We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  (Henry) Colin Gray Matthew (1941–1999), by Judith Aronson, 1993 (Henry) Colin Gray Matthew (1941–1999), by Judith Aronson, 1993
Matthew, (Henry) Colin Gray (1941–1999), historian and founding editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, was born at 31 Island Bank Road, Inverness, on 15 January 1941, the eldest child of Henry Johnston Scott Matthew (1914–1997), consultant physician, and his wife, Joyce Mary (Maisie) McKendrick (1915–2010). , professor of physiology in Edinburgh and Glasgow, was his great-grandfather.

Background and early life

While Matthew was still a young child his family moved to Edinburgh, where his father became a distinguished physician. He was very conscious of being a member of the Edinburgh upper-middle class, though his attitude to that class and its mores was, to say the least, ambivalent. In part, this was due to his difficult relationship with his father. There was little intimacy between the two, except perhaps towards the end of his father's life. There was also a wider ambivalence towards Scotland generally. He was in many ways very Scottish, and was intellectually involved in Scottish culture and politics—he was even an excellent piper—but reacted against what he took to be the introversion of Scottish life and the petty snobberies of Edinburgh. This was not helped by his time at the Edinburgh Academy, a school he strongly disliked, and from which he was removed. He crossed the border and went to Sedbergh School, where he was very happy. In particular, he liked the history teaching at Sedbergh and acknowledged that as part of his intellectual development. He was head boy at the school.

In 1960 Matthew went to Christ Church, Oxford, to read modern history. The college was an institution he always much respected, as he did his tutors, particularly C. H. Stuart, a man whose own views were in many ways antithetical to Matthew's. What united them was a deep affection for Christ Church as a great nineteenth-century institution, not as the one founded by Henry VIII, and for the traditions of nineteenth-century scholarship. (Their mutual respect was marked by Matthew's address at Stuart's memorial service, given at Stuart's request.) Matthew graduated in 1963 with second-class honours and was not even very close to first-class honours. Given his later distinction as a historian this may seem surprising but the Oxford examination system did not suit him. His ruminative intellectual processes, the careful thought, were unsuited to the snappy demands of the three-hour examination. Furthermore, especially as a younger man, his first drafts—which is what exam answers are—were awkward, in many ways sketches. The mandarin style of the older man was the product of hard work, practice, and considerable rewriting.

After graduation Matthew went to east Africa, first to Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, where he completed a diploma in education, and then to newly independent Tanzania, where he was a teacher. The three years he spent in east Africa were doubly important. First, he met his future wife, Sue Ann Curry (b. 1941), also a teacher, who was to play an absolutely central role in his own life and in those of his family and friends. She was an American, born in Ohio, the daughter of Clarence William Curry and his wife, Ruth Richardson. Second, he gained an understanding of a decaying imperial system which still, none the less, had considerable authority. Matthew found himself teaching largely English constitutional history of a whiggish kind to classes for whom it was increasingly alien, though not necessarily unpopular. This experience was in a way formative: when he returned to Oxford in 1966, a return assisted by Charles Stuart, he worked briefly with Robert Blake and Roy Harrod for an uncompleted diploma in politics and economics but soon transferred to do a doctorate, under the supervision of A. F. Thompson, on the imperial wing of the late Victorian and Edwardian Liberal Party. The doctorate was completed in 1970 and published in 1973 as The Liberal Imperialists: the Ideas and Politics of a Post-Gladstonian Élite. This was Matthew's first attempt to grapple with Gladstone and his legacy to British politics, but also with the empire and its legacy to British politics. He married Sue Curry on 17 December 1966. They had three children: David, Lucy, and Oliver.


In 1970 Matthew was appointed lecturer in Gladstone studies at Christ Church—though he might well have gone to the University of Malaysia had the offer of a post there not been sent by sea mail—with a brief to assist M. R. D. Foot in the publication of the Gladstone diaries. The first two volumes had been published in 1968, with Foot as sole editor; the second two were published in 1974 under the joint editorship of Foot and Matthew. In 1972 Matthew became sole editor, and the remaining ten volumes (including the index) were his alone. The publication of the diaries was an immense undertaking, and it established his reputation not just as an editor, but as a scholar and, indirectly, as a teacher.

