MC:PR33 Papers of George Stuart Gordon (President 1928-42)
The biographical sketch of President Gordon comprises excerpts from his entry in the New Dictionary of National Biography by Dr. R. Darwall-Smith. Please refer to this entry and M. C. Gordon, The Letters of George S. Gordon 1902–1942 (Oxford, 1943), and The Life of George S. Gordon 1881–1942 (Oxford, 1945) for a more in-depth view of Gordon’s life and achievements.
I – BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF GEORGE STUART GORDON
George Stuart Gordon (1881–1942), President of Magdalen College Oxford and literary scholar, was born at Falkirk on 1 February 1881, the second child and eldest son of William Gordon (d. 1925), a police superintendent and later Procurator Fiscal, and Mary Napier (d. 1925).
Gordon was educated at Falkirk High School, and matriculated at Glasgow University in 1899. Although he studied Classics, graduating MA in 1903, he attracted the notice of Walter Raleigh, Professor of English. Gordon then won a scholarship at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1902, where he again read Classics, getting a First in Finals and graduating BA in 1906 and MA in 1909.
By now, Gordon was looking beyond Classics: he had won the Stanhope Prize for history in 1905, and spent winter 1906–7 in Paris engaged in further research, but on his return to Oxford in 1907 he was elected to a Prize Fellowship in English at Magdalen College, with the encouragement of Raleigh. At Magdalen, he proved a stimulating and popular tutor, but found time to edit texts for Oxford University Press. On 29 June 1909 he married Mary Campbell Biggar, whom he had first met at Glasgow. The marriage was a happy one, and produced four children.
In 1913, Gordon was elected Professor of English Language and Literature at Leeds University, but when war broke out a year later, he joined the 6th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment. He served in France, but was wounded in 1917. After convalescing, he joined the War Office, as a member of the staff of the Official Military History. In this connection, Gordon visited Gallipoli in 1919, where he caught fever. This, and his wounds, affected his health in later life.
After 1919, scholarship gradually gave way to administration. Although Gordon was a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, produced many editions (including of nine Shakespeare plays), and proved himself an accomplished lecturer and broadcaster, publishing several of his talks, he found writing difficult, and was a stern self-critic. When dying, he regretted this change in his career, but his contribution to English scholarship as an administrator and populariser was considerable. At Leeds, he assembled a strong team, including E. V. Gordon and J. R. R. Tolkien. The Leeds course became the largest outside Oxford.
In 1922 Gordon succeeded Raleigh as Merton Professor of English Literature in Oxford. The results were again happy: a separate English faculty board was created in 1926, and during his professorship the number of English honours finalists rose by half. In 1928, Gordon was elected President of Magdalen College. Lewis suggests that he was a compromise candidate; however, the contrast between Gordon and his predecessor, Sir Herbert Warren, undoubtedly made him attractive to those seeking change. He did not fail expectations: Gordon was noted for the discretion with which he altered aspects of College life, and his Presidency saw great improvements in Magdalen’s academic performance. Much depended on a group of younger Fellows, but the changes could not have occurred without his approval.
His position at Magdalen did not deter Gordon from other duties. He served as Gresham Professor of Rhetoric in 1930–3, and then Professor of Poetry in 1933–8. In 1934 he was President of the Classical Association of Scotland, and he was also a member of General Advisory Council and Chairman of the Spoken English Committee of the BBC. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had to spend much of 1935 on leave following a breakdown in his health.
In 1938 Gordon became Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Almost immediately he had to prepare Oxford for the threat of war: he successfully negotiated terms for the use of College and University buildings by the government and, once war broke out, he ensured that Oxford did not close down as it had in 1914, but rather offered short courses for students before they were called up. The duties of the Vice-Chancellorship took their toll; several Fellows of Magdalen felt that he neglected College business.
Gordon’s term as Vice-Chancellor ended in October 1941. Plans for future research were immediately dashed by an illness revealed as cancer. After a long fight, he died in the President’s Lodgings on 12 March 1942. His funeral was held two days later in Magdalen College Chapel, and he was buried in Holywell cemetery.
II – PUBLISHED WORKS
- Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays: 1909-1911
- Charles Lamb: 1921
- The Discipline of Letters: 1923
- Shakespeare’s English: 1928
- The Fronde (Stanhope essay): 1905
- Mons and the Retreat: 1918
- The Trojans in Britain: 1924
- Middle Aevum and the Middle Age: 1925
- ‘English Literature and the Classics’ (a collection of Oxford Lectures): 1912
- ‘Shelley and the Oppressors of Mankind’ (Warton Lecture): 1923
- ‘Prologue to Philip Massinger’s Duke of Milan’ (Merton College tercentenary): 1923
- ‘Andrew Lang’ (Lecture at University of St Andrew’s – given December 1st, 1927): 1928
- ‘Virgil’ (Warton Lecture): 1930
- John Gibson Lockhart commemoration address (University of Glasgow, 1930): 1944
- Peacham’s Compleat Gentleman (Tudor and Stuart Library): 1906
- Companionable Books: 1927
- Three Oxford Ironies: 1927
- Times Literary Supplement: several articles
III – THE PAPERS
The Gordon papers have been in the archives from at least the mid 1980s, unless otherwise indicated. Unfortunately no more about the time of their provenance has been recorded.
The papers include material relating to Gordon’s academic, professional and personal life, and have been divided into the following sections:
MC:PR33/1 Documents relating to Gordon’s academic work and literary interests unrelated to his activities as President of Magdalen College.
MC:PR33/2 Documents relating to Gordon’s activities as President of Magdalen College.
MC:PR33/3 Documents relating to Gordon’s research into the history of the World War I campaigns in the Dardanelles (Troy and Gallipoli).
IV – CONVENTIONS OF THE CATALOGUE
One basic principle was adhered to throughout the cataloguing of the papers: many documents were found in folders or envelopes. The contents of these have been kept together and listed as individual items. This means that one ‘item’ may consist of just one letter, whereas another one will comprise several tens of papers, but this does at least protect the original context of the collection. Descriptions of such items in the catalogue frequently include the words ‘folder of..’ to indicate how they are stored.
Catalogued by Clare Baker in January 2003 and amended by Richard Hunt in May 2008