Born Sheila Mills in Scotland, she grew up in Norfolk. Her father, Findlay, was a First World War hero who had been decorated with the Distinguished Service Order. After leaving school, where she had excelled academically, she went to St James’s secretarial college in London. Her greatest regret was that the outbreak of the Second World War prevented her from going to university.
Unwin was a second officer in the WRNS during the War, most of which she spent in Egypt. In 1945, she was posted to Germany, where she met her husband Tom, a Colonial Service District Officer. They married the following year.
Sheila Unwin became an expert in Swahili and Arab culture. At the age of 86, Unwin fulfilled her lifelong ambition and published The Arab Chest. This personal and academic account explores the origins of many brass-studded wooden pieces of furniture found all over the Gulf and East Africa. (Her research into these chests was first published in the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arab Studies, volume 18, 1988).
After World War II
This fascination began as long ago as the late 1940s. After World War Two, Unwin went with her husband to former Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to work on the ill-fated Groundnut Scheme, the British government plan for the large-scale cultivation of peanuts. There they lived in a tent for the first two years of their married life.
During the revolution in Zanzibar in 1964, Unwin rescued an Arab family. In return, she was given first option on a shipment of 60 chests, for which she paid the sum of £600, borrowed from a trusting bank manager.
Sheila Unwin became the first Secretary of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, based in Dar es Salaam. She also travelled alone in the 1960s and 1970s through Ethiopia, Yemen, the Gulf States, Pakistan, Iran, India and Turkey.
In the 1980s, she joined successive expeditions to Baluchistan as a cultural adviser. She later published on the lacquer crafts and craftsmen in Makran (BAR International Series 1141: 2003).
She divorced her husband Tom in 1970, and returned to East Africa with the United Nations as a stenographer. In her leisure time she went on archaeological digs with Neville Chittick, whom she had first met in the 1950s. Unwin participated in historic digs in the Manda, Pate, and Lamu islands off the coast of Kenya, where she and Neville bought a house. Unwin purchased locally made glass beadwork. Much of this collection was donated to RAMM. Her collection was created accidentally; initially purchased to alleviate the suffering of those who survived the great drought referred to as Kimududu (1970).
Her donation of predominantly Kamba and Kikuyu beaded adornment from Kenya is rarely found in British museum collections. She labelled many of these items and included their local names, dates of purchase and the price paid by her.
Original text written by her daughter, Vicky Unwin.