Oliver Elton, a Fellow of the British Academy, was one of the leading authorities on English Literature in the early years of the twentieth century. He was appointed King Alfred professor of English Literature at Liverpool University in 1901 and stayed in the city until his retirement in 1925.
He was born at Holt, Norfolk on 3rd June 1861 to the Reverend Charles Allen Ellen and his wife. His father was the headmaster of Gresham’s School at Holt and Oliver Elton was schooled there, later attending Marlborough and Corpus Christi, Oxford. One of his close friends at Oxford was the noted Scottish watercolour artist Dugald Sutherland MacColl and Elton married his sister, Letitia.
Prior to his arrival at Liverpool he had spent 10 years as a lecturer at Owens College, Manchester University, a period which saw the publication of the first of his many translations from Icelandic. Once at Liverpool he commenced upon his primary work, the six volume Survey of English Literature (1730-1880), an endeavour that he would not complete until after his retirement.
Elton was very much part of the academic and social scene during his years in the city and his name surfaces in many books of the time which touch upon the artistic life of the city. In his autobiography (Scaffolding in the Sky) architect Charles Reilly recalls that Oliver Elton was one of a group that met at Dove House in Woolton, their host being Leila Reynolds, the wife of Sir James Reynolds. The composition of the set was diverse, comprising academics such as Elton, philosophers, artists and on occasions the celebrated poet Lascelles Abercrombie. Leila Reynolds delighted in their stimulating company, but her husband was a man who preferred to spend his leisure hours in more vigorous activity and he referred to her eminent guests as ‘her corpses’.
Along with Reilly, Oliver Elton was a member of an informal group of academics at Liverpool University who referred to themselves as the ‘New Testament’ and sought to influence the direction of the establishment. Reilly described Elton as “the most austere man of the company in appearance but with a smile which belied the severity of his looks.”. He seems to have been a forceful personality quite prepared to voice his opposition to matters irrespective of the rank and status of those with whom he disagreed. Reilly mused that the word ‘compromise’ had disappeared from his vocabulary long before he left the University.
Elton was keenly involved in the Liverpool Repertory Company (now the Playhouse) and in Grace Wyndham Goldie’s history of its early days he is cited as taking up the task of raising much needed funds to ensure its survival. (The Liverpool Repertory Theatre 1911-1934. Hodder & Stoughton 1935).
After leaving Liverpool he settled in Oxford and had two spells as visiting professor at Harvard University. Adding to his earlier translations from Icelandic he learned Russian during the First World War and devoted some his ‘retirement’ years to translating Pushkin. He also mastered Serbo-Croat and Polish and worked on translations from these languages.
He died at his Oxford home on 14th June 1945 aged 84. He had three sons, one of whom, Charles Sutherland Elton, was an eminent zoologist and animal ecologist.
Elton had a number of Liverpool homes. His first house was at 15 Parkfield Road L17, by 1991 he had moved the short distance to 35 Parkfield Road L17, his home until c.1915. He then spent a number of years living at ‘Wenstead’, a semi-detached Victorian villa in Grassendale Park, now 22 North Road L19. Shortly before leaving the city he lived for a brief period at 1 Brompton Avenue L17.
Elton's first home in Liverpool
Elton's home at the time of the 1911 census, he lived here until c.1915.
The Elton home until shortly before he left the city in 1925.
The Elton family lived here briefly before moving to Oxford in 1925.
There is a comprehensive entry for Elton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The Wikipedia entry is a reasonable summary of his career. There are numerous references to him in C H Reilly's autobiographical work Scaffolding in the Sky [Routledge 1938]
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