What’s in a name? Not enough information!

When cataloguing archival material, it is obviously useful to be able to identify the creator of the record. Details such as full name and dates of birth and/or death can help researchers to clearly pick out potential people of interest.  However, the name and dates alone are not always enough to distinguish one person from another.  This is the reason why there is usually a descriptive phrase in archival catalogues e.g. James Grant, Major-General from James Grant, novelist.  This descriptive phrase is called an epithet.  As the cataloguer of the John Murray Archive, it is part of my job to find these epithets in order to help identify the writers of the thousands of letters to this publishing house.


The epithet should reflect what the creator is best known for or their latest profession.  As such, often the epithet is the profession of the person e.g. publisher, physician, barrister, which is useful, but not always very exciting.  However, there are times when the epithet can be a little more eye catching. One such example was the epithet for Tempest Anderson (1846-1913).  His epithet reads ‘ophthalmic surgeon and vulcanologist’. He was not a worshipper of the Roman god of fire, or even a Trekkie, but in fact studied volcanoes.  He writes to John Murray in 1902 and his book, ‘Volcanic Studies in Many Lands’, was published by Murray in 1903.  It contains images he took on his travels to the various volcanic regions of the world:

Plate from ‘Volcanic Studies’ by Tempest Anderson, showing Vesuvius and Somma from near Resina

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography :

He kept two bags always packed, one for hot climes and one for cold, so that immediately he heard of an eruption he could board the next available ship. In spite of the limitations of travel, he visited most major volcanic areas of the world.


The epithets for women are often (not always but often) either ‘wife of…’, ‘daughter of…’ or ‘sister of…’.  Since many women had no professional sphere, the way to best identify them is through their relationships with the men in their lives who did. However, there are many examples where this is not the case and the epithets of these women reflect their own work or activities.  For example, being the archive of a publishing house, there are many women in the John Murray Archive who were authors.  One of the more unusual epithets though, belongs to Margaret Ann Field (1842-1936) who is described as a ‘crochet lace-maker’.  Field moved from Scotland to Australia when she was 13.  She developed a new type of crochet and published a book entitled ‘Australian Lace Crochet’ in 1909. Some examples of her crochet still exist in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia and can be viewed online at https://collection.maas.museum/object/89641.


In contrast to the  ‘wife of…’ epithets, there is an unusual example where the opposite has happened.  This is the case of  John Walter Cross (1840-1924).  His epithet reads ‘husband of George Eliot’.

John Walter Cross can be seen on the right of this image. ©NPG
Mary Ann Cross, pseudonym George Eliot, novelist. Image ©NPG















The novelist Mary Ann Cross, commonly known as George Eliot, married John Walter Cross in May 1880. He was over 20 years younger than her and their elopement shocked many of her friends. She died just a few months later, in December of the same year.


You can find out more about the John Murray Archive here http://digital.nls.uk/jma/ or come in and see it for yourself in our Special Collections Reading Room http://www.nls.uk/using-the-library/reading-rooms/special