You are here

William George De Burgh

Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Reading
1866 to 1943

William George de Burgh was born at Wandsworth, London, on 24 October 1866, to William de Burgh, barrister and civil servant, who died when Burgh was twelve, and Hannah Jane, daughter of Captain Thomas Monck Mason RN. He attended Winchester College and later went to Merton College, Oxford, where he was awarded a second class in classical moderations (1887) and a first class in literae humaniores (1889). In the following years, he briefly served as an assistant master at Derby School, and, living at Toynbee Hall, was appointed in 1892 as censor of studies at Balliol House and Wadham House, university settlements in London. In 1896 he was appointed lecturer in Greek and Latin in the University Extension College at Reading where he remained until 1934. On 26 January 1897, he married Edith Mary, daughter of William Frances Grace, vice-consul at Mogador, with whom he had two daughters and a son.

For many years, both de Burgh’s teaching and administrative duties proved absorbing. In regards to teaching, he added philosophy to his curriculum and became professor of the subject in 1907. He taught classics until 1910. As for his administrative responsibilities, at Reading he had the satisfaction of guiding the development of the college into a university (its charter was received in 1926). While W. M. Childs generally receives the credit for this achievement, de Burgh was willing that this should be so. It should be noted, though, that while the acquisition of the necessary funds was Child’s work, the academic statesmanship was de Burgh’s. Along with F. H. Wright, the registrar, Childs and de Burgh (deputy vice-chancellor, 1926–1934), formed a type of ‘inner cabinet’ that ran the university’s affairs.

As for his publications, The Legacy of the Ancient World (1924; rev. ed., 1947) was the most successful of his books. He was Gifford lecturer at St Andrews in 1937–1938 and Riddell Memorial lecturer at Newcastle in 1938. Not until 1938 was he elected a Fellow of the British Academy. His disinterestedness may have been the reason for his belated recognition, for he sought neither fame or reward. More important to him was his sense of duty and his desire to fulfill his obligations.

De Burgh was a student of scholasticism, yet he was greatly influenced by modern idealism. He sought to formulate a Christian philosophy by constructing a philosophical argument to the truth of the gospel. His project was unpopular at a time when Protestant theologians were disparaging reason and few philosophers paid heed to religion. His argument, though, based on the experience of a lifetime, did find reception among those sympathetic to his view.

In the summer of 1942, while walking on the Dorset downs, de Burgh suffered a stroke and died at his home, The Cottage, Toller Porcorum, Dorset, on August 1943. He was survived by his wife and was buried at Toller Porcorcum on 30 August.

Other works by de Burgh include: Towards a Religious Philosophy (1937) and The Life of Reason (1949).

*From T.M. Knox, rev. C.A. Creffield, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004),

  • Kelly Van Andel, University of Glasgow