From Romans to rock stars: the biography of our nation

Twelve years and 55,000 entries later, the herculean task of updating the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography' has finally been completed. Louise Jury dips in
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At a cost of more than £25m, involving 10,000 contributors from 51 countries and a 12-year timescale, it has not been the simplest of tasks. But today, the fruits of what is one of the biggest publishing projects in the world are unveiled when the first complete revision of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in a century is published.

At a cost of more than £25m, involving 10,000 contributors from 51 countries and a 12-year timescale, it has not been the simplest of tasks. But today, the fruits of what is one of the biggest publishing projects in the world are unveiled when the first complete revision of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in a century is published.

It contains 55,000 biographies and the key qualification for inclusion is influence on British life. Thus Julius Caesar is a new entry - he was ignored by the Victorians when the dictionary was first produced because he was an invader, not a Brit. To have died before 31 December 2000 is also a requirement.

Everyone who was in the original remains in the new version from the Oxford University Press - though some entries, notably of Irish saints, are smaller than they were. Kings sit among criminals, scientists next to sportsmen. In the words of Colin Matthew, who began the editing in 1992 but died suddenly before it was finished (so was himself included), it is "not merely a roll-call of the great and the good, but also a gallimaufry of the eccentric and bad".

Brian Harrison, who succeeded him, said the resulting 60 volumes - also available online - were "the refurbishment of a great national monument, a great thing that is now completely revamped for 21st- century use".

The finished product has 16,000 more entries than the original on subjects that stretch from Richard Aaron, the 20th- century philosopher, to William Henry Nassau van Zuylestein, an 18th-century diplomat and politician.

For £7,500 (or £6,500 for those who snap up a set early), interested readers can peruse new entries that include the murderer Dr Crippen, the pop star Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana, Mahatma Gandhi, and the newspaper proprietor Robert Maxwell.The online price for personal use is £195 a year plus VAT.

Carl Linnaeus, the naturalist, James Loveless, the trade unionist who was one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and Alfred Bird, custard manufacturer, are also all profiled for the first time. "All our portraits are warts and all," Professor Harrison observed. The number of women has risen from five per cent to 10 per cent, a total of 3,869 entries.

Professor Harrison defends this decision by stressing the greater public roles played by women today - and the greater acknowledgement of their importance in the lives of their partners. "Some of our critics seem to think that 10 per cent is too much. I don't. I'm eager to find more women who meet our criteria."

But it was not just the number of women, but the way women had transformed the entries, he said. "We have changed the language and the position in the articles so that when a man marries a woman, for example, the woman is not consigned to the end as an afterthought."

There had also been a "great expansion" in the number of people from immigrant groups, most notably Jews, he said. The number of British black and Asian entries, as opposed to those from Britain's former colonies, has risen from 17 to only 170 but Professor Harrison stressed that they were comparatively new groups in British society. "There will be a lot more."

The revision has highlighted the fact that, even in well-covered areas, time and changing historical interests have revealed gaps. Coverage of virtually all periods of history from the 4th century BC onwards has been increased.

The number of Romans included has risen from 17 to 75. The coverage of the Middle Ages has been "completely transformed from beginning to end" and there has been a "great infusion of pre-revolution American subjects including George Washington" for the 18th century, Professor Harrison said.

There are more people of note from business, from regions of the British Isles and those who have spent a significant part of their lives in Britain even though they were born abroad.

Other well-known figures have had their entries completely revamped. Jane Austen, the author, John Maynard Keynes, the economist, Marie Stopes, the birth-control pioneer, and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald are among those to earn significantly longer biographies than when first included in the dictionary and its 20th-century supplements. Even more curious is the inclusion of people who may not really exist, such as King Arthur, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. Stranger still are those whose identity is not known, such as Jack the Ripper, or figures such as Piltdown Man, a collection of bones which eventually turned out to have been an archaeological hoax.

Professor Harrison's personal favourite entry is Sir Charles Isham, who was the first person to import garden gnomes to Britain.

Something a little more straightforward was probably envisaged when the Dictionary of National Biography was founded in 1882 by Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf. Between 1885 and 1900, 63 volumes were printed, containing the lives of more than 29,000 people.

In 1917, the original DNB was given to the University of Oxford who, in turn, entrusted it to Oxford University Press. In subsequent years, OUP left the original unmodified but published supplements recording new deaths.

By the late 1980s, however, it became clear that a massive programme of revision was needed and in 1992 OUP gave the go-ahead for a new version. The year 2004 was quickly named as publishing date. "And unlike the Humber Bridge or the Jubilee Line, it was finished on time," Professor Harrison pointed out.

The venture is an astonishing act of scholarship that has no hope of ever recouping its costs. Robert Faber, who has been the project director since the start 12 years ago, said 1,000 sets of the 5,000 first print-run had been already ordered but "OUP has no expectation of commercial return". "It's a national resource and a service to scholarship in general," he said.

The jaw-dropping scale of the project has not defeated those involved. Far from putting his feet up, Mr Faber is now turning his attention to a complete revamp of the Oxford English Dictionary.

And Professor Harrison, who is 67, will now fulfil a promise to write the final volume of the New Oxford History of England which he hopes to deliver before his 70th birthday. Asked whether he hoped to be remembered in future editions of the dictionary, he was modestly diplomatic. "I will leave posterity to decide."


