Did you know that James Murray… had eleven children, all of whom helped in the compilation of the OED?
2015 marks the centenary of the death of James Murray, the first Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray’s work as a lexicographer is well known, but there was a great deal more to him than lexicography. We are therefore marking the anniversary with an occasional series of articles highlighting other aspects of his life and achievements.
Many Victorian families were large by modern standards, but James Murray’s is exceptional: his second wife Ada bore him six sons and five daughters, all of whom—unusually for the time—survived to maturity. (His first wife Maggie had borne him a daughter, Anna Maria Gretchen, who however only lived for a few months; and, tragically, Maggie herself died of consumption barely a year later.)
In fact they were a pretty exceptional group of children in various ways. Many of their names were distinctly unusual: the relatively conventional Harold was followed in turn by Ethelbert, Wilfrid, Oswyn, Hilda, Ethelwyn, Aelfric, Elsie, Rosfrith, Jowett, and Gwyneth. Several of these choices reflect Murray’s interest in Anglo-Saxon literature and history; the youngest son—full name Arthur Hugh Jowett Murray—was named after Benjamin Jowett, the formidable Vice-Chancellor of Oxford and Master of Balliol College, who after a stormy initial relationship with Murray became a close friend. (Young Jowett also owed his first two names to his father’s friend, who never married, and who told Murray that if he had ever had a son he would have liked to call him after his own friends Arthur Stanley and Arthur Hugh Clough.)
With such a large household it is hardly surprising that the Murray children could make their own amusements among themselves. Also unsurprising, given their father’s interests, is the fact that many of their pursuits were intellectual: they established a family debating society, for example, which debated such topics as the abolition of the House of Lords, the desirability of introducing phonetic spelling into English, and the 1886 Government of Ireland Bill (the first Home Rule Bill). A motion in favour of the latter was ‘carried unanimously amid loud, long continued cheers for the Government’, according to Murray’s granddaughter (and biographer) Elisabeth. Reassuringly, though, the children did also play croquet and bowls, and were even able to persuade one of the assistants on the Dictionary, Charles Onions—later the OED’s fourth editor—to emerge from their father’s Scriptorium and turn the skipping rope for them.
The Scriptorium was also a place of gainful employment for the children, for although it was normally out of bounds to them, they were allowed to earn pocket money by sorting some of the millions of quotation slips sent in by contributors to the Dictionary. The financial incentive was enough to persuade them to put in many hours at this task, which of course had other benefits: all of the children developed unusually large vocabularies, and some of them became particularly good at crosswords.
Several of the children became important contributors to the Dictionary in other ways. Harold supplied tens of thousands of quotations from his own reading, and three of his sisters became fully-fledged assistants on the Dictionary staff when they were older. Elsie and Rosfrith each worked alongside their father for over twenty years; Hilda, the eldest, was also an assistant, but left to study languages at Oxford, and in fact went on to become an academic of some distinction (she was appointed Vice-Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, in 1924, a post she held for twelve years). Nor was she alone. To mention only some of the achievements of her brothers and sisters: Harold read mathematics at Balliol College and went on to be a headmaster and schools inspector (and a world authority on the history of chess); Wilfrid, another Balliol graduate, emigrated to South Africa, where he became the first Registrar of the University of Cape Town; Oswyn rose to the position of Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, and was eventually appointed G.C.B.; Jowett went out to China as a missionary, where he became highly proficient in Chinese, eventually working on a new translation of the Bible. Many of their children and grandchildren in turn went on to achieve distinction in various fields, and the descendants of James Murray now make a truly formidable clan.