Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 December 2023

Newman, William Lambertfree


Newman, William Lambertfree

  • A. W. Pickard-Cambridge
  • , revised by M. C. Curthoys

Newman, William Lambert (1834–1923), ancient historian and philosopher, the second son of Edmund Lambert Newman, solicitor, of Cheltenham, was born at Cheltenham on 21 August 1834. He was educated at Cheltenham College (1846–51) and at Balliol College, Oxford, which he entered as a scholar in 1851 and where his tutors were Benjamin Jowett, James Riddell, Edwin Palmer, and Henry Smith. He won the Hertford scholarship (1853) and the Ireland scholarship (1854), obtained first classes in classical moderations (1853) and in literae humaniores (1855), and while still an undergraduate was elected a fellow of his college (1854).

As lecturer in history for the schools of literae humaniores and of law and modern history from 1858 to 1870, Newman exercised a unique influence on the teaching of history and political philosophy at Oxford; those who attended his lectures described them with great unanimity as the best they ever heard. There was then no regular system of inter-collegiate lectures, but Balliol was constantly asked by other colleges to permit their students to attend Newman. Among those who heard him were the philosophers T. H. Green (afterwards his close friend and colleague), Thomas Case, Edward Caird, and R. L. Nettleship; the historians J. L. Strachan-Davidson and Evelyn Abbott; the lawyers R. T. Reid and W. R. Anson; and, among others, Andrew Lang, John Addington Symonds, F. Y. Edgeworth, and the earl of Kerry. In spite of frequent absences owing to ill health, and of a weak voice and rapid delivery, Newman's importance as a teacher was quite equal to that of Jowett and Green: he was effectively the founder of a new school of ancient history. His treatment of the subject in his lectures was novel in its independence and imagination, in the wide range of modern history and law from which he drew his illustrations, and in the connection between history and philosophy which he always maintained and which became characteristic of literae humaniores. He was a reformer in university politics, outlining his ideas for strengthening the professoriate on German lines in his evidence to the select committee on Oxford and Cambridge university extension (July 1867). His mentor, Jowett, acknowledged his learning and genius, though doubted his judgement, and considered him 'to be absolutely without the religious sense' (Dear Miss Nightingale, 99).

In 1868 Newman was appointed university reader in ancient history, but in 1870 ill health obliged him finally to leave Oxford. From that time he lived in retirement at Cheltenham, preparing the edition of Aristotle's Politics which was his principal monument, reading everything that bore upon the subjects of his interest, making endless notes on odd scraps of paper in his tiny handwriting, and corresponding with other scholars. Although partially lame, he took his country walk almost daily, and was a keen observer of birds.

While at Oxford Newman published only an essay on the land laws in the manifesto of the university liberals, Questions for a Reformed Parliament (1867), having been called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn in the same year. Newman's essay, which expounded the view of many mid-Victorian radicals that the social evils of the time could be attributed to the concentration of land ownership into a few hands, was a masterpiece of noble English. While he had always in view the ethical principles which should govern the tenure of land, he never overlooked historical and practical considerations; in thus holding the balance between philosophy and practice this early work exhibited a notable quality of his edition of the Politics, of which the first two volumes were published in 1887. The first was occupied by an introductory essay which was virtually a treatise on political philosophy. The third and fourth volumes appeared in 1902. The whole work belonged to the grand, leisurely type of scholarship, in which even notes have a literary quality, and the views of others (sometimes even when they did not deserve it) were discussed with courteous fullness. The hurried or perfunctory student found little in Newman's work to encourage him; the minute pedant who had no sense of proportion might have spoken slightingly of it. But for soundness of interpretation, copiousness of illustration, and mature wisdom its value was permanent. The degree of honorary LittD was conferred on him by Cambridge University in 1900.

Newman died at the Imperial Nursing Home, Cheltenham, on 3 May 1923. He was unmarried. He retained his fellowship of Balliol until his death, but for many years refused to accept the stipend, and left a considerable benefaction to the college in his will.


  • private information (1937)
  • personal knowledge (1937)
  • E. S. Skirving, ed., Cheltenham College register, 1841–1927 (1928)
  • I. Elliott, ed., The Balliol College register, 1833–1933, 2nd edn (privately printed, Oxford, 1934)
  • O. Murray, ‘The beginnings of Greats, 1800–1872: ancient history’, Hist. U. Oxf. 6: 19th-cent. Oxf. pt 1, 520–42
  • C. Harvie, The lights of liberalism: university liberals and the challenge of democracy, 1860–86 (1976)
  • Dear Miss Nightingale: a selection of Benjamin Jowett's letters to Florence Nightingale, 1860–1893, ed. V. Quinn and J. Prest (1987)

Wealth at Death

£34,638 11s. 10d.: probate, 22 June 1923, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Page of
T. H. Aston, ed., , 6: , ed. M. G. Brock & M. C. Curthoys (1997), pt 1