Latest Oxford Dictionary Of National Biography Called "Jamboree Of Nonsense"
Elizabeth Day, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH(LONDON), 24 Oct. 2004
The latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has been described as"the intellectual equivalent of the Millennium Dome" after the discovery that it is riddled with errors.
A number of amateur historians have noticed glaring inaccuracies in several entries and say that the lax editorial process makes a mockery of the pounds 7,500 retail price.
The 2004 edition of the 60-volume reference book was published by Oxford University Press last month. It contains 54,922 biographies of people who shaped Britain's past and took 12 years to compile.
In spite of the time it took to produce, several hundred entries are thought to include incorrect dates, misspelt names and a" complete ignorance" of recent specialist research.
Charles Harrison Wallace, a lecturer and author who has spent 25 years researching the life of his ancestor, the 18th century marine artist Peter Monamy, said that the biography of Monamy was"a scissors and paste job".
He said:"I spotted 12 errors in the entry. As well as the factual mistakes, the biographer appears to have ignored much of the latest research into Monamy.
"For instance, he states that Monamy may have had an illegitimate daughter, but I have since shown that she wasn't. He says that Monamy married in 1704 when there is no evidence for this and a marriage certificate has never been uncovered. He could have just called me up to check his facts and I would have been able to tell him.
"The Dictionary of National Biography is a folly; a jamboree of nonsense. It is the intellectual equivalent of the Millennium Dome and seems to have no clear purpose."
Alison Barnes, a historian from Harlow, Essex, also noticed a series of errors in three biographies of people whom she has been researching for almost 20 years.
In the half-page entry on Henry Winstanley, a 17th century engineer who built the first lighthouse of the modern era, Miss Barnes found 12 errors. Winstanley was, for instance, made a clerk of works in the service of King Charles II in 1679, not 1666. His wife's name is claimed to be"unknown", when it was actually Elizabeth Taylor. The lighthouse that he built at Plymouth in 1700 is stated to have been at Eddystone Rock, rather than Eddystone Reef, and to have been constructed largely of wood when it was almost entirely stone.
In the 3 1/2 -page entry for Winstanley's uncle, William Winstanley, a poet and biographer, the DNB states that he wrote a 1680 humorous work that was actually penned by a rival as a parody of Winstanley's own writings.
The entry also gets the name of his father wrong - as William, not Thomas - and claims that Winstanley's The Path-Way to Knowledge was"a book of simple astrology, household hints and natural magic" when it was, in fact, a farming treatise.
The biography of John Elwes, an 18th century landowner and eccentric believed to have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens's Scrooge, says that he built some"houses in Marylebone". Miss Barnes claims that he was responsible for building a significant amount of Georgian London, including parts of Oxford Circus, Portland Place, Piccadilly and Baker Street.
"It's not very amusing when you've been writing and researching these people for years and the biographers have made a series of mistakes as well as making them sound like complete dullards, ignoring all the fascinating, interesting stuff that might make people want to read more about them. If I only know three in depth, then how many other millions of mistakes must there be."
Reviewers have also noticed a clutch of errors. The entry on the painter Rupert Shephard (1909-92) erroneously calls his daughter Murilla, rather than Marylla, a mistake spotted by Giles Foden, a critic for The Guardian, who was Marylla Shephard's son-in-law.
In the biography of Edgar Wallace, the thriller writer, it is claimed that A S Watt negotiated generous advances for his books, rather than the literary agent A P Watt.
Vernon Bogdanor, the professor of politics and government at Brasenose College, Oxford, was able to correct"two very serious factual errors" in the biography of Lord Poole, the Conservative politician and businessman, when he was sent a preview copy.
"The Dictionary of National Biography's purpose is to be an authoritative factual resource. It is relied upon by people for accuracy. It is utterly disgraceful that a reference work of this kind, produced by this university, should not properly check its entries. Perhaps it should be marketed as a work of fiction," he said.
A spokesman for the Dictionary of National Biography said that they had received only two complaints and that these would be rectified in an online edition in January 2005."Obviously in 54,922 lives, there are bound to be some errors, but we want to hear from people so that we can correct them," he said."It is a collaborative exercise. The whole editorial process was actually very thorough."
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