Obituary: Norma Dalrymple-Champneys

Pauline Adams
Monday 12 January 1998 01:02

Norma Hull Lewis, librarian: born 8 October 1902; Librarian, Somerville College, Oxford 1952-69; married 1933, John Edmund Hodgson (died 1952), second Dr Alexander Russell (died 1972), third Capt Sir Weldon Dalrymple- Champneys Bt (died 1980); died Oxford 21 December 1997.

When Norma Lewis emerged with a First from the University College London diploma course in Librarianship in 1927, she can scarcely have foreseen the challenge which her own career would present to fellow professionals: in the course of a long life she was to publish under three of her four successive surnames, one of them double-barrelled. Had it been more widely realised that she was in fact not three persons, but only one, her scholarly reputation would have undoubtedly stood even higher than it does.

She was born in 1902 into an old Anglo-Irish family, spent her early childhood in South Africa, and was educated at the Blackheath and Oxford High Schools. In 1921 she was admitted to Somerville College, Oxford, to read Modern History. At a college dinner 67 years later she recalled her first terrifying encounter at High Table with the then Principal, Miss (later Dame) Emily Penrose, who turned to her with the question: "Could you enumerate, Miss Lewis, the Oxford colleges which are situated within the old city wall, and those which are outside it?"

A less agreeable recollection was of the June evening in 1922 when, together with the Librarian and 11 other students from Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, she succumbed to para Typhoid B - an outbreak attributed at the time to the Ewelme watercress served at "Nondies" (Sunday supper, or "Nondescript"), but later traced to a carrier in the LMH kitchen.

Life for young women history graduates in the 1920s was not easy; later, when planning a benefaction in memory of her first husband, one of her proposed objects was "to assist some past student in her first year after leaving college which I remember in my own experience to have been the most difficult time".

Eventually she trained as a librarian, and in 1928 took up a post with the League of Nations Union. Her marriage in 1933 to John Edmund Hodgson, the historian of early aviation in Britain, and partner, with his brother Sidney, in the old- established firm of book auctioneers in Chancery Lane (later absorbed by Sotheby's), confirmed her bibliographical interests and provided new opportunities to develop them.

In the course of cataloguing rare books and manuscripts for London book sales she gained privileged access to many great private libraries; on the death of the second Mrs Hardy she advised on the choice of books for the Thomas Hardy memorial room at Dorchester. A manuscript letter-book of the 17th-century London bookseller Thomas Bennet, discovered in the course of a survey of the library of Sion House undertaken for the Pilgrim Trust, was to be the basis of her first substantial piece of research.

After a wartime interlude in the Ministry of Information as Senior Press Censor for books and periodicals, she resumed her work for Hodgson's, while taking on new responsibilities as a Workers' Education Authority (WEA) Lecturer, and writing occasional articles on bibliographical or literary subjects for the Connoisseur and the Modern Language Review. But her main preoccupation during these years was the care of her husband, who was 27 years her senior and in poor health. On his death in 1952 she took up a temporary cataloguing post in the House of Commons Library before returning later that year to Oxford as Librarian (and, from 1955, Research Fellow) of her own old college, Somerville. She was elected to membership of the governing body in 1965.

As Librarian of Somerville for 17 years she presided over a large, and rapidly growing, undergraduate working library, while cherishing the college's special collections (including the books of John Stuart Mill), and consolidating her own reputation as a bibliographer. The Notebook of Thomas Bennet and Henry Clements (1686-1719): with some aspects of book trade practice, written in collaboration with Cyprian Blagden, was published by the Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1956, the year of her second marriage; it was as Norma Russell that in 1963 she published A Bibliography of William Cowper to 1837, and in 1967 a revision of H.S. Milford's fourth edition of Cowper's Poetical Works.

Her marriage, as his second wife, to Dr Alexander Russell, brought great personal happiness to both parties, and also an unofficial recruit to the Somerville library staff: Russell, the former Dr Lee's Reader in Chemistry and Emeritus Student of Christ Church, was pressed into service cataloguing science books and soon became a dab hand at wielding the electric stylus used for numbering the backs of books.

Within three years of retiring in 1969, Norma Russell was widowed for the second time; her third marriage, in 1974 , to Capt Sir Weldon Dalrymple- Champneys Bt, was grounded in a common experience of bereavement and brought to both a renewed enjoyment of life. The nephew and godson of Basil Champneys, architect of the Somerville library, Sir Weldon brought Norma within the orbit of his own college, Oriel. It was a connection which meant much to her, and after Sir Weldon's death in 1980 she commemorated him in a number of generous benefactions. Oriel in its turn recognised her scholarly distinction by electing her in 1988 to an honorary fellowship.

The occasion of this honour was the publication of the magnum opus which also won for her the British Academy's Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for 1990: a three-volume edition, in collaboration with Arthur Pollard, of the Complete Poetical Works of George Crabbe. It was a triumphant culmination of many years' labour, pursued in the midst of domestic cares and social distractions, and latterly as a race against failing eyesight.

An honour of a different sort gave equal pleasure: the Vice- Presidency of the Oxfordshire Branch of the Grenadier Guards Association, to which she was appointed in tribute to Sir Weldon's service in the First World War.

Norma Dalrymple-Champneys' zest for life and enjoyment of people remained undiminished almost to the end. In encounters with total strangers she had the rare ability to bypass small talk and plunge directly into a real conversation - often learned, often humorous, sometimes mystifyingly allusive, but never oppressive. She loved parties, and delighted in the company of the young. Outliving three husbands and most of her contemporaries, she had no children, but a huge circle of friends.

- Pauline Adams

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