Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Morfill, William Richard

MORFILL, WILLIAM RICHARD (1834–1909), Slavonic scholar, born at Maidstone, Kent, on 17 Nov. 1834, was eldest son of William Morfill, professional musician, of Huguenot origin. Educated first at the grammar school of his native town, he was sent in 1848 to Towbridge school, where he rose to be head boy in 1853, winning a Judd exhibition to the university. In the same year he was elected to a scholarship at Oriel College, Oxford. He was placed in the first class in classical moderations, but a break-down in health compelled him to take a pass degree (B.A. 1857; M.A. 1860). During the remainder of his life he stayed at Oxford, first as a 'coach' or private tutor. For some time he lectured on English literature at Wren's in London, and was always busy reading, writing, and reviewing. His long vacations were spent in travelling on the Continent, especially in Slavonic countries, where he made many friends. In very early life he acquired an interest in the literature, languages, and history of the Slav and his neighbours in the Near East, which became the main study of his life; he owed almost everything to self-teaching. His knowledge of Russian is said to date from his school days, when one of the masters presented him with a Russian grammar. In 1870, and again on two subsequent occasions, he was nominated by the curators of the Taylorian Institution to deliver the lectures on the Ilchester foundation upon Slavonic literature. In 1889 he was appointed, on the recommendation of the same body, to be university reader in Russian, a position which was raised in 1900 to that of professor of Russian and of the Slavonic languages. He was a corresponding member of many learned societies on the Continent, and Ph.D. of the Czech university of Prague. In 1903 he was elected fellow of the British Academy, in the philological section.

Morfill was a voluminous author in the subjects that he had made his own. He wrote grammars of Polish (1884), Serbian (1887), and Bulgarian (1897) for Trübner's series of 'Simplified Grammars'; of Russian (1889) and Czech (1889) for the Clarendon press; for 'The Story of the Nations' histories of Russia (1885; 6th edit. 1904) and Poland (1893); for 'Religious Systems of the World' a sketch of Slavonic religion; besides many articles in the 'Encyclopedia Britannica.' He also published 'Slavonic Literature' (1883) and 'A History of Russia from Peter the Great to Alexander II' (1902). In conjunction with Dr. R. H. Charles he translated the Slavonic version of the 'Book of the Secrets of Enoch' (1896) and other Apocryphal literature. At the time of his death be was engaged on a translation of the ancient 'Norgorod Chronicle.' His interests, however, were by no means confined to Slavonic From a boy he had read widely in English literature, and he possessed a most retentive memory. His first publication was an edition of ballads from MSS. of the reign of Elizabeth for the Ballad Society (1873). He kept up his classics to the last, and found time to make himself acquainted with Welsh and Old Irish, and also with Georgian and Turkish. This fortunate gift of tongues was valued by him, not so much for linguistic purposes, as affording a key to the knowledge of a national character and history. He was an old-fashioned humanist, rather than a philologer of the modern type. So too in social intercourse he was no scholastic recluse but a genial man of the world. His house at Oxford was the meeting place of a small but brilliant circle, who may not have been prominent in academical business, but who there sharpened one another's wits for the distinction they gained in the outer world.

Morfill married, about 1862, Charlotte Maria Lee, of a Northamptonshire family, who died in 1881, leaving no children. After he had passed his seventieth year, his health gradually failed, though he retained his vivacity and his devotion to work almost to the end. He died peacefully in his chair at his house in Oxford on 9 Nov. 1909. He bequeathed his valuable collection of Slavonic books to Queen's College, which elected him in 1885 an honorary member of its common room.

[Personal knowledge; memoir by Sir J. A. H. Murray in Proc. Brit. Acad., vol. iv.; Osdford Mag., Nov. 1909.]

J. S. C.