Its editor David Cannadine asks how a great national treasure came to Oxford


*Full lecture text below

Noting all the other centenaries around us and not least the second Russian Revolution that resulted from Vladimir Lenin's overthrow of the provisional government on November 7-8, 1917, Professor Sir David Cannadine, Dictionary of National Biography editor, told a packed audience that the decision on October 23, 1917 of Oxford University Press to take on the DNB at the same time --amidst plummeting sales and war time shortages-- was an extraordinary act of institutional selflessness. 

The DNB had begun life in 1884 as a private work, the brainchild of George Murray Smith. It was 'a kind of Westminster Abbey in print.' By 1900 a slightly unbelievable 63 volumes had already appeared. Certainly there was a degree of 'national self-regard, Victorian hero-worship, and British patriotic veneration'. It continued haphazardly after 1900 with unwieldy supplements, but during the Great War Smith's family donated the project to OUP. While the context of war shortages and price inflation was far from ideal, the enlightened men (and they were men) at OUP understood that the project was of national importance. They took it on in good faith in 1917, despite it being unprofitable. A century later and following a complete re-write, the DNB has matured into a significant national treasure edited to an impeccable academic standard, with entries neither too long (as in the Victorian heyday) nor too Oxford-centric (as in the early OUP tenure). 

FULL LECTURE HERE, presented at the Weston Library on 3 October, 2017 by Professor David Cannadine

On 23rd of October, 1917, the Convocation of the University of Oxford passed the following decree:

Whereas George Murray Smith and Ethel Sara Murray Smith, the representatives of the family of the late George Murray Smith, Hon MA,, the originator and publisher of the Dictionary of National Biography, have transferred to the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University the whole of the existing stock and copyrights of the said Dictionary, with a view to its being maintained and continued as one of the publications of the University Press, the University hereby records its gratitude for this generous gift.

DNB book shelfThe decree was introduced at Convocation by T.B. Strong, then Dean of Christ Church and until very recently Vice-Chancellor, who, 'in a brief but admirable speech, proposed the expression of the University's gratitude.' And this is what he said: 

The idea of the work, the organization of it, and the inspiration which carried it to completion, all came from one man, Mr George Smith...By carrying through his Dictionary of National Biography on this scale and in the manner he adopted, he had filled a gap in English historical literature in a sumptuous way, and had provided a pattern which any great nation would be proud to follow.

And as a result, Strong concluded,

Members of the University welcome with pride and pleasure a gift which may not be a source of profit, but which is a happy recognition of the position of the University and its Press in the historical world and in the life of Great Britain.

Of course, this year, 2017, has seen many centenaries, some to be celebrated, others to be lamented, and on any such roll-call, the hundred years since the DNB and OUP were joined together in what has turned out to be a long-lasting union which in recent decades has produced progeny of the highest quality, may not rank at the top of the list.  It certainly can't compare in global significance with the decision by Vladimir Lenin, in October 1917, to overthrow the provisional government, thereby ushering in the second Russian Revolution; or with the letter sent early in the following month, by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, announcing the British government’s support for the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people in Palestine’.  It was also in 1917 that the British monarchy changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, thereby prompting one of the Kaiser’s rare jokes, when he remarked that he now looked forward to the first performance of that well-known comic opera, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; that George V decreed that members of the British royal family need no longer wed their continental cousins, but could marry into British aristocratic families as well; and that the Order of the British Empire and the Order of Companions of Honour were established -- with the aim of making the British honours system more democratic and, as we would now say, more accessible.

early DNBIt is also important to remember that from a British perspective, the year 1917 was just about the darkest of the First World War: there was stalemate on the western front, the losses of life were staggering, the British economy was in danger of buckling under the strain, and revolutionary Russia was down and would soon be out of the conflict. More particularly, this meant that many of Oxford's undergraduates had gone off to fight, and many of them would never return; that the university’s teaching and administrative staff had also been much reduced; that the same was true of the editorial and production staff of Oxford University Press; and that the supply of printing paper had been drastically reduced, while its cost had more than correspondingly increased. So it was scarcely surprising, against this depressing wartime background, that there was in fact much reluctance at OUP to take over the DNB at all.  This reluctance was especially marked in the case of Charles Cannan, the Secretary to the Delegates of the Press between 1898 and 1919, and the dominant and transformative figure at OUP during those years, whose impact would continue to be felt during the next half century and beyond.  Yet Cannan regarded the DNB as a 'white elephant', and if he had had his way, it seems highly unlikely that the DNB would ever have come to Oxford, and there would be no centenary to celebrate here this year.  How, then, and why did the transfer ever happen, on what terms was the gift accepted, and with what consequences?  These are the questions that I should like to address and attempt to answer this evening.


