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The surgeon of crowthorn.., p.1
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       The Surgeon of Crowthorne, p.1

           Simon Winchester
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The Surgeon of Crowthorne



  ‘A weird and wonderful story of an eccentric friendship, and a slice of history’ Sunday Times

  ‘What a revelation. Beautifully told and awe-inspiring’ Daily Mail

  ‘An extraordinary tale, and Simon Winchester could not have told it better… a splendid book’ Economist

  ‘A vivid parable – full of suspense, pathos and humour’ Wall Street Journal

  ‘A cracking read’ Spectator

  ‘The linguistic detective story of the decade’ The New York Times

  ‘Masterful… one of those rare stories that combine human drama and historical significance’ Independent


  Simon Winchester was born and educated in England, has lived in Africa, India and China, and now lives in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Having reported from almost everywhere during more than thirty years as a foreign correspondent, he now contributes to a variety of American and British magazines and makes regular broadcasts for the BBC.

  Simon Winchester’s other books include Outposts: Travels to the Remains of the British Empire; Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles; The Pacific; Pacific Nightmare, a fictional account of the aftermath of the Hong Kong hand-over; Prison Diary, Argentina, the story of three months spent in a Patagonian jail on spying charges during the Falklands war; The River at the Centre of the World – A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time; the number-one international bestseller The Surgeon of Crowthorne; and The Map that Changed the World, which tells the extraordinary story of William Smith, pioneering geologist of the British Isles. His most recent book is Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.


  A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Oxford English Dictionary




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

  Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by Viking 1998

  Published in Penguin Book 1999


  Copyright © Simon Winchester, 1998

  All rights reserved

  Frontispiece: the ‘Call to the Contributors’ has been reproduced from a New English Dictionary pamphlet of April 1879, by permission of Oxford University Press

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  ISBN: 978-0-14-194204-9

  To the memory of G. M.



  Chapter One Saturday Night in Lambeth Marsh

  Chapter Two The Man Who Taught Latin to Cattle

  Chapter Three The Madness of War

  Chapter Four Gathering Earth’s Daughters

  Chapter Five The Big Dictionary Conceived

  Chapter Six The Scholar in Cell Block 2

  Chapter Seven Entering the Lists

  Chapter Eight Annulated, art, brick-tea, buckwheat

  Chapter Nine The Meeting of Minds

  Chapter Ten The Unkindest Cut

  Chapter Eleven Then Only the Monuments

  Chapter Twelve Postscript

  Author’s Note


  Suggestions for Further Reading






  IN November 1857, a paper was read before the Philological Society by Archbishop Trench, then Dean of Westminster, on ‘Some Deficiencies in our English Dictionaries,’ which led to a resolution on the part of the Society to prepare a Supplement to the existing Dictionaries supplying these deficiencies. A very little work on this basis sufficed to show that to do anything effectual, not a mere Dictionary-Supplement, but a new Dictionary worthy of the English Language and of the present state of Philological Science, was the object to be aimed at. Accordingly, in January 1859, the Society issued their ‘Proposal for the publication of a New English Dictionary,’ in which the characteristics of the proposed work were explained, and an appeal made to the English and American public to assist in collecting the raw materials for the work, these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and in all senses, each quotation being made on a uniform plan on a half-sheet of notepaper, that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and by meanings. This Appeal met with a generous response: some hundreds of volunteers began to read books, make quotations, and send in their slips to ‘sub-editors,’ who volunteered each to take charge of a letter or part of one, and by whom the slips were in turn further arranged, classified, and to some extent used as the basis of definitions and skeleton schemes of the meanings of words in preparation for the Dictionary. The editorship of the work as a whole was undertaken by the late Mr. Herbert Coleridge, whose lamented death on the very threshold of his work

  An extract from the call to the contributors to what would eventually become the Oxford English Dictionary.


  mysterious (mI’stIər1əs), a. [f. L. mystērium MYSTERY1 + OUS. Cf. F. mystérieux.]

  1. Full of or fraught with mystery; wrapt in mystery; hidden from human knowledge or understanding; impossible or difficult to explain, solve, or discover; of obscure origin, nature, or purpose.

  Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn afternoon in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in Berkshire.

  One of the parties to the colloquy was the formidable Dr James Murray, the then editor of what was later to be called the Oxford English Dictionary. On the day in question he had travelled fifty miles by train from Oxford to meet an enigmatic figure named Dr W. C. Minor, who was among the most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labours lay at the core of the Dictionary’s creation.

  For very nearly twenty years beforehand these two men had corresponded regularly about the finer points of English lexicography. But they had never met. Minor seemed never willing or able to leave his home at Crowthorne, never willing to come to Oxford. He was unable to offer any kind of explanation, or do more than offer his regrets.