Matthew was an impeccable scholarly editor: he left nothing unexamined or to chance. He also drew upon an extraordinarily wide range of expertise, and thus, often willy-nilly, acquired an extraordinarily wide intellectual acquaintance. He was very persuasive in drawing upon not only the gratuitous help of friends and colleagues, but also that of his family—especially his indispensable aunt Jean Gilliland. He was a hard man to refuse. His abilities as editor were not merely academic or persuasive. Having been characteristically slow in computerizing himself, he then characteristically learned to use the sophisticated software which produced the remarkable index to the diaries, a scholarly resource in its own right, for which he was awarded the Wheatley medal by the Society of Indexers.

Under Matthew's editorship the principles by which the diaries were published underwent two important changes. The first involved the content of the published diaries themselves. The initial six volumes consisted of the diary entries alone. This was possible because the entries were full enough and of sufficient intrinsic interest; indeed, their revelations of the younger Gladstone's religious and sexual anxieties—which Matthew handled frankly and sensitively—had a dramatic quality which earned the diaries wide publicity. As Gladstone's political significance increased, however, the diary entries became more austere and bitty; sometimes merely lists. Matthew therefore decided to accompany the entries with the appropriate cabinet ‘minutes’ and associated personal political correspondence. This permitted, as he noted, ‘by far the fullest documentary account of a British administration in peacetime’ (H. C. G. Matthew, ed., The Gladstone Diaries, 7, 1982, v), and enormously widened both the scope and scholarly utility of the published diaries. It also imposed new burdens on the editor.

The second change lay in the character of the introductions to each volume: they became steadily longer and more argumentative. Matthew increasingly used them to make a powerful statement about the nature of nineteenth-century British politics, with Gladstone's career as its pivot. He had reacted strongly against what was then perhaps the predominant view: that the ‘faddism’ which later ravaged the Liberal Party was a result of Gladstone's personal obsessions—with Ireland, for instance—and that Gladstone was somehow out of tune with the development of mass politics. Matthew increasingly came to the view that Gladstone was the first ‘modern’ politician. In doing so he was much influenced by Max Weber's argument that Gladstone and Lincoln were the prototypes of the demagogic politicians of the twentieth century. The Gladstone who emerges from Matthew's introductions is, among much else, a pioneer in manipulating the modern media, the man who shaped not so much the political rhetoric of the twentieth century as the notion that there should be a political rhetoric appropriate to an age when the ‘masses’ rather than the ‘classes’ dominated the electorate. Matthew also strongly defended, if not in all their details, Gladstone's Irish policies. Ireland, he argued, was not Gladstone's obsession but the obsession of others. His attempt to unblock British politics by a final settlement of the Irish question was frustrated by those—particularly in the Conservative Party—who had a selfish and cynical interest in ensuring that the question was never settled.

Matthew's interpretation of Gladstone was an evolving one. In part that was due to his development as a historian. As he increasingly thought of history in structural and comparative terms, the context in which he placed Gladstone became wider in scope and explanation. He moved from a simple biography of Gladstone to a ‘biography’ of nineteenth-century political culture via Gladstone. It was also a result of his reflections on the history of British political institutions after Gladstone's death: in a sense on Gladstone's ‘lesson’ for his successors. Matthew was all his adult life a member of the Labour Party, and though he was maddened by the behaviour of much of the party in the early 1980s he never left it or lost his loyalties to its social democratic traditions. The extent and character of his political engagement can be measured in his ‘In vacuo’ essays, which appeared regularly in the house journal of Oxford University, the Oxford Magazine. These were the politics of a man who was obviously hostile to the predominant spirit of his age but who felt that many of the country's historic institutions—not least Oxford University—had left themselves open to attack because they had been unwilling to reform themselves. There was an implied contrast here with the nineteenth century, and especially with Gladstone, but arguably his analysis of the politics of his own time—particularly, perhaps, the travails of the Labour Party—encouraged him to think of Gladstone, for all his flaws, as the model of a reforming political leader. He came to believe, for example, that Gladstone's view that ‘progressive’ electoral majorities could most effectively be mobilized around great legislative acts (‘big bills’) was almost certainly correct.

The size and importance of Matthew's introductions to the diaries allowed him to publish them, somewhat reassembled, as a two-volume biography, Gladstone (1986, 1995), which remains his master work and for which he was awarded the Wolfson prize for history. Matthew's Gladstone is a towering figure—central to the political, religious, and intellectual history of the nineteenth century, such that someone like Disraeli seems a mere dilettante. Matthew as historian benefited from this. To master Gladstone he had to master much of the history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and not just of Britain. Gladstone's own preoccupations drew Matthew into the history of Germany and Italy and allowed him to place Gladstone within a European framework to a degree that few previous students of Gladstone had done.

