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An “extraordinary testament to British eccentricity”

Mary Toft with her “monsters”

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – which covers more than 60,000 Britons across 2,500 years – is one of the country’s “towering intellectual achievements”, says Josh McLoughlin in Engelsberg Ideas. Its value lies in its “celebration of diversity”: it contains not only the great men of history – kings, politicians, poets and scholars – but also pub landlords, pranksters, mavericks and oddballs. On a casual browse, you might come across Gladstone Adams (1880-1966), the inventor of the windscreen wiper; Asquith Camile Xavier (1920-1980), a member of the Windrush generation who became the first non-white train guard at Euston; or Mary Toft (bap. 1703, d. 1763) a hoaxer who “scandalised the nation” by inserting eels’ spines and rabbits’ heads into her vagina and claiming to give birth to a succession of monsters. It all adds up to an “extraordinary testament to British eccentricity”.

Browse a sample of the dictionary here.