Let me begin, not with the DNB, but with Oxford University Press. Despite the wartime difficulties that it faced, and which would be at their most challenging by 1917-1918, Cannan's years at OUP before the conflict broke out were a time of unprecedented expansion and optimism overseas, the same was true in terms of domestic publishing, and he was also highly successful in the pursuit of his policy to insulate the Press from the University.  It was, for example, scarcely coincidence that Cannan's years coincided with the high noon of Empire, along with a growing sense of the shared identity of the English-speaking peoples: hence the establishment of overseas offices by OUP, first in New York (1896), then Toronto (1904), then Melbourne (1908), then Bombay (1912), and Cape Town (1915).  The United States was early on recognized as the major overseas market, especially for Bibles, prayer books and hymnals, OUP salesmen criss-crossed the continent, the New York office was in profit by 1900, and in 1917 it returned its best figures yet. The Canadian and Australian branches also focussed initially on the same published products: they were soon in profit but on nothing like the scale of the New York office. In India, where sales of the Bible or the Prayer book were never going to be high, the challenge and the opportunity was to try to break into the preserve that the trade publishers Macmillans and Longmans had already established for themselves in the field of officially approved vernacular books for schools.  By 1918, OUP India was selling large quantities of 'simplified classics', editions of Shakespeare, schoolbooks and medical and legal textbooks. And in South Africa, the recently created Union saw an expansion of British education throughout the country, which led to an increased demand for English-language books, especially (again) bibles, prayer books and hymnals.

At the same time, there was a growing demand for OUP's books in the United Kingdom itself, thanks to the broader provision of elementary education following the passing of Forster's Act in 1870, the reform of the public schools and grammar schools, and the expansion in higher education, not only in Cambridge, Oxford and London, but in the recently-established provincial redbrick universities in Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.  This growth of what was a termed 'a New Reading Public' meant not only an expansion in the publishing undertaken by the Press in Oxford, but also of the London office as well, the existence of which set OUP apart from any other university publishing house in Britain. The ‘London office’, as it was called, now developed into a profitable international publishing house in its own right, with a diverse and respected list, including not only academic books, but also educational books, children's books and poetry. By 1914, and despite the pre-modern practices that survived (minutes of meetings were written by hand not typed), the modern system of printing, publishing, distribution and sales had all emerged at OUP. To be sure, there was no management system or structure and the accounts concealed more than they revealed, but the Press made enough of a profit, and in any case, Cannan and his colleagues never regarded it as merely or even primarily as a business, but as an academic enterprise. The publication of the Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1879 but not completed until 1928 was a source of particular pride as a work of 'national significance', and 'a dictionary of the English nation', which would also provide the precedent and model for the subsequent acquisition of the DNB.

Not surprisingly, the Press that Cannan transformed and, indeed, in many ways created, revolved around him as Secretary to the Delegates. For while all parts of OUP, both at home and abroad, functioned as autonomously as possible, they all also reported to him as Secretary.  In a sense they were separate fiefdoms, maintaining little contact with each other; but they were all united in fealty to him.  At the same time, Cannan was also determined to isolate and insulate the Press from the University, even though it was the University that owned it, and to do all he could to ensure that the University's demands for a share of OUP's profits should be fended off.  Although the Delegates were charged, on behalf of the University, with oversight of the Press, Cannan managed to reduce their activity mainly to approving titles, and in any case, he nominated them, and expected them to do his bidding.  Moreover, the Delegates knew little about the Press's business in London, and they were equally ignorant of its financial position.  'Excessive secrecy' was the phrase often used to describe OUP's workings under Cannan and his successors: but for Cannan himself, this was a state of grace to be attained and safeguarded, rather than a misguided policy meriting criticism and censure. He also exercised a lasting influence on the Press by virtue of the appointments he made: especially Humphrey Milford who headed the London office from 1906 to 1945, and R.W. Chapman, whom he appointed as his Oxford lieutenant, and who became his successor as Secretary in 1920.  Chapman would remain in post until 1942, he fully shared Cannan's vision of what the Press should be, how it should operate, and that it should keep the University at arm's length.

