Oscar Browning

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"OB" as caricatured in Vanity Fair, November 1888

Oscar Browning (17 January 1837 – 6 October 1923) was an English writer, historian, and educational reformer. His greatest achievement was the cofounding, along with Henry Sidgwick, of the Cambridge University Day Training College[1] in 1891. This was one of the earliest institutions in Great Britain to focus on the training of educators, preempted only by the founding of the Cambridge Teaching College for Women by Elizabeth Hughes in 1885.[2]


Browning was born in London, the son of a merchant, William Shipton Browning, and educated at Eton College, where he was a pupil of William Johnson Cory[3] and at King's College, Cambridge, where he became fellow and tutor, graduating fourth in the classical tripos of 1860,[4] and where he was inducted into the exclusive Cambridge Apostles, a debating society for the Cambridge elite.

For fifteen years he was a Master at Eton College, until he was dismissed in the autumn of 1875 following a major homosexual scandal involving several of his pupils at Eton.[5] His parents' church, St. Andrew's, in Clewer, describes the reasons for his dismissal as "his injudicious talk, his favourites, and his anarchic spirit."[6]

After Eton he returned to King's College, Cambridge, where he took up a life Fellowship and where he achieved a reputation as a wit, and became universally known as "O.B.". He traveled to India at George Curzon's invitation after the latter had become viceroy. He resumed residence in 1876 at Cambridge, where he became university lecturer in history. He soon became a prominent figure in college and university life, encouraging especially the study of political science and modern political history, the extension of university teaching and the movement for the training of teachers.

Browning served as principal of the Cambridge University Day Training College (1891–1909), treasurer of the Cambridge Union Society (1881–1902), founding treasurer of the Cambridge University Liberal Club (1885–1908), and president of the Cambridge Footlights (1890–1895).

He stood for Parliament three times as a Liberal: in Norwood in 1886, East Worcestershire in 1892, and West Derby in 1895.

He left Cambridge in 1908 and retired to Bexhill-on-Sea. In 1914 he was visiting Italy when World War I broke out. He decided to stay there and spent his later years in Rome, where he died in 1923 at the age of eighty-six.

He was a member of the Athenaeum, the Alpine Club, and the Bath Club.

Cultural Influence[edit]

These days most people know Browning as the arch villain of Virginia Woolf's feminist manifesto A Room of One's Own. Quoting H. E. Wortham, Woolf condemns Browning as one who "was wont to declare 'that the impression left on his [Browning's] mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that [...] the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.'"[7] After painting an unsavory picture of Browning's sexual proclivity for young men, Woolf ends by theorizing that "because Mr. Oscar Browning was a great figure in Cambridge at one time,"[7] his negative opinion of the intelligence of women would have rubbed off on the fathers of the day and his words would have been cited by them to dissuade their daughters from pursuing higher education.

Although Wortham was Browning's nephew and first biographer, there are problems with his scholarship. Wortham had access to Browning's private papers but included scant footnotes in his 1927 biography of his uncle. Indeed Wortham fails to provide any source, context, or citation for the infamous quote on the inferiority of the intelligence of women.[8] Furthermore, Wortham's sources are impossible to reconstruct because as Dr. Rosalind Moad, archivist at King's College, Cambridge, has pointed out the papers taken by Wortham to produce this biography "disappeared" after Wortham published the work.[9] Included among the missing papers are almost all of Browning's diaries and much of his correspondence. However enough Browning papers survive in the archive at Eton and other places so that Dr. Mark McBeth, an expert on the educational innovations of Browning, can state that "archival materials [...] debunk the feminist myth that Browning disparaged women's educational benefits as well as being antagonistic to women's political issues."[10]


Browning's works include:

  • England and Napoleon in 1803 (1887)
  • History of England (4 vols. 1890)
  • Dante; Life and Works (1891)
  • Wars of the Nineteenth Century (1899)
  • History of Europe 1814–1843 (1901)
  • Guelphs and Ghibellines (1903)
  • Napoleon, the first Phase (1905)
  • Memories of Sixty Years at Eton, Cambridge and Elsewhere (1910), ISBN 1-4021-8433-6


  1. ^ Pam Hirsch, Mark McBeth, Teacher Training at Cambridge, p. 71.
  2. ^ Pam Hirsch, Mark McBeth, Teacher Training at Cambridge, p. 128.
  3. ^ Pam Hirsch, Mark McBeth, Teacher Training at Cambridge.
  4. ^ "Browning, Oscar (BRWN856O)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=VV56dunio2EC&lpg=PA173&ots=A0kzPXPauQ&dq=oscar%20browning%20homosexualiyu&pg=PA173#v=onepage&q=oscar%20browning%20homosexualiyu&f=false
  6. ^ "A History of Clewer; Booklet 2: St. Andrew's Church". Retrieved 2007-06-01. 
  7. ^ a b Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, p. 53.
  8. ^ Hugh Evelyn Wortham, "Oscar Browning", p. 187.
  9. ^ Moad, Rosalind (21 March 2003). "A list of The Papers of Oscar Browning, held by King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge". Retrieved 2007-06-01. 
  10. ^ Pam Hirsch, Mark McBeth, Teacher Training at Cambridge, p. 7.

Further reading[edit]

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Cultural offices
Preceded by
J.J. Withers
Footlights President
Succeeded by
C.M. Rae
Preceded by
C.M. Rae
Footlights President
Succeeded by
H.C. Pollitt