Making the most of the ODNB

Oxford dictionary of National BiographyWarning! Searching the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) can be addictive. As the saying goes,“all human life is here”.

Most people use this dictionary to search for a specific individual. However you may not be aware that using the advanced search options selecting other search criteria will create lists of names of the great and the good and also, it must be said, the not-so-good. It is this searching capability that makes the online version so much more powerful than the paper volumes.

To use the advanced search facility, click on one of the “More Search Options” displayed beneath the main search box.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Curiosity led me to check how many people with Westminster borough connections are listed. The answer is currently 3980. However this figure is misleading as a casual check of a few entries revealed than the connection was often limited either to their unfortunate death in one of the borough’s hospitals, attendance at one of the borough’s schools or the fact they were politicians so had the obvious Westminster connection.

I reduced this huge number of entries firstly by selecting Marylebone for the location and further whittling down the number of entries by selecting the “Law and Crime” category. Amongst the list of lawyers and judges I found Henry Fauntleroy, a banker employed in the bank Marsh, Sibbald & Co. of Berners Street, Marylebone, He began a criminal career by fraudulently appropriating trust moneys and securities deposited by customers in the Berners Street bank and by forging powers of attorney, he was able to sell consols, annuities, navy loans and other government stock to support the credit of the bank and personal gain. The fraud totalling £36,000 was discovered in 1824, the current value equivalent of £36 million. Despite appeals, Henry Fauntleroy was publicly hanged in front of an estimated crowd of 100,000 outside Newgate Gaol.

You may wonder why he is included. The DNB does not only include the great and the good. To quote the website “the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history and culture, worldwide, from the Romans to the 21st century”. Henry Fauntleroy’s significance in British history is that his fraud led to major banking reforms with the passing of the 1826 Banking Act.

Finally it is also worth investigating the ‘Themes’ tab to display the large number of collective biographies brought together under such topics as climbers of Everest, British monarchs, First World War poets and significant military and political leaders involved in that conflict. Other lists include founder members of institutions and significant groups in British history.


(For other examples of how to dig deep into the resources of the ODNB, see this post from 2012.)


One response to “Making the most of the ODNB

  1. Pingback: Read all about it! The Times Digital Archive | Books & the City

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