Obituary: Elisabeth Murray

Robert Murray
Wednesday 25 February 1998 01:02 GMT

ELISABETH MURRAY was the eldest granddaughter of Sir James Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, her life of whom, Caught in the Web of Words (1977), became a best-seller among biographies.

"Betty's" father, Harold (1868-1955), was James's eldest son. As an inspector of schools he published valuable papers on educational theory and brought about recognition that left-handedness is a natural condition. Meanwhile he learnt Persian, Arabic and Turkish, copying manuscripts by hand in research for his 900-page History of Chess (1913), followed later by his History of Board Games other than Chess (1952). In retirement he became active in parish and district councils, giving his children an example of responsible service.

His eldest son, Donald, was a regular army officer and fell in the hopeless defence of Hong Kong in 1941. Betty was to bear much responsibility for bringing up his two children. Harold's second son, Kenneth, trained in art and thereafter spent most of his life in Nigeria, fostering traditional arts by teaching, fighting the export or smuggling of treasures and, as Surveyor of Antiques, building up a national museum.

Betty, Harold's third child, was truly a chip off the same block. Educated in three schools because of her father's moves as regional inspector, she went to Somerville College, Oxford, graduating in History in 1931 and gaining a BLitt in 1933; her thesis was published as The Constitutional History of the Cinque Ports in 1935.

In 1933 she won a studentship at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and took part in excavation in Samaria. Next she spent two years (1935-37) on the staff of a women's hall of residence in Manchester University before returning to Somerville as a research fellow. But her gifts for administration and care of students had been noticed, and in 1938 she was invited to Girton College, Cambridge, where her aunt Hilda (Sir James's fifth child) had been a lecturer in languages and literature and, since 1924, Vice-Mistress, retiring in 1936. At Girton, Betty served for 10 years, mainly in administrative functions, but she also found time for research, publishing another work on Cinque Ports history, the Kent Record Society Register of Daniel Rough, in 1945.

In 1948 came an offer which seemed made for her: to be Principal of Bishop Otter College, Chichester. Her father had retired in West Sussex, and here Betty Murray (who never married) made her home and began to deepen her love for that county. Her home was in the village where that great fighter against the Corn Laws, Richard Cobden, was born and worshipped in the parish church.

Chichester was the other pole of her life. Bishop Otter was a small Anglican teacher-training college with 200 women students, as enclosed as an old- fashioned boarding school. During the years of Betty Murray's principalship, 1948-70, it expanded and developed in every possible way, both in buildings and in co-educational range, till it had 700 students and a major place in tertiary education in the region. She inspired an ever-growing staff with the need to show and encourage imagination, fostering this by (among other means) an amazingly successful policy of acquiring works by 20th- century British artists of the first rank.

Similarly, as a local councillor, she brought about the restoration of Pallant House in the town and its opening as an art gallery, while her achievements for archaeology were manifold, both in Chichester itself and by her presidency of the Sussex Archaeological Society; she helped to organise excavations at Bignor and, most importantly of all, Fishbourne Palace. She also served on the Sussex Historic Churches Trust and was active in the Society of Sussex Downsmen.

Conservation of all things of beauty, natural or works of human hands, was supremely important to her; likewise maintaining ancient common-law rights of way for ramblers which are so much threatened today. Politically an Independent, she was a great fighter for these causes on all councils and committees on which she served.

Her old farmhouse nestled right under the Downs and well into old age she could make a companion pant to follow her up. A walk with her was an education in both knowledge and love of nature; she knew every path and every tree, flower and animal. She founded the Downland Murray Trust to maintain a conservation area which is a fitting memorial to her.

For many, however, Betty Murray's best-known monument will be Caught in the Web of Words, on which she began work after her retirement. A worthy biography of Sir James Murray was long overdue. Harold had offered a full- scale life to the Oxford University Press, but it was rejected on grounds of possible embarrassment for persons still living; a revision was turned down as being too boring.

Betty had all the old material and more, but the challenge remained: after the romance of the shepherd boy from the Borders, largely self-educated beyond his elementary schooling, how could all those years in the lexicographer's scriptorium ever make pages to grip a reader? That Betty Murray succeeded, and how brilliantly, is a matter of publishing history.

Yet she too suffered initial frustration from Oxford, and it was on the experienced advice of Robert Gittings (in the next village) that she turned to Yale University Press. This brought her not only speedy acceptance but also a lasting friendship (which soon came to include other Murray cousins) with Chester Kerr, president of the press, and his wife. As for Oxford, it was a sweet day for Betty Murray when they came creeping to acquire the paperback rights.

However, malice was not in her nature. Despite a wide circle of friends, her easy openness to all sorts and conditions of people and her devotion to her parish church, of which she was a warden, what lay in her heart of hearts was very private. Of what she was willing to show and share with others, perhaps what brought one in deepest was her childlikeness. It showed in her way with children and with all the birds and animals (especially hedgehogs) which she loved to feed; but, above all, it had a visible sanctum which she would show to those who could appreciate it: her dolls' house.

This for her was no pitiful symbol of lost happiness like Citizen Kane's "Rosebud", but the living home and nourisher of her imagination; its exquisitely furnished rooms were peopled by old friends with histories; she wrote tiny books for the shelves of its library. What constant alchemy transmuted this inner life of her imagination into a personality of such mature achievement is a matter to be pondered with wonder, awe and joy to have known her.

Katherine Maud Elisabeth Murray, educationist, historian, archaeologist and conservationist: born Cambridge 3 December 1909; Tutor and Librarian, Ashburne Hall, Manchester 1935-37; Mary Somerville Research Fellow, Somerville College, Oxford 1937-38; Assistant Tutor and Registrar, Girton College, Cambridge 1938-44, Fellow 1940-48, Domestic Bursar 1942-44, Director of Studies in Architecture 1943-48, Junior Bursar 1944-48; FSA 1946; Principal, Bishop Otter College of Education, Chichester 1948-70; Chairman of Council, Sussex Archaeological Society 1964-77, President 1977-80; member, Chichester District Council 1973-87, Chairman, Planning Committee 1979-82; died West Lavington, Sussex 6 February 1998.

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