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Feature essay

‘Five lives’ from the Oxford DNB

Sometimes it's hard to know where to begin. With 55,000 people to choose from, there's surely someone in the Oxford DNB to suit your mood or interests. But who do you look up next? Help is now at hand, with our selections of ‘five lives’, chosen by the dictionary's editors. Allow us to introduce you to five:


Alderson, Thomas Hopper (1903–1965), wartime rescue party leader
Henry fitz Ailwin (d. 1212), first mayor of London
Markievicz [née Gore-Booth], Constance Georgine, Countess Markievicz in the Polish nobility (1868–1927), Irish republican and first woman elected to parliament
Normanton, Helena Florence (1882–1957), barrister and feminist campaigner
Omai (c.1753–c.1780), first Tahitian to visit England

and lasts

Ellis [née Neilson], Ruth (1926–1955), nightclub hostess and convicted murderer
Pentreath [later Jeffery], Dorothy [Dolly] (bap. 1692, d. 1777), native Cornish speaker
Russell, Edward Southwell, twenty-sixth Baron de Clifford (1907–1982), racing driver, dog-food salesman, and the last peer to be tried by the House of Lords
Shanawdithit [called Nancy] (c.1801–1829), the last of the Beothuk
Wenham, Jane (d. 1730), last person convicted of witchcraft in England

Men of mystery

Anonymous IV (fl. 1250–1280), music theorist
Gawain Poet (fl. c.1375–1400), author
Hood, Robin (supp. fl. late 12th–13th cent.), legendary outlaw hero
Spring-Heeled Jack (fl. 1837–1838), mystery assailant
Walter (b. early 1820s, d. in or after 1894), anonymous autobiographer

Cat and dog lovers

Aspinall, John Victor (1926–2000), gambler and zoo owner
Chapman [married name Sanger], Ellen (1830/31–1899), lion tamer
Cruft, Charles Alfred (1852–1938), founder of Crufts Dog Show
Liakhoff, Nicolai [Nikolay Liakhov] (1897–1962), pioneer of guide dog training
Woodhouse [née Blackburn], Barbara Kathleen Vera (1910–1988), animal trainer and broadcaster

Snappy dressers

Brummell, George Bryan [known as Beau Brummell] (1778–1840), dandy and socialite
Clark, Raymond [Ossie] (1942–1996), fashion designer
Forde, Florrie [real name Flora May Augustus Flanagan; married name Flora May Augustus Barnett] (1876–1940), music-hall entertainer
Goalen [née Bach; other married name Campbell], Barbara Kathleen (1921–2002), fashion model
Roger, Neil Munro [Bunny] (1911–1997), couturier and socialite

People to get stuck in a lift with

Bramah [Bramma], Joseph (1749–1814), engineer and inventor of locks
Hutchinson, Leslie Arthur Julien [performing name Hutch] (1900–1969), cabaret entertainer
Maskelyne, John Nevil (1839–1917), magician
Shaw, Sir Eyre Massey (1828–1908), fire officer
Violante [Larini], Signor (fl. 1727–1728), ropeslider


Davis, Harold [performing names Harold Alzana, the Great Alzana] (1916–2001), high-wire walker
Cadman [Kidman], Robert (1711/12–1740), ropeslider
Congreve, Sir William, second baronet (1772–1828), rocket designer
Johnson [married name Mollison], Amy (1903–1941), aviator
Lunardi, Vincenzo (1759–1806), balloonist

Domestic gods and goddesses

Booth, Hubert Cecil (1871–1955), civil engineer
Cradock, Phyllis Nan Sortain [Fanny] (1909–1994), television chef
Cullwick, Hannah (1833–1909), diarist
May, Robert (b. 1588?, d. in or after 1664), cook and author
Peel [née Bayliff], Constance Dorothy Evelyn (1868–1934), journalist and writer on household management

People in a hurry

Damm, Sheila Van (1922–1987), rally driver and theatre director
Hailwood, (Stanley) Michael Bailey (1940–1981), racing motorcyclist
Hill, (Norman) Graham (1929–1975), racing motorist
Carstairs, Joe [formerly Marion Barbara] (1900–1993), heiress and motor-boat racing driver
Thomas, John Godfrey Parry (1884–1927), holder of land speed records

Household names

Bird, Alfred (bap. 1811, d. 1878), chemist and food manufacturer
Horlick, Sir James, first baronet (1844–1921), health drink manufacturer
Perrins, William Henry (1793–1867), sauce manufacturer
Lyle, Abram (1820–1891), shipowner and sugar refiner
Mars, Forrest Edward (1904–1999), confectionery manufacturer

