From the Cracks of History: Philip Carter Celebrates the Lives Reclaimed by the Newly-Published Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

By Carter, Philip | History Today, October 2004 | Go to article overview

From the Cracks of History: Philip Carter Celebrates the Lives Reclaimed by the Newly-Published Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


Carter, Philip, History Today


HERE ARE THREE PEOPLE YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD OF and who rarely make it into the history books.

Frances Matthew (d.1629) was the wife of Tobie Matthew, dean of Durham and, from 1606, archbishop of York. Frances complemented her husband throughout his promotion in the church. Ever 'busy with Scripture', she was much in demand by mothers seeking to place their daughters in her household. But Frances's own family life was less steady. Of her surviving sons, one was a wastrel and one a convert to Roman Catholicism who later became a Jesuit. A disappointed father all but wrote his children from his will, bequeathing his property to Frances. In the year before her death she transferred his collection of 3,000 books to the dean and chapter at York and so established the York Minister Library--evidence, according to her monument, of 'exemplary wisdom [and] ... virtues not only above her sex, but the times'.

Mary Saxby's was a quite different life. Born in London in 1738 she experienced abuse, poverty, prostitution, and latterly religious conversion. That we know anything of Mary is due to her leaving a manuscript autobiography, posthumously published as Memoirs of a Female Vagrant in 1806. The work provides a detailed and frank account of the hardships of the eighteenth century's itinerant working class. A later generation took up Saxby's cause to celebrate her religious redemption and encourage middle-class readers to consider 'these numerous bands of semi-savages dispersed amidst our highly civilised countrymen'.

Lastly, there is John Travers Cornwell (1900-16). On leaving school, John favoured a life at sea but his parents saw him appointed a delivery boy for Brooke Bond & Co in Leyton, Essex. However, with the outbreak of war he joined HMS Chester in May 1916. Within a month his ship was involved at Jutland; there John was severely injured but remained at his post until he died of his wounds. In September he was his recently widowed mother received from George V; another of her sons was killed shortly before the war's end. In the wake of his death John became a symbol of youthful heroism, the subject of postage stamps and patriotic verse; September 30th, 1916 was declared Jack Cornwell day in British elementary schools.

In addition to their now relative obscurity, what connects Matthew, Saxby and Cornwell is that they are newcomers to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Publication of the Oxford DNB in September 2004 makes public the 16,315 people (all deceased) who now gain a place in the Dictionary for the first time. They join the existing 38,607 individuals who, appearing in the DNB's first edition (1885-1900) or its twentieth-century supplements, have had their entries rewritten or revised for 2004. Of these newcomers, much attention will initially be given to 'headline' figures (from Julius Caesar to George Washington to Freddie Mercury) who were either omitted by previous editors or gain a place in the Oxford DNB's considerably extended coverage of twentieth-century, figures up to December 31st, 2000.

Yet the majority of the dictionary's new entrants are not household names. Rather they are people worthy of record for their influence on all aspects of the British past, national and international. Many will be familiar to specialists. But, as with Matthew, Saxby or Cornwell, it's hoped that the Oxford DNB will also offer some surprises in its latest commentary on national biography:

Selection of these 16,315 new subjects owes much to the view of its founding editor, Colin Matthew, that the new dictionary be not 'merely a roll-call of the great and the good'. What matters is an individual's influence and relevance to historical study, broadly defined. The result became Matthew's 'integrationalist approach' by which 'many minor figures' are included 'often in half a column'. This aim was pursued by editors' focus on new research fields and methods which have discovered historical personnel in areas of economic, social or cultural activity, and is now evident in a dictionary more fully representative of national diversity--characterised by gender, profession, social status, race and geography. …

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