By such means, Cannan achieved his ambition to make OUP what he termed 'the first Press in the world', which was also run 'for the national benefit'.  Hence the publication, soon after the conflict broke out in 1914, of a series of pamphlets explaining Why We Are at War, of which there would eventually be eighty-seven.  Hence the printing by the Press of secret documents for the Admiralty.  Yet keeping OUP going throughout the War was a major achievement in itself.  At the Armistice, more than half the staff were away on active service, and by the end of the war, forty-four had been killed. Paper shortages and rising costs produced serious production difficulties, while inflation drove up book prices and hit sales.  And as the University and the colleges suffered acute financial embarrassment caused by the wartime collapse in student numbers, the Vice-Chancellor sought money from the Press to help balance the accounts. Cannan rallied the Delegates, who flatly denied there was any surplus available, and the University eventually backed down. But in personal terms, this triumph was dearly bought.  The effort of keeping the Press going, and in conjunction with his work for the University and as a member of the city council, was too much.  In November 1919, Cannan suffered a stroke, and he died a few weeks later. He was only sixty-one. But by then, it bears repeating, OUP had taken on the DNB, despite his own misgivings.  Why, by this time, did the DNB need a new sponsor and supporter?  And why did OUP in fact take it on?


Like the National Portrait Gallery, founded in 1856, and the Blue Plaques scheme for London, begun ten years later, Dictionary of National Biography, of which the first instalment appeared in 1884, may easily be seen as a classic instance of national self-regard, Victorian hero-worship, and British patriotic veneration: in sum as a kind of 'Westminster Abbey in print.'  Yet in none of these three cases was this the whole truth of things, and perhaps least of all in the case of the DNB.  For unlike many such works that were being produced at the same time on the continent, the DNB was a private rather than a state sponsored enterprise, and its begetter was the publisher George Murray Smith.  Between 1884 and 1900, sixty-three volumes appeared, at three monthly intervals, in what was an extraordinary and sustained triumph of entrepreneurship, organization and intellectual effort -- initially under the editorship of Sir Leslie Stephen, who was followed by Sir Sidney Lee.  It was Lee, rather than Stephen, who drove the work through to completion, and who also oversaw the publication, in 1901, of a three-volume supplement, including those who had died while the original DNB was being produced --  and extended to include Queen Victoria herself, who died in January 1901, as the supplements were in preparation.   By common consent, the result was an extraordinary achievement. 'To lovers of books', H. H. Asquith observed in a speech to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution in November 1901,

there were few more fascinating or more indispensable companions than the great Dictionary of National Biography which, with the issue of its supplement, had just been brought for the time being to a close.  The man who had on his shelves, and within easy reach, the sixty-six volumes of that monumental work need never be at a loss for intellectual nourishment and stimulus.

Asquith did not exaggerate. But was this great enterprise now complete, or would there be an afterlife?  George Murray Smith had himself died in 1901: as the senior partner in the publishing firm of Smith, Elder and Company, he had not only conceived and sustained the DNB, but had also been willing to bankroll, as a public-spirited gesture, what was in fact a loss-making enterprise.  It was his unswerving support of Stephen and then Lee which had made the DNB possible, and also that first, three-volume supplement to which Asquith referred in the words just quoted.  George Smith's successor as senior partner was his son in law, Reginald Smith, who now took over the publishing business of Smith, Elder and Company, and the DNB. But he clearly lacked his father-in-law's attachment to the Dictionary, broke up the DNB office, destroyed all the papers, and dispersed the staff, including Lee himself.  Lee was taken on for ad hoc projects, and oversaw the re-issue of the entire DNB in twenty-two volumes in 1908-09.  But Lee had no permanent, salaried role, and was in financial difficulties. In 1910, he published The French Renaissance in England, with the Clarendon Press of OUP, and he was commissioned to compile a two-volume work, entitled Shakespeare's England, that would be published in 1916, the tercentenary of Shakespeare's death.  But much to Cannan's annoyance, Lee showed little interest in the project, from which he was subsequently dismissed. As a result, Cannan took a great dislike to Lee, and this would have serious consequences in 1917 -- and beyond.

