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Archive of Anthony Sampson


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The papers are predominantly an archive of Sampson's professional career as a journalist and writer. They include correspondence, research material for his books, and copies of his articles and other writings. There are letters received from former colleagues and friends in South Africa during the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of which refer to growing political unrest. There are also letters to his parents from his time in South Africa relaying his observations on life and work there. His working papers for Anatomy of Britain (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962) include research material in the form of booklets and press-cuttings, correspondence with his interviewees, notes of meetings and interviews, correspondence with his publisher and his researchers, drafts of the work and reviews in the form of press-cuttings. Among materials relating to the writing of Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: HarperCollins, 1999) are copies of letters by and concerning Mandela, particularly during the years of his imprisonment, copies of sources from official archives and other repositories in South Africa and elsewhere, records of interviews with Mandela, his colleagues and friends, and copies of press and journal articles.


  • Creation: c.1930-2011


12.10 Linear metres (264 physical shelfmarks; 72 digital shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

  • English

Conditions Governing Access

Some material is closed.

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, e.g. MS. Sampson dep. 1, fols. 1-19].

Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. Sampson dep. 1-264; MSS. Sampson digital 1-72.

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 6252, 6629


The papers of Anthony Sampson, writer and journalist, (1926-2004)

Biographical / Historical

Anthony Terrell Seward Sampson was born in Billingham-on-Tees, County Durham, in 1926 and brought up in London. He attended Westminster School as a King's Scholar. On completion of his National Service in the Royal Navy in 1947 he read English at Christ Church, Oxford. On leaving Oxford, and having spent some months working as a printer, he accepted an invitation to Johannesburg, South Africa, from a former fellow student at Oxford, Jim Bailey, founder and owner of a new black magazine, African Drum (later Drum), then in need of a business manager. Within weeks of his arrival in 1951 he found himself the editor. Here he met Trevor Huddleston, then a priest in Sophiatown, and Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other African National Congress activists as the organisation was preparing for its Defiance Campaign of passive resistance against apartheid. Though he returned to England in 1955, his active links with Drum continued into the 1960s. He maintained his commitment to the anti-apartheid movement and was a frequent visitor to South Africa.

Back in England in 1955, Sampson was appointed to the Observer. The editor, David Astor, had become aware of Drum through his own interest in Africa and had published a piece by Sampson about the magazine in the Observer. In 1955 he also began work on his first book, Drum: A Venture into the New Africa (London: Collins, 1956). He then spent some time in South Africa researching The Treason Cage: The Opposition on Trial In South Africa (London: Heinemann, 1958) concerning the mass arrest and trial of anti-apartheid activists in 1956-1957.

For four years in the late 1950s he was the Observer's 'Pendennis' columnist. He followed the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, on several trips abroad, including his tour of Africa in early 1960, reporting for the Observer. He was later to write the first biography of Macmillan (Macmillan: A Study in Ambiguity (London: Allen Lane, 1967). He was back in March 1960 to report the Sharpeville shootings of protestors against the pass laws. He returned to South Africa in 1962, by which time the ANC was banned and committed to armed struggle against apartheid. He heard of Mandela's arrest on his return to London. Again in 1964, at the end of Mandela's trial, he was there, and was asked by Mandela to advise on his defence speech.

On his return from South Africa in 1955 Sampson had begun to question the values, traditions and institutions that governed life in Britain in the 1950s. The result of this curiosity was Anatomy of Britain (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962), described by Sampson on the original dust-jacket as 'a book about the workings of Britain – who runs it and how, how they got there, and how they are changing'. The book was hugely popular and Sampson produced another five updated versions between 1965 and 2004.

In 1966 Sampson began research for The New Europeans: A Guide to the Workings, Institutions and Character of Contemporary Western Europe (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968). He was associate professor at the University of Vincennes in 1968–1970. The New Europeans was followed by a series of publications on corporations and business. The first of these was The Sovereign State: The Secret History of ITT (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973). The energy crisis of 1973 inspired an investigation into the big oil companies, published as The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies and the World They Made (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975). He then moved on to the arms dealers, with The Arms Bazaar: The Companies, the Dealers, the Bribes – from Vickers to Lockheed (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977). The Money Lenders: Bankers in a Dangerous World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981), Empires of the Sky: The Politics, Contests and Cartels of World Airlines (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984), Black and Gold: Tycoons, Revolutionaries and Apartheid (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), The Midas Touch: Money, People and Power from West to East (London: Hodder & Stoughton / BBC, 1989) and Company Man: The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life (London: HarperCollins, 1995) followed.

