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George [née Gordon], (Mary) Dorothyfree

(1878–1971)
  • Mark Pottle

George [née Gordon], (Mary) Dorothy (1878–1971), historian, was born at Cheam, Surrey, on 14 July 1878, the daughter of Alexander Gordon (d. 1888), barrister, and his wife, Harriet Emily (d. 1939), the daughter of the Revd Robert Stammers Tabor. She was educated at St Leonards School, St Andrews, and Girton College, Cambridge. The choice of school and college were decided upon by her father after he saw the Du Maurier cartoon in Punch (July 1887), celebrating Agnata Ramsay's achievement of the highest first class in the classical tripos at Cambridge. Alexander Gordon decided that his daughter would follow her to St Leonards and Girton. He died in the following year, but his widow ensured that his wishes were carried out. Mary Dorothy Gordon arrived at Girton at Easter 1896, in her own words 'a quite exceptionally raw schoolgirl' (Girton Review, 23). The college was 'no longer a place of pioneers' and she was only loosely supervised by the redoubtable Ellen MacArthur (ibid., 24). Left to her own devices, she attended the lectures of Lord Acton, William Cunningham, and J. R. Tanner, and overcame a 'depressing atmosphere' to gain a first class in the historical tripos of 1899.

Gordon spent the next nine years with her family abroad, with the exception of a single year, 1901–2, when she was persuaded to teach history at Wycombe Abbey School. In 1909 she trained in palaeography at the London School of Economics, and she proceeded to doctoral research there as the Girton College J. E. Cairns scholar, 1910–13. Her dissertation on early Stuart finances, which was supervised by Lilian Knowles, was near to completion when she became engaged to Eric Beardsworth George (1881–1961), a portrait and figure painter, the son of Frederick Beardsworth George, iron merchant. They married on 4 October 1913 in the parish church of St Luke, Chelsea, and lived in London; there were no children. While they were away on honeymoon the sole manuscript of Dorothy George's dissertation was lost. She managed to salvage two articles on the seventeenth-century exchequer, but the dissertation itself was not to be resurrected.

During the First World War, Dorothy George worked in the intelligence department of the War Office, where she was engaged in counter-espionage with MI5 from 1915 to 1919. She afterwards resumed her academic career, making a fresh start in the social and economic history of the eighteenth century. She became a research scholar at the London School of Economics and in 1925 published London Life in the Eighteenth Century, an important and widely read work. Partly on the strength of its success the trustees of the British Museum invited her, in 1930, to complete the monumental Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings, the first five volumes of which had been published by Frederic George Stephens (1870–83). Stephens's volumes had covered the period 1320–1770. To Dorothy George fell the years 1771–1832, when English caricature was at its most profuse. She included nearly 13,000 items in her seven volumes, giving a precise description of each print and, where necessary, an elucidation of its historical context. She also provided in each volume a detailed index of persons, titles, subjects, artists, and printsellers.

Dorothy George began this great work on 14 October 1930 and produced her first volume in 1935. A new volume then appeared every three to five years. During the Second World War the whole project was moved to the shelter of the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. On the publication of the final volume in 1954 The Times hailed a remarkable feat of scholarship, which Dorothy George had accomplished 'with a persistence equalled only by her learning' (The Times, 27 Nov 1954). She was appointed OBE that year. In 1959 she published a companion to her magnum opus: English Political Caricatures, 1793–1832, tracing the evolution of political caricature, a theme illustrated in the pictorial representation of John Bull himself. Her later study of Welsh caricatures may have been inspired by her friendship with Mary Gwladys Jones, another Girtonian scholar of the eighteenth century.

Among Dorothy George's other notable works were England in Johnson's Day (1928) and England in Transition (1931). She also contributed numerous articles to learned historical journals, among them a seminal essay on the combination laws, which forbade trade unions and strikes. Originally published in 1927, her argument was intended as a critique of the writings of J. L. Hammond and B. Hammond on the British state in the industrial revolution. She contended, contrary to received opinion, that the Combination Act of 1800 was virtually a dead letter: 'in practice a very negligible instrument of oppression' (The combination laws, Economic History Review, April 1936, 177). Her thesis has featured significantly in the debate on politics and society during the French wars, being challenged among others by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

The scholarship of Dorothy George's later years was interrupted by her husband's long illness. After his death in 1961 she resumed her research, and in her ninetieth year she published Hogarth to Cruikshank: Social Change in Graphic Satire (1967). Growing deafness accentuated her retiring nature, and she lived quietly at her home, 51 Paultons Square, Chelsea, London, where she died on 13 September 1971. Dorothy George was awarded an MA degree by Cambridge University in 1927, and a LittD degree in 1931. In 1955 she was made an honorary fellow of Girton College. Self-effacing, courteous, and shy, she carried 'the inescapable air of authority that marks a great scholar' (Girton Review, 24).

Sources

  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • Girton Review, 187 (1972), 23–4
  • M. Berg, A woman in history: Eileen Power, 1899–1940 (1996)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • Punch, or, The London Charivari, 2399 (2 July 1887), 326
  • J. Johnson and A. Greutzner, The dictionary of British artists, 1880–1940 (1976), vol. 5 of Dictionary of British art
  • G. M. Waters, Dictionary of British artists, working 1900–1950 (1975)
  • Who's who in art (1929)
  • E. P. Thompson, The making of the English working class (1963)
  • J. Rule, ed., British trade unionism, 1750–1850: the formative years (1988)
  • J. V. Orth, Combination and conspiracy: a legal history of trade unionism, 1721–1906 (1991)

Likenesses

  • H. Coster, photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£135,471: probate, 25 Oct 1971, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1920–)