Send more books

The British Academy’s Medieval Dictionary Committees’ first major task was the assembly of the evidence on which the eventual dictionary was to be based. Whitwell’s original proposal called for this to be done by what amounted to a small army of volunteer readers, in the manner of the reading programme adopted for the Oxford English Dictionary, to which he had been a prolific contributor. This was indeed the course of action eventually adopted.

Among these volunteer readers was B[ernard] W[inthrop] Swithinbank (1884-1958), a District Commissioner in the Burmese Division of the Indian Civil Service, who read many dozens of texts over the course of around two decades from the mid 1930s and sent in many thousands of slips during his time in Rangoon, Burma and later back in England, where he lived in Maidstone in Kent and was a leading member of the Kent Archaeological Society.

Project folklore has handed down tales of him reading his texts sitting on top of an elephant on his travels through Burma. Sadly the extensive correspondence with Swithinbank in the DMLBS archives has failed to confirm this particular detail. However, folklore also hands down that he would send telegrams back from Burma asking the project to ‘send more books’. Here the archives confirm this account. Scores of letters reveal his seemingly insatiable appetite for texts to read and excerpt for the project over the years, many of which were bought by the project and shipped to him in Burma, sometimes arriving but sometimes going astray, presumably due to enemy action.

We have here two telegrams, from 1940 and 1941, sent by Swithinbank from Rangoon, the first acknowledging receipt of a parcel but anxious for more work, and the second confirming his view (expressed also in letters from the time) that a parcel of books that had been shipped from Blackwells had not been delayed but in fact lost (at sea).

Swithinbank106

Swithinbank108

Note in the second of these that Charles Johnson, who had been joint editor of the Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources, was working at HMP Shepton Mallet in Somerset, to which large quantities of Public Record Office documents had been moved for safekeeping during the Second World War. Johnson had retired from the PRO in 1930 but was recalled to service in 1941 (aged 71), working again until 1946. He worked tirelessly for the cause of the dictionary project right up until his death in 1961, just as the Revised Word-List was on the point of completion and plans were starting to be discussed for work to start on the dictionary proper.

Without the contribution, however, of readers such as Swithinbank — and the surviving correspondence shows there were many such readers, though few as prolific as him — the eventual dictionary would scarcely have been possible. Here is one of the thousands of slips he produced (with annotations from the editorial team):

Swithinbank slip

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