Raymond Priestley was born in Tewkesbury Gloucester on the 2oth July 1886. He was in his final year at Bristol University when he was recruited as a geologist by Ernest Shackleton for his 1907 – 1909 Nimrod Antarctic Expedition. On that expedition he worked with Sir Edgeware David, and was still working with David in Sydney Australia when he was recruited by Robert Falcon Scott for his (and Scott’s) second Antarctic Expedition of 1910 – 1913.
Three weeks after landing at Cape Evans in January 1911, Priestley and 5 others departed on the expedition ship the Terra Nova to explore and carry out scientific work in King Edward VII Land under the leadership of Victor Campbell. Unable to find a suitable landing site, they travelled west intending to land at the Bay of Whales, but found Amundson camped there, unwilling to camp so close to their rivals, they decided to explore the coast of Victoria Land instead.
In January 1912 the 6 man party was taken 200 miles further south to Terra Nova Bay for summer field work, they had with them provisions for 8 weeks.
Unfortunately they lost their tents in a fierce gale, and knowing they could not call on help, they dug an ice cave of 12 feet by 9 feet in which to shelter from the elements. Their ship could not get through the pack ice to collect them at the end of the 8 weeks, and they spent 7 months in their ice cave, supplementing there dry rations with the occasional seal or penguin. On the 30th September 1912, two members of the party were ill with enteritis and so they decided to leave the relative safety of the cave and walk. They fortuitously found a cache of food and fuel left by their western party the previous year. When the arrived at Cape Evans on the 7th November – 5 weeks later, they were told that Captain Scott and the entire polar party had died some months earlier.
Priestley wrote a book called Antarctic Adventure, published in 1914 which documents the whole story.
From 1914 – 1917 Priestley was adjutant to the Wireless Training Centre, later serving in France with the 46th Div. Signals and was awarded the Military Cross. He also married Phyllis Mary Boyd of Dunedin in 1915.
In 1919 he was seconded to the War Office to write the history of the signal service, and he wrote several other books of his own while he was there.
After the War Office he returned to university to finish his degree and graduated from Christ Cambridge in 1922, he was then elected as a fellow of Clare College Cambridge.
In 1934 he reluctantly excepted the appointment of Vice-Chancellor at Melbourne University on a salary of £2000. He resigned this position after a war of attrition at the hands of the Chancellor and others who resented him. He refused a demand for him to report on a controversial student meeting about the Spanish Civil War and said that there appeared to be no place for a “Vice-Chancellor who is not a man made of straw”.
In 1938 he became principle and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Birmingham. The War saw the university transformed into a research centre, and a great post war expansion followed. He was knighted in 1949 for his extraordinary services to education.
He was also an advisor on education matters to the BBC and a member of the Asquith Commission on Higher Education to the Colonies.
He died in Cheltenham Gloucestershire on the 24th June 1974.