John Sparrow (academic)

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John Hanbury Angus Sparrow (13 November 1906 – 24 January 1992) was an English academic, barrister, book-collector, and Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, from 1952 to 1977.

Early life and education[edit]

He was born on 13 November 1906 at New Oxley, Bushbury, near Wolverhampton, and died on 24 January 1992 at Iffley, near Oxford. His father was Isaac Saredon Sparrow, a barrister who had inherited wealth through the family business as prominent Midland ironmasters. John Sparrow was the eldest of five children, born to Isaac and Margaret Sparrow (née Macgregor).

Sparrow briefly attended the junior house of Wolverhampton Grammar School, but was soon moved to Brockhurst at Church Stretton in Shropshire as a boarder. Not long after, in September 1916, when he was nearly ten, he was sent to a preparatory school called The Old Hall at Wellington in Shropshire. His formal education followed at Winchester College and New College, Oxford.

Academic career[edit]

Sparrow was elected Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in 1929, winning a prize fellowship the same year H. L. A. Hart sat (unsuccessfully) for the first time. He became Warden of All Souls (1952–77) in an election in which he famously defeated A. L. Rowse. He was also a Fellow of Winchester (1951–81) and an Honorary Fellow of New College (1956–1992). In Oxford he was well known as a book-collector and bibliographer, and became President of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles, in which role he influenced a generation of Oxford bookmen. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

He famously wrote an article for Encounter on Lady Chatterley's Lover (after the obscenity trial) arguing that the acquittal was wrong, as the novel promoted the illegal practice of sodomy.

Legal career[edit]

Sparrow was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple (1931, Honorary Bencher 1952), practising in the Chancery Division (1931–39, 1946–51).


He published more than fifty books and essays on topics including epigraphy, painting, and Latin and English poetry. Among the more substantial are:

  • Half-Lines and Repetitions in Virgil (1931)
  • Sense and Poetry. Essays on the Place of Meaning in Contemporary Verse (1934)
  • Independent Essays (1963)
  • Controversial Essays (1966)
  • Mark Pattison and the Idea of a University (1967)
  • Visible Words. A Study of Inscriptions in and as Books and Works of Art (1969)
  • Too Much of a Good Thing (1977)[1]
  • Renaissance Latin Verse. An Anthology (ed. with Alessandro Perosa, 1979)
  • Words on the Air. Essays on Language, Manners, Morals and Laws (1981)

One of his best known remarks describes the dog as "that indefatigable and unsavoury engine of pollution".


  1. ^ Hardin, Garrett (1993). "Too Much of a Good Thing by John Sparrow". Living within Limits. Oxford University Press.