In the summer of 1885 James Augustus Henry Murray, the self-educated son of a Scottish clothier, moved into Sunnyside, a large, redbrick villa on the Banbury Road – number 78 to be precise. There, in the garden, he erected a fifty-foot corrugated iron outbuilding, lined with wooden shelves and pigeon-holes, which he called his scriptorium. In it he stored over a million slips of paper, 6 x 4 inches in size, weighing, we are told, more than two tons (though who weighed them no one knows).

Morris Oxford 78 - Sunnyside Up

From these slips – meticulously collated, edited, ordered and arranged – emerged one of the greatest works of world literature: the Oxford English Dictionary.

‘It was a project of almost unimaginable boldness and foolhardiness,’ declared one commentator – its goal ‘a quite elegantly simple impertinence’. For whereas previous dictionaries (Dr Johnson’s a century earlier being the most famous) had presented mere selections of the language, this new project would present all of it: ‘every word, every nuance, every shading of meaning and spelling and pronunciation, every twist of etymology, every possible illustrative citation from every English author’.

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On each slip were written quotations sent in from all over the globe, especially following Murray’s public Appeal to the English-speaking and English-reading public (1879). This was crowd-sourcing on an epic scale only the Victorians could have dared contemplate. Many of those who sent in material were linguists, librarians, scholars or teachers; but one of the most prolific contributors, with over thirty thousand citations, was a certain Dr W.C. Minor – who turned out to be an inmate of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, a murderer, and American to boot.

Over the course of this Herculean project, a correspondence was generated so voluminous that a pillar box had to be installed directly outside Murray’s front gate. As well as being a man of prodigious energy and diligence, he was a stickler for efficiency, so shortening the distance between his desk and the world beyond was important for him. Pity the poor postman who had to lug vast sacks of envelopes up and down the Banbury Road (some addressed simply: ‘Dr Murray, Oxford’) year in and year out, three times a day, every day.

Morris Oxford Postbox - Sunnyside Up

The first fascicle of the OED (A-Ant) appeared in 1884, the last in 1928 – nearly forty years later than originally projected. By then the dictionary had more than doubled in length and James Murray (1837-1915) had gone to the great scriptorium in the sky.

His extraordinary legacy lives on. And grows. And grows. The dictionary now stands at an eye-watering 270,000 headwords. Handwritten letters, let alone paper record slips, are things of the distant past; but the postbox still stands there on the pavement outside Sunnyside, 78 Banbury Road – a quiet sentinel and modest monument to the most prodigious, most heroic, most ambitious lexicographical achievement of all time.

Morris Oxford Dictionary - Sunnyside Up

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W.C. Minor was not only a prolific contributor to the OED. He was also the possessor of disconcertingly minute handwriting. The sample page below comes courtesy of the OUP museum:
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Eric French writes with news of the departure of a much revered Oxford Morris:

James Murray was not the only illustrious inhabitant of number 78 Banbury Road. Until recently it was occupied by Desmond Morris, author of numerous books on zoology – most famously The Naked Ape – and painter of even more numerous works of surrealism. DM was born in 1928 and is thus as old as the OED. He moved away from Oxford only a couple of years ago to be near his family in Ireland. – EF

Here’s an absolutely fascinating two-part interview Desmond did with the aforesaid Peter Gilliver:
Peter Gilliver, the author of an outstanding scholarly history, The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, is himself a distinguished lexicographer who has been at OUP for over thirty years. No detail escapes him – as witness this footnote (p. 268 fn. 22):

The pillar box is unusual in that it does not bear the royal cypher; this was apparently due to an oversight by the manufacturers (Handyside of Derby), and is a feature of many pillar boxes dating from the period 1879-87. – PG

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 Clare Dewer writes:

Your description of James Murray as ‘self-educated’ doesn’t quite convey the prodigious range of his knowledge. In a job application to the British Museum when he was scarcely thirty, the self-taught Murray (who had left school at the age of fourteen) set out his linguistic qualifications:

