Elsie Bell Pettigrew (née Gray, 1852-1937)
Founder of the Bell Pettigrew Museum, a rare surviving example of a Victorian teaching museum
Guest contribution by Hannah Norfolk
Background: Born in 1852 in Hartlepool, England, Elsie was the second daughter, and one of seven children, of Sir William Gray and Dorothy Gray (nee Hall). Having built the successful shipbuilding and marine engineering company William Gray & Co, her father left a fortune of over £1.5 million – ca. £117 million in 2017 prices – on his death in September 1898. While her brother, William Cresswell Gray, became the chairman of the company, Elsie’s share of the inheritance made her extremely wealthy in her own right.
In 1890, Elsie married James Bell Pettigrew, Professor of Anatomy at the University of St Andrews and a renowned amateur naturalist. Following James’ death in 1908, Elise married Scottish anatomist James Musgrave, who held the Bute Chair of Anatomy at St Andrews, in 1911.
Philanthropy: On her death in 1937, Elsie left three properties and £41,000 (around £2.1 million in 2017 prices) to the University of St Andrews. One of these properties was the grand seafront house she had lived in for over 50 years: Swallowgate, which now houses the University’s School of Ancient History. In addition, she donated £400 (ca. £20,000) for the building of greenhouses for the School of Biology, and £500 (ca. £25,000) towards a new dining hall for the then all-female accommodation, University Hall. Her most prominent gift, however, remains the Bell Pettigrew Museum.
After the death of her husband in 1908, Elsie asked the University of St Andrews whether she could donate money for the building of a natural history museum in memory of her late husband. This paid tribute to his expertise as an anatomy professor, his work specialising on flight in nature, and his role as the curator of the University’s natural history collection, which was subsequently moved to the new museum.
Her offer accepted, building began on the aptly named Bell Pettigrew Museum which opened in 1911. Elsie was deeply involved in carrying out the details of her donation. Indeed, the project appears to have been a labour of love for her. She took great care in ensuring best quality cabinetry were installed (ensuring they were the same as those in Harrods); designing the mosaic tiling that adorns the museum’s floors; and leaving an indelible mark by having initials of her and her husband James carved into the exterior stonework of the building.
Described by Sir David Attenborough as ‘a spectacular reminder of how important a museum can be in the study of the natural sciences’, the Bell Pettigrew Museum is not only a rare survival of a Victorian teaching museum, but also displays examples of several extinct species. The museum’s collection is also of wider philanthropic interest as it contains numerous donated specimen, including the cast of the hind leg of a Diplodocus Carnegii, given to the University by the famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie himself. The Bell Pettigrew Museum, which is situated in St Mary’s Quad in St Andrews, is still open to the public, and its early twentieth-century character delights visitors to this day. An online photosphere of the museum in its current form can be accessed by clicking here.
Relevance for understanding philanthropy: Elsie Bell Pettigrew’s carefully-crafted donation provides an example of philanthropy not only being used to memorialise a loved one, but to ensure that their character and essence continue beyond their death. The museum perfectly encapsulates the personal and professional interests of the man whom it was built to remember.
Elsie Bell Pettigrew’s story also offers a sobering glimpse into the way in which female philanthropists were received at the time. While she faced no overt hostility, she was not allowed to attend the opening of the museum that she funded and designed. The opening banquet was a grand affair, and was also the inaugural event of the University’s magnificent quincentenary celebrations. The council responsible for organising the quincentenary programme announced, however, that women could not be facilitated at the opening, and thus Elsie could not be present. The legacy of such attitudes to women appears to be reflected in the fact that no images of Elsie Bell Pettigrew seem to remain. This demonstrates that, even when in possession of wealth and imaginative philanthropic minds, the potential for women to become renowned for philanthropy was notably smaller than that of men in the early twentieth century.
Smart History‘s photoscope of part of the Bell Pettigrew Museum:
Visiting information for the Bell Pettigrew Museum can be found at https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/museum/bellpettigrew/
Hannah Norfolk is a postgraduate student on the University of St Andrews’ Museum and Gallery studies course and a curator of the exhibition ‘Enduring Gifts – 600 Years of Philanthropy in St Andrews’. The exhibition runs from 17th March till 30th June 2018 and further information, opening times and a schedule of accompanying events can be found at https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/musa/whatson/
‘Aunt of Sir Wm. Gray’, Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 09/02/1937.
‘Death of St Andrews Benefactress’, Dundee Courier, 09/02/1937.
Elsie Bell Pettigrew, Letter 09/03/1908, University of St Andrews Special Collections.
Elsie Bell Pettigrew, Letter 14/03/1908, University of St Andrews Special Collections.
Elsie Bell Pettigrew, Letter 03/01/1910, University of St Andrews Special Collections.
James Bell Pettigrew, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh https://www.rcpe.ac.uk/heritage/college-history/james-bell-pettigrew
‘Mrs Eiza Jane Musgrove’, Dundee courier, 10/04/1937.
Valuation Rolls St Andrews and ST Leonards (Fife), 1915.
Our Scottish Philanthropy Snippets explore the spectrum of people, places and practices that have contributed to the history of philanthropy in Scotland. This one accompanies the screening of the short documentary ‘The Women who shaped St Andrews’ which examines the role of female philanthropists in turning St Andrews into a world-class centre for education and culture.