Meanwhile, Lee had been taken on again by Smith, Elder and Company to compile the first post-1901 chronological supplement to the DNB, covering the lives of those figures who had died between 1901 and 1911.  But significantly, the main proponent of this venture was not Reginald Smith, but rather Elizabeth Smith, who was George Murray Smith's widow. The result, which was once again produced with admirable speed, was what became known as the Second Supplement, and it appeared in three volumes in 1912. Altogether it contained one thousand six hundred lives, including a vast entry, by Lee himself, on King Edward VII, the research for which would later underpin his two-volume official life.  But it was not only Lee's entry on the late monarch that seemed to be out of control, it was also that, to his critics, Lee had failed to provide a sufficiently firm editorial hand for the Supplement as a whole.  As a result, the 1900s had been more fully covered than most of the decades of the nineteenth century in the original DNB; there were too many lives, often of obscure architects, doctors, military men and naval men; and the average length of the entries had also gone up.  This in turn meant that the editorial and other costs far exceeded revenue from sales of the second supplement, and although Elizabeth Smith insisted the venture had not made an overall loss, the shortfalls were only covered as a result of sales of the existing stock of the twenty-two-volume edition of the DNB that had been published in 1908-09.

dnbWith the publication of this Second Supplement, Lee was once again out of work, though during the lifetime of Elizabeth Smith, it was expected that she would again call upon him to produce both a corrected version of the Second Supplement, and a Third Supplement, containing the next generation of worthies who had died between 1912 and 1921.  But Elizabeth Smith died in 1914, by which time no written agreement had been made between Smith, Elder and Company and Lee for this next stage in the publication of the DNB, although Lee was convinced that he effectively continued as editor after the Second Supplement appeared, and would insist that he was still editor when the negotiations with OUP began.  But Elizabeth Smith's death meant that both Lee in particular and the DNB in general had lost their last remaining supporter at Smith, Elder and Company. Reginald Smith was just not interested, and in any case, he threw himself from a second-floor window of his Park Lane home on Boxing Day, 1916. None of the children of the DNB’s founder and publisher, George Murray Smith, remained in the firm, and in April 1917, the publishing business of Smith Elder and Company was transferred to John Murray.  But that transfer did not include the loss-making Dictionary of National Biography.  What, then, would happen to it?

At this point, another figure appears in this story, Sir William Osler, who had arrived in Oxford in 1905, when he became Regius Professor of Medicine, and a Student of Christ Church, where he was also a colleague of T.B. Strong, whom we have already encountered as Dean of the House and sometime Vice Chancellor.  Soon after, Osler also became a Delegate of the Press.  Before arriving in Oxford, he had been physician in chief at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, and he was also the founder of the Johns Hopkins Medical School at the University. He was a noted bibliophile, with a serious interest in medical biography, and in 1903, his former pupils gave him the complete sixty-three volume edition of the original DNB, one of the five hundred sets that were sold in the United States. Osler was also a friend of Elizabeth Yates Thompson, who was George Murray Smith's eldest daughter, and it may well have been at his suggestion that she and her siblings offered the DNB to OUP in the spring of 1917, in the belief that the Press was best placed to perpetuate their father's undertaking. 'You have', she wrote to Osler at the end of the year,

 ...always taken so kindly an interest in the matter that I should like to tell you we are all agreed to offer the Dictionary to the University of Oxford. My brothers and sisters share the feeling that this course would have satisfied my father's wishes for his latest and most cherished undertaking...I thought I should like you to know first of all.


