v 7.00.00
23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

Tom Leadbetter Cottrell
(8 Jun 1923 – 2 Jun 1973)


Tom Cottrell was a name to conjure with in the Elm Lodge household at which I seemed to pass so much of my later childhood and early teenage years. For a start, he was the son-in-law of the practically beatified Cousin Eddie Findlay, the companion of Robert Waddell's formative years in Glasgow – I still possess a pair of gold cufflinks each with EAF inscribed on one side and RW on the other. Though I don't know how Eddie fared in life, his elder daughter Marie became a byword in our family as an epitome of Edinburgh culture and quality.

Following her marriage to Tom Cottrell, he was spoken of with a degree of awe for his intellect, despite the grandmaternal (and auntly) mantra that "character was so much more important than brains", because he evidently possessed both character and personality in abundance as well. His background in industry was accepted, but accorded a lower emphasis, despite my grandfather's successful career in steel-making, as being a regrettable necessity of the modern world. Oddly enough, Cottrell had been employed in the ICI Nobel Division at Ardeer, where the explosives factory was situated which had loomed so large in the latter years of William Renny Findlay's life. What goes around comes around.

And his passion for sailing on the Forth and the Clyde (where Robert Waddell and Eddie Findlay had sailed together so often in years gone by) further endeared him to our family. What was not to like?

(In fact, though nobody realised, there had already been a very eminent chemist in a collateral branch of the family – Alexander Crum Brown, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh between 1869 and 1908, and a descendant of Ebenezer Erskine's eldest daughter Jean Turpie Erskine and the Rev James Fisher, later Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow.)



Kendall's successor in the Chair of Chemistry [at the University of Edinburgh] was Tom Cottrell (b. Edinburgh, 8 June 1923; d. Stirling, 2 June 1973) educated at George Watson's College and the University of Edinburgh where he graduated B.Sc. in 1943. After graduation he was employed, for most of the time as a research chemist, in the Nobel Division of I.C.I. at Ardeer where he remained until 1958; during this period he published some thirty papers including work on calorimetry, gas kinetics, equations of state, and quantum theory. In 1952 he was awarded the Meldola Medal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry awarded annually to the chemist under thirty years of age who, on the basis of published work, shows most promise. In 1954 his first book 'The Strengths of Chemical Bonds', which has been widely used, was published.

At Edinburgh, he quickly built up a flourishing research school and published more than 20 papers mainly on relaxation processes in gases and on collisions of electrons with simple molecules; this work involved the development of a number of sophisticated experimental techniques. He published two further books 'Molecular Energy Transfer in Gases' in 1961 and 'Dynamic Aspects of Molecular Energy States' in 1965. He was instrumental in setting up in Edinburgh the first group in Britain to work on molecular beams. At the same time he devoted himself with characteristic energy to teaching which he reorganised to a considerable extent.

Recent academic developments have included the institution in the mid-1960s of a Degree in Chemical Physics largely through the initiative of Tom Cottrell.

In 1965 he was appointed as the first Principal of the new University of Stirling where he remained until his tragically early death.

www.simpsonandbrown.co.uk/files/image/HeritageConsultancy/09-10_UniversityofStirling_ConservationPlan_LowRes.pdf, (pp 329-330)

Cottrell, the first Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University was appointed to the role in June 1965. His background in academia was strong, but so too was his business background – something that was undoubtedly of use in the establishment of a new university.

Born in Edinburgh in 1923, Cottrell was educated at George Watson's College, before studying chemistry at the University of Edinburgh where he graduated in 1943. Until 1958 Cottrell was employed by ICI, working at the Nobel Division as a research chemist. Whilst employed by ICI, Cottrell published some thirty papers including work on calorimetry, gas kinetics, equations of state, and quantum theory. His research work was to earn him the Meldola Medal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry in 1952 – an award presented to researchers under the age of thirty who show the most promise in the field. His first book, The Strengths of Chemical Bonds was published soon after, in 1954. Cottrell published two further books, Molecular Energy Transfer in Gases in 1961 and Dynamic Aspects of Molecular Energy States in 1965.

In 1959, with his return to his alma mater, Cottrell became Chair of Chemistry, remaining at the University of Edinburgh until his move to Stirling. After his appointment in June 1965, "due to the good offices of the University of Edinburgh", Cottrell was able to start working, on a part-time basis, at Stirling as early as August of the same year. He started on a full-time basis at Stirling after resigning from Edinburgh in April 1965.