‘I have to state that Philology, both Comparative and special, has been my favourite pursuit during the whole of my life, and that I possess a general acquaintance with the languages & literature of the Aryan and Syro-Arabic classes – not indeed to say that I am familiar with all or nearly all of these, but that I possess that general lexical and structural knowledge which makes the intimate knowledge only a matter of a little of the application. With several I have a more intimate acquaintance as with the Romance tongues, Italian, French, Catalan, Spanish, Latin & in a less degree Portuguese, Vaudois, Provençal and various dialects. In the Teutonic branch, I am tolerably familiar with Dutch (having at my place of business correspondence to read in Dutch, German, French & occasionally other languages) Flemish, German, Danish. In Anglo-Saxon and Moeso-Gothic my studies have been much closer, I having prepared some works of publication upon these languages. I know a little of the Celtic, and am at present engaged with the Sclavonic, having obtained a useful knowledge of the Russian. In the Persian, Achaemenian, Cuneiform, and Sanscrit branches, I know for the purposes of Comparative Philology. I have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Syriac to read at sight the Old Testament and Peshito; to a less degree I know Aramaic Arabic, Coptic and Phoenician to the point where it is left by Genesius.’

The quotation comes from Simon Winchester’s book The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness, and the Oxford English Dictionary (1998) p.34.

Fortunately for Oxford, Murray didn’t get the job. – CD

Beverley McCulloch, the OED archivist, writes:

The Post Office did indeed put a pillar box right outside James Murray’s house. In fact, there was so much correspondence they could have added another. Murray hit on a great resource for sorting all the material he was getting sent by volunteers – his eleven children. This in-house work squad earned their pocket money (pretty much from reading age) doing an initial alphabetical sort of the slips. Although monotonous, the children enjoyed reading all the quotations and amassed a vast vocabulary through their efforts. Some of them even went on to be paid assistants in the Scriptorium in adulthood.

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We also asked Beverley about Murray’s famous black hat, which features in nearly all photographs of him at work.

The first hat was, I believe, the graduation cap from gaining his first honorary degree, from Edinburgh University. As you may know, Murray’s family couldn’t afford to send him to university so he was very proud to get this degree, and the eight others that followed (presumably with more hats), including both Oxford and Cambridge.

It was, in the words of Robert Burchfield in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘a cap of a pattern worn by his hero John Knox’ which, combined with his long white beard, may explain his somewhat biblical appearance.

It was also very cold and damp in the Scriptorium so that may have been a factor as well.

A few years ago his great grandson donated one of the velvet hats to us, (possibly not the original one as it’s in very good condition) and it is on display in OUP’s museum.

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Professor RJW Evans, Chair of the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, and distinguished historian of Austria-Hungary, writes:

It was very good to see one of our plaques featured in your latest instalment. What an amazing achievement the OED was and is. Nevertheless your hyperbole at the end may be a bit overdone. The deutsches wörterbuch of the Brothers Grimm (et al) took a century to produce and is larger than the OED. It has the very quaint facet, for a work of reference, that it doesn’t observe the orthography of the language in which it’s written, since it doesn’t capitalize nouns. – RW

Bruce Hugman, multi-faceted Communications expert, writes:

As you suggest, the OED is one of the great (greatest?) achievements of literary scholarship, a marvel to read and use. When I was an impecunious undergraduate here in the 1960s, I went to the sale of the contents of Cliveden House (that notorious Astor establishment in Berkshire linked to the Profumo Scandal) and bid successfully for one of their two quarter-bound, burgundy leather sets of the entire dictionary for 52 quid (for which I had rather urgently to beg my father). It sits by me still, fully occupying the one metre width of its tailor-made bookcase; most volumes display the Waldorf and Nancy Astor bookplate and the library location. I now use the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary more frequently, but occasionally heave one of the big volumes out and lose myself in its intricate mysteries. – BH

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