First edited by Leslie Stephen, Virginia’s father.
The original dictionary was conceived in 1882 and first edited by Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen. Leslie had to organise the work of more than 600 contributors to the dictionary and he himself researched and wrote 378 of them.
The dictionary has entries detailing the lives of those men and women who have made British history. Those given an entry may be British people who have ventured overseas and overseas people who have lived in Britain and have made a significant contribution to British history. The idea is not just to include public figures but to include those people who are largely unknown as well; the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the entertainers, the authors and so on.
Not all the entries are about ‘good’ people, there are the notorious ones in there too, and the criminal. With this in mind it seems a bit erroneous to say that it is an honour to be included in the National Biography, but you get the idea.
Today the dictionary comprises over 60,000 entries written by over 11,000 contributors who are historians, scholars and experts in their field.
The biographies that were written in Leslie Stephen’s day have now been re-written and updated to reflect modern times and many more entries have been added.
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography only has entries about deceased people, never those that are still living and some entries are longer than others. Winston Churchill for example has an entry of 25,000 words!
The dictionary is always a work in progress, with new facts about existing entries coming to light and, with people dying all the time, new entries being made.