student charities and sponsored two Thai Houses at the Pestalozzi International Village in the early years.

By 1968, the ATS had some 630 members. A tea party was organised by the Anglo-Thai Parliamentary Association on the House of Commons terrace that year, with many Thai students, Michael Stewart, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, and the Thai Ambassador, H.E Sunthorn Hongladarom, in attendance. Annual cocktails party was organised at Samaggi’s Common room at 28, Prince’s Gate. Student visits included the Trooping of the Colour, and trips to the Port of London, Cambridge and the Farnborough Air Show.

In addition to the events in London, the Society was also flourishing in the Midlands where a separate branch had been set up chaired by Peter Feeney with John Weston (who later became the Chairman of the ATS and was a Royal Thai Honorary Consul in Birmingham) as its Secretary. The Midlands branch organised numerous events including a weekend in Birmingham for all its members in the vicinity, with a formal dinner. As in London, many events were organised for Thai students.

Lt. Gen. Sir Geoffrey Evans was elected as Chairman of the Society in 1968. He had a long and distinguished career in the British Army, with considerable time spent in South-East Asia. He invited H.E. Sunthorn Hongladarom, to become the Society’s Patron in 1968, so cementing a close relationship between the Society and the Royal Thai Embassy in London. A year later, HRH Princess Chula Chakrabongse accepted an invitation to become the Society’s President and continued to support it in that role until 1971.

When the ATS celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1972, Sir Gordon Whitteridge (later Lord Whitteridge), a former Ambassador to Burma, was in the chair and events were held in London and the Midlands. The main celebration, the Annual Dinner Dance at the Grosvenor House Hotel, was attended by nearly 400, including representatives from Thai and British businesses, the Thai Embassy and Samaggi Samagom. Sir Gordon set the precedent for former ambassadors to take the Society’s helm and two former ambassadors to Thailand became Chairman, spanning thirteen years between them; Sir Arthur de la Mare (1976-1983) and Peter Tripp (1983-1989). Lord Whitteridge retired and became the Society’s Vice-President in 1976. During the same period, the Society’s Secretaries were Chote Sophonpanich of Bangkok Bank, who was also a joint Treasurer (1971- 1973), Douglas Whiting (1973-1975), Miss B I Crewe (1975-1978), D J Milner (1978-1982), P A Leggatt (1982) and Lt. Col. Hugh Docherty (1982-1990).

The Thai population in Britain and the number of British visitors to Thailand grew steadily between the 1960s and 1980s and with it mutual understanding of each other’s cultures increased. Thailand has become a favoured destination for British tourists and the proliferation of Thai restaurants in Britain is a testimony to the popularity of Thai food in the UK. By 1978, the annual Dinner Dance at the Grosvenor House had become a Winter Reception, initially at the Army and Navy Club and later at the Oriental Club, where it continues to be held.

The first Thai Temple in Britain, the Buddhapadipa Temple, was opened officially on 1 August 1966 in Richmond by His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand, during their private visit. The Temple was transferred to a bigger site in Wimbledon in south-west London in the late 1970s. When the ATS held a reception to welcome H.E. Phan Wannamethee, the new Thai Ambassador to London in 1977, it presented him with a cheque as a contribution to the Temple’s “Ubosot” building costs and continued to contribute for some years. The Society has arranged visits there for its members, where they can find an oasis of calm and escape from a hectic world.

The Society’s 25th Anniversary in 1987 was also the year of the King’s 60th Birthday: in addition to the usual reception at the House of Lords and Winter Reception at the Army and Navy Club, a Garden Party was held at the residence of the Thai Ambassador, H.E. Dr Owart Suthiwart Naruenpat. In honour of the King’s birthday, money was raised at the party to buy medical equipment for two Hospital Schools in Bangkok.

The Prime Minister’s Office in Bangkok asked the ATS to assist with the sponsorship and organisation of the Festival of Thailand that was held in the Barbican in London in October 1987, which was designated a Visit Thailand Year. John Weston, then Vice-Chairman, and two years later Chairman, of the ATS, and Bernard Coe, then a committee member, both rolled their sleeves up to help. Bernard Coe had just returned from Thailand where he had worked as Chairman of the Shell Companies of Thailand and was Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. Sponsors included Thai banks and the Thai Tourist Board. Princess Galayani of Thailand and Princess Alexandra of Kent were the Patrons of the

The Festival of Thailand was very successful. There were food stalls, Thai classical dance and other activities, including building a Thai Pavilion in the Barbican garden with seven tons of tiles. It was too costly to dismantle so it was given to the City of London: until recently the Pavilion was still in situ in the Barbican gardens. Oenone Acheson, an internationally acclaimed artist, was featured at the Festival, for which she produced a sries of colourful portrayals of the grace and delicacy of traditional Thai dancing and the serenity of Buddhist contemplation. A Festival of Thailand celebration is now a yearly event in the UK and it is always popular.

There were profits of £15,000 from the Festival and the Society was given permission from the Thai Tourist Board to make use of it. This sum has been the basis of the Society’s Education Fund ever since. The money, along with an additional donation from Lt Col Docherty, was used to set up the Anglo-Thai Society Hugh Docherty Bursary in Thailand in 1991, to sponsor underprivileged Thai students to enter higher education. The first scholarships were for students at Mahidol and Kasetsart Universities.

