Oscar Browning was born in January 1837, the son of a London merchant. He was sent to Eton College at the age of fourteen, and matriculated in 1856 as a scholar at King's College, Cambridge. In 1860 he returned to Eton as an assistant master, where he remained until a series of disputes with the headmaster over curricula, fees and his relationship with a pupil, George Curzon, led to his dismissal in the autumn of 1875. He then went back to King's and the Fellowship there to which he had been elected in 1859. He lived as a Fellow in King's for more than thirty years, tutoring, lecturing and writing, and gaining great popularity among undergraduates (to whom he was known as 'the OB') for his generosity and eccentricities. He organised the Cambridge University Day Training College, and was for many years treasurer of the Union Society. A clubbable man, he was actively associated with bodies as diverse as the Athenaeum, the Society for Psychical Research, and the University Swimming Club. Politically a keen though idiosyncratic radical, he three times stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Parliamentary candidate. In 1909 he retired to a rented house at Bexhill-on-Sea. He was visiting Italy when war broke out in 1914, remained there, and eventually decided to settle permanently. He died in Rome in 1923 at the age of eighty-six.
Oscar Browning had extremely wide interests and concerns, a long life in which to indulge them, and a body of correspondents so numerous and varied as to form a cross-section of British society of his time. He seems methodically to have preserved virtually every communication that he received, including dinner invitations and replies, and correspondence with tradesmen. The largest section of the present correspondence concerns his work as a teacher and educational reformer. Because of the disappearance of the papers taken by Wortham, his Eton years are not as well represented as his time at King's, although there are many letters from his former pupils and their parents. There is a large body of correspondence relating to the Cambridge History Tripos and the development of teacher training, reflecting the respective viewpoints of dons, undergraduates, educational administrators, schoolmasters and journalists. The correspondence is also informative about Browning's leisure activities, with particular reference to his participation in a wide range of clubs and societies, and about his interest in helping undergraduates and young friends to find suitable careers, his financial aid to needy relations and former servants, his payment of the school fees of sons of Cambridge townspeople, and his employment of poor but intelligent young men as secretaries. Many of Browning's correspondents were prominent political or literary figures, and included all the leading Liberal and many Conservative politicians of his day (some of whom, such as Rosebery and Curzon, had been his pupils). His literary correspondents represented in the present collection include Lecky, Pater, Wilde, John Addington Symonds and Frederic Harrison. Only one letter from George Eliot survives as part of this collection, for he lost many of the letters which he received from her (see his 'George Eliot', p97). In old age Browning sold letters from Tennyson, Newman, Wilde and George Eliot for their autograph value (see the letters from Christopher Millard and Robson and Co., through whom some of the sales took place).
When Browning decided to settle in Italy, all his papers remained at his house in Bexhill. In February 1916 his old pupil and friend Francis Money-Coutts, 5th Baron Latymer, removed such parts as he thought would be of use for a projected biography and placed them in Coutts' Bank in London. These papers, which according to the bank's records occupied three wooden trunks, six japanned trunks and a package, apparently included all Browning's letters to his mother, diaries that covered the whole of his career from his arrival at Eton in 1851, much of his correspondence as an Eton master, and no doubt also a number of his subject files, of the type noted in section 3 of this list. When Latymer died in 1923, the task of writing the biography devolved on Hugo Wortham, Browning's nephew and sole executor and legatee, and in 1925 he removed the papers from Coutts' Bank for this purpose. Their history after the publication of the biography, 'Oscar Browning', in 1927 remains unknown.
At about the same time as Latymer deposited this part of the papers in Coutts' Bank, Browning gave the remainder to the public library in the Brassey Institute at Hastings, together with the manuscripts of several of his published works, some 3,000 of his books and a large collection of music (see his obituary in the 'Hastings and St. Leonards Observer', 20 October 1923). It is these papers that form the subject to the present list. They comprise some 40,000 letters and other items relating to Browning's career.
The papers listed below were contained in 114 tightly-packed box files and 2 volumes. Of the boxes, 109 contained general in-letters, filed by Browning or his secretaries in chronological sequence and alphabetical order of correspondent. The alphabet was split into five sections (A-C, D-G, H-L, M-R, S-Z) and the box allocated to each section was replaced by another when filled. The five boxes in simultaneous use might thus contain: A-C Oct 1889 - Apr 1891; D-G Jan 1888 - Dec 1890; R-L Jan 1889 - Mar 1893; M-R Dec 1889 - Feb 1892; S-Z Jan 1889 - Jul 1890. The papers remained in this arrangement when deposited with the Commission for listing in 1968. The Additional series of manuscripts, comprising mainly financial papers, were given to King's College in 1991 by by Dr. Peter Searby on behalf of the Department of Education.