Yet although this offer had been made in April 1917, it would not be until October that the gift would be formally accepted.  Why the delay?  There are two answers: disagreement regarding the terms on which OUP were willing to accept the gift, and disagreement as to who should be employed as editor to take the Dictionary and its Supplements forward. The assets which the Smith family sought to transfer to OUP comprised the copyright, the existing stock of the Dictionary, which was running low; and the stereotype plates and moulds from which reprints could be made. There was also a hope, an assumption or, indeed, an expectation that the 1908-09 text would be kept in print, along with the Second Supplement covering the years 1901-11; that the original DNB would be continually revised to take account of corrections, omissions and the results of recent scholarship, which had proliferated since the mid 1880s; and that lives would be added of recently-dead noteworthy persons from 1912 onwards in a further sequence of supplements.  And since the donors wished to 'maintain' the DNB, with due regard to 'its continuity and completeness', there was also an expectation in certain quarters that, in order to perpetuate and benefit from institutional memory and continuity, those who had been involved with the original venture would be involved in what would soon become the OUP-owned Dictionary, going forward, among them Sidney Lee, who had followed Stephen as editor of the original DNB and overseen the first and second supplements; Sir Charles Firth, who had begun writing for the Dictionary in 1885, and was by this time Regius Professor in Oxford; and A.F. Pollard, who had also cut his scholarly teeth on the early DNB, and would soon become the founding Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.It bears repeating that Cannan 'regarded the DNB as a white elephant', as being as a dubious venture: expensive, intricately detailed, and potentially controversial, and there can be no doubt that its finances were not in good order. On the other hand, it was Humphrey Milford's view that, in the manner of the OED, the DNB was 'the sort of animal that ought to be in [the Press's] stable', provided the terms were right, and this was what eventually happened -- at least from OUP's point of view. But it was Cannan who ensured that the eventual deed of agreement, dated 10 August 1917, handing over the Dictionary to the Press, was carefully drawn by the University's lawyers as regards the obligations to maintain the DNB, so as to avoid any precise commitments, beyond keeping it in print. 'The University', the agreement declared, in terms of vague goodwill but nothing more, 'further covenant with the donors that they will at all times hereafter use their best endeavours to maintain the issue of the work with due regard to its continuity and completeness, and the literary and scientific standards attained in the past by its original founder, and its editors and authors.' Indeed, the only firm obligation that was finally placed on the gift of the copyright and stock was to carry out the wish of George Murray Smith's family, that his name should be perpetuated on the title pages of the work published by the press -- an undertaking which was still being honoured as late as 1993, with the seventh and final reprint of the 1908-09 edition.

But it soon became clear that there was no likelihood that the Press was willing to produce a new and revised edition of the entire Dictionary.  This was partly because it was technologically impossible: the stereotype plates and moulds were such that only minor revisions could be inserted; but subsequent investigation at the behest of the Press made plain that in fact major revisions would be required; and that the cost of reissuing the whole Dictionary in a new and revised addition would amount to £100,000 which the Press was unwilling to contemplate and unable to afford in the dark days of war and their immediate aftermath.  As news of these decisions leaked out, Lee and Firth and Pollard sought to contest and overturn them.  Lee produced and distributed a pamphlet at the end of August 1917, in which he urged that the Dictionary was a 'living organism', which must be kept up to date so as to avoid the 'disastrous fate of becoming prematurely obsolete.' He also urged that in taking such a negative view, the Press was putting financial concerns before the 'national interests' that the Dictionary undoubtedly served.  Sir Charles Firth was equally dismayed, and urged that Hebdomadal Council should set up a trust to run the Dictionary, thereby getting it out of the maw of the Press. He also raised the issue at the AGM of the British Academy.  None of these initiatives came to anything, and nor would a second attempt mounted by Lee and Firth in October 1920.  At the Institute of Historical Research, Pollard also shared the assumptions of Lee and Firth that 'the Dictionary was to be kept up to date by continuous corrections and additions', and as Director he made the IHR the centre of opposition to the Oxford-owned DNB, regularly publishing corrigenda and addenda in the Institute’s Bulletin, which first appeared in June 1923.

