© Alan Howarth 2011



During the October half-term week of 2010 my wife and I set off from our home in Durham for a few days holiday in North Cornwall, a drive of 400 miles or so (not accomplished in a single day, I hasten to add). The principal reason for the trip was to look for the grave of a late kinsman of mine, one William Little. And so it was that on a bright sunny autumn day we stood beside a path in the Eastern Cemetery at Lelant looking down at a modest tombstone. It bore the inscription -


'May 1848 William Little MA CCC January 1922'.


'CCC' stood for Corpus Christi College (Oxford). But who was this William Little, and how did he come to be buried, in what seemed to us a remote Cornish churchyard, and what was my relationship to him? This is his story.

William Little was born on 3 May 1848 at his parents home, 13 Portland Street, Manchester. He was the eldest son of Francis Little, a Scottish draper, and his wife Elizabeth Nicholson, also Scottish. Two further sons were born to the marriage, Robert and Adam.


I first became aware of William's existence when I started to research my family history. I knew that my paternal grandmother's maiden name was Little, and I had a rough idea of her date of birth, so I looked in census returns for late nineteenth-century Manchester, and found a complete record of the family in every census from 1851 to 1911.


William's mother died in 1868, and a year later his father remarried. His new wife Mary Brown, twenty six years his junior, was the daughter of a Nottinghamshire gamekeeper, and they went on to have five children of whom the fourth, Georgina, was my grandmother.


In tracing the family through the census returns, I discovered that William, then aged twenty two, was at home on census night in 1871, and is described under the heading 'Occupation' as Undergraduate, Oxford. This took me somewhat by surprise, as I did not expect the son of a nineteenth-century working-class Manchester family to have made it to Oxford, and as he did not appear in any further censuses with his family, I didn't follow it up. However, his identity had always intrigued me, and I eventually made an effort to trace his whereabouts.


Further research has revealed that he was educated at Manchester Grammar School during the reign as High Master of Frederick W Walker. In his final year there he was awarded the Lawson Medal as Top Classicist, won the Maths Prize, and was honourably mentioned for the History Prize. On top of all that he obtained a scholarship to Corpus Christi, Oxford, a college that still has links to the school. I entertained an idea that I might find a record of Oxford alumni on the internet, and sure enough Google led me to a book entitled Alumni Oxonienses by Joseph Foster.


It contains this entry: Little, William, 1s. Francis of Manchester, gent. Corpus Christi Coll., matric. 23 Oct., 1867, aged 19; Scholar 1867-71, fellow 1871, B.A. 1872, M.A. 1874, lecturer and tutor 1870-83, librarian 1874, dean 1875, proctor 1879, vice president 1883, barrister-at-law Lincoln's Inn 1884.


The archives at Lincoln's Inn have confirmed that he was admitted as a student in 1881, and was called to the bar in 1884. Having qualified as a barrister, he practiced for a short while as a conveyancer, a specialist who drafted the technical legal documents regarding trusts and land, within the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery.  He was in chambers at Lincoln's Inn, which was common for such practitioners, as the Inn had a long and close relationship with the Chancery Court.


Having established that he had moved his activities to London, I looked for him in London census returns, and sure enough in 1881 he turns up at 19 Queen's Gardens, Paddington, a visitor in the household of the said Frederick W Walker. It seems that in adulthood he became a personal friend of his old head master, who by this time had moved from Manchester and become High Master of St Paul's School in London. (The designation High Master is shared by only two schools, Manchester Grammar and St Paul's, and Walker was successively head of both).


In the 1891 census William Little is shown as a boarder at 3 Park Row, Westminster (an address which does not seem to exist any more) and his occupation, 'Barrister'.


The 1901 census shows him resident in Cornwall, where he seems to have spent the rest of his days. His address is given as Grey House, Carbis Bay, and he is described as head of the household, and a Barrister. There are two female servants, and a visitor, one Richard Gill, a consulting engineer.


This brings us to 1911, the latest census that is available to us. William is now resident at a house called Beauly, in Lelant, not far from his previous abode at Carbis Bay. He is described as head of the household, and still gives his occupation as 'Barrister'. There are two people styled 'boarder': the aforementioned Richard Gill and now also his wife Rosa Gill. (The property then known as Beauly still exists, but is now called Rosewyn.)


