Where Jack the Ripper gets to rub shoulders with Lord Lucan's nanny

March 8, 2002

The New DNB still has the good, the bad and the ugly, but women and crime victims are better represented than before, says Huw Richards.

Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, Florence Maybrick, Neville Heath, Jack the Ripper. Not the stock-list for Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, but just a few of the subjects for another institution reflecting national life - the New Dictionary of National Biography , due for publication in 2004.

This is a total revision of the DNB , which was first published in 1901 and then supplemented by decennial volumes of the past decade's distinguished dead. It will include 12,000 new entries - of whom 3,000 will be women, doubling their previous representation. None of the 38,000 existing subjects will be thrown out, but each entry is being updated, and sometimes totally rewritten.

Also revised is an approach billed as recently as 1986 as "reflecting the aspirations and achievements of the British nation" - and doing it largely through public lives, such as politicians and civil servants. Aspirations, achievements and public life still matter, but Brian Harrison, who became editor two years ago after the sudden death of Colin Matthew, says: "People will also get in because events in their lives had a resonance, entered folklore, led to a change in the law or became culturally significant."

This reverses DNB trends, but Harrison argues that it returns to the liberal, inclusive spirit of its founder, Leslie Stephen. It continues a shift away from po-faced reverence of the elite started in the 1960s by editor Bill Williamson - "a conservative, but one who wished to move with the more libertarian spirit of the times" - and by the biographies of Michael Holroyd. "After his biography of Lytton Strachey, there was a shift towards telling the whole story, warts and all," Harrison says.

By this measure, the bad - or those judged in their time to be bad - can matter as much as the great and good. Richard Davenport-Hines, a New DNB assistant editor, told a recent seminar in Oxford: "People like Crippen, James Hanratty, Ruth Ellis and Stephen Ward have made a far greater contribution to our national memory than almost any bishop or admiral."

Criminal lives have always been included. Harrison notes that the DNB is liberally stocked with the highwaymen and forgers of the 17th and 18th centuries. The proportion of criminals in the New DNB may be lower than in its predecessors - a result of the influx of female subjects, who are much less likely to be criminals than their male counterparts. Nevertheless, the social transgressor remains an emblematic figure for a publication whose aspirations, although not prose style, have moved closer to those once expressed by the News of the World , that "all of human life is here".

Writers on criminals are expected to operate by the same standards as any other contributor. "We look for accuracy and precision in an area where there is a lot of imprecision, for facts and not emotion, and for accounts that are neither salacious nor dwell on crimes for their own sake," Harrison says.

Moralising is out, although Davenport-Hines recalled the advice offered by Matthew to a writer offered a particularly unattractive subject: "Hang him slowly by quotation."

A strong element in cultural resonance is what Harrison calls "the theatre of the scaffold". Mention crime and the mind turns to Crippen, Jack the Ripper and Victorian street scenes with newsboys shouting "'Orrible Murder!" Crippen and Jack the Ripper will be there, but the main value to historians will lie in the many less famous names.

Harrison points out: "For earlier periods, crime is immensely important to the social historian as one of our few real insights into lives outside the elite. People outside the elites did not leave many personal records, but a great deal is revealed about their lives in court records." There are also some intriguing categories of crime - Harrison is particularly pleased with a collective entry detailing the activities of industrial spies in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Harrison and Davenport-Hines both note the lesson that definitions of criminality vary over time. Harrison told the seminar: "When I look at the medieval entries, it seems to me that they were all criminals!" A person's being on the losing side in a power or religious struggle often had the consequence of his being treated as a criminal.

Some types of criminal often have a cultural impact. Davenport-Hines spoke with particular relish of the "sanctimonious swindlers" of the 19th century, men such as John "Bubble" Wilks (c.1793-1846) or the banker Sir John Dean Paul (1802-68), whose response to the collapse of his fraudulent bank was "this is the Lord's doing and is marvellous in our eyes" and whom he suggests may have contributed to the reputation of evangelical Christians for "smarmy hypocrisy".

It is also possible to note consistent behaviour over time. Davenport-Hines points to "a strand of dubious treatment of sexually independent women" - stretching from Madelaine Smith in the 1850s and Maybrick ("on trial for adultery as much as for murder") in 1889 to Edith Thompson (1921), Alma Rattenbury (1935) and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged (1955). He suggests that a possible successor to this line was the porn star Mary Millington (d.1979), frequently harassed and arrested but never charged.

The DNB can also, he suggests, offer retrospective redress to victims of false charges or miscarriages of justice. He describes the osteopath Stephen Ward, a major figure in the Profumo scandal who committed suicide in 1963, as "the British Dreyfus". The charges against him, Davenport-Hines argues, "amounted to little more than having introduced men and women who subsequently slept together. If this were to be applied generally it would put about 90 per cent of Oxford University in jeopardy".

But a retrospective view is not always kinder. Percy Topliss (d.1920) has achieved a romantic reputation as the first world war's "Monocled Mutineer". The New DNB entry, Davenport-Hines said, would show that Topliss was "a conman, rapist, thief and heartless murderer".

The facts in these cases are, in retrospect at least, reasonably clear. A considerable challenge faced the writer commissioned to explain the life of James Hanratty, whose execution in 1962 has long been held as a classic miscarriage of justice. DNA tests completed after the article had been submitted suggested that Hanratty might have been guilty as charged and convicted. Davenport-Hines says: "In some cases, the only possible verdict is the Scottish one of 'not proven'."

Modern trends are reflected in the inclusion of some people who were chiefly famous as the victims of crime. Davenport-Hines argues that the only 20th-century victims before the 1990s to impress themselves on the public imagination were Crippen's wife, Belle Elmore and Lord Lucan's nanny, Sandra Rivett.

But the 1990s brought more of a focus on the victim - perhaps a result of the retributive public mood epitomised by John Major's call to "condemn more and understand less" - with the consequence that headmaster Philip Lawrence and Southeast London teenager Stephen Lawrence became much more famous than their (in Stephen's case alleged) killers. Their entries, with Stephen's including the aftermath of the botched investigation, the Macpherson report and the light they shed on the treatment of ethnic minorities in London, will reflect the DNB 's continuing remit to move with, as well as record, our times.

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