Raymond Edward Priestley, Sir - Biography

Raymond Edward Priestley, Sir (1886-1974) Kt, MC, MA (Camb.), DLitt Malaya, LLD (St. And. Natal Dal. & Birm.), DSc (N.Z. W.I. & Melb.), First salaried Vice-Chancellor, 1st January 1935 to 30th June 1938.

Raymond Edward Priestley was born 20 July 1886 in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England, the second of eight children to Henrietta (née Rice) and Joseph Edward Priestley.

Geologist & Polar Explorer

Educated at Tewkesbury Grammar School, where his father was headmaster, Priestley went on to read geology at University College, Bristol (1905-1907). Before the completion of his degree, he was invited to serve as a geologist working in association with Edgeworth David upon the British Antarctica 'Nimrod' Expedition (1907-1909) led by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Upon the completion of the 'Nimrod' Expedition, Priestley worked with Edgeworth David at the University of Sydney writing up the geological and geographical findings; it was here that Priestley was recruited as the geologist and meteorologist for the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913) led by Robert Falcon Scott.

As a member of the ill-fated British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, Priestley was dispatched with the Northern Party to Cape Adare (1911) before being landed a further 200 miles south for a short period of field work. In summer clothes and with eight weeks provisions, the six man party found themselves trapped at Terra Nova Bay (1912) when the expedition ship could not get through the ice to pick them up as scheduled. It is here they wintered for six and a half months in a snow cave surviving on penguin and seal meat. The endurance, resilience and survival of the Northern party as recorded in Priestley's Antarctic Adventure (1914) was tempered by the death of R. F. Scott and the entire Southern Party.

Following his expeditions, Priestley gave many lectures on the subject. To illustrate his lectures, Priestley collected glass lantern slides of Antarctic and polar scenes, including many photographs taken on the expeditions in which he took part. Over 1,300 of these slides have survived in the University of Melbourne Archives and are now available on the University of Melbourne Archives Image Catalogue. To access the images, go to the 'Detailed' search, select 'Raymond Priestley lantern slides' from the drop-down menu under 'collection name' and click 'search'.

World War 1

During the First World War Priestley served as an adjunct at the Wireless Training Centre (1914-1917), then later saw active service in France as a wireless operator. Awarded the military cross, he went on to write Breaking the Hindenburg Line (1919) and was seconded to write the official History of the Signals Service. In 1915 he married Phyllis (nee Boyd) with whom he had two daughters, Jocelyn and Margaret.

University of Cambridge: Studies & Administration

Returning to England in 1920, Priestley resumed his work writing up the findings of the British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition, 1910-1913 (1922). It was his research on glaciers that led him to take his Bachelor of Science (1920) after which he studied a Diploma of Agriculture (1922) at Christ's College, Cambridge. He became a fellow of Clare College (1923) and from 1924 to 1934 Priestley served the University of Cambridge as concurrently the Assistant Registrar, Secretary to the Board of Research Studies and Secretary-General of the Faculties.

First salaried Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne (1935-1938)

On the strength of having excelled in holding several simultaneous positions at the University of Cambridge, Priestley was offered the first salaried Vice-Chancellorship of the University of Melbourne. Upon his arrival at the University of Melbourne in 1935 Priestley was appalled not only by the conditions and facilities available to students and staff but perhaps more significantly the derisive and contemptuous attitude that this engendered within the University and larger community.

Reforming the University of Melbourne

Priestley realised that reform was not something limited to the University campus and that it was vitally importantly to have the involvement and support of the wider community, industry and government. To this end he sought to define the University of Melbourne's place in the context of the community, economy and culture by delivering a rigorous schedule of lobbying and public lectures where he outlined his ideal of a world-class university and, importantly, practical ways to implement such a vision in Melbourne.

Priestley's objectives were to secure support and funding (in the post-Depression era) to overhaul and modernise the curriculum, to improve student facilities for both study and social life and to improve conditions and wages in order to retain staff.

Central to creating an involved and cohesive university community was the establishment of the University Union (1938) as not merely a building in which to get meals but as the intellectual and social centre of campus life - where students could meet, hear music, view art, participate in debates and clubs and - importantly - provide a venue for students to informally interact with staff.

Priestley was an extremely approachable and affable administrator, yet he soon found strong resistance from certain members of the University Council, especially from Sir James Barrett who resented the newly-formed office and the power shifts that it entailed.

The brevity of Priestley's term is surpassed by the significance and long-term influence of his vision for the University of Melbourne. Priestley's tenure is marked not only by his genuine concern for the holistic education of students but also his belief in equality and access, his support of women in higher education and for freedom of speech. Priestley brought fresh idealism coupled with an assiduous work ethic to implement reforms to make the University relevant and involved in the fellowship of the students, staff as well as with the community at large.

Priestley spent months conducting an extensive survey of the great universities of North America, Canada, England and South Africa researching the infrastructure, facilities and financial commitments needed to build and sustain a great institution. The subsequent report on best practice across English-speaking universities (Series 2) gave foundation and a methodology to this ideal. Priestley's keen interest in the standard of education across the British Commonwealth continued with his later involvement in the Asquith Commission on Higher Education.

University of Birmingham (1938-1952)

Priestley set a two-year time frame within which to implement his objectives in Melbourne. Conceding that within the climate of institutional resistance to the newly created position of Vice-Chancellor and without the adequate financial support to develop and maintain a world-class educational institution, the position he had accepted was ultimately untenable. With this knowledge Priestley accepted the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, England, an office he held from September 1938 until his retirement in 1952.

Priestley was knighted in 1949, held the Polar Medal and Bar, as well as the Royal Geographical Society's Founders Medal. After his retirement from University Administration, Priestley chaired the Royal Commission on the British Civil Service (1953-1955) and was acting director (1955-1958) for the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (which later became the British Antarctic Survey). In this capacity he visited the Antarctic in 1956 and 1959. Priestley served as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1956) and the Royal Geographical Society (1961-1963) and was a part of the Advisory Committee on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Priestley returned to the University of Melbourne for its centenary celebrations in August 1956.

Priestley's varied career as geologist, polar explorer and university administrator are all entirely consistent within the singularity of his character - his assiduity, humour and humanity. Raymond Edward Priestley, predeceased by his wife (1961), died at Nuffield Nursing Home, Cheltenham, England, 24 June 1974.

Raymond Edward Priestley during R.F. Scott's 2nd Antarctic Expedition, 1910-1912. (detail) University of Melbourne Photograph Collection. BWP/7378