China and the Royal Society: Sir Harold Thompson FRS and football

Sir Harold Thompson FRS Sir Harold Thompson FRS © The Godfrey Argent Studio

Chinese exchanges with the Western world were also the goal of another Royal Society Fellow and Vice-President, Sir Harold 'Tommy' Thompson. In 1962 Thompson went to China as a member of the first delegation of the Royal Society to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The next year, arrangements were made for regular scientific exchange visits between the two institutions. Like Needham before him, the visit inspired Thompson with enthusiasm for Chinese science and culture. Following the re-establishing of diplomatic relations between England and China at the beginning of 1972, Thompson was the driving force behind the setting up of the Great Britain-China Committee in March of that year, serving as its Chairman until 1980.

Thompson's other passion was football. He was closely involved with the Football Association, eventually becoming its Chairman in 1976. In 1972 the newly arrived Chinese ambassador told Thompson he was especially keen to attend a top level football game. Thompson wrote to the Chairman of Arsenal FC and arranged at short notice for six seats to watch an Arsenal v Chelsea match at Highbury. Thompson believed that football was a way to renew better Anglo-Chinese relations after the cultural revolution, and he subsequently tried to arrange for Arsenal and Aston Villa to play against teams from China. This initiative was vetoed by the Football Association, on the grounds that China had not re-affiliated to the Association.