Sir Thomas Muir (1844–1934): Victorian Educationist and Mathematician

The purpose of this blog is to introduce the reader to the Victorian mathematician and educationist Thomas Muir, and to provide an entrée to his diaries, in which he wrote of his adventurous tours in the remote interior of the Cape Colony.[i]

Muir’s origins and his teaching years in Scotland

Muir was a Scottish ‘lad O’Pairts’: Victorian Scotland prided itself on giving opportunities to a talented child from a modest background. Muir’s rise from rural Scottish boy in Lanarkshire to world-renowned mathematician and powerful educational administrator in the Cape was an impressive one.

A patron of his local Lanarkshire school encouraged Muir to head to the University of Glasgow. Early on he demonstrated a natural ability as an educator and taught mathematics in Scotland, holding the coveted post of mathematical and science master of the High School of Glasgow during the period 1874–1892; in parallel he raised a family and pursued high-level mathematical research.

Figure 1: The High School of Glasgow building in Elmbank Street, sold by the Glasgow Academy Directors to the Town Council in 1878. Collection: The High School of Glasgow.

In 1892, Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, personally selected Muir for the position of Superintendent-General of Education of the Cape Colony. Rhodes was looking for fresh ideas to contribute to the development of the Cape educational system and was immediately impressed by Muir. One of his officials wanted to scrutinise Muir’s testimonials, but Rhodes exclaimed at the selection meeting: ‘Damn the testimonials! I have seen the man,’ and made the appointment without further delay.[ii]

Figure 2: Dr. Muir, Cape Town 1892. Collection: Peter Elliott.

Muir was one of a new breed in his time, the educational planner and bureaucrat. When he arrived at the Cape, he set about the wholesale reform of the apparatus of education. His system was characterised by a central form of governance and administrative structure that relied on science and professional expertise. He was practically supreme in his own domain and was one of the most powerful civil servants in the colony in terms of the influence he wielded over the Cape government and the resources he commanded. He was, however, a man who shared the prevailing racist and white supremacist views of the elite of Victorian Cape Town. His policies resulted in the advancement of white education, particularly uplifting the poor white child, but neglecting the needs of the black child.

Throughout an intensely active career, Muir continued to devote a vast proportion of his time to a meticulous record of one mathematical concept, and this resulted in his history of the Theory of Determinants. This ‘monument’ has proved less than immortal and is now something of a work of curiosity, a legacy of his prodigious output and of his ability for organisation. In his time, however, long before the age of the database, his commentaries on the work of mathematicians in this field of research made their writings accessible to others.

Muir was a highly cultured man, supremely literate and a musician. He loved song, poetry and was a voracious reader, and these qualities of the man shine through in the diaries.

The Diaries of the Superintendent-General of Education

As part of his duties, Muir was required to undertake journeys throughout the territories of the Cape Colony to keep up to date with the schools for which he was responsible. To do this he made annual journeys on the Cape Railways network into the Cape interior. On six such tours, between mid-1909 and 1912, he kept diaries, which provide a prism through which we can view the man and his times.

A special luxury railway carriage was reserved for his use, and he was able to conduct his schools’ business from the saloon in a siding of each railway station in which he halted. After Muir had finished his business at each stop, his carriage was then transported on.

Figure 3: Side elevation of the reserved saloon of Dr. Muir, ‘Old Coach 362’, Cape Railways: adaptation from Original Diagram, courtesy Peter Stow.

The pattern of Muir’s day during these journeys was to wake and take coffee before sunrise and work some mathematics in bed. Then the relentless daily routine of school board meetings would commence, sometimes on the train and otherwise in nearby rooms. He used these gatherings to urge compulsory education, discuss board elections and building affairs, and to resolve specific problems. Following each meeting, Muir dictated memoranda and telegrams to all and sundry within his department to ensure that his agenda was fully implemented. His formal meetings were interspersed with smaller and more convivial gatherings, and the occasional rollicking evening with the few whose company he relished.

Muir also needed to reach more remote destinations for school visits and inspections, and to check on building plans in progress. These trips involved drives over hills and across drifts, either by horse and cart or by car. This blog extracts from his diary the story of one his more adventurous trips. This journey was undertaken to enable Muir to open a new school building in Mossel Bay, a town remote from the nearest railway station.

The school building scheme was one of Muir’s key educational reforms; his programme of school buildings ensured that the Colony was ‘pretty nearly in the position that America was in when it was said that when one went into any village the best and handsomest building that one saw was the village school’.[iii] His programme was not universally admired, and a journalist coined the mocking phrase ‘Dr Muir’s Palaces’, criticising the level of spending on first-class school buildings in the Cape. Nevertheless, many of these fine buildings are still in use today and are a legacy of his times.

