Geoffrey Bill

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Edward Geoffrey Watson Bill, librarian and archivist: born Shrewsbury 19 February 1924; Lecturer and Archivist, Christ Church, Oxford 1950-91; Assistant Keeper, Department of Western Manuscripts, Bodleian Library, Oxford 1954-58; Librarian, Lambeth Palace Library 1958-91; OBE 1991; married 1951 Margaret Finch (one son, one daughter); died Kendal, Cumbria 2 December 2001.

As archivist of Christ Church, Oxford, and Librarian at Lambeth Palace Library, Geoffrey Bill enhanced the value for researchers of the holdings of two great institutions, placing sources of immense value at the disposal of scholars in several fields. He also wrote a number of pioneer studies of Christ Church, revealing some of the workings of 19th-century Oxford with accuracy and humour.

He was born in Shrewsbury in 1924, the son of a successful architect. The family moved to Surrey soon after his birth, and he was educated at Kingston Grammar School and then Balliol College, Oxford. After three years' service as a lieutenant in the Royal Armoured Corps, he graduated in 1949 in Modern History. Following archive work at Balliol and the Bodleian Library, in 1950 he became Archivist of Christ Church, where his impact was such that he continued in post for many years and remained a Lecturer there until 1991.

The college's archives had long been in need of attention; in a short time Bill had produced catalogues of Treasury Books, of Maps, Plans and Drawings, and of Manorial Records, and a calendar of Estate Papers for the properties held by Christ Church in many counties of England. In 1954 he joined the Department of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian, where he helped to calendar further collections.

From 1958 to 1991 he was Librarian of Lambeth Palace Library, the historic library of the archbishops of Canterbury and the principal library and record office for the history of the Church of England. His achievements were wide: in 1964 he founded the now flourishing Friends organisation; he showed great skill in fund-raising; he secured accessions of important books and manuscripts; he improved the physical layout of the library; and he founded the Church of England Record Society. He also compiled and published six catalogues of the Lambeth manuscripts. He and his co- operative staff made the library into one of the most important historical research libraries in the country.

His career was crowned by the award of a Doctorate of Lambeth, and he was appointed OBE in 1991. At his farewell party that year he commented that "as with the psalmist, the hills are a spiritual necessity" and with his devoted wife, Margaret, he retired to the Lake District with occasional forays to Oxford.

Bill achieved four original publications, all on Oxford, and three of them on Christ Church. The well-illustrated pamphlet Christ Church Meadow (1965) was issued during the long and bitter controversy arising from proposals to construct a highway across that famous sward. Next, in 1970, came Christ Church and Reform 1850-1867 – deliberately not titled "The Reform of Christ Church". In it Bill sketched "old Christ Church" in its last days up until 1858, while my role as co-author was to narrate the moves by which the Students (Fellows) succeeded in 1867 in overturning the rule of the Dean and Canons, thus making Christ Church more like (but not too like) an "ordinary college".

Bill's last publication about the college, Education at Christ Church, Oxford 1660-1800 (1988), was based on complex sources, the Collection Books, which are unique to Christ Church and help to answer difficult questions: who came to Christ Church (much of the governing class of Britain), who taught them (tutors, then and still, confusingly, called Students – for historical reasons of course) and what did they teach (mainly the Latin classics, ancient philosophy and mathematics).

In University Reform in Nineteenth Century Oxford (1973), Bill used the papers in Bodley of Henry Halford Vaughan, a member of Christ Church and sometime Regius Professor of Modern History, to describe Vaughan's failure to secularise control of the professoriate. As elsewhere Bill had to describe some unusual personalities; his ability came out well in a later notice, in 1993, for the Dictionary of National Biography of the ecclesiastical historian Dr Claude Jenkins, whom he had known at Christ Church; in two paragraphs he left a lively and accurate portrait of a famous Oxford "character".

Geoffrey Bill had an extraordinary power to concentrate and persevere. He knew more of the history of Christ Church than anyone else had ever done.

J. F. A. Mason

Comments