John Percival Postgate, FBA


1853-1926. PostgateClassicist.

Postgate was Head Boy at King Edward VI School, Birmingham before winning a scholarship to read Classics at Trinity, where he won one of the chancellor's medals. For eight years he coached private pupils for the classical tripos, and was elected a fellow of Trinity in 1878.  In 1884 he was appointed classical lecturer, an office which continued the fellowship; he was senior lecturer from 1903 to 1909. Since he held the lecturership for the requisite twenty-five years, he remained a fellow until his death.  He also taught the women students at Girton College, one of whom he married.

Postgate made his scholarly reputation as an editor of Latin poetry, publishing editions of Propertius, Lucan and Tibullus. His largest such project, however, was the Corpus poetarum Latinorum. This was a considerable achievement, the product of twenty years' work, which provided texts and critical commentary for the Latin poets with very few omissions.

Postgate acted as secretary of the Cambridge Philological Society for several years, and was editor of the Classical Review from 1899 to 1907, and of the Classical Quarterly from 1907 to 1911. By 1911 both journals had been taken over by the Classical Association of England and Wales, founded in 1903, which owed its existence largely to Postgate. In November 1902 he published in the Fortnightly Review an article entitled ‘Are the classics to go?’, in which he pointed to the curricular debates following the passage of the 1902 Education Act, and urged defenders of classics to rally before their subject was denied not only the ‘lion's share’ of the school timetable, but any reasonable provision at all. The correspondence which ensued, notably with Edward Adolf Sonnenschein, led to the foundation of the Classical Association in December 1903. Postgate played a major part in forming its policy in its early years, and acted as joint secretary with Sonnenschein. He was elected president in 1924-5.

Concurrently with his work in Cambridge, Postgate was from 1880 to 1910 Professor of Comparative Philology at University College, London. The post took little of Postgate's time, but his published output includes works in this area, from his New Latin Primer of 1888, to the introduction he provided for C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards's Meaning of Meaning (1923). His primer was written with C.A. Vince, a classmate at school and subsequently headmaster of Mill Hill School: it had the misfortune to appear in the same year as the Revised Latin Primer of Benjamin Hall Kennedy, which was adopted by the Headmasters' Conference and became the standard English textbook of Latin grammar. However, through the influence of the Cambridge scholar T.G. Tucker, who had become professor of classics at Melbourne, Postgate's book sold well in Australia. Postgate was a keen advocate of the ‘reformed’ pronunciation of Latin and, at first, of the direct method of teaching Latin by speaking the language. Late in life he published two works on the accentuation of ancient Greek.

In 1909 Postgate accepted the chair of Latin in the University of Liverpool. He was then the obvious local candidate to succeed J.E.B. Mayor as Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but A.E. Housman was elected instead, and Postgate remained at Liverpool until his retirement in 1920, when he returned to Cambridge. By this time his achievements had been recognized by the award of honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester (1906) and Dublin (1907); he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1907.

On 14 July 1926 Postgate was knocked off his bicycle by a steam wagon inTrumpington Road, and died of his injuries at Addenbrooke's Hospital on the following day. His last recorded words, ‘Take me to Addenbrooke's, I have a subscription there’, illustrated his ingrained fear of poverty; he removed the light bulbs to save electricity when he visited his children's nursery. However he was comfortably off when he died; a legacy of over £27,000 to Trinity College was refused, and passed to the University of Liverpool.

Memorial inscription Translation


Natus est a.d.ix Kal.Nov. Mdcccliii
Obiit Id. Iul. Mdccccxxvi

Nobis meminisse relictum

John Percival Postgate, Fellow.  Born 24th October 1853; died 15th July 1926.

‘His memory lives on in us.’ [Statius Silvae II, 55]

John Percival Postgate

Brass located on the north wall of the Ante-Chapel. 
Inscription text by John Percival Postgate.


Postgate brass




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Alfred Chilton Pearson


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