Figure 4: Crowd gathered outside Mowbray Public School at the opening by Dr. Thomas Muir in 1906 (Muir is centre front, hat in hand). Western Cape Archives, AG 15400.

The journey from Oudtshoorn to Mossel Bay

To see Muir at his human best, we need simply to enjoy his racy account of this trip, in the company of Dr. George Russell, District Surgeon for Oudtshoorn, motor engineer and chauffeur extraordinaire. Muir likened his host to Tartarin of Tarascon, the plump, middle-aged, but prodigiously brave eponymous hero of Alphone Daudet’s novel. Russell had three motor cars, and each bore a silver plate with a girl’s name engraved on it. Muir’s entourage travelled in the Siddeley named ‘Alice’, and their luggage was borne in a separate cart. Due to the recent heavy rains, the party had to contend with fast-flowing rivers and drifts and these conditions greatly complicated their journey.

The story of the journey: extract from Muir’s Diary[iv]

Up at six when the cart arrived; not a breath of wind stirring and a hot day in view; even the white strip of clouds that yesterday in places rested above the mountains had all gone. … At 12.30 we had lunch, and the big motor car arrived promptly at one. A minute or two afterwards we were flying over the Oliphant’s River bridge, Dr. Russell and myself in front, Mitchell and Cuthbert [Muir’s travelling companions] in the body, lolling back in luxurious ease, and all of us half in hope and half in doubt as to the success of our journey.

The Klip River we found considerably fallen, and we ventured in with all the motor’s power. Spluttering and splashing and jolting, we struggled through, and out on the opposite bank to have our glee at once damped by finding ourselves stuck in the sloping sand and mud. The omen was disappointing, but Frickie, the assistant chauffeur, soon unstrapped his spade to make a rut in front of the driving wheels, and the rest of us packed the rut with worn pebbles; then with a heave-ho at the back and a tremendous whirr of the engine, our first difficulty over, and we sped on again.

From this point the route was all new, and I was greatly interested in the country and views obtained. On reaching Candelaar’s River, Dr. Russell looked gloomy, the water being both broad and deep; and after we had all had our examination from the bank and Frickie had waded in, the decision was adverse. Fortunately, a large cart with six mules turned up and almost simultaneously, Inspector Mitchell’s cart. In the latter, three of us were taken across in relays, and soon there followed the six mules with the car and Dr. Russell, whom we greeted with more or less serious cheers as he was hauled past us up the bank.

Our next adventure was of a different character. On descending a slope at great speed, one or two sharp little explosions were heard underneath, and when a halt was made, it was found that two conducting wires had fused. In a jiffy, Frickie had the contents of the tool-wallet spread out, and Dr. Russell was at the perspiring work of making repairs while the others of us looked on and drank beer. The mishap cost us half-an-hour but with the result that the confidence I had already felt in our portly chauffeur as a chauffeur was extended to him as an engineer. With this feeling, therefore, and a superadded joviality, we drove onward prepared to meet our next adventure halfway.

And sure enough, at Morass River we found it. Notwithstanding the name, the drift does not bear a bad character, the banks for one thing being almost level with the water, and after a little investigation, it was decided to go boldly in with all on board. Good luck attended us until within fifteen feet of the further side, when we came on a hidden bank of sand and with one expiring splutter, the car stopped dead.

The first requisite, of course, was to get the passengers ashore, and this was accomplished through a pick-a-back arrangement ….A good length of rope was next got out, and with the whirring and splashing car at one end of it and four more or less able-bodied haulers at the other, we once more got out of trouble. As the credit was entirely our own, the cheers this time were more hearty. … At the foot of the last and steepest ascent, the heat of the stagnant air was intense, and a halt was called to clear out the sizzling water of the radiator, and to take in a new supply from a trickling mountain stream. The result was altogether satisfactory and we mounted the long slope with delightful ease.

Not long after, we reached the half-way house at the top of the pass, and a most extensive view of the hills on hills was our reward. Among these for some considerable time we glided in and out, but always descending. The distant sea was occasionally visible and added to the beauty of the views; and our concluding judgement was that the Robinson Pass had been unduly depreciated.

The descent into the populous Brandwacht Valley was especially pleasing, the so-called village being really, like Schoemann’s Hoek, a big collection of small farms. Here it was, too, that our greatest event came off – the crossing of the Brandwacht River. Even a distant glance showed that the passage was going to be of interest, for the idle populace had assembled on both banks.