This range had its consequences for the Oxford history syllabus. Matthew was an originator of two of its special subjects: the first on late Victorian and Edwardian social policy, the second on church and state in Victorian Britain. Both demanded a detailed knowledge of subject and period which few other than Matthew possessed. Another proposal, which he and a colleague drafted, for a comparative course on the financial and constitutional crises in the major European states on the eve of the First World War, never got off the ground, largely because it was too demanding for any history syllabus. Since the mastering of Gladstone required him to think in the largest terms it also encouraged him to write essays on British history of great sweep designed for a wider public, as in the Oxford Illustrated History of Britain (ed. K. O. Morgan, 1984) and the Short Oxford History of the British Isles: the Nineteenth Century (2000), which he himself edited and which was published posthumously. It also set him upon the work which he thought would be his summa but which he never finished: a study of the evolution of the political rhetoric and culture of the nineteenth century. In practice, much of this work, one way or another, was already written, though Matthew had still to sort out the apparent antithesis between the ‘demagogic’ nature of Gladstone's political rhetoric and what Matthew thought to be the highly rational rhetoric of the Edwardian Liberal Party—which, he had argued, eventually brought it to ruin.

Matthew's success as editor inevitably brought him success in academic life. In 1976 he was elected a research student (in effect a senior research fellow) of Christ Church, which, however, was coterminous with his position as editor of the diaries. Security was guaranteed when he was elected to a tutorial fellowship at St Hugh's College, Oxford, in 1978. That was primarily a teaching post and as a teacher he was outstandingly good, both academically and pastorally. The grief and shock his death caused generations of graduates and undergraduates were a poignant testimony to this. He was attached to St Hugh's in every way and served the college in several capacities, among them as senior tutor and librarian. As the editor of a great scholarly enterprise he was in demand for posts which drew upon this experience. He was for four years (1985–9) literary director of the Royal Historical Society, was a curator of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and was on the committee of the Oxford Historical Monographs Series. None of these posts he regarded as a sinecure. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1991 and as a member of its council and vice-president was influential in its affairs. He was very ‘chuffed’ (as he would have said) to have been appointed a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, a relationship established when he wrote a marvellous essay on Millais's portraits of Gladstone.

The new Dictionary of National Biography

Matthew had given some thought to what he might do when the publication of the diaries was complete, but he was initially undecided. Although he would have continued as a college tutor happily enough, he probably would have been restless. The issue arose unexpectedly when Oxford University, the British Academy, and Oxford University Press decided to embark upon a new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, a dictionary which would incorporate and revise the old one but which would be an entirely new project. Matthew was asked whether he would agree to become editor. Although he sought the advice of friends and colleagues—a number of whom advised against his taking it—it is unlikely that he ever thought seriously of refusing. He had been a brilliant success as an academic entrepreneur, as well as scholar, and was excited by the prospect of overseeing such an undertaking: what would become the largest research project in the humanities in Britain. He was also attracted by the possibility of reconstructing a great nineteenth-century creation—to do for an institution what he had done for the Gladstone diaries. He had, furthermore, as a younger man been involved in another project, which never came to fruition, to examine the ways in which Oliver Cromwell's career had been put to ideological and political use in British history—he had worked, inter alia, on the controversy over the erection of the Cromwell statue which now stands outside Westminster Hall—and he saw this as in some sense a model for the project to create a new Dictionary of National Biography. In 1992 he was formally appointed editor and the university recognized his distinction by electing him to a personal chair.

Such hesitation as Matthew had before accepting the post was probably ‘political’. That some of the funding for the new Dictionary came indirectly from the government at a time when, in the eyes of many, including Matthew, it was becoming increasingly unwilling to fund research into the humanities at adequate levels, made the new dictionary politically problematic. He was also aware that the writing of national history via individual biographies went against historiographical developments, both in Britain and abroad. Matthew, however, argued that these objections could be overcome. He believed that the popularity of historical biography as a genre in Britain was something which had to be recognized and exploited, rather than deplored. One way to do this was to make the new edition of the dictionary as wide-ranging as possible. Here Matthew was much more sympathetic to the dictionary's first editor, Leslie Stephen, who believed that all human life should be represented, than to Stephen's successor, Sidney Lee, who had a much more ‘national-celebratory’ view of the dictionary. Above all Matthew was determined that the category of women, the most conspicuous absence in the Dictionary of National Biography, should achieve a different status in the new edition of the dictionary. He was himself exceptionally open to suggestions and he and the staff of the dictionary canvassed very widely before drawing up a definitive list of names—and the list remained undefinitive for a long time. The list was also opened to foreigners whose visits to Britain ‘may have been short but whose observations have been influential’, as it was to iconic figures (like Britannia and John Bull), and to people who might never have existed (like King Arthur) or who have never been identified (like Jack the Ripper), but whose resonance in historical memory is sufficiently strong to justify inclusion. There was, as well, to be a more generous interpretation of individuals whose lives were lived under British imperial rule, and this embraced the pre-1776 American colonists. The result was a biographical dictionary of more than 50,000 names, with no significant area of British historical experience absent.

