Chapman, R. W.

Robert William Chapman (1881-1960), Secretary to the Delegates of OUP

Chapman in academic robes, having received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University at Encaenia 1928 on completion of the first edition of the OED. Source: OED archives

R. W. Chapman was Secretary to the Delegates of OUP from 1920 to 1942 – in effect the Press’s chief executive – and played a highly significant role in determining the fortunes of the OED over the first half of the 20th century. He was born in 1881 and educated at high school in Dundee and at St Andrews University. From there he went to Oriel College, Oxford, taking a second degree in Lit Hum (a composite degree in classical languages and literature, ancient history, and ancient and modern philosophy, also known as Greats) and emerging with a double first. In the same year, 1906, he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Delegates, serving under Charles Cannan, and took over as Secretary after Cannan’s death in 1919. By the time of Chapman’s arrival at the Press, the progress of the OED had settled down and was achieving a steady momentum. Several fascicles were appearing regularly every year under established editorial teams, and the tone of the exchanges between publishers and editors was less confrontational than in earlier years (on which see K. M. E. Murray 1977: 9-90; 280).1

In contrast to his predecessors at the Press, the urbane and erudite Chapman was just as interested in the content of the Dictionary as in its size and cost. Commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery during the First World War, he prepared much scholarly work while on active service in Salonika and Macedonia, including a series of essays called Portrait of a Scholar (1920) and editions both of Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands. On his return to the Press after the War was over he continued this double existence, dispatching the affairs of the Press while simultaneously publishing editions of Jane Austen as well as Johnson in an authoritative series of works, still revered, that helped establish new bibliographical and editorial standards and became instant classics in their field. Chapman was a man of great charm and some eccentricity; even today he is remembered for his ‘stately bicycling’. The Press archives contain abundant evidence of his controlling influence over the Dictionary, in the form of incidental memos, letters, and – more usually – scrawled laconic comments. When legible, these are often both judicious and witty. His special lexical and literary expertise is repeatedly on show, for example in his ability to quote Johnson on every conceivable occasion, or his advice on the correct date to ascribe to Pride and Prejudice (Brewer 2007b: 16).

With his Assistant Secretary Kenneth Sisam acting as his lieutenant, Chapman pressed hard on the lexicographers over the late 1920s and early 1930s to ensure that the completion of the first edition of the OED (in 1928) was followed as soon as possible by the publication of its first Supplement (in 1933). Thereafter he watched carefully over OUP lexicographical policy, which was to produce frequent editions of the smaller dictionaries derivative from OED (the Shorter, Concise, Pocket and Little Oxford Dictionaries) rather than to attempt further editions of the OED itself.

Even after retirement – occasioned by severe illness – Chapman continued to send in slips and to discuss lexicographical matters with his successor. In particular, he contributed much material to the projected Oxford Dictionary of Modern English (sometimes known as the Quarto Dictionary; see Brewer 2008a) which was eventually aborted in 1957. His chief energies however went into the completion of his three-volume edition of The Letters of Samuel Johnson (1952) and into various other Johnsonian projects, and the last work to be edited by him was an anthology, Selections from Samuel Johnson, published in 1955.2

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. Lists of fascicles, editors and dates of publication of OED1 can be found in McMorris 2000 and Raymond 1987.
  2. See the ODNB entry on Chapman by L. F. Powell, revised by M. Clare Loughlin-Chow, at [accessed 29 August 2018]; subscription required.