The archives at Oxford University Press record an increasing fever of preparation and excitement over the organization of the banquet to celebrate the completion of the OED, with numerous, sometimes agonized deliberations over the guest list, the precise wording of the invitation, the toasts, the speakers, and the question of what was to be done with the ‘ladies’ (women were not allowed by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths into their hall). Invitations were highly prized and some individuals angled for them in ways not always regarded as seemly; on 14 January 1928 the University Printer, Humphrey Milford, complained that one of his American acquaintances ‘took my breath away by saying one day that he should certainly come over on purpose, if he were lucky enough to be asked! I did not take up the hint.’1
A couple of days before, the Secretary (i.e. chief executive) of the Press, R. W. Chapman, wrote to the Vice Chancellor, F. W. Pember, Warden of All Souls, ‘As you know, the accommodation does not permit of the invitation of ladies, but there is room in the [minstrels’] gallery (not very comfortable I am afraid) for a few people, and we are proposing to place there one or more male members of the staff who do not care to dine, and also two or three lady members of the staff, and no doubt (if they wish to be present) Mrs Craigie and Mrs Onions [wives, respectively, of the two major surviving editors of the original team, W. A. Craigie and C. T. Onions]. I do not know if it would be dangerous to suggest that Mrs Pember might like to join this merry group. Perhaps if Lady Cave [wife of the Chancellor] or Mrs Baldwin heard of it we might get into trouble.’2
The women to be ‘skied’ in the minstrels’ gallery (as Chapman put it to Craigie in another letter, 13 January 1928) had in some cases worked side by side for many years with their male colleagues dining below, for example James Murray’s daughter Rosfrith, who had put in over twenty years as an editorial assistant (see photograph of her as a girl on Murray’s Who’s who page), and Henry Bradley’s daughter Eleanor, who was a member of her father’s and then Onions’s staff from 1897-1932 (photographed with the Other editors in 1915).
(At least one of the female guests to whom such accommodation was offered declined. Agnes Carwell Fries, wife of the American lexicographer and linguist Charles C. Fries, recorded ‘It was explained to me that being “skied” meant that women could sit in the balcony above the hall and watch the men eat. I felt insulted and refused to go under those circumstances’; see Bailey 1985: 200-1, n. 3; as Bailey notes, ‘Skied in this sense does not appear in the OED’.)
In the event, the dinner was a great success. It boasted nine courses, starting with caviar and smoked salmon and finishing with lobster, accompanied by seven wines ranging from an 1896 Crofts to a 1907 Chateau Margaux. Baldwin’s speech was appositely witty but also magisterial, and was broadcast live on the BBC – the publishers had reckoned that ‘the longueur’ at the dinner such an arrangement would risk would be worth it, in order ‘to get the P.M. round the world. After all the company will consist of talkative people, well lit. So long as they may smoke, they won’t fidget.’3
This calculation proved correct. ‘High as our expectations were pitched,’ Chapman wrote to Baldwin’s personal secretary Patrick Duff, ‘the Prime Minister surpassed them. He was superb.’ To another correspondent he exclaimed, ‘Bravissimo! Everyone was delighted with everything.’4
Baldwin’s address is reproduced on the next page, amongst other speeches by William A. Craigie, William Jackson Pope and the Vice Chancellor Francis W. Pember. You can also see a copy of the banquet’s programme (including the menu) and the seating plan.
Last updated on 9 October 2019
- Oxford University Press, OED archives, internal memo. All documents referred to in this section are stored in box labelled PP 1928 – PP 1929 and are quoted by permission of the Secretary to the Delegates of Oxford University Press. The culprit was George H. Doran, of 224 Madison Avenue, New York, a major American publisher, who was added to the invitation list in March and eventually seated on Milford’s left on the high table (see Seating plan).
- 12 January 1928. Lord Cave died before the banquet was held, precipitating another set of anxious memos about who should take his place.
- Internal memo to H. A. Milford from R. W. Chapman, 3 May 1928, entitled ‘6 June – B.B.C.’
- Letters dated 7 June 1928.