Guest post: ‘Biography from below’ with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Today we are privileged to have Philip Carter of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography walk us through the process of constructing a new entry for the ODNB. In this case the details about the subject Henry Croft were crafted together from many sources in what might be called an obscure, yet regal, life.

———

If not the broomstick, the sweeper. Biography from below.

In the mid-eighteenth century biographical writing took something of a democratic turn. In place of didactic characterizations of virtues and failings came an interest in the complexities of an individual life investigated and understood. Samuel Johnson is often held up as a proponent of this more personable form of biography—notably in his life of Richard Savage (1744) and essays in the Rambler and Idler—which is well captured in his gauntlet that there ‘rarely passes a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful’.

Johnson’s interest in biographical writing grounded in human estimation and intimate acquaintance dramatically broadened the scope for biographical subjects – animate or otherwise. Well ahead of the early 21st-century publishing trend for ‘biographies’ of cod, salt, Paris etc., Johnson famously claimed he ‘could write the life of a broomstick’. Johnson, moreover, was not a lone voice. Introducing his pictorial Biographical History of England (1769), James Granger set out a study based on twelve hierarchical classes, beginning with ‘monarchs’ and ending with ‘with ballad-singers, chimney-sweepers, and beggars’.

Granger’s interest may seem surprising to us, but this plurality of lives was a common feature in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century works of collective biography in which (beginning with Thomas Fuller’s Worthies of England, 1662) mechanics, pirates, and chancers rubbed along with their social superiors. Moreover, it’s a spirit that prevails in the eminent descendants of Fuller and Granger: the Dictionary of National Biography—which first appeared between 1885 and 1900 under the founding editorship of Sir Leslie Stephen—and its successor, the Oxford DNB, which was published in 2004.

It’s often presumed, mistakenly, that—as a late-Victorian work of national record—Stephen’s DNB must be a gathering of the ‘great and the good’. In fact, the first DNB took much from these earlier biographical collections and from compendia of what we’d now call ‘human interest stories’, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine. Today, Stephen’s Dictionary lives on as the much enlarged and re-written Oxford DNB, a research and publishing project of Oxford University and OUP. In 2004 when it first appeared, in print and online, the Dictionary included biographies of 54,922 individuals active between the Roman invasion and the late-twentieth century. The work of more than 10,000 specialist authors, the ODNB was (as it continues to be) the world’s largest collaborative research project in the humanities.

Since 2004 a small team of academic editors has continued to extend the ODNB’s coverage in regular online updates. Part of this work focuses on the ‘recently deceased’ (no living people are included), with a rolling project to add entries on noteworthy Britons who died in the opening decade of the twenty-first century. Here the need is to infuse contemporary assessments, carried in newspapers obituaries (invariably written while their subject was still alive), with a historical perspective that will stand the test of time.

In addition to these shapers of modern Britain, ODNB editors also look further back—adding new biographies of men and women active across all historical periods. Many of these recent additions are people remembered (and therefore worthy of inclusion) for a single act or event in a life that’s otherwise obscure. The task here is how best to reassemble a shadowy human story to create a full narrative, from birth to death.

This is a challenge but one greatly aided in the past 5-10 years by a boom in digitized records that make accessible, as never before, the nuts and bolts of life writing. In Britain, these include (to name just a few) the census returns from 1841 to 1911, registers of births, marriages, and deaths, parish registers, wills and probate statements on ‘wealth at death’, military service records, and national and provincial newspapers from the late-seventeenth century. With such resources we’re able to continue a longstanding British biographical tradition: recording lesser-known lives and creating collective biography ‘from the bottom up’.

Take, for example, Henry Croft (1861-1930), founder in the 1890s of the London tradition of Pearly kings and queens whose dynasties continue in boroughs across the capital. Online there is no shortage of references to Croft and his ‘pearlies’, but it soon becomes clear that much of this material is partial, anecdotal, and derivative.

Writing a first-time biography always requires a ‘way in’ to the life. For Henry Croft this came via another new online resource, the Pathé news archive, which revealed a one-minute silent clip of a funeral procession for ‘the King of the Pearly Kings’ broadcast in January 1930. This was our starting point. With an approximate death date it was possible to search the digitized indexes of the General Register Office with a degree of precision—imagine how many ‘Henry Crofts’ died in ‘London’ (or elsewhere) sometime in the early to mid-twentieth century. Having found Croft’s death certificate we now had his final residence (the St Pancras workhouse), his profession (a corporation road sweeper), and his age at death (68 years). With the latter we could search the registers for ‘Henry Crofts’ born in 1861 or 1862, his known birth date. This, in turn, revealed that our man had been born on 24 May 1861, remarkably in the same St Pancras workhouse.

With these few markers it was possible to trawl the census returns for 1861 onwards to fill out details of Henry’s wider family: his parents and siblings, and their moves between the tenements of inner city London. Luckily, we also had a reference to Henry’s wife, Lily, who witnessed his death certificate in 1930. Next came a search of marriage records for Henry Crofts marrying women named ‘Lily’, ‘Lillian’, etc. across London from 1880 onwards.

This led to Lily Newton (1874-1940), daughter of a Kentish Town house painter, whom Croft married in February 1892. From here it was possible to piece together their married life, using the censuses for 1901 and 1911. By this date Henry and Lily had eight children and were living at 15 Charles (now Phoenix) Street (close by the British Library), the same address given by Lily on her husband’s death certificate 19 years later. In both censuses Henry gave his occupation as ‘road sweeper’, employment he retained until his retirement in 1928.

The outline of Croft’s biography was now in place. But what of his life as the original Pearly King, the reason for his intended inclusion in the ODNB? It’s worth remembering who we’re dealing with. Though the Pearly tradition is now well-known, its founder lived on the lowest rungs of London’s social hierarchy. Henry was poor, and very poorly educated, and there would be no personal papers with which to flesh out the life.

At this point online newspapers came to the rescue, making it possible to search across national and London titles for occasional glimpses of Croft as a pearly king. Just a few years ago finding such references would have been pure chance. Now it was possible to trace Henry’s first known appearance as a public figure: a 1902 magazine article which introduced ‘Mr Croft’, the ‘Pearlie king of Somers Town’, replete with a handmade suit of 5000 buttons. Later newspaper references identified Croft in various ‘pearly’ roles: raising money for charity, taking part in annual horse and donkey shows, and even a meeting between Croft and Edward VII at Olympia in 1907. Searches of local London papers also brought to light several death notices which provided further details of Croft’s personal and public life.

Starting from a short, silent film clip we now had enough to write Croft’s story for the first time. So Henry Croft entered the Oxford DNB in a recent update. If not the broomstick, at least the sweeper; the man who began as a beggar and ended as a monarch. Hopefully Johnson and Granger would have been pleased.

———

Philip Carter is Publication Editor at the Oxford DNB and a member of the History Faculty, University of Oxford.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s