Frederick James Furnivall

Frederick James Furnivall

Frederick James Furnivall (4 February 18252 July 1910), one of the co-creators of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was an English philologist. 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 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.


Frederick Furnivall was born at Egham, Surrey, the son of a surgeon who had made his fortune from running the Great Fosters lunatic asylum. After attending Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he took an undistinguished mathematics degree, and Lincoln's Inn, he was called to the bar in 1849 and practiced desultorily until 1870. He lost his inheritance in a financial crash in 1867. In 1862 Furnivall married Eleanor Nickel Dalziel (1838?–1937). Some authors describe her as a lady's maid, which would have been a socially unusual match at the time, although her social status is disputed. When he was 58, he left Eleanor and their one surviving son for a 21-year-old secretary named Teena Rochfort-Smith. Two months after his formal separation from Eleanor, Teena Rochfort-Smith was immolated whilst carelessly burning correspondence in Goole. He died in 1910.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Furnival joined the Philological Society in 1847, and was its Secretary from 1853 almost until his death.

Frederick 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. After having lost the sub-editors for A, I, J, N, O, P & W through his irascibility or caprice, he finally resigned.

Literary societies

Furnival 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, 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) (Peterson 2004). 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 Swinburne.

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.


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".


  • 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 January 26, 2005).
  • Winchester, Simon. "The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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