Furnivall, F. J. (Who’s who)

Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910), scholar and lexicographer

F. J. Furnivall. Photo, dated 3 October 1876, in possession of Charlotte Brewer

Furnivall, founder of the Early English Text Society, Christian Socialist, and prolific editor, played a significant role in the protracted genesis of the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Murray, he was motivated more by a socialist and nationalist enthusiasm for history than an intellectual passion for language; apparently he said towards the end of his life, ‘I never cared a bit for philology: my chief aim has been throughout to illustrate the social condition of the English people in the past’ (Munro 1911: 43). As a child, Furnivall read widely and voraciously, and Tennyson’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ helped create his enduring fascination with medieval literature. He was educated at University College London, and Trinity College, Cambridge where he took his BA in 1846. In the same year, at the behest of his father, he turned to law as a career and entered Lincoln’s Inn; three years later he was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn and practised law as a conveyancer in London from 1850 until 1872.

In London, Furnivall became acquainted with John Malcolm Ludlow, F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and Thomas Hughes – all men of liberal and Christian socialist tendencies – and was involved in the founding of the Working Men’s College in 1854, at which he became a popular teacher of English grammar and literature. Here, by Furnivall’s own account, he and his pupils ‘studied and took exercise together, we were comrades and friends, and helpt one another to live higher, happier, and healthier lives, free from all stupid and narrow class humbug;’ though he fell out with Maurice over a number of issues concerning the running of the college (for example Sabbath-Day observance: Furnivall famously enjoyed college dances and Sunday rural excursions, particularly on the river, and rowed with his own crew of shop-girls on Sundays when he was in his eighties). Nevertheless ‘the college as Furnivall envisioned it – a jolly, classless community characterized by democratic comradery and a love of learning – is a key to understanding his subsequent life, for in all his later endeavours he was inspired by a conviction that scholarship could be pursued by quite ordinary people in a spirit of good-humoured enthusiasm’ (ODNB).

In 1847 Furnivall had joined the Philological Society, and in 1853 he became its honorary secretary (a post he held till three weeks before his death on 2 July 1910). He was one of the committee of three established by the Society in 1857 to investigate ‘Unregistered Words’, thus precipitating the series of events that led to the creation of the New English Dictionary, and he served as its editor for many years between the death of Herbert Coleridge and the appointment of J. A. H. Murray (i.e. between 1861 and 1879). He took over the job of recruiting and maintaining volunteers to read texts and excerpt quotations, as well as managing the sub-editors who collated and organized the results; many of his notebooks and jottings on the management of the Dictionary over this period survive in the OED archives (for an example go here). In addition, he contributed thousands of quotations from his personal reading of the daily newspapers and his support for the Dictionary continued well after Murray’s appointment – indeed he was closely involved not only with the arrangements for OUP to take over the Dictionary but also with negotiations between Murray and the Delegates thereafter (see K. M. E. Murray 1977, e.g. chapter XI).

A man of boundless enthusiasm and energy, he founded many literary and historical societies, most notably the Early English Text Society (1864). This became an invaluable source for the new Dictionary, since it published Old and Middle English texts hitherto available only in manuscript, thus providing countless printed examples of early usage for record in the OED. He edited – with debatable success – many of the texts published by these societies, and thus contributed greatly to the development of English literature as a scholarly discipline. Donald C. Baker wrote of him, ‘As an editor…his work cannot really be evaluated, for he never, in a sense, edited anything. He printed, but how fully, how gloriously, he printed!’ In this way ‘he made all modern editions possible…he is the giant upon whose shoulders we all stand’ (Baker 1984: 169).

Furnivall’s socialism was evident in this area as in others, and his interest in scribes as well as ‘great writers’ (whose work scribes recorded) is a striking anticipation of recent medieval scholarship. He also became famous for his rows and disagreements (for example, with Swinburne), and was bitterly disliked in some circles. The ill-tempered Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, Frederic Madden, described him as a ‘jackanapes’: ‘I think it is a matter of great regret that he should be allowed to edit any works of the [EETS] Society. His style of writing is thoroughly disgusting, and his ignorance is on a par with his bad taste’ (Benzie 1983: 130-1). Furnivall’s unconventional domestic life (while still married he took up with a maidservant), his dislike of class barriers, the outrageously chatty prefaces to his editions and his general intellectual promiscuity no doubt encouraged such a response. In the volume of tributes published after his death, many scholars nevertheless attested in glowing terms to his friendship, warmth, and unstinting academic support – notably German medievalists who had felt repelled by the English philological establishment (see Munro 1911).

Where the Dictionary was concerned, Furnivall’s socialism manifested itself as a steadfast determination to include all words in this record of national culture. Thus he wrote, in a circular to the members of the Philological Society dated 9 November 1862:

We have set ourselves to form a National Portrait Gallery, not only of the worthies, but of all the members, of the race of English words which is to form the dominant speech of the world. No winged messenger who bears to us the thoughts and aspirations, the weakness and the littleness, of our forefathers; who is to carry ours to our descendants: is to be absent, –

Fling our doors wide! all, all, not one, but all, must enter:1 for their service let them be honoured; and though the search for them may sometimes seem wearisome, and the labour of the ingathering more irksome still, yet the work is worthy and the aim unselfish.

Furnivall lacked the organizational rigour, persistence, single-minded commitment and perhaps the intellectual acumen of Murray, who was horrified by the state of the Dictionary’s materials when he took over from Furnivall as editor in 1879. Nevertheless, Furnivall’s boundless energy and support was a major driving force behind the project for the rest of his life (for an account of his importance as an OED reader go here ).2

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. As Matthew Sperling has pointed out to us, Furnivall is quoting Tennyson’s poem ‘The Princess: A Medley’ (1847), VI: 314-7. In rather a different context, Princess Ida says:
    ‘Fling our doors wide! all, all, not one, but all,
    Not only he, but by my mother’s soul,
    Whatever man lies wounded, friend or foe,
    Shall enter, if he will.’
  2. See the ODNB entry on Furnivall by William S. Peterson at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33298 [accessed 30 August 2018]; subscription required. See also Aarsleff 1983 and Brewer 1996: chapter 5.