Watson, James Irvine, c 1919-2016, Secretary General of the British Council

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Watson, James Irvine, c 1919-2016, Secretary General of the British Council

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c 1919-2016


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.


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Yorkshire Historic Churches Trust (1988-)

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ISAAR(CPF): International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families, International Council on Archives (2nd edition, 2003); Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names, National Council on Archives (1997).


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Created by S. A. Shearn, 16.02.17.




‘Obituary: James Irvine Watson’ in The Trusty Servant: Winchester College Magazine, November 2016.

Míċeál Ledwith, ‘Rome and Canterbury’ in The Furrow, Vol. 33 (July, 1982).

Borthwick Institute, Irvine Watson Archive.

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