The story of Thomas Muir, the man who reformed the early education system in the Cape Colony and was knighted for his efforts, is told in a recently published biography by his great grandson, Peter Elliott. This delightfully written, well-researched, comprehensive book, entitled Thomas Muir: ‘Lad O’ Pairts’, is the result of a chance visit, in 2018, to Oudtshoorn’s C P Nel Museum, once the Boys’ High School. It was opened by Thomas in 1907. Born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, on August 25, 1844, he was the son of George, a humble agricultural labourer, and his second wife, Mary (nee Brown). Thomas’s father was killed in a railway accident in August, 1866. Fortunately, his mother was a resourceful woman so he and his siblings were well fed and cared for. Like many boys of his day Thomas walked to school. He was clever, talented and excelled in English, Latin, Greek and mathematics. He became a pupil teacher at the age of 14 and this brought him to the attention of Lady Belhaven, who became his patron. She encouraged him to continue his studies and this assured him of some top positions in Scotland. At the age of 48 he fell under the spell of Cecil John Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape and, as a result, emigrated in 1892, with his wife, Margaret “Maggie” (nee Bell) and their four children.


Rhodes wanted fresh blood in education and, as Thomas made a good impression on him, he was appointed to succeeded Sir Langham Dale as Superintendent of General Education (SGE). This was a dramatic change for him. From a highly academic school with privileged children in Glasgow he was suddenly responsible for 4 500 South African schools and 250 000 pupils. Thomas brought new ideas and a fresh range of organisational skills and was soon the most powerful civil servant in the country. He had an autocratic, authoritarian management style and he applied this to primary and high school education, as well as teacher training. He took charge of meetings, steered committees and made key decisions on strategic matters. He was a man of broad interests. He loved the mathematics of music and was an enthusiastic singer. He was a voracious, catholic reader, known for his wit and good sense of humour. He laughed uproariously, even at indifferent jokes. He was a caustic critic, filled with personal prejudices, yet he left a positive legacy which stretches through the ages to embrace modern-day South African schools.


Thomas was a brilliant mathematician. Among his wide-ranging school reforms were a better curriculum, better teaching an improved buildings. He travelled widely into the hinterland. His daughter. Cam, accompanied him on some of his early journeys. Between 1909 and 1912 he travelled annually through the Cape, Transkei, Eastern Cape and Karoo. One trip took him as far afield as Mafeking. He kept diaries of six trips undertaken during those years. They make interesting reading and give an insight into the ‘flesh-and-blood man”. They afford excellent insights into the social and political life of the day. He was provided with a specially fitted out railway carriage and in this he travelled like a 16th century monarch, complete with retinue and entourage, to deal with the problems in his “realm”. With him went James Cuthbert, 51, a gregarious fellow Scot and the railway education officer. He was a good cook, however, at times a chef, clerk and messenger were engaged for the journeys. The coach was hitched to passenger or goods trains, uncoupled and shunted onto side lines at places where he needed to hold meetings, visit schools and have discussions with teachers. When these were completed, the coach was hitched to the next train and taken to another venue. Thomas, who worked as if he was immortal. He was renowned for his five volumes, The Theory of Determination.



Thomas’s hinterland trips, which lasted from 11 to 35 days, were undertaken in all weathers. He stopped at De Aar on a particularly bitter winters day. It was freezingly cold. They could not wash, and had to have breakfast in bed. Then, there was extreme heat, dust, flies, “amazing scenery, beautifully coloured skies” and brilliantly clear nights. He cultivated friendships and alliances with like-minded public figures. He met and chatted with people such James Douglas Logan, at Matjiesfontein, and missionaries at stations across the Transkei. To reach them he undertook some dramatic journeys by horse and cart. In places he took long and adventurous walks. On one he paused and sat on a rock working out a mathematical problem on a bleached ox bone while he waited for his transport to catch up. Maggie did not accompany him as she was sickly. He became friendly with a young teacher, a protégé, Miss Alice Cogan, who travelled with him and acted as his personal assistant and private secretary. After Maggie’s death Alice shared his home and cared for him, but was not provided for in his will when he died. When he retired, at the age of 70 in 1915, he was knighted for his services to science. He then built a house in Rondebosch where he lived quietly until his death in 1934. This most readable book, which costs R250, is available from Clarkes in Cape Town, Select Books, Claremont and Africana Books, Woodstock.


