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Sir Frederick Ogilvie (1893 - 1949):
Academic; university administrator

Frederick Wolff Ogilvie was an economist and academic administrator who also served as Director-General of the BBC. In Ulster, he was President and Vice-Chancellor of The Queen's University of Belfast for four years.

Ogilvie was born in Valparaiso, Chile. His father was an engineer; he and Ogilvie's mother were both Scots, from Dundee. The family settled in England where Ogilvie attended Packwood Haugh, the distinguished preparatory school founded in 1892, followed by Clifton College, Bristol and Balliol College, Oxford. He obtained a first class grade in Honour Moderations (examinations taken at the end of the student's first year) in 1913. He proceeded to study literae humaniores (Latin and ancient Greek) but on August 4th, the First World War began for Britain and Ogilvie was called up as a second lieutenant in the 4th battalion, the Bedfordshire Regiment, a special reserve battalion. Although this battalion did not deploy at the front until 1916, Ogilvie was already in action in April 1915, where he took part in one of the many battles over the notorious Hill 60 near Ypres/Ieper in Belgium. The British won the battle, but Ogilvie was seriously wounded, losing his left arm, though he remained in the army until demobilisation in 1919 with the rank of captain.

Ogilvie returned to Oxford, where he completed his BA, became lecturer in economics at Trinity College, Oxford, and was elected to a fellowship in 1920. In 1926 he was appointed to a Chair at the University of Edinburgh, in the School of Political Economy. He was an enthusiastic and popular teacher, one of whose principal academic interests was the impact of tourism on the domestic economy. He published a book, The Tourist Movement: an economic study, in 1933, as well as various articles, on the subject.

In June 1933 the Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, Richard Wynn Livingstone, was appointed President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and on his departure from Queen's RM Henry, Secretary to Academic Council and Professor of Latin, and a significant and influential individual, acted as pro-vice-chancellor and was considered by the Senate as Livingstone's successor. However, perhaps because of his age (he was 60) or more probably his political views (he was very sympathetic to Irish nationalism, few of whose manifestations, apparently, were popular in the Senate at that time), the Senate decided on an external candidate and particularly this one: Ogilvie accepted the position in June 1934, and took up office in October the same year.

Ogilvie's appointment did not represent a major departure in the development of the University, rather a continuation and a sense of consistency. He saw as a principal challenge the question of the university's buildings, especially the replacement of temporary buildings by permanent; in this he was continuing policies already set out and commenced. However, under Ogilvie, several significant developments occurred or were initiated, including joining the former President's house to the Physics building, thus closing the south side of the quadrangle, and deciding to use a bequest from Sir William Whitla, the former Professor of Materia Medica who had died in December 1933, to construct an assembly hall (whose foundation stone was finally laid in 1939; it was completed in 1942, requisitioned by the government and finally officially opened on February 19th, 1949). Further, Elmwood House in Elmwood Avenue, which had been the residence of the Vice-Chancellor, was freed for academic use by Whitla's bequest of his home, Lennoxvale House (originally the residence of John Ward), as what was styled the Vice-Chancellor's Lodge, an impressive residence of some 35 rooms and several acres of luxuriant private grounds less than a mile from the Vice-Chancellor's Lanyon Building office).

(The grounds included two lakes, originally the Strand Mill, later Stranmillis, dam and part of Belfast's municipal water supply in the early nineteenth century; a later Vice-Chancellor, Eric Ashby, would invigorate himself for a day's Vice-Chancellorial labours with an early-morning swim.)

A further challenge for the University under Ogilvie was an urgent need for expansion of the teaching staff. There had been a notable move in this direction under RW Livingstone (1924-1933), but this was not really sufficient to meet student demand; increasingly, incumbent staff were assuming extra teaching duties. Ogilvie decided that an appeal for public support should be organised and the University Senate agreed to this in November 1937, initially addressing Convocation (the body of graduates). The idea was not unprecedented; for example Thomas Hamilton had launched a similar initiative in April 1901. A pamphlet was produced, dated February 1938 and signed (in facsimile) by the Chancellor, Lord Londonderry; Pro-Chancellors James Andrews and Thomas Sinclair; Ogilvie himself; Registrar Gregg Wilson; TA Sinclair, "Secretary of the Academic Council" (recte "Secretary to Academic Council"); Richard Hunter, Secretary of the University; John Green, Bursar, and five others. The pamphlet compared "Students and income of certain Universities, 1935-6" and presented in a brief table the findings that the average income of four universities in England of comparable size to Queen's was £233,277, whereas Queen's University's annual income was £95,263. The appeal was not successful in its immediate aim, though there were positive outcomes as the city of Belfast and the County of Antrim both raised their annual contributions to the University; Ogilvie had thus put Queen's "on the map" where fiscally it mattered. It would fall to a later Vice-Chancellor, Eric Ashby, to achieve something like funding parity, though in very different national circumstances after the War; Ogilvie can not be blamed for the relatively poor response to his appeal as developments in Europe, actual and threatening, were not propitious to fundraising.

