Remembering the pioneers who helped shape our world

Dorothy Margaret Hannah
Dorothy Margaret Hannah
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THESE days we’ve grown accustomed to heading straight to Wikipedia whenever we want to find out information about the life of someone well known.

However, given the fact this online encyclopedia isn’t always as accurate as it should be, we should perhaps take what it says with a pinch of salt, or at least seek out additional sources to back up its claims. Like, for instance, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

This growing archive is the national record of men and women from all kinds of backgrounds who have shaped British life, stretching from the 21st century right back to Roman times.

The Oxford DNB was first published, both in print and online, a decade ago and now tells the life stories of 59,221 people, from monarchs and politicians to scientists and artists.

Apart from being a respected figure in their chosen field the other criteria for any would-be subject is they have to be dead. But as well as highlighting famous figures from both the history books and our recent past, the Oxford DNB also attempts to revive the names of those who may have, for one reason or another, slipped off the radar.

The latest version includes Geoffrey Ambler, a Bradford industrialist and senior RAF officer who reached the rank of Air Vice Marshal in Fighter Command during the Second World War, and his scientific collaborator Margaret Hannah – a mathematician who became a lecturer at Leeds University.

Another new addition is Sir James Roberts, the former owner of Saltaire textile mill who later saved the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth.

Ambler and Hannah were linked by the textile trade. He invented the Ambler Superdraft, a machine that transformed the worsted spinning industry in Yorkshire, while she produced a science paper explaining how it actually worked and the mathematics behind it.

After the war ended he returned to the spinning business where he developed the precision machine which bears his name.

His invention increased the speed at which worsted yarn could be produced, making it cheaper and allowing manufacturers to create more synthetic materials, which were growing in popularity at the time.

The textile industry was crucial to Yorkshire’s economy for decades and Dr Emily Winterburn, a visiting fellow at the University of Leeds, was approached by the Oxford DNB to research and write the entries for both Ambler and Hannah.

Ambler was born in Baildon, in West Yorkshire, into a prosperous family, in contrast to Hannah’s more humble beginnings, and Dr Winterburn says what’s particularly interesting about the two of them is the fact they came from very different backgrounds.

“He came from a family of industrialists and politicians. He went to the same school as Charles Darwin and studied at Cambridge University, whereas Hannah’s mother was a teacher and came from a more ordinary background. So she went to Cambridge, too, but she won a scholarship.”

As well as being a kind of Who’s Who of prominent figures from Britain’s past, Dr Winterburn says the Oxford DNB is also a way of raising awareness about lesser known, but no less significant, figures.

“It’s a way of highlighting people who should get more credit but have been forgotten by history, particularly women. If you ask people to name a great female scientist they might say Marie Curie but that’s perhaps it, and this is way of making people more aware about some of these other figures and their achievements.”

The Oxford DNB online is freely available in public libraries across the UK. For more information visit www.oxforddnb.com.