Murray, K. M. Elisabeth

Katherine Maud Elisabeth Murray (1909-98), educationalist and biographer

K. M. Elisabeth Murray when Principal of Bishop Otter College. Photo now in the possession of Oswyn Murray

(Oswyn Murray’s memorial address can be read in the Appendix at the foot of the page.)

Elisabeth Murray was the granddaughter and biographer of James Murray. Her celebrated book, Caught in the Web of Words, is the most complete account of the life and work of the chief editor of the Dictionary. Its Japanese translator deemed it ‘One of the most frequently quoted and referenced volumes in the fields of lexicography, history of the English language, and general linguistics…[one cannot] deal with these topics without making reference to her work.’1 Eminently readable, it achieved acclaim and popularity among a more general audience and was thought by Anthony Burgess to be ‘one of the finest biographies of the twentieth century’ (as quoted on the cover of the paperback edition).

Born near Cambridge, Elisabeth Murray read Modern History at Somerville College, Oxford and went on to write her BLitt dissertation on the constitutional history of the Cinque Ports. Having gained two notable scholarships and worked as a research fellow at Somerville, she found her vocation in academic administration. She was appointed Assistant Tutor and Registrar at Girton College, Cambridge, in 1938, then Domestic Bursar and finally Junior Bursar in 1942-48. She then moved to become Principal of Bishop Otter College in Chichester, a women’s teacher training institution. Under her leadership, which lasted 22 years, the college doubled in size and became co-educational; she was much lauded and is fondly remembered there for her efficient administration.

Upon retirement in 1970, she turned her great energy to creating her magnificent biography of J. A. H. Murray, transforming relatives’ memories, verbal accounts, photographs, genealogical research, two amateur biographies (one by her father and one by her uncle Wilfrid) and the many letters in her possession (the latter donated to the Bodleian Library after her death), into a coherent narrative. Completed in just five years, the book shows her ‘mastery of this voluminous material…[which] was the decisive quality of her research’ (Foster 1998: 28).

She barely remembered her ‘Grandfather Dictionary’. In her book’s prologue she reports a childhood memory of him walking in a procession beside Thomas Hardy (whose identity she did not realize at the time), in order to receive an honorary degree in Cambridge. She also remembers the discomfort (due to his tickly beard) of being made to kiss him at age five. Her grandfather strongly expressed his dislike of biography (‘it is one of the hateful characteristics of a degenerate age, that the idle world will not let the worker alone…but must insist on turning him inside out’) and Elisabeth Murray hoped that he would have felt differently about one written posthumously. She paints vividly a dedicated, energetic scholar – some of whose characteristics are recognizable in the tributes paid to Elisabeth Murray on her death. Of this ‘remote patriarchal figure’, she writes, ‘I am constantly surprised to recognize in his character and interests traits which I had thought peculiar to myself but now find to be inherited’ (K. M. E. Murray 1977: 2).

Caught in the Web of Words was published in 1977 by Yale University Press, Oxford University Press having refused it for being too much a personal account of James Murray and not enough an institutional record of the Dictionary (Foster 1998: 28) or, possibly, because it favoured her grandfather in its descriptions of the many tussles between the Dictionary’s editors and the OUP Delegates.2 From the battle to get her book published, she may have gained further sympathy with James Murray’s life, which is captured so vibrantly in her ‘tale of “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings”, a tale of trial and triumph’.3.

The text of an address given at the memorial service for Betty Murray in Chichester Cathedral on 18 May 1998 by her nephew Oswyn Murray, reproduced by permission of the author

The last time I met Cousin Betty was at my sister’s funeral two years ago. Betty had persuaded one of the devoted nurses who looked after her and became her friends in her last years (many of whom are surely here today) to drive her to Wonersh for the occasion. By then she could walk only with difficulty, and could not raise her head at all. Over lunch she sat in a corner, the centre of cousinly attention. At the end, as she was leaving, she stopped on the way out, and said, ‘I’ve just met a young man who says that when he grows up he’s going to Balliol College to study and become a great scholar.’ I was puzzled, and wondered for a moment whether her mind was becoming confused; then I saw the twinkle in her eye. She was talking about my grandson, aged two: together they had been communing in a corner at floor level in a language known only to the very old and the very young.

That was typical of Betty; first to come to every family occasion: no wedding or funeral or other event was complete without her. She loved the huge extended family to which she belonged – on the occasion of the 150th celebration of her grandfather’s birth in 1987, we gathered together forty of his descendants for a great garden party in the college of which he had been an honorary fellow. She would indeed have insisted on being here today, and would have enjoyed every minute of this celebration of her life and work. But her remark to me expresses even more her sense of history and of the continuity of family life: the little baby that she saw was the beginning of a new generation, who would follow in the footsteps of her own father, and become a scholar of Balliol College.

