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Ovenell and the history of the Ashmolean Museum's collections

Ronald Francis Ovenell was the Librarian at the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. [1] For most of the time he was in post the Ashmolean Library was part of the Museum and held most of the archival records relating to the history of that institution and its collections. [2] In 1986 (after he had retired) Ovenell published The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894, Clarendon Press, Oxford. This book was the first full history of the earlier years of the Ashmolean Museum to be published.

Ovenell's life

It has been relatively difficult to compile information about Ovenell. He was born and bred in Oxford [3] and was educated at Bedford House School in Oxford, and was already preparing for life as a librarian by 1929 when his university education began. His family seems to have moved to Canada (Toronto) at some point, and it is possible that he moved with them. [4] He was educated at Christ Church, University of Oxford from 1929-31: he was awarded an MA. [5] His College records show that he came up to Christ Church formally in Hilary term 1929 but seems to have worked as Assistant Librarian for some time before that. Certainly, his college entrance fees were paid out of the Poor Scholars' Fund. One of the College's more recent Assistant Librarians worked in order to pay for his tuition and it appears that Ovenell did the same, in the manner of an old-fashioned servitor. For a while, he lived at home and then, when his parents moved away, he lodged with friends at 107 Cowley Road. According to his application for admission, Ovenell's father was a Mr Reginald Ovenell and they lived at 20 Pitt Road, off the Abingdon Road. [6]

Probably before the outbreak of the Second World War he began full-time work in the library at Christ Church, as an Assistant Librarian. During the Second World War he served in the Pioneer Corps, according to the Supplement to the London Gazette of 14 July 1942 which marks his promotion from cadet to second lieutenant. He served as the Librarian of the Ashmolean Library from 1947 to 1972. [1] In 1952 he published an article, 'Brian Twyne's Library', in volume 4 of the Oxford Bibliographical Society (OUP). 

He was married twice (the name of his second wife is contained in his papers) and had two children by his first wife and  a third by his second. [7] He lived in New Hinksey and Headington, in Oxford. In New Hinksey he and his second wife put in a planning application to install solar panels in 1980 (very early adoption of this technology for the UK).[8] He died on 1 August 1993. 

The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894

The book was the culmination of many years of personal study by Ovenell, using resources held mostly in the Ashmolean Library and Museum, and the Bodleian Library. It was Ovenell who first assigned the numbers [AM series] onto documents which are still used today in the Department of Antiquities' archives.

These sources he painstakingly transcribed, annotated and categorised (he seems to have had at least three separate card catalogue systems that were used in his research). Ovenell's research papers, which include transcriptions, card catalogues and copies, are now themselves being held in the archives of the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, and are in the process of being catalogued in overview. This catalogue, once completed, will be made available on XXX [website].

Transcriptions of some of Ovenell's papers and research documents:

RFO/A/3/11: Series of correspondence relating to Rowell's aborted catalogue of the Ashmolean Collections circa 1878-1880:

1. List of locations for Ethnographic objects in the old Ashmolean Museum building on Broad Street, Oxford circa 1880


[1] Taken from the inside cover of his 1986 book. He retired in 1972.

[2] According to, 'The Ashmolean Library was not granted statutory independence [from the Ashmolean Museum] until 1968. By 1968 it included the following libraries: the Haverfield Library, the libraries of Classical, Medieval and European Archaeology, the Griffith Library, the Margouliouth Library and the Fine Art Library. The majority of the records listed here were transferred from the Ashmolean Library [to the Museum] in 1986, 1998 (AM 63/3-5 and AM 68-69) and 2002 (AM 70-73). The Visitors papers (AM 74) were transferred from the Director’s office in 2005 and AM 75 was transferred from the Department of Antiquities in 2006. Items AM 62/1-2 and AM 76-7 were originally found with the records of the University Museum, but were transferred in Jan 2008. The Museum retains many of its records, including most of those of the original Ashmolean Museum in Broad Street; any items dated before 1894 in this list relate to the original Museum.' The same pdf lists all the documents held in the Department of Antiquities' archives that relate to the history of the museum and its collections.

[3] Alison Roberts, pers. comm. There is an entry in the 1911 entry for a Ronald Ovenell, aged 3, born in 1908 in Abingdon, Berkshire which may be the same person?

[4] Alison Roberts, pers. comm., see also here which suggests that Ronald Francis Ovenell was also in North America at some point. His parents, brothers and sisters are all buried there.

[5] Alison Roberts, pers. comm. See here and here.

[6] Judith Curthoys, Archivist, Christ Church. We are very grateful to Judith for this information.

[7] Alison Roberts, pers. comm. This webpage suggests that one of his ?wives, Alwin I. Ovenell, was the daughter of Sir Cecil Clementi (1875-1947). She had apparently been a teacher in the 1940s and died in 2010, according to here. She donated objects from her mother to the museum

[8] Alison Roberts, pers. comm.

AP and Alison Roberts, September 2013.

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Supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund


(c) 2012 Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford