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Joseph Wright

The most prodigious British working-class classically trained scholar born in the 19th century was indisputably Joseph Wright. Born in Idle, Bradford, in 1855 to desperately poor parents, he spent some of his childhood in a Clayton workhouse. When his father, a weaver and iron quarryman, left his mother, Joseph started work as a donkey driver at the age of six at Woodend quarry, Windhill, near his home in Thackley. His job entailed leading a donkey-cart to and from the smithy for maintenance, from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. When seven he started work indoors as a ‘doffer’ in the spinning department of Sir Titus Salt’s mill at Saltaire, although he was under the legal age. Doffing means replacing full bobbins on the machines with empty ones, for which he was paid 3s. 6d. a week. He attended the factory school half-time, but had to leave it early all the time to make a full-time living, since his feckless father died leaving Joseph, his brothers and mother in dire straits. At the age of 13, unable to read or write, he moved to Stephen Wildman’s mill at Bingley, where he was eventually promoted to wool-sorter, earning between £1 and 30s. a week (Figure 14.5). It was there, in 1870, that he determined to learn to read so he could follow the accounts of the Franco-Prussian war in the newspaper.70

He began with Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible, and attended a night school for working lads run by John Murgatroyd, a Wesleyan schoolmaster. He also bought the fortnightly Cassell’s Popular Educator and started teaching himself languages: French, German and Latin from Cassell’s Latin Grammar.71

He attended lectures at the Mechanics Institute in Bradford and ran evening classes, charging local youths just 2d. a week. He saved £40 and spent it on a trip to Germany, where, after walking from Antwerp to Heidelberg University, he studied German and Maths for 11 weeks, until his money ran out.

On return he gave up mill work altogether, became a full-time teacher, taught himself Greek (which he found inspirational) and in 1882 passed the intermediate exam towards the London BA degree. Feeling intellectually equipped, he returned to Heidelberg, where Professor Hermann Osthoff encouraged him to specialise in philology. To finance his studies, he taught Maths until he achieved his PhD degree three years later. He had gone from illiteracy to a doctorate in 15 years by dogged effort. His thesis was entitled ‘The qualitative and quantitative changes in the Indo-Germanic vowel system in Greek’. He then moved to the University of Leipzig, and worked for a Heidelberg publisher, overseeing the production of 30 scholarly books. The pioneering philologist Karl Brugmann then asked him to make an English translation of his Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indo-germanischen Sprachen, and it was published in 1888.

By bypassing the problem that he had no qualifications from Oxford and Cambridge, and coming back from Germany with a reputation for brilliance and association with the most cutting-edge philological methods, he was welcomed to the British academic community by Max Miiller, the German who had held the Oxford Chair of Comparative Philology between 1868 and 1875. Wright made the leap into an academic post when, with Muller’s support, he was appointed lecturer to the Association for the Higher Education of Women in 1888, teaching German, Historical Greek Grammar, Historical Latin Grammar and Greek Dialects at Oxford University. But his background and fascination with the speech of the north of England led him to specialise at this point in Germanic and Old English dialects, and he also lectured in German at the Taylor Institution. In 1901 Wright, the ragged boy from the Yorkshire quarry, was appointed Professor of Comparative Philology.

His great achievement was the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, which preserves thousands of now-obsolete usages, and The English Dialect Grammar (1905). He was awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal Flemish Academy, the Utrecht Society, the Royal Society of Letters of Lund and the Modern Language Association of America. He continued to criticise Oxford University for the mediocrity of its research in comparison with the efforts expended on teaching privileged undergraduates. He told the Asquith commission on Oxford and Cambridge (1919-1922) that ‘far too many of the administrative affairs of the University are in the hands of men whose minds have lost their elasticity’.72

According to his wife Elizabeth Mary Wright’s biography, Wright insisted

that it was owing to his plebeian ancestry that he brought with him to the field of science and letters that prodigious vitality of brain which enabled him to accomplish the intellectual feats which marked his progress.73

His work ethic and instinct for self-betterment came from his mother Sarah Ann, a committed lifelong Primitive Methodist, who, when shown the grand buildings of All Souls College at Oxford, retorted, ‘Ee, but it ’ould mak a grand Co-op!’74 As a young woman from a much more privileged background whom he met when she was studying at Lady Margaret Hall, his wife also recalled a rare occasion on which he had rebuked her. She had facetiously complained that doing philology, and consulting big dictionaries, required excessive ‘manual labour.’ Wright quietly pointed out that ‘manual labour’ meant physical work, for example with a wheelbarrow.7’ In adulthood he was always regarded as a prodigy and the subject of countless newspaper articles called ‘From donkey-boy to Professor’ or ‘Mill-boy’s rise to fame’.76 But the really

impressive thing about Joseph Wright was not only that he rose to this scholarly eminence from ragged illiteracy, but that he never allowed academic interests to obscure his origins, and enjoyed nothing better than to be able to use his native Yorkshire speech, which, like all dialects, he regarded as an authentic language, with every right to be taken seriously.77

Wright’s meteoric rise is the exception that proves the rule. He was the Jude who did not remain obscure. He would never have risen from the workhouse and mill to the top branch of the academic tree without intelligence and moral qualities. But equally necessary were the availability of tuition at the Wesleyan night school and the Mechanics Institute, encouragement and patronage when it mattered, and the serendipity that a German scholar unrestricted by British academics’ preconceptions about the proper cursus honorum for a professional scholar happened to hold the Oxford Comparative Philology chair at the right time.

All five ‘underdog classicists’ studied in this chapter enjoyed luck as well as good contacts. In the case of only one of them—Person—did his class position at birth take him far left of the centre of the political spectrum. But all except Murray, who was silent on the topic, retained pride in their humble origins and were not afraid to say so. This is impressive, if only because it was not until the mid-20th century that university education in Classics was to become even a remote possibility for a wider cross-section of the population.


  • 1 Jones (1924) 12, 91, 102, 182-3, 156-8, 168, 193-4.
  • 2 Jones (1924) 212; Jowett (1892) 435.
  • 3 She was the daughter of a travelling salesman: see further Irwin (2016).
  • 4 Clarke (1937) 1—2, 6-7. Bamford (1967) xi remarks that, despite some attempts to rewrite the history of the endowed public schools in ways which suggest they did educate significant numbers of poorer pupils, the arrival of such a low-class boy as Person at Eton was a truly exceptional event which more than proves the rule.
  • 5 Quoted in Clarke (1937) 8.
  • 6 Clarke (1937) 8-9; Page (1960) 15.
  • 7 Quote in Clarke (1937) 12.

Clarke (1937) 31-3.

Letter from the Rev. Cleaver Banks to Samuel Parr, 20th May 1792, in Parr (1828) vol. VIII, 150.

Clarke (1937) 40-1.

De Quincey (1897) 417.

Clarke (1937) 46.

Porson (1818) 3.

Porson (1818) 5.

Porson (1818) 7.

Clarke (1937) 42.

Clarke (1937) 45.

Clarke (1937) 45.

The Morning Chronicle, 23rd February, 1795.

Clarke (1937) 49.

For 19th June and 18th July 1793.

They included Kidd (1815), Luard (1857), Watson (1861): see Clarke (1937) 49.

Page (1960).

Barker (1852) 14.

Byron (1839) 374. We are grateful to Jo Balmer for pointing out this text to us.

Page (1960) 13-14.

Rogers (1856) 121.

Watson (1861) 385.

Clarke (1937) 86-7.

Letter of 3rd September, 1803, in Luard (1857) 85-92. See also Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 227-8.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 1-5.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 14.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 208-9.

Dalzel (1821).

Dalzel (1821) vol. 1, vi.

Lockhart (1839) 57.

Dalzel (1821) vol. 1, ix.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 71.

Dalzel (1821) vol. 2, 109-13.

Dalzel (1821) vol. 1, 7.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 42-5, 51-2.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 45.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 2.

Dalzel (1821) vol. 2, 465-85.

Dalzel (1821) vol. 1, 12.

Dalzel (1862) vol. 1, 19.

Cockburn (1856) 26-7.

Dalzel (1821) vol. 2, 146-7.

Dunbar (1824).

Dunbar (1824) 110-11

Dunbar (1824) p. 52

Dunbar (1822) iii.

Dunbar (1822) viii.

Hunter (2014) 9 (caption to the photograph of the ruins of the Murrays’ tiny, isolated cottage).

Scot (1823) xli; Hunter (2014) 7.

Bayne (1885-1900) 346.

Murray (1812) 2; Bayne (1885-1900) 346.

Cockburn (1856) 276.

Murray (1812) 4.

Scot (1823) xxxiii-iv.

Scot (1823) xliv, xlvii.

Murray (1823) vol. I, xv.

Scot (1823) xlviii—Ivii.

Hunter (2014) 12; see Salmon (1758).

Hunter (2014) 21.

Murray (1812) 29; Scot (1823) c.

Bopp (1816).

Scot (1823) Ixxvii; Hunter (2014) 21-3.

Hunter (2014) 28—35 with several photographs.

On Wright’s early life see Kellett (2004); Hall (2018b) 252-4.

Wright (1932) vol. II, 40.

Bodleian, Oxford; Asquith Commission papers, box 1, MS Foy Oxon b 104, fol. 235.

Wright (1932) vol. I, 37.

Wright (1932) vol. 1, 5.

Wright (1932) vol. I, 131, 189.

Wright (1932) vol. 1, v.

Kellett (2004).

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