Betty had such a long and full life that no one person can speak of all that she achieved: I have been asked to talk as a member of her family, and as a historian who knows her academic work. And that is perhaps especially appropriate because these two sides of her character were inextricably interwoven.

Betty was a true blue-stocking; she belonged to a family active in academic life and public service which had long believed in equal educational opportunities for women. At the beginning of her famous book, Caught in the Web of Words, she describes one of her earliest memories:

I am three and a half years old and I am walking with my father and my brother down Bateman Street, Cambridge, where we live. We seem to have walked a very long way, and I think I am tired and am trying to induce someone to carry me. ‘Walk as far as that flowering tree,’ they say, ‘and then we might carry you.’ And when we get to the tree my brother says, ‘Now see if you can walk as far as that man.’ And when we get to the man I find we have reached our gate, and that the man with a long white beard is my grandfather. I know he is a very important man because I went with my nurse to the picture-sellers in a little shop in King’s Parade and asked him to allow us to sit in his upstairs window so that we could watch the procession when Grandfather was given an honorary degree because he is writing the great New English Dictionary. I liked the procession and although there was a long line of men in red robes, it was easy to pick out Grandfather because of his beard. No one told me to notice whom he was walking with, which is a pity as it was Thomas Hardy.

Betty’s grandfather, James Murray, was the son of a tailor in a village on the Scottish borders. He left school at fourteen and his first job was as a cowherd in Teviotdale; he educated himself from a magazine called Cassell’s Popular Educator. He became an assistant teacher, and after three years at the age of twenty started a new school as headmaster and the only teacher, Hawick Academy; James became a leading light in Hawick society, being a founding member and the first secretary of the Hawick Archaeological Society. Then because of his first wife’s health he moved to London, and became a master at Mill Hill School. There he pursued his interest in language and its inability to recognize political frontiers: he published a book which is still a classic, The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland (1873), in which he showed that there is no linguistic barrier in the whole of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, which stretches from York to Edinburgh. Betty tells this story far better than I can in her famous book of how the ambitious and determined Border lad became the founder of modern lexicography and the greatest dictionary-maker of all time as editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Her book describes also the life of a large and devout Victorian family in North Oxford; and it is this aspect which has made it a classic biography. But she does not there dwell on the lives of the next generation, the eleven children of James Murray’s second wife, who spent their early years working on the dictionary for their pocket money; and what an extraordinary group of people they grew up to be. Her father, Harold was the eldest: he took a first-class degree in Mathematics at Balliol College, and became an inspector of schools, where he was a champion of the left-handed against the attempts of schools to make them conform; he wrote what is still the standard History of Chess (1913) in 900 pages; her mother was a suffragette. Betty’s aunts and uncles included the first Registrar of Cape Town University, the head of the Admiralty from 1917 to 1936, the Vice-Mistress of Girton College, and a missionary in China who helped to found its first university, translated the New Testament into Chinese, taught the sons of the President and also princes of the Chinese imperial family, and spent the first years of his retirement in a Japanese prison camp. Others might have been intimidated by this legacy of scholarship and public service: Betty and her brothers simply drew inspiration from it.

Betty was born in 1909 in Cambridge, the youngest of three children. Her eldest brother, Donald, was a soldier killed in 1941 during the Japanese capture of Hong Kong; the second brother, Kenneth, was an artist, who spent his adult life in Nigeria, where he became the first Surveyor of Antiquities, rescued the national heritage of the country almost single-handed, and founded the National Museum at Lagos. It was Kenneth who encouraged Betty’s interest in art, of which Pallant House and the Bishop Otter collection are the marvellous result.

When she was young, Betty used to write regular letters home. These survive, and give a vivid picture of her life at different stages: for instance her letters from her student days at Somerville College, Oxford are quoted in Pauline Adams’s recent book, Somerville for Women (1996): they describe her excitement at belonging to such an intellectual society, and her friendships with such contemporaries as Dorothy Crowfoot (or Hodgkin as she later became), the future Nobel prize-winner. Betty graduated from Somerville in History in 1931; she became a research scholar of the college, and gained a B.Litt. in 1933 with a thesis, later published as The Constitutional History of the Cinque Ports (1935). She was clearly already a very practical scholar, who loved work in local archives and all the organization that goes with archaeology: she spent time at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, and excavated in Samaria at Ahab’s palace. But there were few full-time opportunities in academic life in those days. She was a tutor and librarian at one of the halls of Manchester University for two years, before returning to Somerville as a research fellow. In 1938 she moved to Girton College, Cambridge, where her aunt had just retired after twenty-one years as a formidable tutor in Germanic philology and Vice-Mistress. Betty was assistant tutor in charge of the welfare of students, and registrar of the Roll; she became domestic bursar in 1942 and junior bursar in 1944. The wartime period was a difficult one for Girton, where the college had to be shrouded in blackout, there was no heating and the students were allowed only a skuttleful of coal a week; food was so scarce that they were reduced to eating swan. Betty sat on the Special Purposes Committee, and was responsible for much of the daily organization of the college and its domestic staff. In 1948 she left to come to Chichester as Principal of Bishop Otter College; others will speak about this period, and about her life in Heyshott.