Cottrell quickly became renowned for his dynamic approach to education, and his commitment to underlining the importance of a broad education. It was Cottrell who was key in ensuring that one percent of the building costs was allocated for the arts, stating later that:

"Universities exist to provide specific instruction in certain spheres. They also exist to give focus to the culture that supports them ... including the insights of specially gifted individuals. If a University hopes to reflect, however fitfully, these important insights, it must ensure that these are evident not only to its students but also to those of the rest of us to whom the University means more than classes and a degree"

The unique nature of the University under Cottrell's leadership is captured by the recollections of one of the first students, Helen McInnes:

"A few weeks into the term I was invited to dinner at Tom's house in Bridge of Allan. Each Sunday evening of that year, six students were invited, and I suppose by the end of the year, all of the first year had been invited to join them for a meal at some point... I distinctly remember entering their beautiful house and subsequently the dining room with its table laid out in a sumptuous fashion. I was unused to such styles of eating and slightly panicked. But that didn't last long because it was obvious that Tom and his graceful and gracious wife had done their homework by researching a little the background of the students..."

He died, "tragically early", in June 1973, six days short of his fiftieth birthday.

"When I heard about Tom's death, I was devastated and deeply saddened. Ok, I didn't know him well but when you met him in the corridor, he always greeted you and smiled. How many university students ever referred to the Principal by his Christian name as I am doing here?"

So what circumstance brought about his dreadfully early demise? In principle it was a great idea for The Queen to visit the Stirling University campus to admire the newly completed landscaping and buildings, and it duly took place on 12 Oct 1972. The student body, however, felt that it had been insufficiently consulted about the idea and the detailed planning of the visit, and resented the rumoured cost involved.

It all starts auspiciously, as Tom Cottrell shows HM a scale model of the campus ...


... but then nobody rises to their feet in the library for the monarch and head of state (possibly because they're all female – I'm no authority on protocol and comme il faut) ...


... and then everybody in the royal party smiles bravely and tolerantly at somebody who has spent his haircut money on a bottle of Sneaky Pete ...


And then the gaudeamus igitur sector starts shouting "Queen out" and "F*ck The Queen".

I too was a long-haired republican in those days, but times change and us with them, my hair has taken early retirement. and I readily confess to a solidarity with HRH's views on Life, the Universe & Everything, plus an ill-concealed tendresse for the Duchess of Cambridge. I also have a lengthy perspective on the Presidents of the world's republics over the last 50 years ... with the distinguished exceptions of Mikhail Gorbachev, Mary Robinson and Barack Obama (and maybe some others of course) I wouldn't give a tinker's cuss for any of them.

There was a lot of very bad behaviour by some of the student body that day, and the good people of Stirling were deeply unimpressed. But one superannuated Dave Spart who was protesting in favour of "gender-neutral toilets" – I suspect he even now doesn't have a girlfriend – is still unrepentant. And true to form there were equivocal reports from some of the media.1,  2,  3

But HM took it all in her stride, and though aware of what was going on, sensibly regarded it as High Jeenks.

Tom Cottrell, however was deeply, and understandably, mortified. The ongoing embarrassment, and the post-mortems, and disciplinary procedures that had inevitably to be imposed on the ring-leaders, took their toll and he died of a heart-attack just short of his fiftieth birthday.

He was perceptively mourned by The Times:


and acclaimed in their obituary of him:


Two scientific obituaries by Ronald Percy Bell, a distinguished (though rather flamboyant) elder statesman of British physical chemistry, were published:

  • "Tom Leadbetter Cottrell". Chem.Brit. 9, 570-571, 1973
  • "Tom Leadbetter Cottrell". Year Book R.Soc.Edin. 12-14, 1975

Ronnie Bell, who never bothered to get a doctorate, had in 1967 been persuaded by Tom Cottrell to be the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Stirling. He presided over the design and construction of a most elegant laboratory and served on the University Court and on the Academic Council.

Lastly I should also contribute my own ha'pennyworth as my wife and I did stay briefly with the Cottrells during the summer of 1968. We were living in Norwich at the time, where I had been floundering through the first year of postgraduate work at the School of Chemical Sciences, University of East Anglia. For our first summer holiday together we decided to drive up to Scotland (we had an incredibly unreliable Ford Anglia with a mean-free-distance between breakdowns of about 50 miles). News of our intention reached Grannie (Findlay) Waddell, who was delighted – and said firmly that she would be in immediate touch with Cousin Marie about this. And a very nice letter from Marie arrived forthwith asking us to stay for a weekend with them in due course.

