Bradley, Henry

Henry Bradley (1845–1923), co-editor of OED1

Henry Bradley. Source: OED archives

As a boy Bradley attended Chesterfield grammar school for the years 1855 to 1859, after which his family moved to Sheffield. In 1863 he became corresponding clerk to a cutlery firm, a post he held for twenty years, over the course of which he filled up his spare hours with independent and imaginative literary and philological investigations (including learning a wide range of different languages). In 1884 he moved to London and supported himself by miscellaneous literary work, including reviewing the first fascicle of the Dictionary which appeared that year (Bradley 1884). Subsequent correspondence with Murray led to Bradley’s working on the Dictionary straightaway (within four months, to be precise, on the latter part of the letter B) and his position was formalized five years later, though not without reservations from Murray, on whom the appointment had been foisted willy-nilly by the Delegates (urged by their unsympathetic Secretary, Lytellton Gell) who were anxious to increase the speed of production (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 62-4, 81-2, 257-8). Bradley moved to Oxford in 1896 to facilitate his work on the Dictionary, where he lived for many years in North House, part of the OUP quadrangle which opens on to Walton Street in Jericho. Subsequently the Press housed him in Polstead then Woodstock Road, Oxford. He was elected a member of Exeter College in 1896 and a fellow of Magdalen College in 1916.

Bradley was a learned and scholarly man – though gentle and unassuming – who made important contributions to a number of different fields, including textual and philological scholarship on the 14th-century poem Piers Plowman and other Old and Middle English works. He published works on the history of place names, the history of the Goths, a revised edition of F. H. Stratmann’s Middle English Dictionary (1891), an edition of Caxton’s Dialogues for the Early English Text Society (1900), and a very popular little book on language called The Making of English (1904). After his death, a collection of his papers was brought out by his friend the poet laureate Robert Bridges, whom Bradley had helped in 1919 to found the Society for Pure English.

Bradley worked uncomplainingly at the Dictionary for 34 years. In the early part of this period he was often bullied by Murray, and not until after Murray’s death in 1915 did he ask for a pay-rise (a distressing letter survives in the OED archives in which Bradley explains his position and apologizes for his neediness at the age of 70, in part due to the expense of medicines for his chronically ill wife).1

There were marked differences, both of temper and scholarly method, between the two first chief editors. Their later co-editor, C. T. Onions, who had worked first for Murray and then for Bradley, described the latter as not only ‘a philological genius’ but also ‘one of the most original minds of his time’. ‘To pass from the one to the other [i.e. from Murray to Bradley] was a remarkable experience; it was to pass from the practical professional teacher to the philosophical exponent. Murray gave formal instruction; Bradley taught rather by hint, by interjectional phrase, or even a burst of laughter’ (Onions 1923: 23). The many letters that survive both in the OED archives and elsewhere often reveal his wonderfully disinterested concern for truth as well as exactness, consistency and other scholarly virtues; as he wrote to R. W. Chambers in the midst of acrimonious controversy over the versions of Piers Plowman, ‘What both you and I desire is truth, and not the confirmation of our own theories’ (Brewer 1996: 226 n. 16).

Attractive as he sounds, Bradley was ineffectual as an organizer of the project Murray had left uncompleted at his death, or as a bulwark against the constant pressure from the publishers to produce the remainder of the Dictionary as fast as possible. Both these tasks fell to the superbly efficient Craigie. The Deputy Secretary of the Delegates, Kenneth Sisam – himself no intellectual slouch – once said that Bradley’s mind ‘moved about three times as fast as anyone else’s on the staff’, but he was notoriously slow, both in speech – his staff habitually finished his sentences for him, although only Craigie was able to do this correctly – and in production of lexicographical copy. The verdict of the Secretary, R. W. Chapman, was that ‘there is no doubt that he did retard the Dictionary, though the extraordinary quality of his work is perhaps adequate compensation’.2

As Craigie later wrote in his DNB entry on Bradley,3

The share which Bradley took in the Oxford English Dictionary, from the date when he devoted most of his time to that work, was the editing of the letters E, F, G, L, M, S–Sh, St, and part of W, amounting in all to 4,590 pages out of a total of 15,487, and including several difficult portions of the vocabulary. The treatment of these, and the work as a whole, naturally gave opportunity for his unusual qualifications as a scholar – his extensive knowledge of ancient and modern languages, his thorough grasp of philological principles, his retentive and accurate memory, and his rare powers of analysis and definition. In some respects the Dictionary necessarily limited his range, and by its claims on the major part of his time restricted the possibilities of his contributing to the other fields of learning or literature in which he was equally fitted to excel. This was most evident to those who knew him most intimately, and by personal contact could realize that under a quiet and unassuming manner he possessed intellectual powers which transcended the ordinary bounds of scholarship and partook of the brilliancy of genius.

Bradley’s daughter Eleanor made a significant contribution to the Dictionary in her own right; see Brewer 2007b: 6, 37, 80, 81.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. A distressing letter survives in the OUP archives, dated November 1915 (five months after Murray’s death in July that year) detailing his financial position. It was ‘very generally assumed as a matter of course’ that his pay would have risen since Murray’s death, but in fact ‘I am at present receiving only the same amount as it was originally agreed that I should be paid when, after a year’s work under Dr. Murray, I should become the responsible editor of a part of the Dictionary. I did not in fact receive this amount of salary for many years, because I found it impossible to fulfil the expectations of the Delegates – to which at the outset I had assented as reasonable – with regard to quantity of production…[He has found it hard to bring himself to speak of the matter at all, ‘in this sad year’.] Only, in a month from today my age will be “threescore years and ten”, and though I feel I am still able to do a fair day’s work, the end of my working day[s] cannot be far distant.’ He had only recently managed to save anything, owing to heavy expenditure necessitated by illness, ‘and the time remaining for making provision for those whom I shall leave behind is short. On this ground I felt bound to ask you to put the case before the Delegates.’ He apologises for his ‘regrettably small output’ this year, the chief reason for which was the loss of two assistants, so that he had to do much of the work from scratch. ‘On the other hand, the two salaries have been saved’ (Bradley to Cannan [then Secretary of the Delegates], OED/B/3/2/7, 3 November 1915).
  2. Sisam to Bradley’s son-in-law A. S. Ferguson, 9 May 1927; Chapman to Humphrey Milford [Publisher to OUP], 6 May 1927, both OED/B3/2/16 (1).
  3. See full text at [accessed 29 August 2018]; subscription required.