A second way of ensuring that the revised Dictionary of National Biography did not become over-individualized was to combine certain individuals into group entries—landed families or family firms, for example—as well as to give collective representation to movements. With the old technology, even had it been thought desirable, this would have been very difficult. With electronic technology, however, the possibilities of which had excited Matthew since he began to compile the index to the Gladstone diaries, sophisticated cross-referencing and highly sensitive indexing made collective representation easier. The only problem with this, as he himself remarked, ‘is that it will be at once complained that it is not extensive enough’ (Matthew, Leslie Stephen, 27).

The third principle, an important one, was to include within the new edition of the dictionary all the entries from the old—though all revised or rewritten. This not only avoided all the problems of starting over again, it gave the new dictionary itself a historical character. Matthew argued that while many of the entries in Stephen's dictionary—the legions of clergy are an example—would not have been included in a dictionary begun de novo, that they were important to the Victorians is itself historically significant. The new edition of the dictionary is, therefore, a collective account of the attitudes of two centuries: the nineteenth as well as the twentieth, the one developing organically from the other. There was, it must be said, some tension within this principle, as Matthew knew. He was trying to endow the new edition of the dictionary with a certain timelessness, a proof against changing fashion, by emphasizing the historicity of individual lives—he was anxious that the changing historical reputations of individuals should be emphasized in their entries—but he was also conscious of how far great enterprises, such as the new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, are products of the particular concerns of their time (and he believed that the last quarter of the twentieth century was a particularly climacteric moment in British history) which become not so much timeless as historical artefacts themselves. None the less he had devised a structure which made the new edition of the dictionary as proof against changing fashion as any structure could.

The old Dictionary of National Biography was published alphabetically by name, seriatim, over a period of fifteen and a half years. This was a procedure that Matthew rightly did not repeat. Instead he decided that the new edition of the dictionary should be published as a whole in 2004, twelve years after its inception; the complete dictionary duly appeared on 23 September 2004. This made possible the organization of the project first into general areas, some defined by period and some by subject (such as art or business), supervised by consultant editors, and then into specialist blocks (such as eighteenth-century naval officers, or twentieth-century physicists), supervised by associate editors. (Matthew was himself consultant editor for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.) He had in addition one more resource unavailable to Stephen or Lee: a large professional scholarly community—mostly, though not altogether, university-based. Whereas the old dictionary was substantially written, often in house, by generalists who frequently wrote very many entries, the new edition was essentially written by specialists, whose work was co-ordinated and polished by an expert in-house research team. Oxford University Press, moreover, provided him with invaluable editorial, technical, and administrative support.

While as general editor of the dictionary Matthew was answerable to a supervisory committee, all the major strategic decisions as to its organization and production were his. He was not, however, an intrusive general editor. Once the rules had been established he was inclined to let people get on with the job, as indeed it was all the easier for them to do thanks to the clear lines of command he had established. The atmosphere at the dictionary's offices was, therefore, exceptionally congenial yet also purposeful. Matthew's personal qualities, his equability, his capacity to encourage and to guide, the qualities we normally associate with leadership, made him an inspiring editor, and his death caused as much dismay to the staff of the dictionary as it did to his students. He did not, of course, live to see its publication, but it is none the less very largely his creation.

Matthew was not merely an editor: he wrote numerous entries himself, including several on Britain's recent monarchs. That is not as surprising as it seems: although politically on the left, Matthew had a strong interest in those great British institutions—the Union, crown, church, parliament, Oxford—which had undergone major reforms in the nineteenth century but which were often ill adapted, as he thought, to the twentieth. How they might adapt was one of his intellectual preoccupations and had emerged from his study of Gladstone. Indeed, the last of his writing to be published during his life was an essay in the London Review of Books on Scotland and the future of the Union.

