The Correspondence of Elizabeth Elstob

Primary Contributors:

Bodleian Libraries, Cultures of Knowledge, and Dawn Hollis

Initial with Elizabeth Elstob’s portrait, by Simon Gribelin taken from Elizabeth Elstob, English-Saxon homily on the birth-day of St Gregory (London, 1709), p. 1. (Source of image: Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756)

Elizabeth Elstob, the Anglo-Saxon scholar who made her living as a schoolmistress, was born on 29 September 1683 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She was the youngest of eight children of a merchant, Ralph Elstob (d. 1688), and his wife, Jane Hall (d. 1692). Following the death of her mother, Elstob was taken to Canterbury and raised in the household of her father’s younger brother, Charles. Here, despite her uncle’s opposition to the education of women, she continued the studies initiated by her mother. Her brother William Elstob (1673/4–1715) supported her scholarly ambitions; he had matriculated at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, before transferring six months later to Queen’s College, Oxford, from where he was elected fellow of University College in 1695. It was through William that Elstob was introduced to George Hickes (1642–1715) and the group which studied Old English and Anglo-Saxon history and culture known today as the Oxford Saxonists.

From 1702, Elstob lived with her brother in Bush Lane, London. William had been appointed rector of St Mary Bothaw and St Swithin London Stone, and Elstob assisted him in his planned edition of the Anglo-Saxon laws. At this point she began also to publish in her own right — an English translation of Madeleine de Scudéry’s Discours de la gloire (1708); a transcript of the Athanasian creed appended to the Salisbury psalter (also 1708); An English-Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St. Gregory (1709); and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715), this latter being the first grammar of Old English to be published in English.

The death in 1715 (‘after a long and lingering illness’) of William at the age of forty-one left Elstob lacking income and facing repayment of the significant debts that had arisen from the siblings’ joint publishing projects. Possibly in an attempt to avoid creditors, she left London and was recorded thereafter living in Evesham, Worcestershire, where she taught at a village school. In 1739 she took up the appointment of governess to the children of Margaret Bentinck, duchess of Portland (1715–1785). In poor health — she had suffered since her brother’s death from what she termed her ‘nervous fever’ — Elizabeth Elstob died on 30 May 1756, whilst still in the employment of the Portlands, and was buried four days later at St Margaret’s Westminster.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The forty-two letters from Elizabeth Elstob to George Ballard in the collections of the Bodleian Libraries (Bodleian MS. Ballard 43) have been transcribed by Dawn Hollis and published as an edition in Lias (for bibliographic details, see below). The metadata for the letters, together with an additional eight either to or from Elstob, entered EMLO initially with the Bodleian card catalogue in 2010 and, thanks to Dawn, these have been checked, corrected where necessary, and expanded.

Thanks are due to EMLO Digital Fellow Bradley Blankemeyer and to Assistant Editor Charlotte Marique for their help in preparing Dawn Hollis’s corrected metadata for upload.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Dawn Hollis, ‘On the Margins of Scholarship: the Letters of Elizabeth Elstob to George Ballard, 1735–1753’, Lias, vol. 42, 2 (2015), pp. 167–268.


The letters between Elizabeth Elstob and the antiquary George Ballard in the collections of the Bodleian Libraries (Bodleian MS. Ballard 43) reflect a friendship that continued for almost two decades. The acquaintance of the two dates from 1735 and their surviving correspondence extends until 1753, just two years before Ballard’s death in 1755. It was through Ballard that Elstob was introduced to Sarah Chapone (née Kirkham), who seems to have composed a letter for circulation with the intention of raising money to support to Elstob and alleviate her impoverished state. Chapone tried also to persuade Elstob to take up the position of head at the charity school established by Lady Elizabeth Hastings (1682–1739).

The Ballard papers contain a brief autobiographical note (fols 59r–60v) written by Elstob for Ballard in c. 1738, as well as a short biography she compiled for the antiquary of her brother William (fols 14r–16v).

An additional eight letters with other correspondents (seven from Elstob, and one addressed to her) are preserved in the Bodleian Libraries; and a letter from Elstob to Mary Delany (mentioned by Hollis in her edition) is to be found in the Nottingham University Library.


Ballard bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to the Bodleian Library on his death on 24 June 1755 and these letters appear to have entered the Library the following year.


Further resources

Ballard Collection: Collection Level Description (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).


Melanie Bigold, ‘Collecting, Cataloguing and Losing Women Writers: George Ballard’s ‘Memoirs of Several Ladies‘, working paper (Cardiff: Cardiff University, 2013).

Mechthild Gretsch, ‘Elstob, Elizabeth (1683–1756)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007).

M. Gretsch, ‘Elizabeth Elstob: a scholar’s fight for Anglo-Saxon studies’, Anglia, 117 (1999), pp. 163–300 and pp. 481–524.

Dawn Hollis, ‘On the Margins of Scholarship: the Letters of Elizabeth Elstob to George Ballard, 1735–1753’Lias, vol. 42, 2 (2015), pp. 167–268.

S. Huff, Elizabeth Elstob: A Biography, unpublished PhD thesis, Indiana University, 1970.

K. Sutherland, ‘Elizabeth Elstob’, in H. Damico, ed., Medieval scholarship: biographical studies on the formation of a discipline, vol. 2 (New York, 1998), pp. 59–73.


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