And they did receive us with great kindness and hospitality - the Principal's House at Stirling went with the job, so to speak, and was a handsome building beautifully furnished inside. It's a shame that there are no pictures of it in the public domain, as our own photographs are lost in some dusty and impenetrable corner of the loft.

Tom asked me about my work, and listened attentively as I outlined the problems of writing computer programs from scratch, without previous experience, and totally devoid of supervisory support or encouragement. Though not a computationalist himself, he was of course an authority on the application of quantum mechanics to intermolecular forces, collisions and energy exchanges, and he firmly advised me to "keep plugging away at the matrix elements, they're what it's all about in the long run". Which was deeply reassuring.

He also took me for a spin in his Lotus sports car. It was so low-slung that both driver and passenger had to lie rather than sit, but whether on ones front or back I can't remember. He was a fast driver, and it was exhilarating but, being so low down and close to the road, also rather scary.

I968 was of course a year of protests worldwide, generally associated with students, and universities were often a focal point of unrest. Visiting dignitaries were as often as not identified as representatives of repression and social injustice. So the Queen's visit to UEA that August had been expected to trigger outbursts of hostile banner-waving, jeering and cat-calling. But surprisingly little bad behaviour was manifested, and indeed, as recalled in the boxes below, there was even a measure of positive support for HM.

Ziggurat: The magazine of the UEA Alumni association,
Issue 38, Spring/Summer 2010


Some of our alumni may recall that Her Majesty The Queen has also visited the University on various occasions, the first of which was in 1968. During her visit, The Queen was reported to have demonstrated a hint of her characteristic sense of humour. According to The History of the University of East Anglia: "The Queen walked past banners proclaiming "No Anarchy, Yes to Monachy (sic)". Unfortunately the "r" in "Monarchy" had been left out and inserted as an afterthought, to which the Queen commented: "It is a pity that our side cannot spell as well as theirs!".

www.eafa.org.uk/highlights/university-of-east-anglia.aspx (Cat no. 224247)

www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/224247 (may not function)

Anglia News: Demonstrations at Queen's Visit to University of East Anglia

1968 Norwich, Norfolk

The Queen's visit to UEA is met by cheers, and mixed messages on placards and banner, as groups meet around campus to debate the issues raised by the occasion.

Many placards and banners in support of the Queen and monarchy are displayed, as well as those held by isolated protesters demanding home rule for Scotland. Political discussions continue, as the Queen concludes her tour by meeting members of the crowd.

The Cottrells asked us about the extent of any unruliness that we'd witnessed (my wife was also on campus, as the secretary to the Professor of French Literature). She of course had been busy about her duties, and I, in common with all the other chemistry and engineering students, had been far too hard-working, and apathetic about both royalty and social protest, to bother – as I explained, somewhat smugly.

It was ironic that the Queen's visit to the University of Stirling five years later was to have such a tragic consequence for them.

In addition to numerous research papers in science journals, Tom Cottrell had several books on chemical topics published:

  • The Strengths of Chemical Bonds, 310 pp, Butterworth, 1954
  • The Education of Chemists, 15 pp, University of Edinburgh, 1959
  • Molecular Energy Transfer in Gases, with J C MacCoubrey, Butterworth, 1961
  • Chemistry, 178 pp, Oxford University Press, 1963
  • Dynamic Aspects of Molecular Energy States, 83 pp, Wiley, 1965

And rather bizarrely, his astrological chart is available on the internet!

The Rude Forefathers et al

Much of the following table of information, plus the crucial extract from the Edinburgh Evening News that follows it, is due to the investigations made by Anne Burgess. She also very kindly consented to contribute them to a forthcoming commemoration of Tom's major influence in the introduction of Chemical Physics as a University of Edinburgh degree course - surely one of the first British universities to teach such advanced material so intensively at undergraduate level.

It's interesting to see the two distinct strands in Tom's ancestry (the Yorkshire roots of his father Allin, and the Scottish roots of his mother Lily), each playing their part in shaping his scientific intellect and his intense interest in the visual arts, plus his love of sailing and flying (and driving very very fast in his beloved Lotus), and last but of course not least his great administrative creativity.

