Tag Archives: Sir Godfrey Thomson

Keeping history a ‘humane study’

It is a real privilege to catalogue an individual’s personal papers.  Yes, its fascinating learning about the field they contributed to and the innovations they left behind, but there is nothing better than putting on your cardigan (a necessary implement – archive stores are chilly!) and making a new friend.

As @mandahill quoted on twitter

“Where there is a good collection of personal papers there is a greater likelihood of history remaining a humane study.” #archives

Quite.  And there are many fascinating personal papers to be found in Thomson’s collection, from photographs, to letters, to artefacts, telling us about his life as well as his work.  After two months of working on his papers, I really do feel like I am getting to know Thomson.  And I rather like him.


Thomson and his son, Hector, in Cornwall

But it was today, when I was lucky enough to have a tour of Moray House where Thomson was director between 1925-1951, that I really got an idea of the working environment in which he carried out his research.  Myself and others involved in the project were led by former honorary Moray House archivist, Hugh Perfect.

Old Moray House, built in the early 17th century

Old Moray House, built in the early 17th century

We started the visit in the corridor of Thomson’s office, surrounded by beautiful 1930s architecture.  Like many teachers and academics in the early to mid 20th century, Thomson wore academic robes while he taught, and I could almost see him walking purposefully along the corridors around his office with his robes billowing behind him!

The corridor to the right of Thomson’s office


The corridor to the left of Thomson’s office

His office had (and still does have) a smaller office adjoining where his secretary, Marian Cooke, worked.  The pair had a close working relationship – in the 11 years they worked together, they had only one skirmish which began with Thomson losing his temper, and ended with Cooke slamming the door!  Thankfully, according to Cooke, this incident was a one off, and the pair thoroughly enjoyed working together.  Though whether she enjoyed Thomson’s renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan is anyone’s guess!

The view Thomson and Cooke shared from their adjoining offices

The view Thomson and Cooke shared from their adjoining offices


The interior of Thomson’s former office

We were also lucky enough to see Thomson’s portrait by RH Westwater, which hangs in a room now used as a meeting or conference space:

Thomson's portrait by Westwater

Thomson’s portrait by Westwater

It was certainly nice to see that Thomson is still remembered by Moray House over 60 years after his retirement, and fitting one of the buildings has been named ‘Thomson’s Land’ in his memory.

In contrast, ‘Room 70’, where Thomson and his team designed the Moray House Tests, is rather unrecognisable today from the picture Thomson’s papers paint – that of a hive of quiet activity, with only the sound of the calculating machine, the rustle of paper, and the sighs of the unfortunates tasked with marking the tests punctuating the silence!  The room is now used primarily for seminars, and has been refurbished in a modern style.

The tour really gave us a feel for the environment in which Thomson worked, and it also gave me more of an idea of the man himself.  Hugh’s extraordinary knowledge of Moray House was fascinating, and I learned something not only about Thomson, but about the institution he became such a part of.

Hugh has written extensively about Moray House, but it occurred to me that this is unusual in most cases – the buildings which are such a part of the papers are often no longer standing, or those with the sort of knowledge that comes only from years of habitation are no longer there.

The moral of this tale?  If you are working on an individual’s papers, whether in the capacity of researcher or archivist, leave the books and the archives for a day and visit their old haunts.  You might well learn something!


With thanks to Hugh Perfect for his time and knowledge.

‘Do not rest on your oars. It is never time to rest on your oars.’

As the celebrations of graduation came to a close this week, I was reminded of Thomson’s advice to graduates of Aberdeen Training Centre in 1954.

Graduation is a time of celebration, but it can also be a time of uncertainty, which is reflected in Thomson’s address.  He didn’t expect the graduates in front of him to have all the answers their bright eyed, bushy tailed counterparts lacked a few years earlier.  For Thomson, graduation was simply the beginning of a life long education:

You must remain students. No advice to those leaving college is more necessary or more important. Other things are also important, of course…you must be active, if you can, in the public life of the community in which you settle. But remain students. Study. Choose some branch of knowledge in which you can become, if not a master, at least a well-informed disciple. Choose a subject you like. “No profit grows where is no pleasure ta’en”. And if you possibly can, do something creative in it.

Thomson presenting a prize at a school in Wolverhampton

Sound advice, but perhaps not quite what those of you about to gleefully burn the books would like to hear!  Thomson also advised the graduates not to become complacent:

The other that I want to emphasise is the importance of the early years of your career on your ultimate success, on the ultimate height you may hope to rise to. The years behind you have already laid their mark on you. The next few years will in most cases be decisive. So do not rest on your oars. It is never time to rest on your oars, but least of all in these years just ahead of you. There are of course vacations legitimately to be enjoyed. Life would be a sad journey without its inns at which to recuperate. But to spend the whole of life at the inn makes a sadder story.

Thomson admits his advice may seem rather grim at first, but as he tells us, ‘the fact is there is no greater pleasure than comes from work’, and there is no greater rest than that which is earned.

With that, I would like to congratulate our graduates, and wish them the very best!