E. Cobham Brewer

The Reverend
Ebenezer Cobham Brewer

E. Cobham Brewer from a 1922 book
Born Ebenezer Cobham Brewer
(1810-05-10)May 10, 1810
Died March 6, 1897(1897-03-06) (aged 86)
Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire
Nationality English
Alma mater Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Genre Victorian reference works
Notable works Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, The Reader's Handbook

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (10 May 1810 in Norwich[1] – 6 March 1897 in Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire), was the compiler of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and The Reader's Handbook, Victorian reference works.

Education and travels

E. Cobham Brewer was the son of Elisabeth, née Kitton, and John Sherren Brewer, a Norwich schoolmaster associated with the Baptist congregation of St Mary's Chapel in Norwich. His father kept a school in Calvert Street, Norwich, until 1824, when he opened a new academy in Eaton on the outskirts of Norwich. E. Cobham Brewer attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge,[2] graduating in Law in 1836.[3] He was ordained in 1838.

On returning to Norwich to work at his father's school, he compiled his first major work, A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, first published around 1838–41. The book became immensely popular and its sales may have funded the extensive travels in Europe he made later.

Phrase and fable

On returning to England in 1856, Brewer started on the work that was to become Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The dictionary was derived in part from correspondence with readers of his previous book. The first edition was published in 1870, and a revised edition appeared in 1894.

Of his methodology, Brewer wrote in the preface to the Historic Note-Book:

I have been an author for sixty years, have written many books, and of course have been a very miscellaneous reader. In my long experience I have remarked how little the range of "literary" reading has varied, and how doubt still centres on matters which were cruces in my early years. So that a work of this kind is of as much usefulness in 1891 as it would have been in 1830. I have always read with a slip of paper and a pencil at my side, to jot down whatever I think may be useful to me, and these jottings I keep sorted in different lockers. This has been a life-habit with me...

The Reader's Handbook has had an extended subsequent history. With detailed revisions by editor Henrietta Gerwig[4] it formed the nucleus of Crowell's Handbook for Readers and Writers[5] which in turn provided the nucleus of Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia,[6] "veritably a new book", as Benét remarked; in revised form, it is still in print.

Brewer's Reader's Handbook was re-edited by Marion Harland (1830–1922) and published in the United States, with numerous illustrations as Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama: A Revised American Edition of the Reader's Handbook, 4 vols., New York 1892. Other works by Brewer include A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic and Dogmatic (1884?), and The Historic Notebook, With an Appendix of Battles.


Several of Brewer's siblings achieved academic and professional success. John Sherren Brewer junior was an eminent historian and editor of British State Papers at the Public Record Office; William Brewer was a surgeon and was elected a Liberal MP for Colchester in 1868; Robert Kitton Brewer was a Doctor of Music and a Baptist minister; and two of his sisters ran a girls' school in Lime Tree Road, Norwich.[7]

He died on 6 March 1897 at Edwinstowe vicarage, Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire where he had been residing with his son-in-law, the Rev. H. T. Hayman. In 1856, he married at Paris Ellen Mary, eldest daughter of the Rev. Francis Tebbutt of Hove.[8]



  1. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has Brewer born in Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London. Retrieved 5 January 2011. Subscription required. However, Census records of 1861 and 1871 record Brewer's place of birth as Norwich. The baptismal records of St Mary's Baptist Chapel in Norwich also record him as being born in Norwich.
  2. "Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham (BRWR832EC)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that Brewer obtained his BA degree in Law in 1836, his LLB in 1839 and his LLD in 1844.
  4. William Rose Benet, The Reader's Encyclopedia, 1948, Preface.
  5. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1925
  6. New York: Crowell, 1948
  7. Jewson, C. B. Simon Wilkin of Norwich. UEA, Norwich: 1979, pp 91-2.
  8.  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cooper, Thompson (1901). "Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham". In Sidney Lee. Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

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