Henry Balfour

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Henry Balfour, F.R.S.: 1863—9th February, 1939.

Many forms of learning and skill are the poorer for the death of Henry Balfour, best known as the curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford for forty-six years, and one of the foremost exponents of evolutionary technology. Educated at Charter- house and Trinity College, Oxford, he graduated in biology in 1885, with an established reputation in the University as an oar and a fencer. In the latter accomplishment he excelled till late in life. His keen and sympathetic interest in all forms of life, and especially in birds and orchids, directed his earlier travels; in Norway he studied the habits of whales and whalers; but under the influence of his first teacher Moseley, and of Tylor, who had come to Oxford as Reader in Anthropology in 1883, he devoted himself early to his life work. In 1887 he married Edith, daughter of R. F. Wilkins of Brookhill, Devon, who shared his travels, his work, and his many interests, and survived their golden wedding by a few months. They had one son, Lewis.

Even before graduation Balfour, together with Baldwin Spencer, was helping Tylor and Moseley to put in order the ethnological collections which had been given to the University by General Pitt- Rivers. Spencer went to his life work in Melbourne in 1888, but Balfour remained in Oxford, and was appointed in 1891 to be curator of the collections which he had already done so much to arrange, and to illustrate by his unusual skill and patience in all manual arts, and his facile draughtsmanship. To understand savage or prehistoric crafts, he was ever insistent that you must practise them, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum has wonderful examples of his handiwork. A man of great personal charm and many friends, he succeeded in enriching the collections with innumerable gifts from correspondents in all parts of the world, and in amplifying the record of the geographical and ethnographical distribution of each type. Most of their labels are in his own fine handwriting, and the position of each specimen in relation to its typological neighbours was also of his choosing. No wonder that, with series growing daily under his hand, he found little time, and not much inclination, for systematic publication. His contribution to learning, indeed, is the Pitt-Rivers Museum, in its present shape and extent, for others to study and describe.

But when Balfour put pen to paper, his writing was masterly. Best known of his works are The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893), the first part of a Natural History of the Musical Bow (1899), his address to the anthropological section of the British Association at Cambridge in 1904 on the work of Pitt-Rivers, and in 1929 on South Africa’s Contribution to Prehistoric Archaeology: his presidential address at Johannesburg to the Anthropological Institute in 1904, on The Relationship of Museums to the Study of Anthropology; and his Huxley Lecture The Archer’s Bow in the Homeric Poems (1921). The Cambridge address was remodelled as the introduction to the collected edition of Pitt-Rivers’ essays, The Evolution of Culture (Oxford, 1906); and the Huxley Lecture resumed an early paper on the Structure and Affinities of the Composite Bow (J.A.I., XIX (1890), 226). It is understood that an inclusive bibliography will form part of the memorial volume now in preparation.

Though hampered in later years by physical infirmity, Balfour had travelled widely; his most fruitful journeys were in Norway, in Assam visiting his friends Hutton and Mills, and in South Africa, where he was one of the first to detect palaeolithic implements in the gravels of the Zambesi, and to correlate them with European finds. He was an active Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and President 1936-8 ; President of the Folklore Society, the Museums Association, the Prehistoric Society of East Africa, and other bodies; and honorary or corresponding Fellow of many foreign societies. He became a member of the Council of the Anthropological Institute in 1891 and was a constant and devoted supporter of its work, and President 1903-4. His Fellowship of the Royal Society (1924) he used modestly to ascribe to the Pitt-Rivers Museum, not to himself.

When the University of Oxford established its Diploma course in Anthropology—the first examination was held in 1908—Balfour undertook the whole charge of Technology, lectured also in Prehistoric Archaeology, and was several times examiner. This academic work brought him into fresh contact with undergraduates, and also with a long succession of probationers in the Colonial Civil Service, and latterly with officers on study-leave. He lectured in the Museum, handling and comparing the specimens, and using them with characteristic skill; a memorable experience, though most effective with the smallest audiences. His personal interest in pupils never flagged, and was repaid by enduring friend-ships and a stream of accessions, documented as he desired. In 1903 Exeter College had elected him to a Research Fellowship for seven years and re-elected him from 1919 onwards; and in 1935 the University conferred on him the personal title of Professor. He was to the end a staunch upholder of the conception of Anthropology as a co-ordinated discipline in all branches, physical, social, and technological, concurrently ; and within his own department he insisted on the mutual interpretation of prehistoric and of modern ethnographical material, contemplating alike ‘all time and all existence.’   

J. L. M.

This obituary first appeared as: J.L.M.. 1939. ‘Henry Balfour, F.R.S.: 1863-9th February, 1939’. Man Vol. 39, pp. 77-78. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

J.L.M.. 1939. ‘Henry Balfour, F.R.S.: 1863-9th February, 1939’. Man Vol. 39, pp. 77-78. (available on-line: http://www.therai.org.uk/archives-and-manuscripts/obituaries/henry-balfour).


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