Cannan had certainly succeeded in facing down the opposition of Lee and Firth and Pollard; but while he may have been right in not making precise undertakings to the Smith family, and while he no doubt had justifiable concerns about costs, especially in wartime, it seems likely that there was also personal animus at work, and another colleague at the Press admitted that Cannan 'hated Sidney Lee, had quarrelled with Sir Charles Firth, ..[and disliked] A.F. Pollard.'  Some of the hostility to Lee was undoubtedly based on anti-Semitism (his born name was Solomon Lazarus), while Firth was widely regarded in the Press  as 'an obstinate old pig', and Pollard as 'a cad -- he cannot help it.'  Even by the standards of academic querulousness, these seem peculiarly harsh verdicts. Cannan had clearly got it in for Lee after the debacle over the Shakespeare's England volume; in the case of Firth, he shared a widespread Oxford view that professors were really second-class citizens in the University, and that younger tutorial fellows were the men to go for; while his opposition to Pollard seems based on little more than his long-term association with the Dictionary, almost from the beginning. For whatever reason, Cannan had effectively side-lined all three men from the Dictionary by the time he died in late 1919, and although Chapman had been more enthused about acquiring it for the Press than Cannan had been, he showed no inclination to bring Lee or Firth back, although he did go some way towards re-establishing relations with Pollard, who would serve as an advisor for the next Supplement. 


The deal that was concluded between the Smith family and this University, exactly one hundred years ago, was thus a janus-faced agreement.  On the one hand, it did indeed ensure the survival and the continuity of the Dictionary, and it is difficult to imagine that any other publisher would have been willing or public-spirited enough to take on such a loss-making enterprise, and to continue to support it across the next century in the national interest, and in the same way that it supported the OED.  On the other hand, there was also, and deliberately, an almost complete break with the DNB’s past, as the Smith family withdrew completely from the scene, and as those loyal survivors from the editorial eras of Smith and Stephen, namely Lee and Firth, were deliberately cut out. The result was an almost entirely new regime for the Dictionary, even as it was agreed that a new Supplement, covering those who had died between 1911 and 1921, would be published.  But the scale was much contracted compared to that of Lee's supplement that had covered the years 1901-11.  Instead of three volumes and 1660 lives, there would be 430 entries compressed into a mere single volume. In the weasel words of the preface, this new Supplement was on 'less ample lines' than what was described as Lee's earlier 'bold and attractive experiment of expansion.'

Nor was this the only change that OUP almost immediately made to the post-Smith DNB, significant and portentous though it undoubtedly was.  For in appointing H.W.C Davis and J.R.H.Weaver to be the co-editors, they established a new pattern of academic leadership for the Dictionary which was very different from that which Stephen and Lee had hitherto provided.  They had both been important figures in what G.M.Trevelyan termed ‘liberal and literary London’, their lives centred on club-land and especially the Athenaeum.  Davis and Weaver were very different figures, being both university-centred and Oxford-based. Davis had been a Fellow of Balliol since 1902, had been seconded to Whitehall as a wartime civil servant, and returned to Oxford when hostilities ended.  He was also a highly conscientious and hard-working college tutor, and a distinguished medieval historian, who would briefly hold the Regius chair before dying too young in 1928. By contrast, Reginald Weaver was an antiquarian rather than an historian, who had been elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1913, and would serve as the College’s President from 1937 to 1954.  Neither men were figures in literary London. There was further difference, for unlike Lee, who in his prime had been the determined and efficient man behind the three-monthly appearances of the original Dictionary, Weaver was notoriously lax in his business habits.  In 1952, when the College Secretary learned that Weaver would be unexpectedly continuing for two more years, she exclaimed, ‘My God, I can’t stand it!’  And as a Fellow remarked on hearing this outburst: “if you ever heard Reggie dictating a letter, you could understand why.”

In terms of its scale and its editors, then, the Supplement covering the years 1912-21 was very different from that which had gone before.  It was overseen by Chapman and Milford, who wanted a saleable book, that would be appealing to public libraries as well as the ‘intelligent citizen’, and would be attractively priced at twenty-one shillings.  The appearance of the first volume of Who Was Who, in 1920, containing the entries of all those who had died in the 1910s, meant there was less need to include the many obscure lives that Lee had put in his earlier Supplement.  In the manner of an Oxford final honour school class list, those who might be included were graded alpha, beta, gamma and delta, and only those who were marked high actually got in, though Weaver admitted that ‘the boundary lines between beta and gamma and delta are in many cases arbitrary.’  The entries were generally shorter than in Lee’s supplement, they were produced by a larger number of authors, and they were written in a racier style. Entirely by chance, there was no monarch, there were no prime ministers, and there were no figures of global stature in many other walks of life.  Indeed, Chapman thought that the Supplement captured what he called an ‘age of mediocrity’, but he was advised against using this phrase, on the understandable grounds that it might harm sales.