People and places

1. Which prime minister was born in Westminster?

2. In which London street, famous for its associations with writers and diarists, was Samuel Pepys born?

3. In what year did James Cook first sight the islands that are named after him?

4. Which poetic aristocrat and notorious rake attended Aberdeen Grammar School?

5. David Lloyd George is the best-known Welsh politician in British history. But where was he born?


1. Charles Mackintosh was the inventor of Mackintosh waterproof fabric. In which Scottish city was he born?

2. Herbert Austin, engineer and motor vehicle manufacturer, originally trained in another profession. What was it?

3. Belisha beacons were named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, who introduced pedestrian crossings when he became Transport Minister in 1934. To which political party did he belong?

4. Which Scot developed the distinctive wax-coated jacket popular among the hunting, shooting and fishing classes today?

5. The politician Benjamin Hall gave his name to one of London's most visible landmarks. What is it?

First in their field

For what reason were the following people notable?

1. Nicholas Breakspear

2. Lilian Lindsay

3. Nancy Astor

4. John Pius Boland

5. Rudyard Kipling.

Myth or reality?

Are the following statements true or false?

1. Ned Ludd incited his Luddite followers to destroy knitting frames.

2 The English knight Sir John Mandeville served the Sultan of Cairo and visited the Great Khan, as detailed in his 14th-century memoirs.

3. Flora Macdonald, the Jacobite heroine who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie to escape to Skye, supported George III during the American War of Independence.

4. The novelist Richard Llewellyn, author of How Green Was My Valley, grew up in Hendon, north London and never worked in a Welsh coal mine.

5. Macbeth was a real king of Scotland, not a fictional character invented by William Shakespeare

Could do better

Identify the following people from these rather unflattering decriptions:

1. "His only talents seemed to be for playing the violin (which may have come from his father, who was an accomplished amateur musician) and arithmetical calculation. But these minor gifts were obscured by his physical indolence and social awkwardness: signs perhaps of an unhappy and lonely childhood... His education was disjointed and his record undistinguished."

2. "From the early 1820s he had adopted an appropriately eye-catching and narcissistic style of dress, with ruffled shirts, velvet trousers, coloured waistcoats, and jewellery, and he wore his hair in cascades of ringlets. It was on his first continental travels, to Germany in 1824 with his father, that he decided to try to escape from a legal career ... He reflected self-consciously, in Romantic fashion, on the sublime natural creations that he observed on his travels, and concluded that he loved 'trees better than men'."

3. "His reports often referred to his unruly behaviour. According to one authority, he was birched for stealing sugar from the pantry and retaliated by kicking the headmaster's straw hat to pieces. When he fell ill, his parents transferred him to a school at Brighton where he was much happier but came bottom of the class for conduct."

4. "There were rumours of affairs with the slatternly wife of a groom as well as with a maid of honour to the queen. He professed his undying passion for the duke of Hamilton's great-granddaughter, to whom he sent a lock of his abundant light brown hair and numerous letters, seventy-five of which survive; and, by the end of 1779, he had fallen violently in love with the beautiful and notoriously exhibitionist young actress Mary (Perdita) Robinson."

5. "He was brought up in a typical street of working-class housing at 43 Waverley Gardens, Barking. After Barking Primary School he passed the 11-plus examination to the Tom Hood Grammar School in Leyton. Although not an outstanding schoolboy footballer --indeed at one time it seemed he might be a more successful cricketer -- he had already been noticed by West Ham United and was taken to Upton Park for training."

New kids on the block

The following five people are all new additions to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who are they?

1. Roman emperor who commissioned the building of the best-known Roman structure in Britain.

2. Novelist known for travels with his aunt.

3. Famous gambler who raised 75 Siberian tigers.

4. The actress known for her television portrayal of one of crime fiction's most popular authors.

5. Pacifist and vegetarian who was assassinated in 1948

Quiz researched by Janek Schmidt


People and places

1.William Pitt the Elder; 2. Fleet Street; 3. 1773; 4. Lord Byron; 5. Manchester.


1. Glasgow; 2. Architect; 3. Liberal; 4. John Barbour; 5. Big Ben

First in their field

1. As Adrian IV, he served as England's first and only pope; 2. First British woman to qualify as a dentist; 3. First woman to take a seat as an MP in the House of Commons; 4. Britain's (and Ireland's) first Olympic champion; 5. Britain's first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Myth and reality

1 False. Ned Ludd was a pseudonym; 2. False. Sir John Mandeville's memoirs were pure fiction, probably French in origin; 3. True. After she and her husband emigrated to North Carolina, her husband joined the highland army, which was defeated by the patriots; 4. True. He moved to Llangollen, Denbighshire, in 1938 at the age of 32; 5. True. Macbeth ruled Scotland from 1040 to 1057.

Could do better

1. Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington; 2. Benjamin Disraeli; 3. Sir Winston Churchill; 4. George IV; 5. Bobby Moore, the footballer.

New kids on the block

1. Hadrian; 2 Graham Greene; 3. John Aspinall; 4. Joan Hickson; 5. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (known as Mahatma).