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Owen, Humphreyfree

  • David Vaisey

Owen, Humphrey (1701/2–1768), librarian and college head, was the son of Humphrey Owen, gentleman, of Meifod, Montgomeryshire. The date and place of his birth are not known, but upon matriculation at Oxford University on 17 November 1718 his age was given as sixteen. He had entered Jesus College as a batteler two days previously. He graduated BA in 1722, MA in 1725, BD in 1733, and DD in 1763. He was admitted as a scholar of his college on 23 December 1723 and was elected a fellow on 22 June 1726. He fulfilled the office of senior bursar from 1732 to 1736 conscientiously—the college archives contain both rough and fair copies of his accounts. He was ordained on 5 March 1732, and in 1744 became rector of Tredington (second portion), Worcestershire, a Jesus College living. After having held it for a year he forfeited his college fellowship which was declared void on 8 November 1745. He retained the living until 1763 when, on 11 May, he was elected principal of Jesus College and was, as a consequence, presented to the rectory of Rotherfield Peppard, Oxfordshire, which was annexed to the post. For some time during the early 1760s he was also curate-in-charge of Kingston Bagpuize, Berkshire, fulfilling the duties during 1762–3 by appointing a deputy. He never married and remained as principal of his college until his death in 1768, in which year the statute forbidding principals to marry was repealed.

On 10 November 1747 Owen was unanimously elected to the post of Bodley's librarian, and held it until his death, although for at least two years after his election to the principalship of Jesus College his duties at the Bodleian were performed by his successor, John Price, one of the many members of his college whom Owen appointed successively to the post of sub-librarian. From 1756 until his death he was also a delegate of Oxford University Press, a position in which he was also succeeded by Price.

As librarian Owen was active in improving the facilities at the Bodleian which had begun to look dated alongside the new library at Christ Church, the Codrington at All Souls, and the Radcliffe Camera. He removed the Arundel marbles from the top floor of the Old Schools quadrangle (the picture gallery) to the old moral philosophy school on the ground floor, and oversaw the wainscoting and redecoration of the gallery with fine plasterwork. Fortunately he stopped short of putting a stucco ceiling in Duke Humfrey's Library as advocated by Thomas Warton, writing as ‘Thomas Hearne junior’ in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 29 November 1766. He did, however, unchain the folio volumes in Duke Humfrey's Library, replace the benches with comfortable chairs, and play a large part in the reconstruction of Selden End and the installation of the vaulted ceiling in the Convocation House below it.

Owen was also a conscientious worker on the library's collections, being responsible, among many other undertakings, for the numbering of the Tanner manuscripts which had come to the library in 1735 and were much in demand by scholars. His period in office also saw many more major acquisitions made by the Bodleian. The Clarendon and the Carte papers began to arrive at this time and the peak was reached in 1755 with the acquisition of the Ballard, Furney, and St Amand collections together with the Rawlinson bequest—the largest collection of manuscripts ever received from one donor. Owen had been corresponding with Richard Rawlinson for many years to ensure that the manuscripts joined Rawlinson's printed books in Oxford, and was responsible for devising the classification scheme for them, although they were not finally fully sorted and catalogued until 1893.

Owen shared the enthusiasms, especially on the numismatic front, of Rawlinson, Browne Willis, Francis Wise, William Stukeley, and other leading antiquaries, and correspondence surviving at the Bodleian shows that he also shared Rawlinson's Jacobite interests. He died in Jesus College on 26 March 1768, and Jackson's Oxford Journal on 2 April noted the respect in which he was held for his 'extensive learning, simplicity of manners, generosity, and constant integrity'. He was buried in the chapel of Jesus College, although the small gravestone noted by John Gutch in 1786 is no longer visible.


  • W. D. Macray, Annals of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2nd edn (1890)
  • I. Philip, The Bodleian Library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1983)
  • I. G. Philip, ‘Reconstruction in the Bodleian Library and Convocation House in the eighteenth century’, Bodleian Library Record, 6 (1957–61), 416–27
  • R. W. Hunt, ed., A summary catalogue of Western manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, 1 (1953), xxxvi–xlii
  • Jackson's Oxford Journal
  • A. Wood, The history and antiquities of the colleges and halls in the University of Oxford, ed. J. Gutch (1786)


  • Bodl. Oxf., in-letters
  • Bodl. Oxf., library records
  • Bodl. Oxf., report on appointment as Bodley's librarian
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Rawlinson
J. Foster, ed., , 4 vols. (1887–8), later edn (1891); , 4 vols. (1891–2); 8 vol. repr. (1968) and (2000)