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Pioneering the study of modern languages
When William Morfill died at what is now 42 Park Town, Oxford, on November 9, 1909, he left a remarkable legacy that is probably not fully appreciated. A keen linguist from his schooldays, his championing of Russian and other Slavonic languages during the latter half of the 19th century had a ground-breaking impact on Oxford University’s language curriculum, which at the time only recognized the classics. Five years before his death, his persistence was rewarded when the university adopted Russian as an official degree subject, paving the way for the study of a range other modern languages. The house at Park Town — known in Morfill’s day as 4 Clarendon Villas — played a central role in his endeavours, as it became a meeting place for language and literary scholars, writers and students, while the distinctive Victorian post box nearby allowed him to correspond with linguists from all over Europe.
William Richard Morfill was born on November 17, 1834, in Maidstone, Kent, the middle child of three. His father, also William, was a professional musician. William was educated at Maidstone Grammar School and, from 1848, at Tonbridge School, where he became head boy. It was at the latter that his interest in exotic languages was aroused when a teacher presented him with a Russian grammar. He came up to Oxford to study Classics in 1853, entering Corpus Christi in May that year after winning a scholarship from Tonbridge, but moved to Oriel in December after being elected to an open classical scholarship. An exceptional student, who was expected to achieve a First, his academic career was sadly blighted when he was taken seriously ill during his finals, and he finished up with an ordinary Pass degree.
Disappointed but undeterred, he remained in Oxford and began giving private tuition from his rooms in Oriel Street. His interests were not confined, though, to Slavonic study; he also had a keen interest in English literature, and he spent some time lecturing on the subject at Wren’s in London.
His first published work, in 1873, was a book of Elizabethan ballads for The Ballad Society.
On September 6, 1860, he married Charlotte Maria Lee, the daughter of a grazier, in Charlotte’s home parish of Welton, Northamptonshire, and shortly afterwards the couple moved to 4 Clarendon Villas, Park Town. That he was able to move to this recently-established middle-class Oxford suburb is testimony to his success as a tutor.
In 1865 William became a lecturer in Philosophy and Modern History at Charsley’s Hall, one of Oxford’s private halls — a post he held for four years. Meanwhile, he was spending his spare hours studying the languages and rich cultural history of the Slavs. His first published translations from Russian had appeared in 1860 — ten years later he made his first trip to Russia, which was soon followed by trips to Czechoslovakia and other Slavonic countries.
By this time he had established a reputation as an expert, and was rewarded with an invitation from the Taylorian Institute to give the first of a series of lectures under the auspices of the newly-endowed Ilchester Foundation, which had been set up to promote the study of the Slavonic languages. He gave further lectures in 1873 and 1883, and some of the content of these lectures appeared in his Dawn of European Literature: Slavonic Literature, published in 1883.
After Charlotte’s tragically early death in 1881 — leaving no children — Morfill buried himself ever deeper in his work, drawing comfort both from its familiarity and from the excitement of new discoveries. He continued his extensive travelling across Eastern Europe, taking in Georgia for the first time in 1888, and making many distinguished friends along the way. When at home, 4 Clarendon Villas became a magnet for like-minded friends, and together they whiled away a few pleasant hours every Sunday afternoon engaging in learned debate — no doubt accompanied by tea, served in the cosy but elegant lounge or in the secluded back garden. He was an amiable, friendly and hospitable man, who revelled in these intellectual gatherings, and he built up a wide circle of friends.
The 1880s and 1890s were particularly productive years for Morfill. Over these two decades he produced grammars of Polish (1884), Serbian (1887) and Bulgarian (1897) for Trübner’s ‘Simplified Grammars’ series, and Russian (1889) and Czech (1899) for the Clarendon Press. He also contributed an article on Georgian literature to The Academy (July 21, 1888) and a number of articles to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Other major works included histories of Russia (1885) and Poland (1893) for ‘The Story of the Nations’ series, a study of Slavonic religion for ‘Religious Systems of the World’, and A History of Russia from Peter the Great to Alexander II (1902). In 1896 he and Dr R.H. Charles translated the Slavonic version of the Book of the Secrets of Enoch. He became a corresponding member of the Royal Czech Society of Sciences in 1890, and of the Francis Joseph Czech Academy for Sciences, Literature and Arts in 1905. Overseas recognition for his work came in 1908 in the form of an honorary doctorate from the Charles University in Prague.
By this time he had finally achieved belated recognition from Oxford University. He was appointed Reader in Russian and other Slavonic languages in 1889, and promoted to Professor in 1900, when he was 66. Four years later, he saw Russian become a full degree subject at Oxford — after more than 40 years of promoting the Slavonic languages through his teaching and writing. It was a major achievement, one that is all the more remarkable for the fact that his expertise was almost entirely self-taught.
Despite failing health, Morfill continued to work to the end of his life. He died peacefully at home on November 9, 1909, aged 75, leaving a translation of the ancient Novgorod Chronicle unfinished.
His funeral was held at St Philip and St James Church, Oxford, and he was buried alongside his wife at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, Walton Street, on November 13.
His collection of Slavonic books was bequeathed to Queen’s College, but he left instructions that his manuscripts should be destroyed. An archive of surviving correspondence, along with books by and about Morfill, is currently on loan to the Taylor Institution Slavonic and Modern Greek Library, where there also portraits of Morfill on display.
The blue plaque honouring Morfill’s achievements was unveiled on 1st November 1 by Dr Gerald Stone, Emeritus Fellow of Hertford College and former university lecturer in non-Russian Slavonic Languages. It is a well-deserved recognition for a man who, in Dr Stone’s words, “was a pioneer, who outstripped his contemporaries.”
With thanks to Richard Morfill Parker, great-great-nephew of William Morfill, and Eda Forbes, secretary of the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, for help with photographs and information.