fonds IWAT - Irvine Watson Archive

Identity area

Reference code



Irvine Watson Archive


  • 1934-2011 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

0.08 cubic metres

4 boxes

Context area

Name of creator

(c 1919-2016)

Biographical history

James Irvine Watson was born c.1917. Educated at Winchester College and then at Christ Church, Oxford, he joined the Royal Artillery in 1939, serving in Singapore and India. After the war he joined the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) for a year before beginning his long career with the British Council in 1947. The British Council had been established in 1934 to promote British culture and support English education abroad. In 1956 Watson was appointed Secretary General, a position he held for twenty-two years.

Watson also played a prominent role in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Malines Conversations of 1921-1926. These were a series of informal conversations concerning the potential for reunion between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, led by Charles Lindley Wood, 2nd Viscount Halifax, and Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines in Brussels. The commemoration followed the historic 1966 meeting between Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Pope Paul VI, the first official meeting since the English Reformation, and was a period of rapprochement between the two institutions. It resulted in the issuing of the ‘Common Declaration’ by Pope Paul and Archbishop Ramsay in 1966 and the establishment of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 1969.

The 50th anniversary was marked by the visit of the Catholic Cardinal Suenens of Malines (now known as Mechelen) to York in 1969 and the return visit of the Archbishop of York to Malines in 1971 and of the Archbishop of Canterbury to Malines in 1973. Watson accompanied the Archbishop of York and the Earl and Countess of Halifax on the 1971 visit, in the role of ‘general secretary of the British Council, member of the committee of the Lord High Steward [of York Minster] and Friend of York Minster.’ He visited Malines again in 1976 to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations. In 1982 he was appointed a Knight of the Papal Order of Saint Sylvester in recognition of his role.

In 1972 Watson was awarded an OBE. He retired in 1978 but remained active in the Diocese of York, serving as Chairman of the York Diocesan Care of Churches Advisory Committee 1980-1986, Trustee of the York Minster Fund 1989-1993, and Chairman of the York Minster Fabric Advisory Committee 1991-1993. He was also a founding trustee of the Yorkshire Historic Churches Trust in 1988 and was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of North Yorkshire in 1991.

He died on 27 April 2016.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The archive was deposited at the Borthwick Institute in 2011. Further additions were made to the archive in 2012 and 2014.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

The papers of Irvine Watson, Secretary General of the British Council, including correspondence, reports, memoranda, diaries, newspaper cuttings, photographs, service booklets, and printed journals relating to the continuation of the Malines Conversations c.1966-1980; papers and correspondence relating to a commemoration of Cardinal Suenens in York and a visit from the Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, 1934-2011; papers relating to the Pevsner Memorial Trust, c.1987-1992; and papers concerning vestments, candlesticks and ‘Mercier chalice’ given by Lord Halifax to the Dean and Chapter of York in memory of his father, who received some of the items as a gift from Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, in recognition of his role in the first Malines Conversations, 1934-2010.


Further accruals are not expected.

System of arrangement

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

Records are open to the public, subject to the overriding provisions of relevant legislation, including data protection laws. 24 hours' notice is required to access photographic material.

Conditions governing reproduction

A reprographics service is available to researchers subject to the access restrictions outlined above. Copying will not be undertaken if there is any risk of damage to the document. Copies are supplied in accordance with the Borthwick Institute for Archives' terms and conditions for the supply of copies, and under provisions of any relevant copyright legislation. Permission to reproduce images of documents in the custody of the Borthwick Institute must be sought.

Language of material

  • English
  • Flemish

Script of material

Language and script notes

Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Finding aids

The archive has not yet been catalogued. Please contact the Borthwick Institute for more information.

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

Existence and location of copies

Related units of description

Records relating to Lord Halifax's role in the first Malines Conversations are deposited at the Borthwick Institute as part of the Hickleton Papers.

The archive of the British Council is deposited at The National Archives in London (Reference: BW).

Notes area

Alternative identifier(s)

Access points

Place access points

Genre access points

Description control area

Description identifier

Institution identifier


Rules and/or conventions used

ISAD (G): General International Standard Archival Description, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2000); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).

Level of detail

Dates of creation revision deletion

Created by S. A. Shearn, 17.02.17.




Accession area