A biographer summed up his time at Queen's thus:

"The university found in him a strength, integrity, and courtesy rarely combined in one person. He believed strongly in the value to a university of a wide social and cultural life, and he used his great personal charm and the persuasive impact of his own inner enjoyment of learning and the arts to very good purpose. He might well have been one of the great vice-chancellors."

But after only four years, he was drawn out of the academic world and back to England, to an extremely hot seat, as Director-General of the BBC. The strong possibility of war was already prevalent and Ogilvie, though with his generous character and warm interpersonal skills personally well regarded, was nevertheless widely seen as not suited for the demands placed on the national broadcaster in wartime. His predecessor, Lord Reith, a towering personality, said of Ogilvie that he had every ability except the one which mattered, that of managing a large organisation, this lack being especially important in wartime; a leading historian of the BBC went slightly further, suggesting that Ogilvie's mild-mannered and unassertive style was actually inimical to his responsibilities; and John Snagge, a leading BBC figure of the day, on learning of Ogilvie's appointment, simply asked (rhetorically perhaps) who he was. He was not lacking in attentiveness, for example travelling himself to France to speak to army personnel face to face as regards what they wished to hear on the BBC's Forces Programme.

More generally, the interests of a broadcaster officially independent were always going to clash with those of a government conducting a war, and though Ogilvie was able in early 1940 to dissuade the government from taking over complete control of the BBC, through a personal appeal to Prime Minister Chamberlain, many BBC personnel remained apprehensive of threats to its independence, and did not have great confidence in Ogilvie, who was generally regarded as high-minded but ineffectual. One of his staunchest critics, and perhaps his most powerful, was Brendan Bracken, close friend of Winston Churchill and later his Minister of Information. He referred to the BBC head rather sardonically as "Old Mother Ogilvie", "a charming man, but altogether illogical", a proffered example of the latter being that, as a Sabbatarian, he opposed wartime radio addresses on Sundays, Bracken pointing out that Britain had declared war on a Sunday and that the Germans would not hesitate to launch attacks on Sundays. One BBC historian described Ogilvie's resignation in January 1942 as one of Bracken's "improvements" in how the BBC was managed. Later, after the war, when the BBC's monopoly as a public broadcaster was being questioned, Ogilvie expressed views against it, to the extent of signing a letter to The Times.

Ogilvie eventually returned to academia, being appointed Principal of Jesus College, Oxford in 1944, a post, in the opinion of many, much better suited to his abilities and in which he was regarded as successful; as the Dictionary of National Biography puts it: "By quietly infusing his own enjoyments and convictions into its way of life he made it a more friendly community, more enlightened, and more civilized."

The shortest-serving Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, distinguished as he was, Ogilvie was knighted in June 1942. Queen's University traditionally names prominent of its buildings after Vice-Chancellors; in Ogilvie's case, one of the four tower blocks of Queen's Elms Halls of Residence, on the Malone Road, Belfast. His portrait by W Gordon is on display in the Great Hall, Queen's University, Belfast.

Born: 7 February 1893
Died: 10 June 1949
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen's Belfast 1845-1949: The History of a University (Faber/QUB 1959) ; Brian Walker & Alf McCreary: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen's Belfast 1845-1995, (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); The Queen's University of Belfast, Financial Appeal to Graduates of the University, pamphlet, 1938; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography;  Charles Edward Lysaght: Brendan Bracken (Allen Lane, 1979); Asa Briggs: The BBC; the first fifty years (1985); John Cain: The BBC: Fifty Years of Broadcasting; Tom Hickman: What did you do in the war, Auntie?  (1995)