The Lives of Emily Anderson: Galway professor, music historian, and British intelligence officer

As most of us struggle to achieve recognition in just one field, it is worth thinking about the circumstances and qualities that enabled Emily Anderson (1891-1962) to excel so widely. Best known for her contribution to music history, she located and translated hundreds of letters by Mozart and Beethoven into English, leading to three-volume editions on each, the first published in 1938 and the second in 1961. She received the Order of Merit from the German government for her efforts. Less well known is the fact that Anderson achieved distinction in two other fields. She was appointed to a position as professor of German at University College Galway at just 26 years of age and she was awarded an OBE for her services to Britain in World War II.

Emily Anderson as a child circa 1900, The Anderson Family Photographs, NUI Galway Archives

Visitors to NUI Galway will now be reminded of the famous alumna as they enter the former ‘Aula Maxima’. The hall, located opposite the archway into the quadrangle, has now been renamed the ‘Emily Anderson Concert Hall’.

Anderson’s early achievements were certainly eased by a life of privilege. She grew up as the daughter of a prosperous, middle-class family, which employed servants and governesses. Her father was an academic: Alexander Anderson came to Galway as a lecturer in physics in 1885 and was appointed president in 1899, when Emily was eight years of age. Her mother, as Mary Clancy has discovered, was an advocate of women’s rights and played a prominent role in the local women’s suffrage movement. Together, her parents ensured that Emily got a good grounding in languages. The 1901 census records indicate that the family employed a Swiss governess, who presumably taught the children – Emily was one of four – both French and German. Indeed, the family’s enthusiasm for languages extended to Irish. Her father, a Presbyterian from Coleraine, went to the trouble of learning the language as president of the University.

It is to Emily’s credit, however, that these advantages bore fruit. She proved utterly dedicated to her studies. She received first-class honours in all four subjects that she began studying at UCG in 1908 – French, German, English and Latin. She held the Browne scholarship in 1909 and 1910 and, upon graduation in 1911, she went to Germany to undertake postgraduate study at the Universities of Berlin and Marburg. Then, in 1915, she travelled all the way to Barbados to take up a post teaching languages in a girls’ secondary school. While the climate was undoubtedly an improvement on Galway, being so far away from home could not have been easy. As revealed in the recent exhibition on the University in World War I, her only brother, Alexander Anderson, five years her junior, was captured at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and interned in a German POW camp with no indication of when he might be released.

Anderson’s appointment to the professorship at UCG in 1917 was not a foregone conclusion, despite the fact that her father was still president. Jackie Uí Chionna has discovered that Anderson was not the first-ranked candidate for the job, although she was well qualified for it by the standards of the day. Interestingly, at that time, being a woman wasn’t an impediment to gaining a senior position at the University – the first-ranked candidate was also a woman and, just three years before, the same president had appointed well-known suffragist Mary Donovan to the professorship of History. Anderson’s successor was also a woman.

As Rosaleen O’Neill describes in her contribution to the volume From Queen’s College to National University (1999), Anderson quickly made her mark as professor of German with a reform of the curriculum. She supplemented the texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with those from earlier periods in German literature and expanded the language programme to include Middle and Old High German and phonetics.

Remarkably, she resigned from her position in 1920, just three years after taking it up. According to the resignation letter unearthed by Uí Chionna, Anderson explains that she was leaving to take up a job in the British Foreign Office. After six years of living abroad, she probably found Galway rather small and the proximity to family stifling – she was living in the quadrangle with her parents. She was also likely to have been disappointed with the numbers of students she had to teach – just eight students entered first-year German in 1917. A sense of duty towards the British state, of which Ireland was still a part and which her brother had served in arms, must also have played a role, along with the opportunity to use her language skills in a way that benefited a wider community.

With that, Anderson began a second career which lasted from 1920 to her retirement in 1951. The fact that she stuck with it suggests a greater level of satisfaction than with life as a professor in Galway, but, in the absence of personal papers, we can only speculate on what the experience must have been like. It is important to note that she did not serve as a diplomat – this position was reserved to men until after the Second World War. Rather she is likely to have worked as an administrative officer or executive officer and thus had far less control over her work than she had as professor back in Galway. Ironically, had she joined the fledgling Irish foreign service, she might have had a more responsible position. Her contemporary, Nancy Wyse Power, who had also studied in Germany, but came from a nationalist background, was sent to Berlin in 1921 to set up the Irish political mission in Germany.

The Foreign Office must have been in its own way an oppressive environment in which to work. It was full of public school boys, especially Etonians, and Oxbridge graduates, who were predominantly conservative in their political views. It was certainly a contrast to UCG, where staff included figures as varied as Donovan, a Unionist as well as a suffragist, and Liam Ó Briain, professor of Romance languages, who had served as a Volunteer in the Easter Rising and later wrote a colourful account of his experiences. Much of the work in the Foreign Office was probably quite mundane – reviewing, translating, indexing, and filing away enormous amounts of information such as newspaper articles and consular reports.

That said, the events of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s made the so-called German room of the Foreign Office an especially stimulating and important place to work. We need only think of the right- and left-wing putsches of the early 1920s, the Depression of 1929, the turn to Nazism in 1933, the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, the invasion of Poland in 1939, the Second World War and Holocaust, followed by the reconstruction of Germany in the context of the Cold War. The years 1940 to 1943 were particularly exciting for Anderson in that she was seconded to the War Office and went to Cairo to work in the office of the Special Operations Executive, which conducted espionage throughout occupied Europe and the Middle East. They were also dangerous years as the German army under Rommel came to within 150 miles of Cairo before being defeated at the Battle of El Alamein in November 1942. We don’t know exactly what role Anderson played in Cairo – whether she was sitting in an office like many others decoding German messages about troop movements in the greater Mediterranean region or out in the field undercover. There were female spies active in these years and several of these were, like Anderson, awarded OBEs. But I think we can safely say that, by this point in her early 50s, she was unlikely to have acted as a ‘honeytrap’ for senior German officials. It can only be hoped that future research will reveal the precise nature of her activities. An intriguing figure, she is currently the subject of study by several local researchers. Watch this space!

Róisín Healy

Dr Róisín Healy is Lecturer in Modern European History at NUI Galway and Co-Director of the Centre for the Investigation of Transnational Encounters (CITE) at the Moore Institute. She specialises in German, Polish and Irish history in the long nineteenth century. Her publications include a co-edited volume, Small Nations and Colonial Peripheries in World War I (2016), and a monograph, Poland in the Irish Nationalist Imagination, 1772-1922: Anti-Colonialism within Europe (2017).