On nearing, we were relieved to see on the further side, the cart which had left Oudtshoorn Station at six in the morning with our baggage, and further to find that a cart with four mules, a wagon with fourteen donkeys, and another wagon with six-span of oxen were preparing to cross. The mule-cart was the first to venture; then our baggage cart came over and took me across; then Mr. Cuthbert was transported in the ox-wagon; and finally the motor car, being hitched to the rear of the heavy donkey wagon, was with the help of much yelling and whip-cracking, landed safely beside us. How pluckily the little donkeys strained as they came up the bank! When Mr. Mitchell passed us sitting on the wagon-load of wood with the big silvered lamps of the motor-car in his charge, we were greatly tempted, but the presence of the people… put us on our guard, and therefore like ‘the scattered ranks of Tusculum’ we forbore to raise a cheer.[1] On the passage of Dr. Russell, the temptation was stronger for he had struck an attitude, and appeared in all the dignity of a veritable ‘God in the Car’.[2]

After leaving the river we had an amusing race with four ostriches in the road: they ran well but their fear and their stupidity were against them. The next river was the Harenbosch and, unfortunately, when we reached it there were no wagons at the drift. …After an indaba we resolved not to attempt to cross unaided.[3] Some men who were mending a fence on the opposite side were consequently hailed to, but with the noisy rushing river between us and them, negotiation proved difficult. Frickie was accordingly dispatched as an ambassador, and came back with a shameless request for so much money for helping the car over and so much each for the carrying of the passengers. On the first point we preferred to say nothing, and putting the proposal to Dr. Russell, we found that he unwillingly felt constrained to accept; but on the second point we asserted our birthright as freemen. Our blood was up. And our shoes and stockings were soon off. As soon therefore as the clodhoppers had waded across, we took to the water like a string of cranes, and under Frickie’s guidance made the passage with credit and satisfaction to ourselves and with more than satisfaction to Dr. Russell. He, good man, soon followed with four real ‘shovers’ behind the car, and while we got ready again for carriage travelling, we exchanged views as to the appearance each presented to the others while in the waters of the drift. In good spirits we motored on once more, being assured by Mr. Mitchell that we had seen the worst. And so indeed it proved, for though we still had ‘one more river to cross’, we easily went through it with all on board.[4]

As we were nearing Mossel Bay, the evening train met us puffing cheekily on its way to George. The last two or three miles of motoring were delightful, the bay being beautiful and the sea air refreshing. The Standard Hotel was reached at seven o’clock exactly, so that the journey of 68 miles had only occupied us six hours, notwithstanding all our mishaps.

This hair-raising journey enabled Muir to attend the opening of the school in Mossel Bay, which took place on 15th February. Dr. Russell, the intrepid ‘chauffeur’ and his assistant, Frickie, remained on hand to drive Muir and his companions, Mitchell and Cuthbert, all the way back to Oudtshoorn. By that time the waters in the rivers had subsided, but it was a day’s journey to return.

Figure 5: Opening of Mossel Bay Boys’ Public School by Dr. Muir, 15th February 1910. Collection Sigi Howes.

Peter Elliott grew up in South Africa, attended the University of Cambridge and pursued a legal career in England. In retirement, he has published three Southern Africa-related biographies, on the artist Nita Spilhaus, the photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee and, most recently, Thomas Muir: ‘Lad O’ Pairts’. The Life and Work of Sir Thomas Muir (1844–1934), Mathematician and Cape Colonial Educationist.

Notes & references

Elliott, Peter. 2021. Thomas Muir: ‘Lad O’ Pairts’. The Life and Work of Sir Thomas Muir (1844–1934), Mathematician and Cape Colonial Educationist. Alairac, France: Cantaloup Press.

[i] Thomas Muir: ‘Lad o’Pairts’: the full text of the diaries of Muir’s six tours undertaken between 1909 and 1912 is published as Part II of the book.

[ii] The Cape Times, 22 March 1934.

[iii] (1910). Education System. Dr. Muir Praised. 15 Apr. Muir Manuscript Collection, National Library of South Africa, MSB 691.1 (8).

[iv] . The journal entry is that for 14/2/1910, Monday, Elliott, ‘Thomas Muir ‘Lad O’Pairts’, pp. 171–173. The entire trip, and all its mishaps, is recounted in Diary 2, 12/2/1910 Saturday to 14/2/1910 Monday.

[1] This is a misquotation from Macaulay’s poem ‘Horatius’:

‘And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer.’

[2] God in the Car: the title of a novel by Anthony Hope, author of the rather better known The Prisoner of Zenda; Muir might have been interested by God in the Car (published 1894), as it is said that the leading character is based on the empire builder Cecil Rhodes (who appointed him to his office).

[3] ‘indaba’: an important conference held by the principal men of the Zulu and Xhosa peoples of South Africa; hence, the word is used here to refer to a deep discussion.

[4] ‘one more river to cross’: a Negro spiritual.

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