David Durell

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David Durell (1728–1775) was Principal of Hertford College, Oxford from 1757 to 1775, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1765 to 1768, and a noted Old Testament scholar of his day.

The son of Thomas Durell, he was born of a prosperous family in Jersey in 1728. He went to Cowbridge School in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales, 1741–7. At first sight this was an odd choice for a Channel Islander, as the school, though worthy, was small and a long way from his home; but his uncle Daniel Durell was the Master there from 1721 to 1763, and, in line with contemporary custom, attracted some pupils from Jersey. There were seven, at least four of whom (including David Durell and his elder brother Thomas) were either the Master’s relations or sons of friends.

Daniel Durell’s full correspondence and other papers give vivid cameos of young David, among other pupils.

Welsh speakers

There were many pupils at Cowbridge into the 20th century whose first language was not English; but the mother tongue was practically always Welsh. Daniel Durell found himself having to teach English to many pupils before they could proceed to the usual grammar-school curriculum. He complained how difficult it was to prepare "young lads for ye University, who when they come to me, can hardly speak or write English".

In 1742, the young David Durell left some of his first steps of English in his uncle’s letter-books. He was sometimes given Daniel’s letters to copy for practice, but had to struggle both with an unfamiliar language and the horrible writing of the originals. The result was sometimes attractively transcribed gibberish: Durell’s own handwriting was boyishly clear and round.

A year or so later, however, David Durell had improved sufficiently to be allowed to copy some of the Latin epigrams he himself had composed into his uncle’s "Golden Book" reserved for his pupils’ best work. In the spring of 1744, the 14½-year-old Durell was in the second class. He was the youngest member, so it was an early promotion, a sure sign of an exceptional pupil. At the end of 1744 his uncle Daniel described the 16-year-old as "a good boy".


A prolonged phase of delinquency, however, quickly ensued. In January 1745, Durell gambled away 18 shillings (about £360 in today’s money) of a guinea that he had been given for Christmas among a gang of some of his schoolfellows and town ne’er-do-wells. He tried to cover up by claiming that the money had been stolen. A maidservant, under suspicion for the "theft" (which could have brought down draconian punishment on her), told David Durell’s uncle the whole story. Daniel was naturally shocked at his nephew’s behaviour, especially as the blame seemed to be falling on to a vulnerable inferior, but "hushed it over and never beat him for it".

Next came the theft of a sundial from the neighbouring village of Llysworney in June. Gout-ridden Daniel showed his temper over this and on 21 June Durell ran away, taking half a guinea (around £210 today), sent to him by his mother, nine shirts (not as extravagant as it seems: linen was difficult to wash in those days), and some letters. The next day he had got as far as Newport in Monmouthshire, about 25 miles east of Cowbridge (no mean feat then); and there, exhausted and penitent, he gave himself up, writing a letter to his uncle asking pardon for his "sad and heinous crimes".

He was rescued, and once back treated leniently, even compassionately; in fact, his uncle continued to spoil him. This did not work: Durell immediately plotted with older boys to con the Bishop of Llandaff, no less, into granting the school some extra holidays. A more senior boy wrote complimentary verses to the Bishop which Durell transcribed in his own beautiful handwriting and passed off as his own. This worked, as the Bishop liked the flattery and admired the precocious erudition. He may well have assumed that, as the verses were purportedly by the Master’s nephew, Daniel Durell himself approved of the request. Thus, in contrast to his earlier delinquencies, Durell (with his collaborators) was directly making a fool of his uncle, the Master, and dragging him in — compromising him as an accessory in conning the Bishop. This could have had damaging consequences for the elder Durell: the Bishop was numbered among the ten most important persons — in a rigidly hierarchical society — in the whole of South Wales. Furthermore, he was the direct superior of Daniel Durell not only as a schoolmaster, but also as a clergyman.

Daniel Durell’s fury can be inferred from the fact David Durell ran away again the next month on Sunday 28 July: this time to be found no further than twelve miles away, in Cardiff, with only 7d (about £12 today) in his pocket. Then, partly through the intervention of another uncle, Henry Durell (the acknowledged head of the family and settled in London as a merchant), Daniel became a reformed character. By the end of August 1745, he was obediently beginning to read Horace in Latin, and there is no evidence of further sensational misconduct. He went up to Oxford University in March 1747, eventually to become the University’s Vice-Chancellor.

His bad patch could be interpreted as an immature attempt at self-assertion prompted, paradoxically, by the approach of adulthood. David Durell at 16½ was isolated on several levels, which might have occluded whatever passed for "natural" or at least multivalent, development. By his time at school (1741–7) all his fellow pupils were either day-boys living at home or boarding with families in the town, which usually offered quite enough "freedom". Durell alone lodged with his widowed uncle and much younger female cousin in the school house. He could well have found this stifling. Uncle Daniel was kindly but given to bursts of bad temper exacerbated by gout; indeed he was neurotic and oversensitive, as his quarrels over the decades reveal. Worse, other members of the family (as Davies impressively remarks), had "case histories of obsessional depressive psychosis", notably Daniel’s father (and David Durell’s grandfather), and his brother Thomas (David Durell’s own father, who suffered a nervous breakdown in 1733). It is likely with these genes that David Durell was also neurotic and highly-strung, as academic people can be. Thus, there were two people of similar volatile temperament rubbing up against each other for years in the same house. Daniel was very probably over-concerned with the academic progress and general welfare of a pupil who was also his lodger and his nephew. Complementarily, for David Durell, Daniel embodied the authority of substitute father, schoolmaster, and clergyman all rolled into one: an oppressive concentration of which the most famous example is Thomas and Matthew Arnold at Rugby in the 1830s. There were no home breaks in the holidays, as Jersey was too far away: David Durell was in the school house for the duration.

