John Robinson Airey 1868 – 1937

John Robinson Airey 1868 – 1937John Robinson Airey was born in Hunslet, Leeds in 1868, the eldest son of William Airey 1843-1888, the founder of Wm. Airey & Son, a well-known firm of building contractors in Leeds. William had started as a stone-mason from Preston, Lancashire. John’s younger and only brother, Sir Edwin Airey 1878-1955, knighted for his building work with the military in WW2, took over the building firm. [For more about Edwin Airey, see the separate article about him.] John also had two younger sisters. His family were devout Methodists.

The family moved from Hunslet to 28 Grosvenor Avenue, Bagby Fields, Leeds, just north-west of the centre, in an area of terraced, through houses, demolished in the 1960’s for redevelopment. It was from here that he was educated first in Blenheim Board School then at Leeds Central High School. He trained as a teacher at the Borough Road Training College, London, 1888-89 and returned to his old school to teach, becoming Assistant Master in the School’s Science department from 1893-1896. Whilst working he also studied for and in 1894 obtained, a University of London external B.Sc. at Yorkshire College (now the University of Leeds). In 1896 he was appointed Mathematics master at Porth County School, Rhondda Fawr. In 1903, aged 35, he took a perhaps surprising step and relinquished his job to matriculate at St. John’s College, Cambridge to study the Natural Science Tripos. He was awarded a B.A. in 1906 with First Class Honours in Part I & II. The quality of his performance is indicated by the fact that he was award the Wright Prize (awarded in maths and natural science), the Hockin prize for physics and the Hughes Prize for mathematics.

He then returned to Yorkshire, to Morley, south Leeds, as the first Principal of the new Morley Secondary and Technical school, a post he held for six years from 1906 to 1912. He moved again in 1912, to be Principal of the West Ham Technical Institute, London, where his staff of teachers was said to number 131 with about 2,200 students. His mathematics research work continued and in 1915 he obtained a D.Sc. London. It was from West Ham that he applied for and obtained the post of Principal of the City of Leeds Training College in Leeds in early November 1918, aged 50. He was unanimously chosen by the Education Committee from a small shortlist whittled down from the 71 applications received. His salary was £1,000 per year plus accommodation, fire and light. They particularly liked the fact he was well versed in the arts as well as in science. For although he is best remembered for producing tables of mathematical functions, he was an excellent linguist and had travelled in several European countries, including Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.

All was not plain sailing in his new post, as in 1914 the Army had taken over the new (1912) and purpose-built College to run it as the Second Northern General Hospital. Although WW1 also ended the year of his appointment, the army did not relinquish occupation until 1924 and were still a presence in the grounds – in temporary wooden huts of the playing fields until 1927, when the occupants moved to the new Chapel Allerton hospital. The College Airey was Principal of was to be found in different buildings in the city! Its purpose built accommodation was for 480 students in eight hostels housing 60 each, with women outnumbering men at 5-3. As women were numerically dominant the college always appointed a woman as Deputy Principal – which had caused problems for the first principal, his predecessor.

Throughout his life he continued with mathematical research and “was the author of many works of importance on that subject” and the obituary in the Montgomeryshire County Times (M.C.T.) continued “much of his leisure was spent in working out intricate mathematical problems of great value to scholars. He was engaged on one of them the day before his death”. One result, in 1926, was a second doctorate - a Sc.D. from Cambridge. He was a member of the Mathematical Tables Committee for the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1911 and its Secretary from 1916-1929. He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1931 and was a member of the Physical Society of London. A detailed obituary appeared in the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science of which, at his death, he was co-editor.

Life was not all work. On 29th July 1909 he married Gwenllian James in CM Bethel Church, Rhondda, Glamorgan elder daughter of Mr Thomas James, a colliery cashier for the Cory-owned pits in Rhondda Fawr. His job would have carried some prestige in the community and he probably served on various local boards. In the 1901 census Gwenllian was listed as an Assistant board school teacher and it is believed the couple met whilst teaching in Porth. The Airey’s first child, Mevis Gwenllian was born in West Ham in 1913 but her death is registered in Pontypridd in the June quarter of 1914. Their second, Mildred Susan was born two years later in Newtown though Forest Gate, London was recorded as the family home.

Dr Airey retired from the City of Leeds Training College in 1933 having reached the age of 65. On his retirement he was presented with an address which gives a little more insight into the man:

“Not only by your own achievements, but in your own addresses to us, you have held up the torch of learning – learning which can only be won by persistent and earnest effort. Serene in calm and storm, you have at all times steered a straight course, your actions characterized by sincerity of purpose and a love of what is right. You will live in our memories as a Principal and a friend whose words were few and whose happy and kindly disposition shone out so brightly that even your reproofs were tinged with humour. Not least we shall cherish your memory because you showed us a religion based on simple faith and reverential search for truth”.

The M.C.T. obituary indicated that his connections with Montgomeryshire were evident whilst he was Principal at Leeds, as “he was responsible for many Montgomeryshire boys gaining entry to the Leeds Training School” at a time when “courses were crowded and entry difficult”. On retirement he made Newtown his home but he did not retire entirely from education for he was co-opted as a member of the Montgomeryshire Education committee and is said to have “rendered valuable service on that and on many of the sub-committees”. Neither did he give up lecturing: “he was always ready to give his services as a lecturer on a variety of subjects. His attractive style, his sense of humour and his intimate knowledge of any subject on which he set out to speak always won him an appreciative audience” (quotations from the M.C.T. obituary).

It appears he was a sociable person: he was a Freemason, having joined the Isaac Walton Lodge at Cambridge and later became a member of Lodges in London and Leeds and finally, the Cedewain Lodge, Newtown. When he obtained his post in Leeds he had given billiards as a recreation, but in Newtown, bowls was noted. He was said to be a popular member of the Newtown Bowling club and he was Vice-President and a keen supporter of the Newtown Rugby Club.

His death on 16 September 1937 aged 69 was sudden and unexpected as he was to planning to return to his Leeds property on the day of his death. It stated that he had made a partial recovery after a long period of ill-health. He was survived by a wife and a daughter. His Leeds family were represented at his funeral by his brother, Sir Edwin and his cousin. The Leeds Director of Education and the previous post-holder also attended as did his successor at the City of Leeds Training College and a representative of the Old Students’ Association of that institution. That would have been a considerable journey for them at that time!

In 1939 his widow and daughter, a medical student, single, were living in Flat 1 of Weetwood House Cottage, very near to the City of Leeds Training College. This was previously the staff/kitchen wing of a large Mansion and is not as small as the address suggests. It was possibly their Leeds property after John’s retirement. Gwenllian was a widow for some 31 years – her death occurred on 24 January 1968 when she was 88. Her ashes are interred next to her husband in Newtown cemetery.

Ann Lightman
September 2022