Tall dark strangers

Churchill, Gladys Marie Spencer- [née Gladys Marie Deacon], duchess of Marlborough (1881–1977), society beauty
Cotter, Patrick [performing name Patrick O'Brien] (1760/61–1806), giant
Elliott [Eliot; née Dalrymple], Grace [nicknamed Dally the Tall] (1754?–1823), courtesan and writer
Hackenschmidt, George (1877–1968), wrestler and philosopher
Rathbone, (Philip St John) Basil (1892–1967), actor

People not to have dinner with

Buckland, William (1784–1856), geologist and dean of Westminster
Churchill [née Jerome], Jeanette [Jennie; Lady Randolph Churchill] (1854–1921), society hostess and writer
Godric of Finchale [St Godric of Finchale] (c.1070–1170), trader and hermit
Greville, Charles Cavendish Fulke (1794–1865), political and social diarist
Lambert, Daniel (1770–1809), the most corpulent man of his time in England

Desert island companions

Defoe, Daniel (1660?–1731), writer and businessman
Gleitze, Mercedes (1900–1981), swimmer
Morton, John Cameron Andrieu Bingham Michael [pseud. Beachcomber] (1893–1979), humorous journalist
Plomley, (Francis) Roy (1914–1985), radio broadcaster
Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tupou III (1900–1965), queen of Tonga

Children's favourites

Awdry, Wilbert Vere (1911–1997), children's writer, railway historian, and Church of England clergyman
Hargreaves, (Charles) Roger (1935–1988), copywriter and children's author
Mills, Annette [real name Edith Mabel Mills] (1894–1955), entertainer
Thompson, Eric Norman (1929–1982), actor and theatre director
Webb [married names Brierley, Hunter, Searle], (Kathleen) Kaye (1914–1996), children's publisher and journalist

People of courage

Chavasse, Noel Godfrey (1884–1917), army medical officer and holder of two Victoria crosses
Darling, Grace Horsley (1815–1842), heroine
Khan, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat (1914–1944), special operations officer
MacDonald, Flora (1722–1790), Jacobite heroine
Walker [formerly Bellenie, Bellenie-Walker], William Robert (1869–1918), diver

True romantics

Cartland [married name McCorquodale], Dame (Mary) Barbara Hamilton (1901–2000), novelist
Homrigh, Esther Van [known as Vanessa] (1688–1723), correspondent and lover of Jonathan Swift
Howard, Trevor [real name Trevor Wallace Howard-Smith] (1913–1988), actor
Boon, Charles (1877–1943), publisher
Niclaes, Hendrik [Henry Nicholas] (1502–c.1580), founder of the Family of Love

People who aren't all they seem

Belaney, Archibald Stansfeld [called Grey Owl] (1888–1938), impostor and conservationist
Baker [née Willcocks], Mary [alias Princess Caraboo] (bap. 1791, d. 1864), impostor
Parsons, Elizabeth [called the Cock Lane Ghost] (1749–1807), impostor
Thornton, Anne Jane (b. 1817), sailor and cross-dresser
Tichborne claimant (d. 1898), claimant of baronetcy

Ne'er do wells

Charteris, Francis (c.1665–1732), gambler and rake
Clare, Bogo de (1248–1294), ecclesiastic and figure of scandal
Drummond, George Henry Charles Francis Malcolm, Viscount Forth (1834–1861), dipsomaniac
Harris, James Thomas [Frank] (1856?–1931), journalist and rogue
Hervey, Frederick William John Augustus, seventh marquess of Bristol (1954–1999), wastrel

People with swing

Benson, Ivy (1913–1993), bandleader
Bryden, Beryl Audrey (1920–1998), jazz singer and washboard player
Dinnie, Donald (1837–1916), athlete
Love, Geoffrey [Geoff] (1917–1991), popular composer, bandleader, and trombonist
Vardon, Henry William [Harry] (1870–1937), golfer

Double acts

Burke, William (1792–1829), murderer, and William Hare (b. 1792/1804), murderer
Flanders, Michael Henry (1922–1975), actor and lyricist, and Swann, Donald Ibrahim (1923–1994), composer and pianist
Gilbert, Sir William Schwenck (1836–1911), playwright, and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Seymour (1842–1900), composer and conductor
Morecambe, Eric [real name John Eric Bartholomew] (1926–1984), actor and comedian, and Wise, Ernie [real name Ernest Wiseman] (1925–1999), entertainer
Rolls, Charles Stewart (1877–1910), motor car promoter and aviator, and Royce, Sir (Frederick) Henry, baronet (1863–1933), engineer and motor car designer