Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Coxe, Henry Octaviusfree

  • Mary Clapinson

Henry Octavius Coxe (1811–1881)

by George Frederic Watts, 1876

Coxe, Henry Octavius (1811–1881), librarian, was born on 20 September 1811 at Bucklebury vicarage, Berkshire, the youngest child and eighth son of the Revd Richard Coxe (1753–1819) and his second wife, Susan Smith, of Normanton Hall, Leicestershire. He was educated at Westminster School, and from 1825 by his half-brother Richard Charles Coxe, then a curate at Dover, where Henry acquired a great love of the sea and of boats. He matriculated in 1829 at Worcester College, Oxford, where he excelled at rowing. After a severe fall, he abandoned the honours school, and took a pass degree in 1833. The same year he joined the manuscript department at the British Museum, where he developed considerable skill as a palaeographer. In January 1839 he began work as sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, to which he devoted the rest of his life. On 9 April that year he married Charlotte Esther (1804/5–1895), second daughter of General Sir Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner, who bought them the house, 17 Beaumont Street, which was to be their home for forty years. They had five children, of whom only two survived them: a son, Hilgrove, and a daughter, Susan Esther, who in 1870 married John Wordsworth (1843–1911), later bishop of Salisbury.

Coxe was ordained in 1833 and while in London served as curate first to his brother at Archbishop Tenison's Chapel, Regent Street, then at St Matthew, Spring Gardens, a large and poor district in the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields. His ready sympathy and conscientiousness were well suited to parish work. He held a succession of curacies in the Oxford district: Culham (1839–48), Tubney (1848–55), Yarnton (1855), and Wytham (1856–68). In 1868 he became rector of Wytham, Berkshire, where the parsonage provided a welcome country residence. He was select preacher in the university in 1842 and Whitehall preacher in 1868.

Coxe's early years in Oxford were spent working on manuscripts. The volumes he contributed to the series of Bodleian ‘quarto’ catalogues—college manuscripts (1852), Greek manuscripts (1853), Canonici Greek and Latin manuscripts (1854), and Laud Latin and miscellaneous manuscripts (1858)—are a lasting monument to his scholarship and palaeographical skill. In his leisure hours he edited for publication a variety of texts, including Roger of Wendover's Flores historiarum for the English Historical Society (5 vols., 1841–4) and, for the Roxburghe Club, The Black Prince: an Historical Poem (1842), Gower's Vox clamantis (1857), and The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine (1876). In 1857 he was sent by the government to visit libraries of the Levant and to report on any important Greek manuscripts they contained. His official report, which lists and indexes 600 manuscripts in 24 different institutions, was published the following year.

During the 1850s the elderly Bulkeley Bandinel was frequently absent from his post as Bodley's librarian, and the library's governing body of curators looked to Coxe to initiate a general overhaul of its management. Having been dispatched by the curators to review practice in other major libraries, he produced reports which recommended significant changes to the systems of claiming publications under the copyright privilege, of cataloguing, and of arranging the books on the shelves. The production of a new general catalogue, adopting the British Museum's moveable slip method, began in 1859. Its completion was to be the major achievement of Coxe's time as Bodley's librarian, a post to which he was unanimously elected in November 1860, on Bandinel's resignation.

Bandinel had enormously expanded and enriched the library's collections for the benefit of established scholars. It fell to his successor, in keeping with the recommendations of the university commission of 1850, to devise means of making the library more generally accessible. The production of the single catalogue of printed books was a major step in this direction, as was the provision in 1862 of a second reading room. The loan of the Radcliffe Library to the university provided a spacious room close to the Bodleian in which, following the example of the British Museum, modern periodicals and reference works could be made immediately available. As it was lit by gas, it could remain open in the evenings for the benefit of college tutors and undergraduates. In 1858 Coxe had advocated the rearrangement of the majority of the collections by subject as another way of making them more useful. By 1865, when new accessions were thus arranged, and those most in demand placed on the shelves of the Radcliffe Camera, he had abandoned the idea of reclassifying earlier holdings. As an alternative to the physical rearrangement of the book stock, Coxe proposed a classified catalogue and had an extra copy made of every entry in the new author catalogue for this purpose. Insufficient staff and funding prevented any progress with this scheme.

Coxe was a chaplain of Corpus Christi College, a delegate of Oxford University Press, and curator of the university galleries. For most of his life he was physically robust, and an enthusiastic rider, but as he approached fifty-five his health began to fail. After an operation in the autumn of 1874, he frequently refers in his diary to his 'malady', a painful kidney disorder. At Michaelmas 1880 he was taken gravely ill and he died at his home, Northgate, St Giles', Oxford, on 8 July 1881. He was buried four days later at Wytham. J. W. Burgon described Coxe as, at the time of his death, 'perhaps the most generally known and universally beloved character in Oxford' (Burgon, 123). Contemporary accounts refer to his kindliness, courtesy, and charm, which inspired affection in everyone he met. His skill as a mimic and story-teller made him excellent company. Archdeacon Palmer's verdict was that Oxford would find it difficult 'to get so good a librarian as Coxe … as loveable a librarian it is out of the question to expect' (ibid., 134).


  • J. W. Burgon, ‘Henry Octavius Coxe: the large-hearted librarian’, Lives of twelve good men [new edn], 2 (1889), 123–48
  • W. D. Macray, ‘Mr. Coxe's work at the Bodleian’, Transactions and Proceedings of the 4th and 5th annual meetings of the Library Association (1884), 13–16
  • W. D. Macray, Annals of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2nd edn (1890)
  • The Times (9 July 1881)
  • Bodl. Oxf., Library records d.1745–6, e.609–10 [extracts from Coxe's diaries]
  • letters to Coxe, 1839–81, Bodl. Oxf., Library records d.250–62
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • parish register (burial), 1881, Wytham


  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp.
  • Bodl. Oxf., notes on Latin and Greek MSS
  • BL, letters to W. C. Hazlitt, Add. MSS 38899–38913
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Frederick Madden, Egerton MSS 2842–2848
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Thomas Phillipps
  • U. Edin. L., corresp. with James Halliwell-Phillipps
  • U. Edin. L., letters to David Laing


  • F. Tatham, watercolour drawing, 1833, Bodl. Oxf.
  • R. A. J. Tyrwhitt, two pencil drawings, 1853, Worcester College, Oxford
  • Smith, watercolour drawing, 1870 (after photograph), Bodl. Oxf.
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1876, Bodl. Oxf. [see illus.]
  • R. St John Tyrwhitt, sepia drawing, CCC Oxf.

Wealth at Death

£14,118 8s. 1d.: probate, 13 Oct 1881, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Bodleian Library, Oxford
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)