  Murray, who himself was rarely free from the burdens of his work at his Scriptorium in Oxford, had none the less long dearly wished to see and to thank his mysterious and intriguing helper. And particularly so by the late 1890s, with the Dictionary now well on its way to being half completed: official honours were being showered down upon its creators, and Murray wanted to
make sure that all of those involved – even men so apparently bashful as Minor – were recognized for the valuable work they had done. He decided he would pay a visit; and the myth that came to surround that visit goes something like this.

  Once he had made up his mind to go, he telegraphed his intentions, adding that he would find it most convenient to take a train that arrived at Crowthorne Station – then actually known as Wellington College Station, since it served the famous boys’ school sited in the village – just after two on a certain Wednesday in November. Minor sent a wire by return to say that he was indeed expected and would be made most welcome. On the journey from Oxford the weather was fine; the trains were on time; the auguries, in short, were good.

  At the railway station a polished landau and a liveried coachman were waiting, and with James Murray aboard they clip-clopped back through the lanes of rural Berkshire. After twenty minutes or so the carriage turned into a long drive lined with tall poplars, drawing up eventually outside a huge and rather forbidding red-brick mansion. A solemn servant showed the lexicographer upstairs, and into a book-lined study, where behind an immense mahogany desk stood a man of undoubted importance. Murray bowed gravely, and launched into the brief speech of greeting that he had so long rehearsed:

  ‘A very good afternoon to you, sir. I am Dr James Murray of the London Philological Society, and editor of the New English Dictionary. It is indeed an honour and a pleasure to at long last make your acquaintance – for you must be, kind sir, my most assiduous helpmeet, Dr W. C. Minor?’

  There was a brief pause, an air of momentary mutual embarrassment. A clock ticked loudly. There were muffled footsteps in the hall. A distant clank of keys. And then the man behind the desk cleared his throat, and he spoke.

  ‘I regret, kind sir, that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Superintendent of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest-staying resident.’

  The official government files relating to this case are secret, and they have been locked away for more than a century. But I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic and spiritually uplifting story that they reveal.

  Chapter One

  Saturday Night in Lambeth Marsh

  murder (’m3ːdə(r)), sb. Forms: α. 1 morþor, -ur, 3–4 morþre, 3–4,6 murthre, 4 myrþer, 4–6 murthir, morther, 5 Sc. murthour, murthyr, 5–6 murthur, 6 mwrther, Sc. morthour, 4–9 (now dial. and Hist. or arch.) murther; β. 3–5 murdre, 4–5 moerdre, 4–6 mordre, 5 moordre, 6 murdur, mourdre, 6– murder. [OE. morðor neut. (with pl. of masc. form morþras) = Goth. maurþr neut.:–O Teut. *murþrom:-pre-Teut. *mrtro-m, f. root *mer-: mor-: mr- to die, whence L. morī to die, mors (morti-) death, Gr. μopτóς, βpoτóς mortal, Skr. mr. to die, mará masc., mrti fem., death, márta mortal, OSI. mĭrĕti, Lith. mirti to die, Welsh marw, Irish marþ dead.

  The word has not been found in any Teut. lang. but Eng. and Gothic, but that it existed in continental WGer. is evident, as it is the source of OF. murdre, murtre (mod.F. meurtre) and of med.L. mordrum, murdrum, and OHG. had the derivative murdren MURDER v. All the Teut. langs. exc. Gothic possessed a synonymous word from the same root with different suffix: OE. morð neut., masc. (MURTH1), OS. morð neut., OF ris. morth, mord neut., MDu. mort, mord neut. (Du moord), OHG. mord (MHG. mort. mort, mod. G. mord), ON. morð neut.:-OT eut. *murpo-:-pre-Teut. *mrto-.

  The change of original ð into d (contrary to the general tendency to change d into ð before syllabic r) was prob. due to the influence of the AF. murdre, moerdre and the Law Latin murdrum.]

  1. a. The most heinous kind of criminal homicide; also, an instance of this. In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful murder.

  In OE. the word could be applied to any homicide that was strongly reprobated (it had also the senses ‘great wickedness’, ‘deadly injury’, ‘torment’). More strictly, however, it denoted secret murder, which in Germanic antiquity was alone regarded as (in the modern sense) a crime, open homicide being considered a private wrong calling for blood-revenge or compensation. Even under Edward I, Britton explains the AF. murdre only as felonious homicide of which both the perpetrator and the victim are unidentified. The ‘malice aforethought’ which enters into the legal definition of murder, does not (as now interpreted) admit of any summary definition. Until the Homicide Act of 1957, a person might even be guilty of ‘wilful murder’ without intending the death of the victim, as when death resulted from an unlawful act which the doer knew to be likely to cause the death of some one, or from injuries inflicted to facilitate the commission of certain offences. By this act, ‘murder’ was extended to include death resulting from an intention to cause grievous bodily harm. It is essential to ‘murder’ that the perpetrator be of sound mind, and (in England, though not in Scotland) that death should ensue within a year and a day after the act presumed to have caused it. In British law no degrees of guilt are recognized in murder; in the U.S. the law distinguishes ‘murder in the first degree’ (where there are no mitigating circumstances) and ‘murder in the second degree’ (though this distinction does not obtain in all States).

