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Sir Raymond Edward Priestley (1886–1974)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published:

Raymond Edward Priestley (1886-1974), by unknown photographer, 1938

Raymond Edward Priestley (1886-1974), by unknown photographer, 1938

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1950

Sir Raymond Edward Priestley (1886-1974), scientist and vice-chancellor, was born on 20 July 1886 at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England, second son of Joseph Edward Priestley, headmaster of Tewkesbury Grammar School, and his wife Henrietta, née Rice. It was a 'staunch Methodist background'. Educated at his father's school, Priestley was in the final year of science at University College, Bristol, when he was appointed geologist to Ernest Shackleton's 1907-09 Antarctic expedition. His geological and geographical observations, many made in association with (Sir) Edgeworth David, are included in appendices to Shackleton's The Heart of the Antarctic.

Working with David in Sydney on the expedition's geological reports, Priestley was recruited to Robert Falcon Scott's second Antarctic expedition of 1910-13, again as a geologist although his actual scientific work covered a broad area. A team-mate, T. Griffith Taylor, later married his sister. Priestley's major work was with the northern party which, ice-bound at Terra Nova Bay, survived the winter in summer outfits by digging a snow cave and living on seal and penguin meat. Sir Vivian Fuchs wrote of the episode as 'a story of human endurance which has rarely been equalled', and Priestley's Antarctic Adventure (1914) treats graphically of the experience.

In 1914-17 Priestley was adjutant to the Wireless Training Centre; he later served in France with the 46th Division Signals and was awarded the Military Cross. In 1919 he was seconded to the War Office to write the history of the signal service. He also published Breaking the Hindenburg Line (1919) and, in 1922, the 'classic' British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, 1910-1913. Glaciology, with C. S. Wright. On 10 April 1915 at Ringwood, Hampshire, he married Phyllis Mary Boyd (d.1961), of Dunedin, New Zealand.

After graduating B.A. (1920), Dip.Ag. (1922) from Christ's College, Cambridge, Priestley was elected in 1922 fellow of Clare College. In 1924 he joined the university's administrative staff, becoming concurrently assistant registrar, secretary to the board of research studies and secretary-general of the faculties. Lord Rutherford commented on his tact and 'remarkable capacity for administration'.

From the early 1930s the Council of the University of Melbourne moved to appoint the university's first salaried vice-chancellor. In 1934 Priestley somewhat reluctantly accepted the appointment, at £2000 a year with allowances. He proved an able and humane administrator, arguing that students should graduate cultured and broad in outlook. He established a 'development and policy' committee, and threw himself into the task of representing the university before the wider community. He fought for scholarships, places, more staff, more research, the extension of disciplines and a new library. The opening of the students' Union House in 1938 was his greatest success, but his liberality both of vision and behaviour set a standard which was emulated and has not been forgotten.

Priestley suffered however from relentless attrition at the hands of the chancellor, Sir James Barrett, Professor T. H. Laby and others who resented the transfer of powers. Following a demand from Barrett for a report on a controversial student meeting about the Spanish Civil War, Priestley informed the council that there appeared to be no place 'for a Vice-Chancellor who is not a man of straw'. Despite receiving council's support, he resigned from June 1938. He was also despondent at the lack of funds from the State government, and his wife was unwell and unhappy in Australia. Geoffrey Blainey has said that, in his brief time in Australia, Priestley established a reputation as probably the country's 'most dynamic and invigorating educationist'; looking back, Priestley remarked that he was somewhat amazed at his boldness at the time.

In 1938 he became principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. He immediately faced immense problems. The war saw the university transformed into a research centre, and great postwar expansion followed. (Sir) Mark Oliphant, then his vice-principal, remarked that, whereas in Melbourne Priestley saw himself as 'the manager of a large business', in Birmingham he regarded himself 'as spokesman for the academic staff and the students'. Priestley's harmonious relationship with the student body was regarded as one of his major achievements at Birmingham, together with his forging of links between the university and the Midlands community, and his demonstration to industry of the value of the university.

Among many extra-mural activities Priestley was an adviser to the British Broadcasting Corporation and member of the Asquith commission on higher education in the Colonies. He was knighted in 1949. After retirement in 1952 he served as chairman of the royal commission on the civil service (1953-55), was acting director (1955-58) of what was to become the British Antarctic Survey, and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1956). He had a lifelong interest in cricket and tennis, and revisited Antarctica in 1956 and 1959.

All associated with Priestley appreciated his 'direct and uncomplicated character', his quiet humour and patience, but also his firm resolve. He died at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 24 June 1974, survived by two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1971-1980
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 27 June 1974, p 20
  • University of Melbourne Archives, including Priestley diaries, 1935-38
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Priestley, Sir Raymond Edward (1886–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Raymond Edward Priestley (1886-1974), by unknown photographer, 1938

Raymond Edward Priestley (1886-1974), by unknown photographer, 1938

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1950

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1886
Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England


24 June, 1974 (aged 87)
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England

Cultural Heritage

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