The result was a Supplement that was indeed very different from Lee’s earlier three-volume work.  Leaders of the 1916 Irish Rebellion were excluded (Davis had been angered by Lee’s earlier inclusion of the Fenians), and so were Indian politicians and the rulers of the princely states, although there was a grudging recognition that Gandhi might have to be given his own entry at some future date. Labour was sparsely covered: the biography of Keir Hardie was very short, and the founders of the ILP were omitted altogether.  Businessmen fared little better, even though a greater effort had been made to include some of them.  There was also a very strong bias in favour of Oxford-educated figures, and this was especially marked in the case of those entries on young men who had been killed on active service during the First World War.  Pollard regarded ‘friends who gave their lives in the war’ as a category ‘about whom it is painful to speak.’  Many of them, he suggested, such as Neil Primrose, son of Lord Rosebery, or Raymond Asquith, son of another Liberal Prime Minister, should ‘appropriately have a line or two under their famous relatives, to whom they themselves owed their place in the public eye.’  But there were some specific entries, among them both Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, although Wilfrid Owen was not included.  And there was a somewhat reluctant recognition at the Press that, whereas the Lee-edited Supplement had been too big, Davis and Weaver’s single volume was too short.


Nevertheless, this third Supplement served in many ways as the template for the DNB volumes that continued to appear until the 1990s (the last such, covering 1986-90, appeared in 1996).  They were edited or co-edited by Fellows of Oxford colleges, but the Dictionary was much more closely tied to the still-secretive Press than to the University more broadly or to the History Faculty in particular.  And the editors were already college fellows who were appointed to the Dictionary, not appointed fellows on account of their work for it.  The Supplements also remained single-volume productions following the precedent of Davies and Weaver, rather than multi-volume works harking back to the non-precedent established by Lee.  There was also a growing recognition, by the end of Chapman’s time, that the case for full-scale revision, of the sort that Lee and Firth and Pollard had advocated, and that George Murray Smith’s descendants had hoped for as a result of the transfer to OUP, was intellectually unanswerable, although it was still deemed to be beyond the Press’s financial resources.  Only with the complete re-doing of what then became the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, under the leadership of Colin Matthew and Brian Harrison, were the wishes of George Murray Smith’s family finally and belatedly honoured.

Colin Matthew

The late Professor Colin Matthew, also editor of the Gladstone Diaries, spearheaded the 'New DNB' in the 1990s, and imposed scholarly rigour. His successor Professor Sir Brian Harrison completed the job in 2004.

The centenary that we mark and rightly celebrate here in Oxford tonight is thus a complex and ambiguous one.  On the one hand, it is difficult to believe that any press other than OUP could have taken over the Dictionary in 1917, and sustained it across the ensuing years, and that is surely cause for gratitude as well as for celebration. It may have been regarded as a white elephant, but the Press did keep it going, like the OED, as an act of public good and national obligation.  Yet it must also be admitted that OUP did not exactly cover itself with glory in the handling of the negotiations in 1917, both in its treatment of the Smith family, and of those editors and colleagues who had been so important in the initial project, and learned their trade under Stephen; while the template that was established for subsequent Supplements by Davis and Weaver was in some ways seriously deficient. Then again, the fact that the original DNB, those (admittedly imperfect) supplements, and now the ODNB, can between them boast a sort of retrospectively continuous history, extending across more than one hundred and thirty years, is surely something else to celebrate and acclaim. And without that deal that was negotiated in 1917, it would never have happened, and neither I nor you would be here today. But we are here, and with much good cause, and although as the current editor of the ODNB, I am undeniably parti pris, I am honoured and delighted to have had the opportunity to pay this centenary tribute, to a great dictionary, a great press, and a great university, and to this extraordinary collaboration between them.  Long may it continue.


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