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Forbes, Nevilllocked

  • Gerald Stone

Forbes, Nevill (1883–1929), Slavonic scholar, was born on 19 February 1883 at Forbes's (later Ashbee's), Godden Green, Seal, near Sevenoaks, Kent, the younger child of Francis Augustine Forbes (1844–1911), stockbroker, and his wife, Jessie Mary, née Carrick (1842–1925). His mother's family was resident in Kronstadt, Russia, but both his parents were of Scottish descent. Nevill was educated at home by a governess until he was eight or nine, when he was sent as a weekly boarder to a local preparatory school. In January 1897 he entered Marlborough College, but left prematurely owing to tuberculosis. As his mother's brother George was a specialist on the koumiss remedy for this disease and had a sanatorium near Orenburg, in southern Russia, it was decided to send him there for treatment. After two separate summer visits to the sanatorium in 1900 and 1901, during which he studied Russian, he travelled with his mother to the Caucasus and the Crimea (autumn 1901 to spring 1902). He made a full recovery and his tuberculosis never recurred.

In October 1903 Forbes entered Balliol College, Oxford, as a commoner, and in his first term won the Taylorian scholarship in Russian. A pupil of William Richard Morfill, he graduated BA (first class) in modern languages in 1906, being the first candidate at Oxford ever to offer Russian in finals. Morfill intended him to continue his studies under Vatroslav Jagić in Vienna, but Forbes's other teacher, Joseph Wright, insisted on the University of Leipzig, where he himself had studied nearly twenty years earlier. Considering Wright the more influential of his two patrons, Forbes registered at Leipzig in autumn 1908. His research there, supervised by (Johann Heinrich) August Leskien, resulted in his dissertation Der Gebrauch der Relativpronomina im Altrussischen (1910), for which he gained the degree of doctor of philosophy. Morfill died in November 1909 and in 1910 Forbes was appointed as his successor at Oxford, at first only as reader, but from November 1921 as professor of and reader in Russian and the other Slavonic languages. Additionally (from 1920) he was lecturer in Russian at the Queen's College. During the First World War he was unfit for active service but became a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, worked in the intelligence department of the Admiralty, and in 1918 was serving in Salonica.

The importance of Forbes's contribution to Slavonic studies in Britain lies primarily in the influence of his introductory grammars and textbooks, of which there had previously been very few, on generations of students. His Russian Grammar (1914), which for a long time was unrivalled, remained in print throughout most of the twentieth century, the third edition (revised and enlarged by John Dumbreck) being last reissued in 1990. Forbes also edited several elementary Russian readers and collaborated with Dragutin Subotić in publishing a Serbian Grammar (1915) and an English grammar (Engleska gramatika, 1920) for Serbs. His interest in the south Slavs was further reflected in the chapters on Bulgaria and Serbia he contributed to The Balkans (1915), and in his pamphlet entitled The Southern Slavs (1915). With C. Raymond Beazley and G. A. Birkett he published Russia: a History from the Varangians to the Bolsheviks (1918). Though a poor lecturer, he was an excellent tutor and not short of pupils.

Forbes was a homosexual and never married. He was fond of children and translated a series of Russian children's stories which were published with illustrations by his cousin Valery Carrick as Picture Tales from the Russian (1913), More Russian Picture Tales (1914), and Still More Russian Picture Tales (1915). He was a great traveller: in addition to many European countries he had, before the First World War, visited India. He had a gentle disposition, was thin and delicate in appearance, and, being short-sighted, wore glasses. A tendency to hypochondria was revealed in his habit of enquiring, before kissing his nieces, whether they had colds. A skilled amateur pianist with a large repertory known by heart, he was devoted to music and liked concerts. His artistic temperament was also revealed in a love of the theatre and, above all, of bright colours. From 1919 until his death he resided in a house overlooking the River Thames at 17 Botley Road, Oxford, known as Bridge House (later the River Hotel), where he spent much time cultivating his garden. His sister, visiting Oxford in the spring of 1926, saw him 'happy in his lot and content' and noted 'it is evident that wherever he goes he is liked and welcomed' (Ashbee, 90). Early in 1929 Forbes became concerned about the condition of his teeth. His dentist sent him to a bacteriologist, whose report worried him. Fears about his health preyed on his mind and on 9 February 1929 he was found in his bath, semi-conscious and bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. His doctor was called and attempts were made to save his life, but he died the same day. A member of the Church of England, he was buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul, Seal, near Sevenoaks, in the Forbes family grave.


  • private information (2004)
  • F. Ashbee, ‘Nevill Forbes, 1883–1929: some family letters from Russia’, Oxford Slavonic Papers, new ser., 9 (1976), 79–90
  • ‘Professor Forbes's death’, The Times (12 Feb 1929)
  • Slavonic and East European Review, 7 (1928–9), 699–702
  • The Times (11 Feb 1929)
  • The Times (12 Feb 1929)
  • The Times (20 Feb 1929)
  • R. Filipović, ‘Nevill Forbes’, Englesko-hrvatske književne veze (Zagreb, 1972), 190–92, 212–14
  • N. Forbes, Der Gebrauch der Relativpronomina im Altrussischen (1910) [incl. mini-autobiography]
  • C. Firth, Modern languages at Oxford, 1724–1929 (1929)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • U. Oxf., Taylor Institution, papers


  • photographs, 1890–1929, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1909, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1918, U. Oxf., Taylor Institution
  • V. Carrick, caricature drawing, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£38,043 12s. 11d.: probate, 3 April 1929, CGPLA Eng. & Wales