After her early years she found less time for research in a busy life of administration; but she never regretted the involvement in practical affairs or lost her interest in studying the past. She was of course an important person in archaeology here: she was chairman of the Chichester Excavations Committee, and for thirteen years (1964-77) chairman and then President of the Sussex Archaeological Society (being on its council for thirty years): she took part in many excavations including Bignor Roman villa and sites in Chichester; she organized the excavation of Fishbourne Palace, the largest and most famous Roman-British complex south of Hadrian’s Wall. She worked closely with the excavator Barry Cunliffe, one of whose earliest articles had been a joint report of an excavation with her in 1958-9. She helped set up the museum and site: typically of her enterprises, Fishbourne is probably the only Roman-British site regularly to make a handsome profit from its constant stream of visitors. On her retirement, she decided to write the biography of her grandfather, Sir James Murray. The omens were not good. Her father had already twice offered the manuscript of a biography to the Oxford University Press: it had been turned down, on the first occasion because it said harsh things about the exploitation of James Murray by the university, and some of the culprits were still alive, on the second occasion because it was alleged to be too boring. Betty took the archives of her grandfather, and wrote a completely new biography, which was again rejected by the Press, on the grounds that no one could possibly be interested in the family history of a nineteenth-century lexicographer. On the advice of her friend Robert Gittings, she offered the manuscript to Yale University Press, and in 1977 it was published as Caught in the Web of Words. The combination of the self-taught scholar with his jackdaw philology, and his large and eccentric North Oxford family, was irresistible. It became a best-seller, and a cult book: all over America her grandfather’s long-bearded frock-coated figure featured on student T-shirts; she was translated into Japanese. The book was awarded a prize for English literature by the British Academy, and won her honorary doctorates at Sussex and in America; twenty years later it is still in print. In its centenary year the Oxford University Press was forced to admit its mistake, and bought the paperback rights, only to let them go again a few years later. Betty had her moment of triumph, when she found herself sitting beside the Chancellor of Oxford University, Roy Jenkins, as the guest of honour at the launch of the new computerized Oxford English Dictionary.

I do not think that Betty ever suffered doubts. Like most of her family she was deeply religious, and she knew that true happiness lies in doing whatever is presented to you as well as you possibly can. She was always busy, and utterly unselfish; besides for her life was such fun. And I think it is that combination of a sense of duty and a sense of fun which she inherited from her grandfather. The security of her family life meant so much to her: she helped bring up John and Jane, the twin children of her dead brother, and was very close to them: she would write to them every week on the ancient typewriter which she never learned to master; she took them out from school at weekends. They went on holidays together: one story is typical. Betty was on a walking holiday on the coastal path in Northumbria with John’s family: for two days they had seen no one, when four men passed them: ‘Good afternoon, Dr Murray,’ one of them said – they were four councillors from Chichester.

Betty had a special relationship with children, and she remembered her own childhood with peculiar vividness. The doll’s house built by her brothers and furnished by herself was a constant source of delight and wonder, not just to the children who came to see her, but also to herself. She had a superb collection of dolls, all of whom had their own names and personalities. Her house was an inexhaustible treasure house – toys, old family pictures, books from three generations, the entire archive of the Oxford English Dictionary, the personal papers of her father and herself. There was always something to show you, something which also delighted herself with its memories; she would rush you up the Downs to look for adders or orchids, or to engage in ‘slashing’ – keeping the undergrowth at bay. In her garden, which retained a wild beauty to the end, she knew and cared for all the birds and the hedgehogs of the neighbourhood.

Betty found fulfilment and happiness in her ability to do good for others, her intellectual pursuits and her uncomplicated belief in God: she was a truly remarkable woman and a truly good one, of whom her grandfather would have been proud; for she had those same qualities that she describes in him. There was a sparkle and an enthusiasm about everything she did, combined with a childlike simplicity and a sense of fun; and this was perhaps the secret of her success in public as well as in her private life. We can all be grateful for having known such a happy woman who has used her gifts so fully and contributed so much to others in this world.

Oswyn Murray

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. Tomomi Kato, ‘A Vase of Flowers’, in Foster 1998: 82.
  2. John Nicoll, ‘Tribute’, in Foster 1998: 79. Cf. R. W. Burchfield, ‘Preface’ to Caught in the Web of Words.
  3. Henry J. Copeland (borrowing, of course, from T. S. Eliot), president of Wooster College, Ohio, on the conferral of her honorary DLitt; cited in C. Paul Christianson’s tribute in Foster 1998: 79. See the ODNB entry on Murray by Paul Foster at [accessed 30 August 2018]; subscription required.