Sir Antonin Besse (Biographical details)

Sir Antonin Besse (merchant/tradesman; French; Male; 26 June 1877 - 2 July 1951)

Also known as

Besse, Antonin; Besse, Tony


Besse had a substantial import/export business in the Horn of Africa and southern Arabia which was based at Aden where he arrived in 1899 as a junior clerk. In 1908 he married a Belgian lady, Marguerite Hortense Eulalie Godefroid, but divorced in 1922; he re-married in the same year to Hildra Crowther. He had two children from his first marriage (Meryem, born 1909, and André, born 1910) and five from his second (Ariane, Joy, Peter, Tony, Monna). Besse was a personally modest yet deeply energetic and highly successful businessman. He founded a company which initially traded local skins, coffee and aromatics but from the early 1920s began to diversify as he acted as an agent on behalf of Shell and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later BP) to distribute oil and kerosene in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. He became the first chairman of Aden Airways Ltd (a subsidiary of BOAC, later BA), and in 1936 he established the A. Besse & Co. Football Club in Aden. His other ventures included establishing factories for soap, coconut oil and glycerine in Crater; and acquiring the Crescent Hotel at Steamer Point, Aden, as well as a floating dock which became known as the Besse Marine Workshop (both founded in 1937). The firm's profits rose in 1937/38 to the highest before WWII, and continued to rise from 1942; an increasing amount of benefactions followed as a direct result. Philanthropic works included opening the Besse Dispensary (1948), a School for Girls at Sheikh Othman, a Women's Centre in Crater, the Aden Technical College for Boys and a similar establishment in Djibouti, and substantial contributions to the University of Addis Ababa. He also gave voluntary assistance to the Church of Scotland Mission in Sheikh Othman, and the Catholic Mission in Crater. In 1947 his initial plan of founding an institute of higher education in France failed because of tax reasons and the unwillingness of the French Ministry of Education to recognise independently awarded qualifications; in the following year he instead chose Oxford as the centre of benefaction, pledging the sum of £1,500,000 (a particularly staggering sum after WWII) to the foundation of what became St. Anthony's College. Besse was awarded a K.B.E. and received a knighthood. In 1951 The British Museum received an important collection of South Arabian antiquities which had been bequeathed it by Besse. Several additional South Arabian (Qatabanian) sculptured heads (probably from the cemetery at Heid bin Aqil) and belonging to the private collection of Madame Antonin Besse in Paris were exhibited in 1997 in the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris) as part of the exhibition "Yémen au pays de la reine de Saba" (catalogue edited by C. Robin & B. Vogt, Paris: Flammarion, 1997, pp. 99-100, 153).


David Footman, 'Antonin Besse of Aden: the Founder of St Anthony's College Oxford', London: Macmillan, 1986.