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date: 25 July 2024

Bradley, Henryfree


Bradley, Henryfree

  • W. A. Craigie
  • , revised by Jenny McMorris

Bradley, Henry (1845–1923), philologist and lexicographer, born at Manchester on 3 December 1845, was the only child of the marriage of John Bradley (1791/2–1871) of Kirkby in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, and his second wife, Mary Spencer (1804/5–1870), of Middleton by Wirksworth, Derbyshire. From 1846 his father, a fire-clay agent who had been a farmer and partner in a mill, lived at Brimington, near Chesterfield, and Bradley attended Chesterfield grammar school from 1855 to 1859. In that year his family moved to Sheffield, where in 1863 he became corresponding clerk to a cutlery firm. During the interval, appointments as a tutor and companion allowed him to read widely and study languages, for which he had a great natural aptitude. His office work gave him opportunities of developing this interest, and during the twenty years in which he remained in his post he not only mastered several modern European languages, but acquired a knowledge of the classical tongues, as well as a considerable acquaintance with Hebrew.

In 1872 Bradley married Eleanor Kate, daughter of William Hides, of Sheffield; they had one son and four daughters. In January 1884, partly for economic reasons and partly on account of his wife's health, he moved to London, where for some years he supported his family by miscellaneous literary work, of which reviewing formed an important part. A review by him in the Academy for February and March 1884 of the first part of the New English Dictionary drew attention to his unusual knowledge of English philology, and brought about an association with the dictionary which led to his being appointed one of its editors in 1887, a position which he retained for the rest of his life, becoming senior editor on the death of Sir James Murray in 1915. In 1891 he received the honorary degree of MA from Oxford University, and in 1914 that of DLitt. After working for some time in a room at the British Museum, he moved permanently to Oxford in 1896, and lived for many years in North House in the University Press quadrangle. In 1896 he was elected a member of Exeter College and in 1916 a fellow of Magdalen College. From 1892 he received a civil-list pension in recognition of his services to learning. He was president of the Philological Society for three periods between 1890 and 1910, and was elected FBA in 1907. From the time of his settling in Oxford the dictionary became his main occupation, though he continued to write numerous articles and reviews, and produced two or three separate publications. With the exception of one or two periods of ill health, he was able to carry on his work, despite his age, until his death.

During his first years in London, in addition to his extensive reviewing of philological and other books, Bradley wrote over forty articles for those volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography, published between 1885 and 1888, which covered the letters B, C, and D. He also compiled the volume on The Goths (1888) for the Story of the Nations series, a work written in a popular style but based on a careful study of original sources. For the Oxford University Press he prepared a revised edition of F. H. Stratmann's Middle English Dictionary, which appeared in 1891 and was at that time the most complete special dictionary for that period of the language. An edition of Caxton's Dialogues for the Early English Text Society (1900), the popular and highly successful Making of English (1904), and the British Academy paper 'Spoken and written language' (1913; issued in book form in 1919) complete the list of Bradley's separate works. He was involved with his friend Robert Bridges in founding the Society for Pure English (1919). In addition his numerous articles and notes on both linguistic and literary points in Old and Middle English are important contributions in these fields, and show his wide knowledge, sound judgement, and originality of thought. Not a few of them contain brilliant discoveries or suggestions that have been readily accepted by other scholars.

Bradley's earliest independent work arose from his interest in the history and origin of British place names, and his later contributions to this subject were of great value in setting the study on a sounder philological and historical basis than previously. Although he undertook no large work of his own, his searching reviews of the publications of others not only exhibited their defects but made clear the principles on which the scientific investigation of place names must be conducted. Of his special articles in this field the most important were those on Ptolemy's Geography of the British Isles (1885) and English Place-Names (1910).

The share which Bradley took in the Oxford English Dictionary, from the date when he devoted most of his time to that work, was the editing of the letters E, F, G, L, M, S–Sh, St, and part of W, amounting in all to 4590 pages out of a total of 15,487, and including several difficult portions of the vocabulary. The treatment of these, and the work as a whole, naturally gave opportunity for his unusual qualifications as a scholar: his extensive knowledge of ancient and modern languages, his thorough grasp of philological principles, his retentive and accurate memory, and his rare powers of analysis and definition. In some respects the dictionary necessarily limited his range, and by its claims on his time restricted his contributions to other fields of learning or literature in which he was equally fitted to excel. This was most evident to those who knew him most intimately, and by personal contact could realize that under a quiet and unassuming manner he possessed outstanding intellectual powers.

After a short illness, Bradley died at his home, 173 Woodstock Road, Oxford, on 23 May 1923. He was survived by his wife.


  • ‘Bradley, Henry’, The Oxford companion to the English language, ed. T. McArthur (1992), 147
  • The collected papers of Henry Bradley (1928)
  • historical introduction, Supplement to the Oxford English dictionary (1933)
  • personal knowledge (1937)
  • d. cert. [John Bradley]
  • d. cert. [Mary Bradley]


  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 55034
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with R. S. Bridges
  • U. Glas. L., letters to George Neilson


  • Hills & Saunders, photograph, 1913, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG
  • E. Hall, photograph, 1922, NPG
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, NPG
  • photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£3601 10s. 4d.: probate, 24 Aug 1923, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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