Banner: The Oriental Institute

By Richard Freeman

Several volunteers of The Lightbox, in conjunction with the Archivist and management of the Shah Jahan Mosque, have been contributing to a revival of interest in one of Woking’s most multi-talented and amazing characters.

Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in 1840. At a very early age he demonstrated great fluency in languages  and by the age of ten he could speak most European languages and Turkish and Arabic. When he died in 1899 he had a working knowledge of about 50 languages.

During the Crimean War, when he was 15, Leitner was appointed an interpreter for the British Commission with the rank of colonel. After the War he studied at King’s College, London where aged 19 he became a lecturer in languages and at 23 the Professor of Arabic and Turkish Law.

In 1864 he moved to Lahore in British India as the Principal of Government University College. While in India he founded the University of Punjab as well as many schools. In the late 1870s he spent several years teaching in Germany and Austria before returning to England with the desire to establish an Institute of Oriental Studies.

Leitner was able to fulfill his dream in Woking when, in 1884, he purchased the empty Royal Dramatic College in Maybury. Opened in 1865, the College was built to provide a home for retired actors. It closed in 1877. The building was ideal for Leitner’s Oriental Institute.

His ambition was to build a Mosque, a Hindu temple, a Synagogue and an Anglican Church on the land adjoining the Institute. The Shah Jahan Mosque, the first purpose-built mosque in the UK, was opened in 1889 and St Paul’s Anglican Church followed in 1899, the year of Leitner’s death. Leitner, however, did not have a part in the building of the church. Sadly, the Hindu Temple and the Synagogue remained a dream.

Leitner's grave in Brookwood Cemetery

The Institute closed in 1899 and was later used by Martinsyde who built motorcycles and aircraft. Later it became home to James Walker Ltd, before it was demolished in the second half of the 1990s. Much of the Leitner and Mosque’s heritage has been researched and preserved by The Lightbox Heritage Team.

Royal Dramatic College 'Comedy' stained glass window

Celebrating 130 of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking is open on the ground floor of The Lightbox until 28 November 2019. The exhibition explores both the people of Woking and those that visited and worked at the mosque. Visitors can delve deeper into the establishment of Muslim organisations and figures in Britain, or uncover the personal stories that show an alternative face of history.