Sampson was the Observer's chief American correspondent in Washington in 1973-1974, reporting on the Watergate scandal and the downfall of Richard Nixon. From 1977 he was a contributing editor to Newsweek. In 1979-1980 he acted as Editorial Adviser to the Independent Commission on International Development Issues ('the Brandt Commission'). In the early 1980s he was closely involved in the founding of the Social Democratic Party, at the invitation of Shirley Williams, one of the 'Gang of Four', whom he had known, initially as a journalist, since the 1950s. He joined the signing of the 'Limehouse declaration' that created the SDP. Sampson was in total sympathy with the movement, despite the awkwardness of being so closely identified with it as a contributor to the labour-loyal Observer, and also by then as a director of the left-wing New Statesman. He was elected to the party's national committee.

Sampson clearly felt that the conventional media did not fully serve their audience and, as early as 1959, he made an approach to Christopher Chancellor of Odhams Press, former General Manager of Reuters, with a proposal for a new magazine 'with an emphasis on intelligent business journalism'. In the early 1980s he explored the possibility of publishing a newsletter. In 1984 he launched The Sampson Letter, 'a fortnightly report on world politics and finance', independently financed and aiming to 'uncover the real forces and issues behind the news . . . and to point to the crucial connections between finance and politics and between different parts of the world'. From 1986 The Sampson Letter was incorporated in a new newsletter, Africa Analysis, which investigated the challenges and transitions facing the continent at that time.

During the renewed wave of resistance inside South Africa to apartheid in the 1980s, and following exchanges between Sampson and Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC in Lusaka, Sampson, David Astor and others formed a committee to facilitate talks between British businessmen, politicians and the ANC. The intention was to bring pressure on Pretoria for reform and to show that the business community accepted that the ANC would be key to political reform in the South Africa of the future. Sampson's 'Anatomy' contacts proved valuable here and he made full use of them. These activities led to further initiatives, in particular an idea of Sampson's for a conference on the future rule of law in South Africa between ANC lawyers and senior legal experts from South Africa which was held at Nuneham Park, Nuneham Courtenay, in Oxfordshire, in June 1989. Another initiative was the South African Advanced Education Project which was set up in 1986. David Astor received a message from Oliver Tambo asking if he could help with training for young ANC people who would be needed for positions in government after apartheid. Astor provided money, and further funding came from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New York, and Shell. When the ANC was unbanned four years later, the need for such training became even more urgent. The British government, the EU and other donors channelled funds through the SAAEP and the British foreign and civil services provided top-level access and lectures for trainees.

In late 1989, banned from South Africa for his criticism of the regime, Sampson applied for a visa and was surprised to be granted one. But South Africa by then wanted the world to know how rapidly the political situation was changing. He found himself in South Africa in February 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released. He met Mandela again then and on a number of subsequent occasions and returned to South Africa in 1994 to report on the first democratic elections and the victory of the ANC. In 1995 he was commissioned to write an authorised biography of Mandela. In 1999, as Mandela retired as President, Mandela: The Authorised Biography (London: HarperCollins, 1999) was published.

Sampson was chairman of the Society of Authors from 1992 to 1994. From 1995 he was a member of the international advisory board of Independent Newspapers (from 1999, Independent News and Media). In 1993 the Observer was sold to the owners of the Guardian, the Scott Trust. Sampson became a trustee, representing the interests of the Observer for three years. This was a traumatic time for the Trust, and the newspaper, during which three editors were dismissed.

Sampson's research into the life of his grandfather, John Sampson, philologist and Librarian at Liverpool University, was published as The Scholar Gypsy: The Quest for a Family Secret (London: John Murray, 1997). His autobiography, The Anatomist: The autobiography of Anthony Sampson (London: Politico's, 2008), was published posthumously.


Sampson's original order has been retained as far as possible.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were deposited in the Bodleian Library in 2008 by Sampson's widow, Sally. Further deposits were received from her in 2010 and 2011. Digital material in the form of two laptop computers received in February 2011 fall outside the scope of this cataloguing project. These materials are closed until reviewed and catalogued.

Catalogue of the archive of Anthony Sampson, c.1930-2011
Chrissie Webb and Catherine Parker
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom