R F Muirhead: maths and a meeting of minds

R F Muirhead in 1934 (MS Gen 1767/D2)

Mathematics and campaigns for social and sexual equality are an interesting mix, which you can encounter in the papers of  Robert Franklin Muirhead (1860-1941), held in Special Collections.  A graduate in mathematics and natural philosophy from the University of Glasgow, Muirhead became good friends with the writers Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) and Olive Schreiner (1855-1920). Carpenter was a socialist philosopher once dubbed the ‘English Tolstoy’ and a campaigner for homosexual equality. He was the author of works including ‘Towards Democracy’ (1883) and ‘The Healing of Nations’ (1915). Schreiner was born and spent much of her life in South Africa. One of her earliest publications was a novel, ‘The Story of an African Farm’ (1883) which charts the struggles of two young people against social norms and sexual double standards. It was popular with readers despite contemporary criticism of its style and content. Her non-fiction works included ‘Closer Union’ (1909), about her country’s political situation and the need for sexual and racial equality. Shortly after her death she was described as ‘one of the greatest women of the age’.

Letter from Edward Carpenter to R F Muirhead [January 1890] (MS Gen 1767/A3)

Muirhead and Schreiner were introduced at Carpenter’s home in the 1880s and the three were long-term correspondents. The letters give insights into their activities and the circles in which they moved. In January 1890, Carpenter wrote, ‘I have been lecturing & otherwise jawing here for some days – standing on top of a wall in pelting rain addressing mobs, &c – strikes going on, processions & bands thro’ the street, & so forth. Very good set of fellows in Bristol.’ He goes on to say that he is going to stay with H S Salt (author, publicist and founder of the Humanitarian League) and enquires after Olive. Contact between the three could be sporadic, sometimes hindered by the delays of international post and the fact that Carpenter and Schreiner were frequently on the move. In their letters to Muirhead, they often ask if he has had any news of the other.

Letter from Olive Schreiner to Muirhead, April 1911 (MS Gen 1767/C22)

Most of the letters from Schreiner are brief, often concerning her health (a childhood illness had left her susceptible to asthma and angina) and living conditions in South Africa. She expresses some political views (particularly during the period of the first world war) and refers to her writing. In April 1911, she tells Muirhead, ‘I’m sending you & Lene [Muirhead’s wife] a copy of my book. It’s only a fragment but tell me what you think of it.’ Unfortunately, the ‘fragment’ does not survive in Muirhead’s papers but may have been from ‘Woman and Labour’, published that same year.

They both enquire about Muirhead’s work: Carpenter seeking to encourage him to write a book on geometry and Schreiner, rather mysteriously, about an unnamed ‘invention’ he may have been involved with during the first world war. A teacher for many years, and a President of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, Muirhead published a number of papers on mathematical subjects and ‘Muirhead’s Inequality’ is named for him. (If anyone would like to offer an explanation of this we’d be pleased to hear from you!)

From Muirhead’s notebook (MS Gen 1767/D3)

A surviving notebook of Muirhead’s covers a variety of subjects, with material dated over several decades (c 1876-1917). An index at the front includes references to music, poetry, mathematics, philosophy, history, genealogy, recipes, as well as books lent and missing. This gives some indication of his wide-ranging interests which may be why both Schreiner and Carpenter found him so companionable.

Muirhead was born in Shawlands, on the south side of Glasgow and attended Hamilton Academy, Paisley Grammar School and the University of Glasgow (1876-1881). He then spent four years at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge and a year at Göttingen University, Germany before he began teaching. He married Caroline (‘Linnie’) Hurndall in 1893 and returned to Glasgow where he founded the Glasgow Tutorial College. As well as the letters, his papers include personal items such as a diary from his school days, a memoir of his uncle, Henry Muirhead and a ‘friendship book’ which belonged to his wife before their marriage. There is also a copy of a letter written to his future mother-in-law setting out his reasons for wanting a secular marriage ceremony. In addition, there are a few items relating to his brother Roland, a well-known Scottish Nationalist, and a wonderful collection of photographs.

Group photograph (detail) of the Co-operative Holidays Association, Keswick Party, August 1898. (MS Gen 1767/F1)

The majority of these pictures are informal snaps of the Muirhead family circle but there are notable exceptions, including a group photograph showing members of the Co-operative Holidays Association. Founded in 1893, the Association ‘…was not simply a holiday club but a voluntary leisure organisation committed to the promotion of specific cultural values… grounded upon the concept of the countryside as not only a physical but also a cultural and spiritual alternative to the city and industrial materialism’. (Robert Snape, The Co-operative Holidays Association and the cultural formation of countryside leisure practice. Leisure Studies, 23 (2) pp. 143-158, April 2004). All together, this collection is a great resource for anyone interested in Muirhead, his correspondents or social and political movements of the late 19th and  early 20th centuries.

We are grateful to Muirhead’s granddaughter, Hazel Macfarlane, for this gift and to Brian Dempsey (University of Dundee) for bringing the R F Muirhead papers to our attention. For more information about Schreiner and Carpenter, see the Olive Schreiner Letters Online project.

Categories: Special Collections

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