Raymond Priestley was born on 20 July 1886 in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. He was the second son and the second of eight children of Joseph Edward Priestley and Henrietta Rice. His elder brother, Hubert, became a lecturer in Botany, and became Head of the Botany Department at Leeds University. His two younger brothers, Donald and Stanley, were both killed in the First World War. He had four younger sisters, Edith, Doris, Joyce, and Olive. His family were Methodists, and attended Tewkesbury Wesleyan chapel. Priestley's father was headmaster of Tewkesbury Grammar School, and Raymond Priestley was educated there and taught there for a year as a pupil teacher before going to University College, Bristol in 1905 to study geology, though he initially intended to study botany. He was captain of the hockey team and a member of the cricket XI.
In 1907 a chance contact led to him being invited to join Sir Ernest Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition. During this expedition he worked with the geologists T. W. Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson, though a knee injury meant that Priestley took part in less geological fieldwork than expected, and spent time caring for the expedition's ponies. He was part of the team that laid food and fuel depots for Shackleton's attempt to reach the South Pole in 1909. He contributed to the geological sections of Shackleton's book, 'The Heart of the Antarctic' (1909), when he returned to England, before travelling to Sydney, Australia later in 1909 to work with Edgeworth David on the first volume of the geological report, published in 1914. He was still in Sydney when he was recruited by Captain Robert Falcon Scott to join his Antarctic expedition in 1910. Priestley was a member of Victor Campbell's 'Northern Party' during the expedition, spending 1911 at Cape Adare and then travelling south for summer fieldwork. The six members of the group were due to be collected by the expedition's ship, Terra Nova, at the end of their work. The ship was prevented by pack-ice from returning, and the group realised that they would have to spend the winter where they were, and attempt to sledge back to Cape Evans in the spring. They survived by digging a 12 foot by 9 foot ice cave shelter in a snow-drift and supplemented their limited food rations with seal and penguin, reserving food for their journey back to Cape Evans. They began their journey at the end of September 1912, with two members of the group weak from the effects of enteritis, finding a depot of food and fuel on the way which had been left by the expedition's 'western party' the previous year. They reached the main expedition group at Cape Evans on 7 November 1912 to find that Scott and the Polar party had died months earlier. Priestley wrote a detailed account of the experiences of the 'Northern Party' in his book 'Antarctic Adventure' which was published in 1914.
Priestley returned to England in 1913 and attended Christ's College, Cambridge for a BA by Research, writing up the geological results of Scott's Antarctic expedition. Priestley's sister Doris married Griffith Taylor, another member of Scott's expedition, and his sister Edith married Charles Wright. When the First World War broke out in 1914 Priestley served as adjutant at the Wireless Training Centre until 1917, and then with the 46th divisional signal company in France. He took part in the capture of the Riqueval Bridge, part of the Hindenburg line, by the 137th Infantry Brigade, and was awarded the Military Cross. He married Phyllis Mary Boyle, from Dunedin, New Zealand, on 10 April 1915, and they had two daughters, Jocelyn, born in 1916, and Margaret, born in 1919. After the war he was seconded to the War Office to write the official history of the signal service 'The Work of the Royal Engineers, 1914-19; the Signal Service (1921), and 'Breaking the Hindenburg Line (1919). He returned to Cambridge and completed sections of the British (Terra Nova) Antarctic Expedition, 1910-13: Glaciology, jointly with Charles S. Wright (1922). He wrote a thesis on this subject for his BA degree in 1920, and then studied agriculture, gaining a diploma in 1922. He was a lecturer in soil science at the Agricultural School in 1923, and became a Fellow of Clare College. Priestley then began a career in university administration at Cambridge. He was appointed Secretary of the Board of Research Studies as Assistant Registrar 1924-1927, First Assistant Registary and Secretary to the General Board 1927-1934, and Secretary-General of the Faculties 1934-1935. He was appointed the first salaried Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University in 1935, and returned to England in 1938 to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, holding this post until his retirement in 1953. In both these posts he promoted the development of student sport and students unions, and at Melbourne he campaigned for the expansion of research and disciplines taught, as well as for a new library. He was successful in efforts to provide accommodation for students, and Union House was opened in 1938. He resigned from his post at Melbourne in June 1938, frustrated by a lack of support from the Chancellor and some members of staff, as well as by lack of funding from the State government. When he arrived at Birmingham in October 1938 he immediately had to begin preparing the university for the outbreak of war in 1939, and was then prevented from implementing plans to move all university departments out of the city centre to the Edgbaston campus due to post-war building restrictions. However, thanks to public support the university doubled in size during his term of office, started new departments, and recruited staff to transform the institution into a centre of research.
From the mid 1940s onwards Priestley was able to develop his interest in the provision of education in what became Commonwealth countries. After broadcasting on the BBC's overseas service on higher education he was appointed to the Asquith Commission on Higher Education in the Colonies to determine the pattern of university education in these countries during the post-war surge towards independence, and visited Jamaica and Trinidad on a number of occasions, helping to found the University College of the West Indies, and serving as chairman of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad from 1949 to 1953. He also visited Singapore and the Malay Peninsula in August 1946 on a government mission and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Malaya.
He had lived at Viceroy Close, Edgbaston, and later in the war at Lawn House, Ampton Road, Edgbaston, but after his retirement in 1953 he went to live at Bredons Norton. His wife suffered from long-term ill health from the late 1940s, and did not go with him on his visits abroad, though sometimes he was accompanied by his daughter, Margaret. Priestley continued his public service in retirement, serving as chairman of the royal commission on the civil service from 1953 to 1955, and as president of the Royal Geographical Society from 1961 to 1963. Priestley had frequently given lectures on his Antarctic experiences to school children, undergraduates, servicemen, and to a number of other organisations. He had founded the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in 1920, with Frank Debenham, and when he retired was able to take a more active part in polar research. From 1955 to 1958 he deputised as acting director at the London headquarters of the Falkland Islands dependencies survey for Vivian Fuchs. He visited the Antarctic again, with the Duke of Edinburgh to the Falkland Island dependencies in 1956, and to Victoria Land with the US Navy in 1959. He co-edited 'Antarctic Research' with R. J. Adie and G. de Q. Robin in 1964.
In his later years Priestley increasingly stayed at home in Bredons Norton where he spent time with his younger daughter, Margaret, and her family. His elder daughter, Jocelyn, had married Ian Bowman Fleming, an Australian engineer, and settled in Australia. Margaret married George Hubert in 1953. Raymond Priestley died in the Nuffield Nursing Home, Cheltenham, on 24 June 1974.
Sources: G. de Q. Robin, ‘Priestley, Sir Raymond Edward (1886–1974)’, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/31566, accessed 4 Dec 2014Australian Dictionary of Biography http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/priestley-sir-raymond-edward-8116 Accessed 4 December 2014
For further reading about the University of Birmingham see: Eric Ives, Diane Drummond, Leonard Schwarz The First Civic University: Birmingham 1880-1980 An Introductory History ( The University of University of Birmingham Press. 2000 )