  In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as the Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gun-shots was a rare event indeed. The Marsh was a sinister place, a jumble of slums and sin that crouched, dark and ogre-like, on the bank of the Thames just across from Westminster; few respectable Londoners would ever admit to venturing there. It was a robustly violent part of town as well – the footpad lurked in Lambeth, there had once been an outbreak of garrotting, and in every crowded alley there were the roughest kinds of pickpocket. Fagin, Bill Sikes and Oliver Twist would have all seemed quite at home in Victorian Lambeth: this was Dickensian London writ large.

  But it was not a place for men with guns. The armed criminal was a phenomenon little known in the Lambeth of Gladstone’s day, and very little known in the entire metropolitan vastness of London. Guns were costly, cumbersome, difficult to use, hard to conceal. Then, as today, the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime was thought of as somehow a very un-British act – and as something to be written about and recorded as a rarity. ‘Happily,’ proclaimed a smug editorial in Lambeth’s weekly newspaper, ‘we in this country have no experience of the crime of “shooting down”, so common in the United States.’

  So when a brief fusillade of three revolver shots rang out shortly after two o’clock on the moonlit Saturday morning of 17 February 1872, the sound was unimagined, unprecedented and shocking. The three cracks – perhaps there were four – were loud, very loud, and they echoed through the cold and smokily damp night air. They were heard – and considering their rarity were just by chance instantly recognized – by a keen young police constable named Henry Tarrant, who was then attached to Southwark Constabulary’s ‘L’ Division.

  The clocks had only recently struck two, his notes said later; he was performing with routine languor the duties of the graveyard shift, walking slowly beneath the viaduct arches beside Waterloo Railway Station, rattling the locks of the shopkeepers and cursing the bone-numbing chill.

  When he heard the shots, Tarrant blew his whistle to alert any colleagues who he hoped might be on patrol near by, and began to run. Within seconds he had raced through the warren of mean and slippery lanes that made up what in those days was called a village, and emerged into the wide riverside swath of Belvedere Road, from where he was certain the sounds had come.

  Another policeman named Henry Burton, who had heard the piercing whistle, as had a third, William ward, rushed to the scene. According to Burton’s notes, he dashed towards the echoing sound and came across his colleague Tarrant, who was by then holding a man, as if arresting him. ‘Quick!’ cried Tarrant. ‘Go to the road – a man has been shot!’ Burton and Ward raced in the direc
tion of Belvedere Road and within seconds found the unmoving body of a dying man. They fell to their knees, and onlookers noted they had their helmets and gloves cast off, and were hunched over the victim.

  There was blood gushing on to the pavement – blood staining a spot that would for many months afterwards be described in London’s more dramatically minded papers as the location of a Heinous Crime, a Terrible Event, an Atrocious Occurrence, a Vile Murder.

  The Lambeth Tragedy, the papers eventually settled upon calling it – as if the simple existence of Lambeth itself was not something of a tragedy. Yet this was a most unusual event, even by the diminished standards of the Marsh dwellers. For though the place where the killing occurred had over the years been witness to many strange scenes, the kind eagerly chronicled in the penny dreadfuls, this particular drama was to trigger a chain of consequences that was quite without precedent. And while some aspects of this crime and its aftermath were to turn out to be sad and barely believable, not all of them, as this account will show, were to be wholly tragic. Far from it, indeed.

  Even today Lambeth is a singularly unlovely part of the British capital, jammed anonymously between the great fan of roads and railway lines that take commuters in and out of the city centre from the southern counties. These days the Royal National Theatre and the South Bank Centre stand there, built on the site of the fairgrounds for an entertainment that was staged in 1951 to help cheer up the blitz-battered and war-weary Londoners. Otherwise it is a cheerless and characterless sort of place – rows of prison-like blocks that house the lesser of the government ministries, the headquarters of an international oil company around which winter winds whip bitterly, a few unmemorable pubs and newspaper shops, and the lowering presence of Waterloo Station – lately expanded with the terminal for the Channel Tunnel expresses – which exerts its dull magnetic pull over the neighbourhood.

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