Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner was born in Budapest on 14 October 1840. He was born into a Hungarian Jewish family, named Saphir. After his father’s death his mother re-married, to Johann Leitner, a Christian convert and medical missionary. He adopted Gottlieb, and the family moved to Turkey. Between 1848 and 1858, his step-father encouraged him to absorb as many religious traditions and languages – over fifty – as possible.

He entered King’s College London as a student in 1858. By 1861, he had risen to Professor of Arabic and Muhammadan Law, and had become a British citizen. Soon after, he moved to India, where he became Principal of Government College, Lahore (now in Pakistan). In this role, he founded a hundred schools and colleges as well as numerous periodicals. He proved popular with the Indian population for supporting their educational causes, but he was less popular with the British authorities. While in India, he developed an enthusiasm for Gandharan art, seeing Greek origins in it.

By 1884 his health had deteriorated and he returned to England, seeking a home for his art collections and for education in oriental studies. He bought the buildings of the Royal Dramatic College in Maybury for £5000. He named it the Oriental University Institute and it had the country’s largest collection of oriental art and antiquities. In addition, the Institute awarded degrees validated by the University of Lahore. To give opportunities for worship to visiting scholars, he commissioned the construction of first purpose-built mosque in England on its ground; these plans ended with his sudden death in Bonn in 1899. The mosque lay scarcely used until 1913 when revived by Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, who founded the British Muslim Mission.

Leitner’s widow and son sold the art collections, predominantly to the Asiatic Museum in Berlin, while his son Henry established his factory in the buildings. 

Acknowledgements to Jenny Mukerji, and to Silvia Davoli and Marcus Roberts’ online Leitner Trail.

See the display in Woking's Story.