The cable and the code: the nomination of Principal Sir James Irvine (1877-1952)

Cataloguing work on the papers of Principal Sir James Irvine, donated by Irvine’s granddaughter, Julia Melvin, has revealed an interesting story surrounding Irvine’s cloak and dagger quest to become the next Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews.

 “He travelled on the night train on 30 November [1920], but before he went he pressed into his wife’s hands a scrap of paper: a used envelope on which he had written a code with which she could decipher the telegram that he would send her after the meeting.”

(Julia Melvin James Colquhoun Irvine: St Andrews’ Second Founder, p.145)

Sir James Colquhoun Irvine (1877-1952).Taken from The Avenue of Years, (Edinburgh: Blackwood 1970)

Sir James Colquhoun Irvine (1877-1952). Taken from The Avenue of Years (Edinburgh: Blackwood 1970)

In June 1920 the incumbent Principal, Sir John Herkless, after only a short term of office, passed away leaving the post of Principal and Vice Chancellor vacant. Irvine, a highly motivated and dedicated man, who had progressed within the University from student in 1898, to lecturer in 1904, Professor of Chemistry in 1909 and Dean of the Faculty of Science in 1911, was keen to take over the role. However, as the position was a crown appointment, endorsed by King George V, nominations had to be put forward by the Secretary for Scotland, Robert Munro. In order to be nominated Irvine needed to impress Munro.

The memorial document

The memorial document in support of Irvine’s campaign for Principalship.

Following the recommendation of his colleagues on the University Court, Irvine lodged a formal application to the Scottish Office. The move was fully supported by the Senatus, which sent a letter of recommendation in the hope of strengthening Irvine’s case (Mabel Irvine, The Avenue of Years, p.89). Given Irvine at this time was only 43, and the youngest member of the Senate, the endorsement was “a striking tribute to his powers of administration” (Irvine, p.89). However, for a scientist to be elevated to the University’s highest post, at that time, was uncommon. It was believed that Munro had his sights strongly set on a theologian, Edinburgh minister Dr Andrew Williamson, and competition included “two government officials, two Church of Scotland ministers, a doctor, and a United Free Church professor” (Melvin, p.143). This did not deter Irvine, who had a strong desire to revive the University, and had up to that point “made it his concern to master all aspects of academic management” (Ronald Cant, The University of St Andrews: A short history, p.161). Yet Irvine welcomed a memorial document written in July that year by Irvine’s friend, Alex Mackenzie, and sent for the attention of Munro. The memorial, signed by 38 leading chemists across Britain and Ireland, was, in the words of University Chancellor Lord Balfour of Burleigh, “a very strong one” (UYUY250/Irvine2).

During that time Irvine was headhunted by James Dobbie, the then incumbent Government Chemist, to succeed him upon his retirement. The post piqued Irvine’s interest, apparent from salary calculations Irvine made on the back of an envelope, and on 24th November 1920 he received a letter, sent on behalf of Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, offering Irvine the post.

Irvine, however, was holding out for the Principalship, but by that time no decision was forthcoming. Sir George Younger, Conservative Party Chairman, wrote to Irvine noting that Munro had an objection to Irvine on the grounds that St Andrews was “a small place, seething with petty jealousies” and that in his opinion “a stranger should be brought in”. On outward appearance it would have seemed that Irvine’s case was a lost one.

Irvine, bound for London in a last ditch attempt to plead his case to Munro, gave his wife Mabel an envelope with a code written on the back before he left. The code read:

First class…I’ve got it

Second class…I’m likely to get it

Third class…No impression

Fourth class…I’m unlikely to get it

Fifth class…I’m not to get it

Photograph of envelope given to Mabel Irvine with code (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Photograph of envelope given to Mabel Irvine with code (UYUY250/Irvine2)

The code would decipher the telegram he sent to Mabel on 1st December 1920, giving his verdict on the outcome his meeting and whether he had done enough to secure the position. It was clear from his telegram that the odds were not in his favour.

Photograph of the telegram, which reads “Rinmans process distinctly fourth class   discussion most unsatisfactory” (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Photograph of the telegram, which reads “Rinmans process distinctly fourth class discussion most unsatisfactory” (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Irvine’s dejection was apparent in a letter he wrote on 3rd December 1920, tendering his resignation from the University. The letter was never posted, which was fortuitous for on 7th December 1920 Irvine received a handwritten letter from Munro (below) declaring that he would put Irvine’s name forward to the King, as candidate for the post of Principal.

Photograph of letter sent to Professor Irvine from Robert Munro, Secretary for Scotland (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Photograph of letter sent to Professor Irvine from Robert Munro, Secretary for Scotland (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Two days later Irvine wrote to the David Lloyd George declining the Government Chemist post. The Senatus minutes of 11th January 1921 formally note receipt of HM Royal Warrant, nominating Professor James Colquhoun Irvine as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. The rest, as they say, is history…

Photograph of clipping from The Dundee Advertiser, dated 12 January 1921 (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Photograph of clipping from The Dundee Advertiser, dated 12 January 1921 (UYUY250/Irvine2)

Kirsty Lee

Archives Assistant

9 responses to “The cable and the code: the nomination of Principal Sir James Irvine (1877-1952)

  1. Dear Kirsty
    That’s an excellent telling of the tale of how Jim Irvine became Principal of St Andrews. Irvine was fond of this sort of this cloak and dagger stuff, although this time it was in earnest. Just two points for clarity: the coded telegram that Professor Irvine sent his wife after his meeting in London after his meeting in London with Monro refers to Rinman’s process. Mabel was famously and totally ignorant of any chemistry: that was how they were able to play a thought-reading game, whereby her husband would project into her mind chemical formulae that she would then incomprehendingly write down. Rinman’s process was a comparatively new chemical procedure used in the processing of paper. Jim Irvine was at that time advising Tullis Russell on the introduction of Rinman’s process at the Markinch paper mills. Mabel might have heard the word used in conversation between her husband and their friend David Russell, the paper manufacturer, but more than that she would not have understood. Irvine needed to use a word that sounded genuine but which otherwise meant nothing itself and certainly meant nothing to the layman.

