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Tarrant, Dorothyfree

  • Lorna Hardwick

Tarrant, Dorothy (1885–1973), classical scholar, was born on 7 May 1885 at 6 Craven Terrace, Wandsworth, London, the only daughter (there were two sons) of the Revd William George Tarrant (1853–1928), Unitarian minister and journalist, and his wife, Alice, daughter of Henry Stanley of Manchester. She was educated at home until 1895, then at Wandsworth high school (1895–8) and the Girls' Public Day School Company's Clapham high school (1898–1904). While still at school she was placed in the first class of the examination for a London University external pass degree in classics. In 1904 she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she achieved firsts in the classical tripos, part one (1907) and part two, ancient philosophy (1908). While at Girton she won the Agnata Butler and Therese Montefiore prizes and was awarded the Gilchrist fellowship for research, 1908–9. Cambridge did not then award degrees to women, but as a student of Bedford College, London, she was awarded the University of London BA with first-class honours in classics (1906), followed by an MA in 1909 with a thesis entitled 'The genesis of Plato's theory of ideas'. She took a London PhD in 1930.

Tarrant became assistant lecturer in classics, Bedford College, University of London, in 1909, and in Greek in 1915. She was also acting head of Latin (1913–14) and was promoted to lecturer in 1921 and to university reader in 1929. In 1936 she became university professor of Greek and head of the department of Greek. Her inaugural lecture was 'Plato and the Greek genius'. She was the first female professor of Greek in Britain and after retiring in 1950 held the title of professor emeritus. She became an honorary fellow of Girton College in 1955 and of Bedford College and of Manchester College, Oxford, in 1969. She was president of the Hellenic Society in 1953–6 and president of the Classical Association in 1957–8.

Tarrant's academic publications centre on Plato and on Greek conceptions of the soul and their applications to ethics. Her major work, The Hippias Major Attributed to Plato (1928), includes a substantial introduction and commentary. She related the disputed authorship of the dialogue to study of Plato's early metaphysical theory, arguing from her analysis of content, style, and vocabulary that the work belonged to the Platonic period but was not written by Plato. This work together with her 'Imagery in Plato's Republic' (Classical Quarterly, 1946) and her later article 'Plato as dramatist' (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 75, 1955) pioneered the analysis of Plato's style. Other significant academic publications by Tarrant include articles, notes, and reviews, mostly on Plato, and 'Early Greek ideas of the soul: Homer to Anaxagoras' (Transactions of the Society for Promoting the Study of Religion, 1932). Her presidential address to the Classical Association, published in 1958 as 'The long line of torch-bearers', discussed authors and other aspects of the classical tradition. Within this field she included copyists and translators. Her address analysed and compared versions of the Odyssey by Pope, Samuel Butcher and Andrew Lang, and E. V. Rieu, with special attention to the challenges to the translator who wished both to convey the language and ideas of the past and also to relate them to contemporary concerns.

This interest in the relationship between ancient and modern also infused Tarrant's lectures and publications on Unitarian topics. She explored Plato's contribution to free religious thought, while her writings on temperance, of which she was an advocate, examined biblical and classical sources for evidence of social attitudes to alcohol and to the practical and ethical shortcomings of policies of moderate drinking.

Tarrant's father had been editor of The Inquirer as well as a major contributor to several hymnals. She followed in this tradition as a contributor to the Hibbert Journal and The Inquirer, and to A Golden Treasury of the Bible (1934). She undertook extensive administration and committee work for the Unitarians, and was president of the Unitarian Temperance Association from 1948 to 1951. Her Essex Hall lecture in 1949 was published as The Contribution of Plato to Free Religious Thought. As president of the Unitarian Assembly in 1952–3, her presidential address, 'The visible witness of free religion', which was published in The Inquirer (19 April 1952, 123–4), examined the parallels between religious and personal freedom ('diversity of views is the inevitable concomitant of our freedom'). Her Sims Woodhead memorial lecture (1951) is a valuable document for the social history of Unitarianism in which she commented on her upbringing as a minister's daughter and on changes in the temperance tradition among nonconformists. Alongside her discussion of the drunken Heracles episode in Euripides' Alcestis and the passage in Odyssey, xiv on wine ('a crazy thing. It sets the wisest man singing and giggling like a girl'; line 463), she also meditated on the impact of advertising in setting role models for young people. She was visitor to the Unitarian College, Manchester, from 1955 to 1958, its president from 1961 to 1963, and the first woman trustee of Dr Williams's Trust from 1945 to 1973. From 1924 to 1971 she compiled the prayers and readings for the bi-monthly newsletter of the Unitarian Women's League.

Tarrant was notable as one of the first women to develop a full academic career and also as an example of the links between Unitarianism, women's education, and classical scholarship (particularly in the context of Bedford College). Her published work shows her at the interface between the nineteenth-century tradition of using classical sources as quasi-biblical models for ethical insight and a modern awareness of social change. She lectured on classical subjects to women's groups and to inmates in Holloway prison. Published works and formal photographs represent her as socially conservative and morally earnest. However, friends and colleagues testified to her sense of fun and disarming humour (obituary in The Inquirer, 29 September 1973). Her unpublished handwritten lecture notes and some photographs also suggest a rounded personality. As early as 1926 she was lecturing to passengers on a Mediterranean cruise. Her wartime lecture on the history of Bedford College affirms the humanism and international values of scholarship and ruminates on 'what our College stands for and what it can and should achieve'. In the same period of evacuation to Cambridge she lectured, humorously, in May 1941 on a manuscript, 'Socrates and a Friend', supposedly recently discovered. The fragmented document revealed that most of the members of the ancient Academy were women, evacuated from the city to cold and windswept conditions, instituting previously unknown rituals such as 'the hour for making black' and relieved only by the symposia to which they were invited by male sophists (in this connection she inferred that the term ‘maidens’ in the document might refer merely to the youth of the women).

In retirement Tarrant lived in Wandsworth, London, lecturing at least until her late seventies and continuing to proof-read for the Lindsey Press. In the year before her death she addressed envelopes for an appeal for The Inquirer. She died of pneumonia and old age at St James's Hospital, Balham, London, on 4 September 1973. She never married.


  • The Inquirer (29 Sept 1973)
  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, Bedford College archives, private MSS of Dorothy Tarrant [incl. MSS with classical connotations], GB 0505 PP17
  • cuttings of items by and about Dorothy Tarrant, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, Bedford College archive, RF 141/8
  • M. Tuke, A history of Bedford College, 1849–1934 (1939) [incl. photograph of Tarrant]
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, archives of Bedford College, cuttings of items, RF 141/8
  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, archives of Bedford College, unpublished lectures, GB 0505 PP 17


  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1938, Girton Cam.
  • photograph, 1950–1959, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, Bedford College Archive
  • photograph, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, Bedford College Archive; repro. in Tuke, History of Bedford College
  • photograph, repro. in ‘Dorothy Tarrant, Professor of Greek 1936–50’, Bedford College, University of London: memories of 150 years, ed. J. Mordaunt Crook (2001)
  • photograph, repro. in Tarrant's presidential address, The Inquirer (19 April 1952), following p. 123
  • photograph, repro. in The Inquirer

Wealth at Death

£12,172: probate, 16 Nov 1973, CGPLA Eng. & Wales