During John Weston’s chairmanship (1989-1997), the Society’s relationship with the Royal Thai Embassy, the Thai community in Britain and Thai Students grew even stronger. John Bradstreet was Secretary for almost all of John Weston’s tenure, from 1990 to 1997. The regular events continued to be very popular. There were also numerous additional meetings which, throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century have included art exhibitions, theatre visits, lunches at Thai restaurants, Songkran festival celebrations, talks about Thai culture and history which spanned topics as diverse as ancient maps, nature’s design faults and elephant conservation, and visits to the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon, the Palace of Westminster, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Taplow Court and Eton College. Bernard Coe, then Vice-Chairman, formed a Thai British Business Group in the UK in 1989, which later became the Thai British Business Association. It flourished for several years until both Governments set up their own respective organisations. The ATS has close links with the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand, the Executive Director of which is the ATS representative in Bangkok.

In 1995, the ATS celebrated the 50th Anniversary of His Majesty the King’s Accession to the Throne. The occasion was held at the House of Lords, with the kind permission of Black Rod, the Thai Music Circle was able to perform there for the first time. The Thai Ambassador, H.E. Vit Rayananon presented the Society with a grant of £5,000, ‘in recognition of the work that it had put into in uniting the Thai and British communities in the UK’.

When John Weston retired as Chairman in 1997, he presented the Society with a handsome Chairman’s Medallion of Office which is still in use today.

During Bernard Coe’s chairmanship (1997-2003), the Society set up its first website, with one page giving basic details and a New Year message from the Chairman. The ATS Bursary in Thailand was transferred back to the UK and used to set up an Education Fund in 1998. During the severe financial crisis in Thailand, the ATS Hardship Fund was formed, giving three awards annually to support Thai students facing financial difficulty.

Mom Rachawonge (M.R.) Narisa Chakrabongse was appointed Vice-Chairman in 1998 and remained in that post when Professor Philip Stott took over the chair (2003-2007). During this time they, together with Trevor Knox as Honorary Secretary and Kevin Thorn as Treasurer, took the Society’s profile to new heights. M.R. Narisa’s contribution to the Society was significant, providing membership cards, discount benefits, and the first brochure: she also gave numerous talks, including a fascinating account of a very unusual journey from London to Bangkok by train, retracing the route taken by her grandfather, Prince Chakrabongse, son of King Chulalongkorn, in 1911. Professor Stott also gave some talks, one of which was about the Tsunami that devastated parts of Thailand, Sumatra and Sri Lanka in 2004. Kevin Thorn, who as Treasurer had put the Society’s finances on a firm footing, and took over the chairmanship in 2007 for two years, particularly recalls the talk on Ancient Maps which had been discovered at the Royal Palace and gave new insights into Thai history.

In 2005, Professor Stott initiated the ATS scheme of Educational Awards for Excellence, an honorary award to acknowledge the achievements of Thai postgraduates studying in British universities. The initial awards were for Arts & Science and were given strong support as well as sponsorship by H.E Dr Vikrom Koompirochana, the Thai Ambassador, and M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse. The Society increased the awards in 2006 to cover five categories: Arts, Humanity and Social, Engineering, Science and Medicine and Environment. The scheme has received a huge response from high calibre Thai research students applying for the awards. H.E. Kitti Wasinondh, the Thai Ambassador since 2006, has been a keen supporter. Other sponsors have included Liverpool University, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Bangkok Bank.

The ATS is not a registered charity but from time to time raises funds in support of charitable activities in Thailand. When the Tsunami hit Thailand, the Committee decided to raise funds for the Tsunami Relief project managed by the Duang Prateep Foundation. A Garden Party was held at Ambassador H. E. Vikrom’s residence to raise funds, and ATS acted as a catalyst in persuading various associate partners to give donations. Two members of the ATS committee visited the Tsunami hit area where the Tsunami Orphanage centre was built. One of the ATS committee, Dr Orapin Dawson, was invited by the British Government to represent Thailand in giving a speech at the Tsunami National Memorial Service at St Paul’s Cathedral, in the presence of HM the Queen and the Duke of Edinbrugh, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The event was televised, which highlighted the Society’s profile and triggered an outpouring of donations for the Tsunami Relief project. Roy Sandys represented the ATS at the opening of the Tsunami Orphanage Centre in Khao Lak in 2006.

As Chairman, Kevin Thorn organised a Charity Dinner at the Waterman’s Hall with Roy Sandys in 2006. David Fall was a guest speaker and £1,400 was raised for the ‘New Life Project’ centre for abused children in Kanchanburi. Recent beneficiaries have included the Thai Red Cross (for support to victims of the 2011 floods), the Elephant Conservation Network and the Karen Hill Tribes Trust.

From 2009 to 2012 the ATS was chaired by David Fall, another former British Ambassador to Thailand, with Dr Orapin Dawson as Vice-Chair and Trevor Knox as Honorary Secretary. During this time, the relationship with the Royal Thai Embassy and the Thai British community continued to strengthen, new members joined the committee, the membership base was brought up-to-date, the website modernised, the Society’s constitution revised, partnerships revitalised and sponsorships increased. Members benefited from an expanded programme of events, including a Gala Dinner at the House of Lords to celebrate the Society's 50th anniversary. Former Chair and long-standing member Bernard Coe was appointed Honorary President.

In January 2013, Dr Orapin Dawson became Chair, with Steve Buckley as Vice Chair.  In 2016 Andrew Scadding took over from Trevor Knox as Honorary Secretary.

The ATS continues to be a friendly and welcome society that works closely in the UK with the Royal Thai Embassy, Samaggi Samagom, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Asia House, Thai Societies at various universities, Thai and British businesses and the Royal Over-Seas League. Its links in Thailand include the British Chamber of Commerce (BCCT), the British Embassy, the British Club, the Old England Students’ Association and the Siam Society.

Celebrating 50 years is a considerable achievement for an entirely voluntary organisation. The Society looks forward with optimism and enthusiasm to helping to maintain and develop the relationship between the Thai and British peoples in years to come.