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Frederick James Furnivall

Frederick James Furnivall

(4 February 1825 – 2 July 1910), one of the co-creators of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was an English philologist.

Frederick Furnivall, 1825–1910

He founded a number of learned societies on early English Literature, and made pioneering and massive editorial contributions to the subject, of which the most notable was his parallel text edition of the Canterbury Tales. He was one of the founders of and teachers at the London Working Men's College and a lifelong campaigner against what he perceived as injustice.


  • Life 1
  • The Oxford English Dictionary 2
  • Literary societies 3
  • The Working Men's College 4
  • Rowing 5
  • References 6
  • Sources 7
  • External links 8


Frederick James Furnivall was born at Egham, Surrey, the son of a surgeon who had made his fortune from running the Great Fosters lunatic asylum. He was educated at University College London and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he took an undistinguished mathematics degree.[1] He was called to the bar from Lincoln's Inn in 1849 and practised desultorily until 1870.

In 1862 Furnivall married Eleanor Nickel Dalziel (born ca. 1838 —died 1937). Some authors[2] describe her as a lady's maid, which would have been a socially unusual match at the time, although her social status is disputed.[3] Some time before 1866, Furnivall lost a child, Eena, whom he described as "my sweet, bright, only child".[4] He lost his inheritance in a financial crash in 1867. When he was 58, he separated from Eleanor and their one surviving son to continue a relationship with a 21-year-old female editor named Teena Rochfort-Smith.[5] Two months after his formal separation from Eleanor, Rochfort-Smith suffered serious burns while burning correspondence in Goole and died in 1883.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Furnivall was one of the three founders and, from 1861 to 1870, the second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Despite his scholarship and enthusiasm, his stint as editor of the OED nearly ended the project. For a dictionary maker he had an unfortunate lack of patience, discipline and accuracy.[2][3] After having lost the sub-editors for A, I, J, N, O, P & W through his irascibility or caprice, he finally resigned.[2]

Furnivall joined the Philological Society in 1847, and was its Secretary from 1853 almost until his death in 1910 at the age of 85.

He received the hon. Litt.D. from the University of Oxford and hon. Ph.D. from the University of Berlin. In April 1902 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.[6]

Literary societies

Furnivall indefatigably promoted the study of early English literature. He founded a series of literary and philological societies: the Early English Text Society (1864), the Chaucer Society (1868), the Ballad Society (1868), the New Shakspere Society (1873), the Browning Society (1881, with Miss Emily Hickey), the Wyclif Society (1882), and the Shelley Society (1885).[3] Some of these, notably the Early English Text Society, were very successful; all were characterised by extreme controversy. The most acrimonious of all was the New Shakspere Society, scene of a bitter dispute between Furnivall and Algernon Charles Swinburne.[7][8]

These societies were primarily textual publishing ventures. Furnivall edited texts for the Early English Text Society, for the Roxburghe Club and the Rolls Series; but his most important work was on Geoffrey Chaucer. His "Six-Text" edition of the Canterbury Tales was a new conception. It has been described as containing full and accurate transcriptions, though some modern scholars disagree about his merits as an editor. His work, and that of the amateurs he recruited, was often slapdash, but it was substantial, and it laid the foundation for all subsequent editions. He was one of a small group of Victorian scholars who have been credited with establishing the academic study of English literature.

The Working Men's College

In the 1850s Furnivall became involved in various Christian Socialist schemes and his circle included Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin. It was through this group that he became one of the founders of the Working Men's College, and although he later became agnostic he always retained a connection with the College. He conceived of the college as a classless, democratic community of learning. One biographer wrote that he formed there a conviction that "scholarship could be pursued by quite ordinary people in a spirit of good-humoured enthusiasm" that was to be the key to his later life.[3]


Furnivall was always an enthusiastic oarsman, and till the end kept up his interest in rowing; with John Beesley in 1845 he introduced the new type of narrow sculling boat, and in 1886 started races on the Thames for sculling fours and sculling eights. In 1896 Furnivall founded the Hammersmith Sculling Club (now called Furnivall Sculling Club), initially for working-class girls, and he "entered into its activities with his usual boyish enthusiasm, for it brought together two of his favourite activities: vigorous outdoor exercise and enjoyment of the company of young women". [3]


  1. ^ "Furnivall, Frederic James (FNVL842FJ)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ a b c Winchester, Simon (2003). The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Peterson, William S. (2007) [2004]. "Furnivall, Frederick James".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Furnivall, Frederick J. (1866). The Book of Quinte Essence. Oxford University Press. 
  5. ^ Thompson, Ann. "Teena Rochfort Smith, Frederick Furnivall, and the New Shakspere Society's Four-Text Edition of Hamlet". Shakespeare Quarterly 49.2 (Summer 1998): 125–139.
  6. ^ "University intelligence" The Times (London). Saturday, 26 April 1902. (36752), p. 10.
  7. ^ Gosse, Edmund (1917). The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne. New York: The Macmillan Company, pp. 249–250.
  8. ^ Maurer, Oscar (1952). "Swinburne vs. Fornivall: A Case Study in 'Aesthetic' vs. 'Scientific' Criticism," The University of Texas Studies in English, Vol. 31, pp. 86–96.


  • Peterson, William S. “Furnivall, Frederick James (1825–1910).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. (accessed 26 January 2005).
  • Utz, Richard. Chaucer and the Discourse of German Philology. A History of Reception and an Annotated Bibliography of Studies, 1793–1948. Turnhout: Brepols, 2002. [pp. 103–157]
  • Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

External links

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