Matthew's editorship of both the Gladstone diaries and the new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography brought him international as well as national recognition. He went quite regularly to Italy and also to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. He was an adviser to the committee which supervised the publication of Bertrand Russell's correspondence, and was awarded an honorary doctorate at McMaster University in Canada. He was a willing speaker at universities, schools, and branches of the Historical Association.

Character and assessment

There was another side to Matthew: that of the wife-supporting husband. When their children had reached a safe age Sue Matthew returned to teaching, a career in which she was as successful as he was in his. As his friend and colleague Peter Ghosh wrote:
Although, for many, the abiding image of Colin Matthew will be of the scholar and the public man, pondering what might become of Britain in the future, for the parents of south Oxford it will be that of the devotedly loyal husband who would always turn out on weekday evenings for events at St Ebbe's First School [of which Sue Matthew was head teacher], and who, as a special treat, would play the bagpipes at the summer fete. (The Guardian, 2 Nov 1999)
The extent of Matthew's writing and editing was prodigious, and was the result of self-discipline and remarkable powers of concentration. Whatever else he did, he wrote every morning from seven until eight, and was very efficient in his use of time. His rooms, particularly his Christ Church room, which was once Gladstone's, looked utterly chaotic to the outsider, but had a clear internal order for Matthew. He was careful, however, not to let his work dominate him. He and his family, who gave him intense happiness and satisfaction, always went to Scotland in August, and he and his wife nearly always took a little break abroad after Christmas. He was a good fisherman (though he eventually gave it up in deference to his daughter's anti-fishing views) and became an enthusiastic photographer. There was nothing to make anyone suspect ill health. He complained of shortness of breath only a few days before his death: he was, in fact, on his way to the doctor when, on 29 October 1999, outside St Hugh's College, he had the heart attack from which he died later that day at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford. After a funeral service at Christ Church Cathedral on 4 November 1999 he was cremated at Oxford crematorium, and his ashes were buried in the churchyard of St Thomas's Church, Elsfield. He was survived by his wife, Sue, and their three children. A memorial service was held at the university church of St Mary the Virgin on 12 February 2000.

Matthew's was a remarkably successful career. But it did not come easily. As a younger man, particularly, he felt that he had to work harder than others to achieve what he deserved, and this led to a certain prickliness. He himself conceded that he did not always have a good bedside manner. In part, this gruffness was a natural way of speech. In reporting his election to the fellowship at St Hugh's he told a friend: ‘St Hugh's. News. Good’ (private information). But there is no doubt that in the early days people could be puzzled and sometimes alienated by his manner, even those who later became friends and admirers. Given how much he had once thought himself an outsider, he would have been less than human had he not felt a certain satisfaction at ‘showing them’ they had been wrong—a satisfaction he did not always conceal. But success mellowed him. By the time of his death he was enormously respected and liked, indeed ‘loved’ would be the better word. As Sir Keith Thomas said of his death: ‘A sense of shock and desolation ran through Oxford and was rapidly disseminated outwards to all the learned world. Colin Matthew was one of the few wholly irreplaceable people in this university’ (Thomas, funeral address, 4 Nov 1999). In any case, even at his spikiest, those who knew him well found him utterly staunch—a word he himself often used—and he was always distressed if he felt that he had offended a friend. He was a striking figure: his hair prematurely white, nearly always informally dressed—a collar and tie were almost contrary to his nature. There is a fine photograph of him, in characteristic mode, in the St Hugh's College Library, and another, in a group portrait of the trustees, in the National Portrait Gallery. After his death the Colin Matthew Fund, for the encouragement of historical research within the University of Oxford, and the Colin Matthew lecture for the public understanding of history were established in his memory.

Ross McKibbin


H. C. G. Matthew, Leslie Stephen and the ‘New Dictionary of National Biography’ (1997) · The Times (1 Nov 1999) · Daily Telegraph (1 Nov 1999) · The Guardian (2 Nov 1999) · The Independent (1 Nov 1999) · K. Thomas, funeral address (privately printed, 2000) · WWW · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · b. cert. · d. cert.


priv. coll. |  Oxford University Press, Oxford DNB archive


J. Aronson, photograph, 1993, priv. coll. [see illus.] · photograph, St Hugh's College, Oxford · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Independent · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photographs, Oxford DNB archive · portrait (with NPG trustees), NPG

Wealth at death  

£324,288—gross: probate, 7 March 2000, CGPLA Eng. & Wales