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 , 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)
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.
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
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.
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.
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…