Undergraduate to tutor

In March 1747 David Durell entered Pembroke College, Oxford, although the boys of Cowbridge School usually went to Jesus College; indeed, Daniel Durell was annoyed if they wished go elsewhere. Daniel, however, had attended Pembroke himself and there was good reason for David Durell to follow him: the college had the Morley Scholarships for Channel Islanders. His senior at Cowbridge, a fellow Jerseyman and distant relative, John Alexander, held such a scholarship from 1740 to 1748, and David Durell succeeded him in 1749, holding it until at least 1753.

David Durell graduated BA in 1750 and MA in 1753, becoming a Fellow of the new Hertford College that year. Founded in 1740 out of Hart Hall (an institution which had existed since medieval times), Hertford College predictably enjoyed very little endowment, and its revised statutes of 1747 were in part unworkable.

David Durell quickly gained a high reputation as a tutor, and on 12 November 1757 he was appointed Principal of Hertford College.

Principal of Hertford College

Durell became Principal at the young age of 29. This might be in part attributed to the generally shorter lifespan of the 18th century, which meant that people had to attain important positions earlier than today, or not at all — and to the then universal patronage. Even so, as his schoolmaster uncle proudly stressed, when writing to congratulate him, "To be a Head of a College is an Honour which very few in the Kingdom have obtained at your years — and which none of our two Islands [Jersey and Guernsey] ever had". Durell’s appointment also breached the very recent Founder’s Statutes which laid down that the Head of House must be chosen from among the dons of Christ Church.

Hertford was not a great prize; indeed more like the wooden spoon: it was by far the smallest, youngest, and poorest of the colleges. Durell’s predecessor, William Sharp, the second Principal, had resigned after four years and returned to Christ Church because the endowment was so miserable. Conversely, Hertford would give an able and energetic young man the chance to make his name and build the college up virtually from scratch. Thanks to Durell and one or two colleagues, it already had a good academic reputation.

Under Durell, the academic reputation of the college was maintained and expanded. He gained his Bachelor of Divinity in 1760 and his Doctorate of Divinity in 1764.

A few fresh endowments did come to the college. More generally, Durell by-passed the Founder’s more obstructive statutes for the college’s good. One such by-pass, however, might seem more in his own than in the college’s interest, as he held concurrently with his principalship a Vicarage in Sussex and (from 13 January 1767) a canonry in Canterbury Cathedral. The Founder of Hertford had prohibited its Principal from such pluralism so that he could devote himself to the college. The income, however, of the Principal was inadequate without such supplements and this would have occasioned money worries.


On 8 October 1765 Durell was invested as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, also at an age (37) considered markedly young for such an office even then. This was not because the young Principal of Hertford was considered, after eight years in post, to have proved himself an outstanding administrator, but via the usual 18th-century practice of patronage and quid pro quo. It was a belated reciprocation from the Chancellor of the University, the Third Earl of Lichfield, for the support of the Whig colleges in his own election in 1762.

Durell’s tenure is memorable for the expulsion of six students from St Edmund Hall for holding unauthorized prayer meetings, a case he is credited with handling resolutely. He certainly found himself in the midst of a national controversy expressed in a pamphlet war.

The scholar

Durell was also a practitioner of the core purpose of a university: he was an industrious scholar — of the Old Testament. In the 1760s and 1770s he variously and extensively commented on, translated, and edited parts of the Scriptures. He was also an ardent advocate of a new translation of the Bible to improve on the Authorized Version.

Durell was patently an able man. His early death robbed him of the chance to realize his full potential as a scholar, a college head, and general university eminence grise. His unequivocal achievement was in his twenties, as a tutor. He died on 16 October 1775, still short of his 47th birthday, and was buried at the church of St Peter-in-the-East in Oxford.

From Payne's Armorial of Jersey

Dr David Durell, who was born in 1728, was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1753, where he took the degree of MA. He was afterwards elected Fellow of Hertford College, and on the resignation of Dr Sharp, succeeded him as Principal. He then became Regius Professor of Greek at the University, and Rector of East Hampstead, in Berkshire.

In April 1760 Mr Durell took his BD degree, and in 1764 that of DD. In 1767 he succeeded Dr Potter as prebendary of Canterbury, and at the latter period of his life, he was possessed of the Vicarage of Sysehurst — the last preferment he had.

Dr Durell was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1765, and the two following years, and while he held that high and honourable office, a circumstance occurred in which the Rev Doctor's complicity is scarcely known. But from the anti-collegiate irregularities of some of the students of Edmund Hall, who, upon complaints made to Dr Durell as Vice-Chancellor, were expelled, arose the schism so well known from the names of its chief promoters, Whitefield and Wesley.

Among other works. Dr Durell wrote " The Hebrew Text of the Parallel Prophecies of Jacob and Moses relating to the Twelve Tribes, etc., with the Samaritan and Arabic Versions," and "Critical Remarks on the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles," and in the preface to which latter he moots a subject that has been of late very freely canvassed—that of a new translation of the Bible. He had also projected a work on the Prophetical Scriptures, which was never completed, and which was, after his death, sent with other manuscripts to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth. Dr Durell died at Oxford in 1775, in the 47th year of his age.

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