First Election of Rector by Student Body, 1859

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In 1859, the Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) was the first Rector to be elected by the students of Edinburgh University.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the office of Rector at Edinburgh University had fallen into disuse. When the University first opened in 1583, the roles of Rector and Principal had been united in the same person. They were separated in 1620, but the Rectorship remained a largely symbolical role until the appointment of Alexander Henderson (c1583–1646) in 1640. With Henderson, the Rector became 'the eye of the Council of the Town'. He acted as supervisor or inspector on the Council’s behalf, but also as the spokesman for the College when making overtures to the Council. The Rectorship survived in this form until 1665, when the Town Council resolved that the role of Rector should be held ex officio by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. It again rapidly dwindled to a ceremonial title. By 1838, Lord Provost Sir James Forrest of Comiston declared himself uncertain whether he was Rector or not at the trial of students following a 'snow riot'.

The Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 reconstituted the Rectorship as a discrete post at all the universities of Scotland. The Rector's principal role would be to chair the University Court, which, in Edinburgh's case, would replace the Town Council of Edinburgh as the University's principal governing body. Consistently with the 1858 Act's commitment to involving students and alumni in university governance, the Rector was to be elected by the matriculated students of the university.

The Act came into force on 15 October 1859. On 12 November 1859, polling was conducted in the class-rooms of Edinburgh University, and the students, divided alphabetically, cast their votes, which were taken and counted by the Professors. As with the Chancellorship, there were two candidates, representing the two main political parties. The Whig candidate was Gladstone, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister. His Tory rival was Charles Neaves, Lord Neaves (1800–1876), a lawyer and man of letters. Gladstone was much the more prominent candidate and had greater cross-party appeal. He subsequently polled 643 votes to Neaves's 527, and accordingly elected Rector.

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