#IndividualSpouse / PartnerFamily
‑4aWilliam Cottrell
(b 1811/12, Holme)
(b 1817/18, Cartworth)
William Cottrell
(b 1852, Huddersfield)
‑4aThomas Cocking
(b 1815/16, Huddersfield)
(b 1819, Huddersfield)
Julia Cocking
(b 1850, Huddersfield)
‑4bJames Leadbetter Mary Nairn James Leadbetter
(b 1848/49, Fife)
‑4bThomas Miller Mary Robertson Janet Hamilton C Miller
(b 1856/57)
‑3William Cottrell
(b 1852, Huddersfield)
Julia Cocking
(b 1850, Huddersfield)
(m 1871)
Dr Allin Cottrell
(20 Apr 1886, New Delph –
18 Aug 1926, Ashton, Lancs)
‑3James Leadbetter
(b 1848/49, Fife)

Janet Hamilton C Miller
(b 1856/57)
(m 22 Jul 1885)
Lily Leadbetter
(1896 –
‑2Dr Allin Cottrell
(20 Apr 1886, New Delph –
(18 Aug 1926, Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancs,
pre-deceasing birth of his second son)

Graduate 1907, 2nd class Chemistry, The Victoria University of Manchester

Assistant Teacher, Waterloo Senior School, Oldham

Acids Manager in production of explosives at HM Factory in Gretna

Lecturer in Technical Chemistry, Dept of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh

Succeeded in Oct 1926 by Dr David Bain DSc
Lily Leadbetter
(1896 –
(m 17 Aug 1920)
Thomas Leadbetter Cottrell
(8 Jun 1923 –
2 Jun 1973)

Allin Cottrell
(15 Sep 1926 –
5 Jul 1935, killed by car whilst cycling)
‑1Thomas Leadbetter Cottrell
(8 Jun 1923 –
2 Jun 1973)

Graduate 1943,
1st class Chemistry,
University of Edinburgh


Research student at University of Oxford

Professor of Chemistry, University of Edinburgh, 1959 – 1965

Principal of University of Stirling, 1965 – 1973
Agnes Marie Findlay
(6 Aug 1924 –
ca 2013)
(m 1950)

Allin Findlay Cottrell
(b 26 Jun 1953)

John Findlay Cottrell
(b 1956)
0Allin Findlay Cottrell
(b 26 Jun 1953)


BA University of Oxford

PhD University of Edinburgh

Professor of Economics,
Wake Forest University, NC, USA
(1989 onwards)
Nancy Margaret Crooks
(m 1977, Edinburgh)
Lily Cottrell

New Delph, Saddleworth, was apparently a small corner of the village of Delph, near Oldham in Lancashire though the Saddleworth area had historically been part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Ashton (see below) means Ashton-under-Lyne, also close to Oldham.

Edinburgh Evening News, 20 August 1926, page 7
(nb Lusswade is a misprint for Lasswade)

20 Aug 1926 was a Friday, which implies that Allin Cottrell died on Wed 18 Aug 1926. The report above says that he was on holiday, on which you'd expect him to have been accompanied by his wife. But she was in an advanced state of pregnancy, and so I'd prefer to suppose that he had travelled down alone from Edinburgh to visit his parents, who would have been in their seventies and possibly in poor health.

His parents, with whom he would have been staying, were presumably still living in Delph, and the Ashton Infirmary, in the nearby town of Ashton-under-Lyne, would be where his journey ended.

The Ashton Infirmary in earlier times

Monday, 16 January 2012

Ashton Infirmary

Today's view of the world of Ashton under Lyne shows the former Ashton under Lyne District Infirmary building.

The building, which is on Darnton Road, was built in 1861. Behind the Infirmary was Ashton's 1847 Workhouse. The parts of the Infirmary and Workhouse buildings that still stand are now part of Tameside General Hospital, along with a number of large, modern buildings.

No longer being suitable for medical purposes, the Infirmary building now houses administrative offices. The building had large wings containing wards on each side which have been demolished in recent years as part of the modernisation of the hospital site.

Curiously enough, Ashton-under-Lyne was the location of the National Gas & Oil Engine Company, a highly respected and indeed in those days world-leading manufacturing company, for whom my father worked as a junior manager (well, he certainly wore a suit and bowler hat as he set off each morning from our house in Stalybridge) in the late 1940's and early 1950's, a little more than two decades later.