    The dating of Irvine’s elevation to the principalship is a moot point. In all such matters I like to go by the gazetting in The Times, and in this case the The Times was unequivocal: – 13 December 1920. [see page 148 of my book] I have always believed that Ronald Cant took the later date in January 1921 because it was not until after Christmas etc that the King’s Commission reached Irvine; and of course the Senatus had been in recess. Irvine himself always took his principalship to date from 1920, and it was this date that is recorded by the 1851 Commissioners and several reference books of the time.

    I am sorry to burden you with such a long reply!
    with all good wishes
    Julia Melvin

    • One other thing to mention is that when I inherited the Irvine Papers on my mother’s death, they had been all thrown into a large box, higgledy-piggledy. Before I could begin to research Irvine’s life I had to put them in some sort of order: the concept of an as-found archival arrangement just wasn’t an option. The mounting excitement that I felt as I pieced together the elements of how Principal Irvine came to be appointed to the Principalship of St Andrews was palpable. It wasn’t until I was well on with my research that I began to come upon the several pieces in this particular jigsaw. The sealed, never-sent letter to Andrew Bennett tendering his resignation of his chair: a letter that would have been sent had he not got the Principalship, had to be steamed ope. But it is a letter that has to be seen against the light of the undoubted personal disadvantages of taking up a Government job in London. Then I came upon the used envelope inscribed with the code. This was in an envelope marked by my grandmother (Mabel Irvine) ‘precious things’. For a long time, I had believed that it was David Russell who had been the one who had so successfully pulled the strings behind the scene. The Russell Papers in the University’s Special Collection suggested this. But then I began to put together a run of correspondence between Irvine on the one hand and James Younger and his brother Sir George Younger. Then the Tory Party connection became apparent. In another box I found the original of the King’s Commission which was dated 1 January, from Sandringham. This too explains why the passage of almost three weeks had elapsed since the gazetting in The Times of the appointment. The King’s Court was in the habit of moving from London to Norfolk for a large family house party. There would be very little official work done until well after Christmas. George V was a very keen shot and every day would be taken up with shooting parties.

      This is of course is what those who are lucky enough to use archival collections do. You search for material to support your work. In this case the completed jigsaw revealed a cloak and dagger case because Irvine was a proud man, and had it been thought in St Andrews that he had been lobbying for the Principalship, he would have been strongly criticised by his colleagues and neighbours in St Andrews.

      Thank you for this indulgence.
      Julia Melvin

    • Hello Julia,
      I am presently reading and enjoying your book a great deal.I borrowed it from the from the faculty of education library at University of Alberta.I was curious to know if Sir James had met his first cousin Selina Paisley, my grandmother.My father took a photo of the portrait of the Principal at St. Andrews and explained to me how he was related but didn’t know if his mother had ever met him.

      Thanks you for all your effort.

      Michael Hall

  2. Pingback: The cable and the code: the nomination of Principal Sir James Irvine (1877-1952) | Special Collections Librarianship |·

  3. Many thanks, Julia, for your kind response to my blog post. I have to say I’m really enjoying the cataloguing of your grandfather’s archive. It is a fascinating collection; one which I feel myself becoming immersed in, quite literally. Whilst going through his correspondence this particular tale really stood out. I, much like you grandfather, enjoy the ‘cloak and dagger’; hidden messages, codes and puzzles, etc. This is the stuff of spy thrillers, and the principal reason why I really wanted to tell the story. I wanted to show that Irvine didn’t fall into the Principalship, that he fought ‘tooth and nail’ to get what he clearly desperately wanted.

    I thank you also for the clarification on the meaning behind the word ‘Rinman’s’ that Irvine chose in the telegram. I shall be sure to include that information in the catalogue record, as it is a really helpful explanation that I’m sure will benefit others. Likewise I concur there is a little debate over the date of Irvine’s Principalship and thank you for the reference in The Times that you have provided. I shall be sure to note that too.

    Kind regards,

  4. And thanks too, Julia, for all you did in arranging the papers before they arrived. As you know we are preserving your arrangement of them as biographer within the cataloguing that Kirsty is doing. The extra background you have provided to this story is fascinating.

  5. In reply to Michael Hall. I am very interested to hear that the department of education at the University of Alberta has a copy of my book, and that you have read it. I have a good family tree prepared for me by Irvine’s nephew, Emeritus Professor of Law in the University of Glasgow. You remind me of something about it that has often intrigued me. On my grandfather’s paternal side, he had 5 aunts and uncles and I know that they were all born in Glasgow, unlike their eldest brother, my great-grandfather. One of the two girls could have married a man named Paisley, but sadly I know nothing about them, except that I think one of them features in a family photograph. On JC Irvine’s mother’s side, he had 6 aunts and uncles. I know a good deal about two Colquhoun Uncles, but I am afraid no more about the family.
    The short answer to your question is that I know that JCI kept in touch with his cousins when he was just a boy. The cousins all lived on the South Side.
    I do not know your e-mail address, otherwise I would have replied by e-mail. Julia Melvin

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