Family historians know the sensation of discovery when some longstanding ‘brick wall’ in their search for an elusive ancestor is breached. Crowds at the recent ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ exhibition at Birmingham explored the new resources available to assist their research and millions worldwide subscribe to online genealogical sites, hosting ever-growing volumes of digitized historical records in the hope of tracking down their family roots.
These methods and discoveries are proving no less familiar in the updating of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. While the Dictionary is a selective source whose (currently) 59,453 lives are included on the basis of their noteworthiness in the British past, many of its subjects remain—as individuals—obscure, lacking even in the modern period precise details of birth, marriage, and death, which are the basic factual components of Dictionary entries. Their achievements may be described and assessed, yet key information about their lives can remain stubbornly elusive. Celebrity is no bar to gaps in vital data. Charlie Chaplin’s birth was apparently not registered and the exact date and place remain matters in dispute.
The latest update to the ODNB, to be released on 28 May, includes a discovery on an equally visible subject: Fanny Cornforth, ‘artists’ model and intimate companion of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.’ The daughter of a Sussex blacksmith, she sat for many of Rossetti’s best-known works and was part of the artist’s circle who, the Dictionary entry notes, ‘enjoyed Fanny’s high spirits, good nature, and untutored Sussex vernacular.’ Yet for over a century her last years have been a mystery. She received no obituary and on her inclusion in ODNB in 2004, the trail of her life ended in 1905 when, twice widowed, her faculties failing, and in financial difficulties, she was removed from her last known lodgings. ‘There is neither record of her death nor trace of her grave’ was all that could be said.
At the turn of this year the contributor of the Dictionary entry, Christopher Whittick, senior archivist at East Sussex Record Office, made the crucial breakthrough in the recently-digitized manuscript ledgers of the Commissioners in Lunacy, held in the National Archives. These recorded her admission to the West Sussex County Asylum in March 1907, though not under the name Fanny Cornforth, but as Sarah (her baptismal name) Hughes (her first married name). Also as Sarah Hughes her death in the asylum in February 1909 was officially registered. The discovery of her burial in a common grave in Chichester cemetery followed, as did—strikingly—the photograph taken on her admission to the asylum, located among the patients’ case notes now preserved at the West Sussex Record Office.
Such new information is regularly incorporated in the Dictionary’s updates. As well as Cornforth’s death, this May’s ODNB release sheds light on the origins of the bandleader Bert Ambrose (recent research notified to the Dictionary places his birth in Warsaw, Poland, rather than London, as previously thought); it establishes the vital dates of three generations of the Copper dynasty of Sussex folk singers, the subject of a family entry in the Dictionary; and completes the accounts of some individual members of the group of women who attempted to gain professional qualifications from the University of Edinburgh between 1860 and 1873, included in the ODNB group entry on the ‘Edinburgh Seven.’
Such approaches can also extend the range of lives that can be written and included in the Dictionary. A generation ago, attention was drawn to a Victorian historian Georgiana Hill, who in 1896 published an over-arching survey of Women in English Life from Medieval to Modern Times. Library catalogues also identified her as a prolific author of cookery books. Hill was intended as a subject for inclusion in the 2004 edition of the Dictionary, but it proved impossible to disentangle her life using the sources then available. The online census and digitized newspapers have since solved that puzzle. Entries on two namesakes, Georgiana Hill (1825-1903), who wrote a string of cookery titles in the 1860s from her home on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, and Georgiana Hill (1858-1924), a South London journalist, writer on women’s history, and advocate of women’s role in administering relief to the poor, were added to ODNB in 2014—and library catalogues can at last distinguish the two.
As the ODNB brings previously obscure or conflated lives more sharply into focus, the challenge is to place them in context. The year of Fanny Cornforth’s admission to the West Sussex asylum marked a doubling, within the space of a generation, of the number of individuals classified as lunatics, a trend for which contemporaries pondered explanations, whether medical, social, or administrative. Her period as a ‘pauper’ patient coincided with the protracted debates on the British poor law, focussed on the sittings of a royal commission. And her death came just weeks after the first state old age pensions were paid to men and women over the age of seventy (Fanny had by then turned seventy-four though her status as a pauper asylum inmate would have disqualified her from receiving it). So while the recovery of Cornforth’s final years offers a formal closure for the biography of a mid-Victorian artists’ model, it opens up an individual perspective on some of the questions of public policy being contested on the national stage in the new century.
Image Credit: “Fair Rosamund, modelled by Fanny Cornforth” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.