This blog post was written by Peter Elliott. Peter Elliott is a great-grandson of Sir Thomas Muir. He grew up in South Africa, attended the University of Cambridge and pursued a legal career in England. In retirement, he has published three Southern African-related biographies and most recently Thomas Muir: ‘Lad O’ Pairts’. The Life and Work of Sir Thomas Muir (18441934), Mathematician and Cape Colonial Educationist.

Thomas Muir’s early days in Scotland

Thomas Muir was a Scottish ‘lad of parts’, a boy of humble origins, who seized his opportunities and progressed to great heights. He grew up in rural Lanarkshire, was a brilliant pupil at the local school, and gained the chance of a university education in Glasgow. There he excelled and for 18 years was mathematics and science master at the High School of Glasgow, one of Scotland’s leading schools. In parallel he carried forward his mathematics research and gained accolades for his work on determinants, then mainstream within the field of pure mathematics. 

Appointment as Superintendent-General of Education (S.G.E.) of the Cape Colony, 1892

Muir was selected for this post personally by the Cape prime minister, Cecil Rhodes. No doubt Rhodes was impressed by Muir’s new ideas and his enthusiasm for the Scottish model of education. However, he also needed an ‘organiser’ who would be prepared to drive through single-mindedly his policy of advancing the education of poor white children throughout the Cape. 

Fig.1: Dr Muir, Cape Town, 1892. Collection Peter Elliott

The role of S.G.E. was an extraordinarily powerful one. Although Muir was vaguely responsible to the Colonial Secretary, effectively he was left to his own devices to control a substantial budget and implement the policies of his political masters. First, Muir strengthened the Cape Education Department and enlarged the schools’ inspectorate. He improved teachers’ training, increasing the number of training colleges from two to twelve by the time he retired. He overhauled the curriculum and the examination system. He introduced a school building scheme, which resulted in the construction of fine school buildings throughout the Cape, many of which are still in use as schools today: this is his most enduring legacy. One of the best-known buildings opened during Muir’s time is that built for Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town and now part of the preparatory school. 

Fig. 2: Rondebosch Boys’ High School, 1905. Collection: Sigi Howes

When Muir retired in 1915, Mr. J.X. Merriman (a former prime minister of the Colony) recorded that, as a result of his efforts, in every village there was ‘no better building than the school’; ‘no better day’s work had ever been done than when they secured Sir Thomas for South Africa’ (obituary, Cape Times, 22 March 1934, cols. 3-4). However, substantially all of Muir’s work of reform and development benefitted white pupils alone; the education of black pupils stagnated during his era. This is the story of that educational neglect. 

The state of education in the Cape Colony before 1892

It is a South African myth that Cape Town had its own tradition of multiracialism and that it was the Afrikaner nationalists who imposed racial segregation on the Cape. A study of the Cape Colonial education system swiftly dispels this piece of fiction.

When Muir arrived in the Cape the rate of school enrolment was low for pupils of all racial groups. The education provided by the mission schools for black pupils only extended to the early elementary years, and not much beyond teaching religion, a little reading, writing and arithmetic. The Education Department already disapproved of racially mixed schools, and white employers believed that book-learning made pupils unwilling to work. There was an entrenched political bias to lift the predominantly Dutch Afrikaner rural community out of a backward way of life by the provision of better education provision for white children. There was already a huge disparity in the funding of white and black schools, with the government spending more than five times as much on white children as on black ones. 

Education during the Muir era (1892-1915)

Muir set out his stall early during his tenure. He defined government education policy as aimed at fitting whites and blacks for their ‘future positions’ in Cape society; thus. the white child was to ‘receive the additional schooling to carry him to the position of skilled workman or foreman’ (Cape Parliamentary Papers, G39-1893, and S.G.E. Report 1905, p.14).

Muir was the architect of the School Board Act of 1905, which privileged white interests by enabling compulsory higher elementary education up to the age of 14, but only for white children. This legislation effectively institutionalised segregation in schools. It enabled the separation of the races in schools, and a progressive disparity in the allocation of resources between white and black schools.

Quite apart from this structural discrimination, there were other significant challenges inherent in the system which disadvantaged black pupils in schools. Muir put in place a graded course curriculum, along the lines of the Scottish model. Education historian, Edward Pells, regarded this as his greatest achievement in that it provided the ‘continuous ladder’ of education from primary classes, through the secondary and high school to matriculation (Pells, E.G. (1970). 300 Years of Education in South Africa, p. 45). However, this system was designed with the average white pupil in mind, and the graded steps to be achieved each year reckoned upon the pupil receiving a great measure of education outside the school. The system took no account of the fact that the out-of-school environment of the average black pupil was considerably less conducive to book-learning. Moreover, there was the additional problem of language disadvantage; the vernacular language of the black pupils was only the medium of instruction in the very lowest standards of the schools, the objective being rather to provide them with a useful knowledge of English to fit them for their future positions as servants in a wholly unequal society.

As regards the construction of new schools or buildings, disadvantaged black communities were faced with near insuperable funding hurdles, which hindered such development. Muir made it clear to these communities that school facilities would only be forthcoming if the community could ‘provide a building, rent free, pay half the cost of school furniture and equipment and one-third of teacher’s salary’ (1913, Knysna Notes, George and Knysna Herald, 16 July). Relatively few mission school buildings were opened during the period, but one was the modest Protea Village School in the Cape Peninsula. The community this particular school served was forcibly removed during the apartheid era in 1952, and in consequence this simple structure was demolished.

Fig. 3: Pupil in front of Protea Village School, 1930s. Collection: Martin Plaut.


In writing his biography, the biographer had to confront Muir, the segregationist. The history of education of the Cape Colony of those times reveals the harsh truths of the white supremacist attitudes then prevalent. It is only by making an honest enquiry into colonial history that we can explain, at least to some extent, some of the inequalities that persist into our modern times.

Peter Elliott’s book, Thomas Muir: ‘Lad O’ Pairts’, is available worldwide on Amazon as a paperback and e-Book. The narrative of the book is supplemented by full endnotes, and a bibliography listing all sources