Up to this point I had assumed that he was a confirmed old bachelor happily practicing law down in Cornwall, but an obituary in the Times of Monday 16 January 1922 suggests otherwise. It reads:

'Mr William Little


We regret to announce the death, which took place on Saturday at Lelant, Cornwall, after a long illness, of Mr William Little, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Mr Little was one of the few remaining survivors of the old system by which fellows of colleges held their fellowships for life, unless they married. He was born in Manchester on May 3, 1848 and was educated at Manchester Grammar School, under F W Walker, whose intimate friend he afterwards became. He went up to Corpus as a scholar in 1867, and after taking a second-class in moderations in 1869 and in Literae Humaniores in 1871, was elected to a fellowship in the latter year. He was proctor in 1879 and became vice-president of Corpus in 1883, and in 1884 he was called to the Bar by Lincoln's Inn. For many years, however, he suffered from a great disability, against which he bore up gallantly, for he was still a comparatively young man when he entirely lost his hearing from necrosis in both ears, and was compelled in consequence to give up all professional work. He lived henceforth in Cornwall, first at Carbis Bay, where he was able to play golf, and afterwards at Lelant.

Fortunately, though stone deaf, he was not deprived of speech, and among those who knew him intimately, like Mr Walker, with whom he often spent holidays, conversation with him, by means of eye and hand, became almost as fluent as if he had retained his hearing.

The funeral will be at Lelant on Wednesday.'


And that would seem to be that; except for the fact that the obituary contains one glaring omission, for it makes no mention of the most important aspect of William Little's career. He was obviously not practicing law during the twenty-odd years he lived in Cornwall. So what was he up to?


To find out we need to go back to Oxford, and to the headquarters of the Oxford University Press. This august institution was, and still is, run by a body of people known as 'The Delegates', drawn from members of the Oxford colleges. During the last decades of the nineteenth century they were much exercised in preparing for publication what would eventually become known as the Oxford English Dictionary, hereinafter referred to as the OED, a work that was expected to fill four 6,400-page volumes, and take ten years to complete. In the event the dictionary was published in sections as the material became available, with the 125th and last appearing in 1928.The first full edition, in twelve bound volumes, was issued at the same time. However, no doubt mindful of the popularity of the two-volume Webster's Dictionary in the United States, they decided to prepare an abridged version of the main work. The only problem was that all their editors were fully engaged with the OED, and nobody could be spared for the task. They would therefore need to bring in a scholar from outside the organisation, and it was at this point that the Secretary to the Delegates Charles Cannan, essentially their chief executive, suggested his old Corpus Christi tutor for the job. And so it was that after a few specimen examples were submitted, William Little was in 1903 appointed first editor of what was originally referred to as the 3/6d Dictionary, then later The Abridged, and finally the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED).


Following our visit to Lelant we journeyed home by way of Oxford, where I had booked a session at the archives of Oxford University Press. The people there were most helpful, and brought out a file of the correspondence that had passed between Charles Cannan, acting on behalf of the Delegates, and William Little. Letters sent by Little during 1902 were written from his Carbis Bay address, Grey House, but from 1903 to 1911 they were coming from Penlu, in Tuckingmill, Camborne. It was not until early 1912 that letters began to be addressed from Beauly, Lelant.


Much of the early correspondence was concerned with comparisons between their own work and Webster's. It was agreed right from the start that the abridgement would be contained in two volumes, but it soon became apparent that the SOED was going to be somewhat larger than Webster's; illustrated by the fact that the letter B would take 127 pages to Webster's 90! However, Little was insistent that his version would be far superior!


There was a great deal of discussion about money; the financial arrangements seemed to have been haphazard to say the least, with cheques being sent on account for work still in preparation. It was not until 1909 that an agreement was reached in which Little would be paid £4-15/- per sheet of 8 pages of manuscript, with 5/- held back for corrections. Even by the standards of the time that doesn't sound a princely sum. The use of the word 'sheet' in this context is a technical term used by dictionary compilers, and does not imply a single piece of paper.


From 1912 onwards the correspondence thins out, much of it concerning definitions of words. It would seem that on receipt of his manuscripts they were distributed among members of the organisation for their comments, and some disagreements arose as a result. Little's definition of the word 'diesel' for example was challenged by somebody who thought they knew better, but William stuck to his guns and in support quoted the opinion of a consulting engineer of his acquaintance.


