Literature – Dr Osborne Henry Mavor CBE LL.D M.D a.k.a James Bridie

Dr Osborne Henry Mavor CBE LL.D M.D – Medic, Playwright, Dramatist and Patron of Scotland’s Performing Arts

Osborne Henry Mavor was born in Glasgow on 3 January 1888, the eldest son of Henry Alexander Mavor (1858–1915) and his wife, Janet Osborne (1860–1926).

Henry Mavor was a man of many gifts who, having been compelled for financial reasons to abandon the study of medicine, subsequently made a moderately comfortable living as an engineer. ‘The houses in which the Mavors lived had an atmosphere of dignity and good manners and a smell of old books and ink’. So wrote his son O. H. Mavor in One Way of Living his acclaimed autobiography.

Follwoing an education at Glasgow Academy, Osborne Henry Mavor spent ten years at Glasgow University, studying medicine, where he eventually graduated M.B, Ch.B in 1913. Whilst at the University Mavor threw himself into the undergraduate scene. He was one of a band of bright young things, some of whom, like Walter Elliott (a future Secretary of State for Scotland), Tom Johnston and James Maxton went on to win political fame, that contributed greatly to University life. Mavor was to become the editor of the University magazine with his writings and sketches marking him out as a talented artist. He was also renowned for his musical ditties, and indeed with Walter Elliot, was responsible for the Union song of ‘Ygorra’. He also somewhat curiously “invented” Daft Friday in 1905.

Upon graduation, Mavor worked for about a year a house physician and house surgeon in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Upon the outbreak of the World War 1, Mavor enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and within three months was in France in a field ambulance. In 1917 he was sent out to the Middle East and served in Mesopotamia, India, Persia and Constantinople. It was whilst stationed in these countries that Mavor collected many stories and much research, which carried him into the world of biblical and apocryphal legend, eventually surfacing in his plays.

When Mavor returned to civilian life he started a practise at Longside in Glasgow. He was appointed extra physician at the Sick Children’s Hospital and in 1923, set himself up as a consultant. In 1921 he became F.R.F.P.S Glas and graduated M.D (with commendation) in 1929. For a short period, he held the post of Professor of Medicine at Anderson’s College and was also visiting physician to the Victoria Infirmary.

It was also in 1923, on the 14th June that Mavor married Rona Locke Bremner (1897–1985), a woman of notable beauty, ten years his junior. They were to have two sons, one of whom, serving with the Lothians and Border Horse, was killed in France in 1944; the other, Ronald, having qualified in and practised medicine chose to follow further in his father’s footsteps by taking to play writing and dramatic criticism.

The work for which Mavor is best known had already begun to take shape in 1928, when his first play was produced. ‘The Sunlight Sonata’ was written under the pseudonym of Mary Henderson. The play was presented in Glasgow by the Scottish National Players, an amateur company which employed professional producers. Mavor had been drawn to the theatre by the work of the Glasgow Repertory Company (1909–14), an enterprise funded by the citizens who subscribed to it and one which offered its audiences a wide range of contemporary drama.

He adopted the pseudonym of ‘James Bridie’ in his subsequent works such as ‘The Switchback’ (1929), and ‘What It Is To Be Young’ (1929). ‘The Anatomist’, produced in 1930, and based on the lives of nineteenth century vivisectionist Dr Robert Knox, and the body-snatchers Burke and Hare, was his first major success. In all, Mavor was to write some forty plays, under the pseudonym James Bridie, entering the world of the professional theatre under the auspices of Sir Barry Jackson, who had presented The Switchback in Birmingham in 1929 and later at the Malvern Festival in 1931.

In 1934, Mavor abandoned medicine for literature and the theatre, gave up his practise and moved his family to Helensburgh. The family home was Rockbank 150 East Clyde Street.

Mavor’s success continued throughout the 1930s and 40s with, amongst others, ‘Jonah and the Whale’ (1932), ‘Susannah and the Elders’ (1937), ‘Mr Bolfry’ (1943), ‘The Forrigan Reel’ (1944) and ‘The Queen’s Comedy’ (1950). Despite this major success in the literary and arts world, Mavor never forgot his interest in medicine. In 1939, he published a ‘Study of the Umbilicus’ and at the age of fifty-one, Mavor returned to the RAMC, and the Second World War, briefly serving on a Hospital Ship in Norway. Although by then he had found his true vocation, it was not so exclusive as to reject an old-fashioned call to duty, although he suffered some difficulty in persuading the authorities to allow him to actively serve. He returned to civilian life with the rank of Major.

There can be no doubting the importance of OH Mavor to Scotland’s artist scene. Beyond the fantastic catalogue of plays that he created, it was Mavor who took the lead in the establishment of the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre in 1943 and the founding of a College of Drama in Glasgow in 1950 (the forerunner of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) . He was chairman of the Scottish committee of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the precursor of the Arts Council and also a Director of the Scottish National Theatre Society.

In 1939, Glasgow University bestowed an honorary LL.D on James Bridie (giving Mavor the distinction of being a Dr in both his real and assumed names) and he was awarded the CBE in 1946.
His play ‘Gog and Magog’ gained the Bernard Shaw Birthday Prize in 1950.

Mavor was considered to be the first Scottish dramatist, since J M Barrie, who managed to live comfortably by the pen. He died in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on 29 January 1951 of a brain haemorrhage and was buried in the western necropolis in his native Glasgow on 1 February. Mavor was survived by his wife and son.

Following his death, Mavor/Bridie has continued to be recognised for his enormous contribution to Scotland’s arts scene. In 1955 Glasgow University Union purchased a bronze head of Mavor/Bridie by Benno Schotz. The Bridie Dinner, also introduced that year, became a feature of Daft Friday at the Union. In addition the Union’s Library was renamed to become the Bridie Library.

Likewise the work that he did in bringing about ‘theatre for all’ was recognised when on the 17th September 1956, J. B. Priestley unveiled a bronze plaque in memory of Mavor/Bridie at the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre. The proposed vote of thanks at the ceremony was given by his son Dr. Ronald Mavor. The RSMAD awards the James Bridie medal to outstanding students.