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Papers of James Leigh Strachan-Davidson



Biographical note

James Leigh Strachan-Davidson was one of the mainstays of the Senior Common Room of Balliol College in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century - indeed there were few positions of authority that he did not hold at one time or another, culminating in the Mastership in 1907, and almost his entire life was devoted to his college and university.

He was born on October 22 1843, the eldest son of James Strachan, a Scottish merchant who traded with India. He and his father took up the surname of Davidson in 1861, when the family inherited the estate of Ardgaith in Perthshire. He was educated at Leamington College, where he was head of the school and a member of the cricket XI, and he came up to Balliol to read Classics in 1862. His tutors included Benjamin Jowett and W.L. Newman, with whom he enjoyed a long friendship, and his contemporaries included Evelyn Abbott, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis de Paravicini. He was a strong scholar, a Warner and Jenkyns Exhibitioner, and in 1864 he gained a 1st in Mods. He also gained a 1st in his Finals and took his MA in 1872. Outside the college he was active in the Union Society, holding the posts of Secretary, Librarian and eventually President in 1867.

Following his Finals he wished very much to remain at Balliol, and his weak health also suggested this course. In 1866 he was elected a Fellow, and held much responsibility during Jowett's Mastership from 1870 to 1893. From 1872 he was Dean, and acting head of the college when Jowett was absent or ill. When Jowett died in 1893 some felt that Strachan was the logical choice for the next Master, but the post went to Edward Caird. While he may have hidden his true feelings, Strachan accepted the decision with good grace, and worked well with Caird, until Caird was forced to resign due to his health in 1907. Strachan was then elected Master, and he held the post until his death in 1916. He received almost 500 letters of congratulation when he was elected, a sign of the respect in which he was generally held by students and academics. He was also a benefactor of the college, and purchased the land for the No. XXII Lecture Room, which has now been demolished.

In the university itself he was also very active, particularly on the various committees which debated the affairs of the Indian Civil Service candidates and students, and he played a major part in the great controversy of 1903-04 about the format and the content of ICS training. In ICS affairs he came to be considered as something of an expert. He was also a Snell Trustee, Pro-Vice Chancellor from 1913, a member of the Hebdomadal Council from 1915, and he was awarded an LL.D by Glasgow and St. Andrews, and a DCL by Oxford just before his death in 1916.

Given his long career, he wrote few academic works, as he found writing books a difficult process. His main work was the two-volume Problems of Roman Criminal Law, published in 1912. Before that he had published the well-received Cicero and the Fall of the Roman Republic in 1894 as part of Putnam's "Heroes of the Nation" series which was edited by Evelyn Abbott. His other works included a commentary on Appian, Selections from Polybius and various articles. He had written a new book, Magisterial Power in Roman Procedure, when he died. His other love was numismatics, and he left a collection of over 1,500 Greek and Roman coins, which is now in the Ashmolean Musem.


James Leigh Strachan-Davidson: A Memoir (J.W. MacKail, Oxford 1925)

Balliol College Register 1833-1933


The exact history and movements of Strachan-Davidson's papers are very hard to trace. Strachan certainly wished that some of his papers, including the ICS material, should be left to the college library, but they do not seem to have come striaght to the library. J.W. MacKail used a large amount of JLSD's papers for his memoir, while other material found its way to the Bursary Basement on Staircase 3. It also seems likely that A.L. Smith examined JLSD's papers when he took over the Mastership in 1916. All the material eventually reached the library - the material which JWM had used seems to have been stored in the College Office until removed and examined by E.V. Quinn, then Librarian, circa 1960. Dr. John Jones, Dean and Archivist, brought material from the Bursary Basement at various times. Dr. Jones examined the collection in 1979 and made a list of the contents (see Appendix A), but on this list he mentioned that further material "remains in Staircase 3 basement." This may refer to Series VII/A in this catalogue, which was not included in Dr. Jones' original list.


In his memoir, JWM mentions that JLSD kept his papers "in chaos." Given this and the wanderings of the collection around the college, it seemed that little, if any, of the order that JLSD kept his papers in had been preserved. It was thus decided to base this catalogue around Dr. Jones' 1979 list. He had numbered the collection in the order in which he found it. As the order was accidental, it was decided to re-order the material into 8 general topic groups, and then to give each lot of material within those groups a letter, for example V/B - the second lot of material in group V.