In December 1921 it became known that William Little's health was failing, and an internal memo suggested that if he was not able to continue they should settle up with him, and a sum of £200 was mentioned. His original agreement had stipulated a payment of £250 on publication.


The last item of correspondence in the file is a short letter from Mrs Rosa Gill, at Beauly, Lelant.

Dated 14 January 1922 it states simply -

'Mr Little passed away this morning quite peacefully after seven months of suffering. The funeral is at Lelant on Wednesday at 11 am.'


In the preface to the first edition of the dictionary it states that at the time of his death in 1922, William Little had prepared, entirely without assistance, the manuscript for the letters A to T and V, and had passed for printing about a third of the whole work. It took another eleven years for the new editor C. T. Onions, with several assistants, to complete the job, and it was finally published in 1933. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is now in its sixth edition.


I asked the people at Oxford University Press if they could offer an explanation as to why the obituary in the Times had made no mention of his work on the dictionary. They suggested that the newspaper either didn't know what was going on, or had been asked by somebody high up in the organisation not to publish it. It seems probable therefore that apart from members of his own household, nobody in Lelant knew what he was up to either. Secrecy in these matters was possibly something the Oxford University Press insisted upon!


That is more or less the end of the story, but I am intrigued by the part played in it by Richard Gill and his wife Rosa (nee Heathcote). One or both of them seemed to be present at many of the official publicly-recorded events during William Little's life in Cornwall.


In the 1901 census Richard Gill, engineer, is shown as a visitor at Grey House, William's abode in Carbis Bay. In the same census, Rosa Heathcote is listed as manager of the Carbis Bay Hotel.


Their entry in the marriage register for 14 September 1901 at the church of St Uny, Lelant, lists William Little as one of the witnesses.


During the period when William was writing to Oxford from Penlu, Tuckingmill, Camborne, they were living at 1 Penlu Terrace, Tuckingmill, Camborne. I have a feeling that both these addresses were one and the same.


The 1911 census lists them as boarders in William's house, Beauly, in Lelant, and when William died in 1922 it was Richard Gill who registered the death, and Rosa who imparted the news to the Oxford University Press.


I have obtained copies of William's birth and death certificates, which confirm his dates, and parental details etc, but the most revealing document in my possession is a copy of his will, which makes very interesting reading.


The will was made on 14 April 1908 when he was resident at 1 Penlu Terrace, Tuckingmill, Camborne, Cornwall.

He appoints Rosa Gill (formerly Rosa Heathcote) wife of Richard Duncan Gill of 1 Penlu Terrace aforesaid, as his sole executrix.

He bequeaths the sum of £200 to his 'brother of the whole blood' Adam Little.

He bequeaths the sum of £100 to his God-daughter Christabel, daughter of George Hyde Wollaston Esq. of Flax Bourton, Nr Bristol.

All the residue of his real and personal estate to the said Rosa Gill.


When the will was proven at the District Probate Registry, Bodmin, on 13 March 1922, the net value of the estate was given as £2338, a tidy sum for those days.


So what was Rosa Gill to William Little? I had thought at one time that she might have been his secretary, and that the archive at Oxford University Press would reveal correspondence from her, but apart from the note about his death, there was none. She could possibly have been his housekeeper, or what today we would call a personal assistant. Given his disability he would certainly have needed someone to help in the management of his affairs. There must have been a reason why he chose to take up residence in Cornwall, when he thought his professional life in London was at an end. It is possible that a friendship had developed with this couple whilst he was on holiday. He might even have stayed at the Carbis Bay Hotel when Rosa Heathcote was the manager there.


Richard and Rosa Gill remained at Beauly until at least 1930, for on the 10 August of that year Richard died there. Probate of his will was granted to his widow, his effects being valued at £14,779. Rosa eventually left Lelant and went to live in Ilfracombe, Devon, where she died on 30 August 1957, at the age of 86.


In preparing this narrative I have been greatly assisted by


Maxwell Adams of Lelant

Beverly Hunt, Archivist, Oxford University Press

Peter Gilliver, Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary

Frances Bellis, Assistant Librarian, Lincoln's Inn, London

Rachel Kneale, Archivist, Manchester Grammar School


My thanks to them all.