In general the contents of the envelopes into which the material had been divided by JWM and E.V. Quinn and which had been listed by Dr. Jones in his original list were not split up. However some packets contained material relevant to several groups - notably packets assembled by JWM specifically for his book, and these were therefore divided. Appendix A cross-refers this catalogue to the orginal list.

As mentioned above, this catalogue divides JLSD's papers into 8 broad topic groups, and there are two attached appendices. These are:

  • I. MS material relating to JLSD's publications.
  • II. Diaries.
  • III. Correspondence.
  • IV. College and University affairs.
  • V. Material on Benjamin Jowett collected by JLSD.
  • VI. Travel and study in Spain and Italy.
  • VII. Family and financial papers.
  • VIII. J.W. MacKail's material for his memoir of JLSD.
  • Appendix A: Dr. Jones' 1979 listing.
  • Appendix B: JLSD's papers held in other Balliol Library collections.


Abbott, Evelyn Fellow of Balliol 1874-1901, Junior Bursar, Librarian, friend of JLSD, author of Life of Jowett.

Asquith, H.H. Hon. Fellow of Balliol, Chancellor 1905-08, Prime Minister 1908-16.

Bowen, Baron Visitor of Balliol 1885-94, intended author of the Life of Jowett.

Caird, Edward Master of Balliol 1893-1907.

Campbell, Prof. Lewis Hon. Fellow of Balliol, author (with E. Abbott of Life of Jowett 1897.

Courthope, W.J. Civil Service Commissioner, 1887, Hon. Fellow of New College 1896, Prof. of Poetry.

Crewe, Lord Secretary of State for India 1910-14.

Curzon, Lord Under-Sec. of State for India 1891-92, Under-Sec. for Foreign Affairs 1895-98, Chancellor of Oxford University, Hon. Fellow of Balliol 1907.

Godley, Sir Arthur Permanent Under-Sec. of State 1883-1909.

Grey, Sir Edward Under-Sec. of State for Foreign Affairs 1892-95, Sec. of State for Foreign Affairs 1905-16.

Hardie, Prof. W.R. Fellow of Balliol 1884-95.

Jowett, Rev. Benjamin Master of Balliol 1870-1893.

Lansdowne, Lord Under-Sec. of State for India 1880, Viceroy of India 1888-93.

Leathes, Sir Stanley Secretary to the Civil Service Commission 1903-07, First Commissioner 1910-27.

Loreburn, Lord Lord Chancellor 1905-1912.

Lyttleton Gell, P. Literary executor of BJ, chairman of Jowett Trust 1894.

MacKail, Prof. J.W. Fellow and Hon. Fellow of Balliol, Prof. of Poetry at Oxford 1906-11, friend of JLSD, author of James

Leigh Strachan-Davidson: A Memoir.

Markby, Sir William Fellow of Balliol 1883-1912, Jun. and Sen. Bursar, Tutor to Indian Probationers.

Newman, W.L. Fellow of Balliol 1854-1923, tutor and friend of JLSD.

Quinn, E.V. Librarian of Balliol College 1963-80, examined JLSD's papers.

Smith, A.L. Fellow of Balliol, Master of Balliol 1916-24.

Spring-Rice, Cecil Graduate of Balliol 1881, Diplomat.

Peel, Lord Visitor of Balliol 1894-1912.

Pickard-Cambridge, A. Fellow of Balliol 1895-1929, Junior Bursar, Librarian, Admissions Tutor.

Warren, Dr. T.H. Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University 1907.

Willert, P.F. Balliol 1862-64, friend of JLSD.


  • BJ Benjamin Jowett.
  • EC Edward Caird.
  • EVQ E. Vincent Quinn.
  • ICS Indian Civil Service.
  • JLSD James Leigh Strachan-Davidson.
  • JWM J.W. MacKail.
  • RG Richard Greentree.

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- Tim Procter, Modern MSS Asst, October - December 1992.

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