The harsh, dry Karoo veld, south of Matjiesfontein, is the focal point of Barbara Mutch’s compassionate, yet dramatic new novel, The Fire Portrait. It tells the story of Frances Whittington, an inquisitive young lass, who falls out of an oak tree at the age of 10 while trying to gain a better outlook on the world for her drawings. Striving to see things in perspective remains with her as she develops from a budding “sketcher” into a professional artist. She grows into a very beautiful 17-year-old young lady with a choice of beaus. Then, the crash of the New York Stock Exchange crashes her world and she is forced to move to from England to Cape Town to live with her aunt. She is determined to make the best of things. She is captivated by the colours of the African veld and flowers. Again, she enjoys being popular. Then, one special young man emerges from the throng. She falls deeply in love with him and feels her world complete when he proposes. However, all too soon, he learns that she has no money and he drops her. Her world is shattered.


Frances is forced into an awkward, marriage of convenience to Julian McDonald, a rather dull platteland teacher. He takes her to a tiny hamlet at the edge of Karoo, in the shadow of the Hex River Mountains. It is populated by a narrow-minded Afrikaans community which, because of residual feelings locked into happenings during the Anglo-Boer War, regards her with suspicion and rejects her. She struggles to come to terms with a world devoid of friendship. She tries to learn Afrikaans, offers art and literacy classes, but still is spurned. She finds solace in her art and the colours of the Karoo. The peace, tranquility and changing colours of the mountains veld and plants captivate her. Then, the specter of World War I again divides the country and little town. Everything and everyone turn heavily against Frances. Julian enlists and she is perceived as the enemy. This poignant tale then weaves its way through heartache as she strives for acceptance, and tries to rise above these circumstances. The world around her seethes with hatred, her home is petrol bombed and she battles for survival. A chance meeting with an old love further complicates her life. Then, a single painting – the fire portrait – brings her world fame. This book, which is published Allison and Busby, costs R320 and is available from reputable booksellers. More from


The tiny hamlet of Middleton, near Cradock, began in 1850 as an Anglican mission, to serve a community of former slaves. Almost 30 years later, in 1879, the railway reached this spot and a Victorian-style station was built. In time the station building was converted into a pub. Then, in 1903 the Anglican congregation erected the All Saint’s United Church. The spot was auctioned in1904 and the first of its many owners was Percy Sparks. He bought it for the equivalent of R600. Fleetwood de Kock, acquired it after that and owned it for 52 years. Then, in 1989, it changed hands again and an attempt was made to turn it into a tourist attraction, but that did not work, so it was put up for auction again in 1993. It did not sell. Then, in 1997 a businessman, Marius Van Koller, bought it for R2,5m, By then the tiny settlement had a pub, police station, petrol station, bottle store, general dealer and a few houses. Marius and his wife successfully ran Middleton Manor for eight years, but by 2003 the town was back in the market because it was too far away from Gauteng for them to manage. Tourists are still welcome at this quaint stop over. It has a padstal, good food, camping and some good walks.


Karoo-born Thomas Benjamin Hulle, lived a most colourful and adventurous life. Brilliant, honest, sober and conscientious, he was a volatile man whose moods changed without warning. Some considered him kind, gentle and considerate, but others said he was outspoken, hard, sarcastic, impatient, even brutal. While this led to him making enemies, he commanded respect and was known as Tambudza, (trouble fixer). Born in Somerset East on June 15, 1860, he was the son of Edward John Hulley, who farmed near Bathurst district, and his wife, Mary Gradwell, from Albany. Thomas was awarded a two-year bursary to study at Grey College in Bloemfontein. There he did so well that the principal, Dr Johannes Brill, offered to send him to Oxford, but he was unable to accept. After finishing school Thomas returned to the Karoo to work at Cawood’s store in Grahamstown. In 1881 he joined the Cradock Volunteer Rifles and saw active service in the Basuto War. He then worked in stores at Maclear, Tsitsa, Ugie and Pot River in the Eastern Cape. At that time this area was still very unsettled. People lived in tents, huts and rudimentary shelters; business was bad, so he turned to ostrich farming. He traded successfully until moving to Umtata, which was occupied by British troops, so he became secretary to Bishop Keys. His great granddaughter, Mary Pearson, says the family still has a tiny silk “Vierkleur” (flag of the old South African Republic), which was made for him by one of President Steyn’s daughters.


Before long Thomas met the love of his life, Georgina Marian Johanna “Josie” Coleman and married her in Maclear on October 13, 1896. Their daughter Kathleen was born the following year, but lived only ten weeks. They then had two sons. When Thomas heard that a Yorkshire man, Edward Bray, had discovered “rocks that looked as if they were cemented with gold” near Barberton, he decided check out “Bray`s Golden Quarry”. (The first 13 000 tons of ore yielded 50 000 oz of gold, and was considered a wonder of the mining world.) Thomas joined Sheba Mine, one of the oldest and, in its day, the richest gold mine in the world. He did extremely well, until he became seriously ill. Doctors gave him only a short while to live so he decided to take his family to the then Rhodesia. They set off on January 25, 1895 on a series of hair-raising adventures on paddle steamers and a train that derailed and had to be abandoned. From there they proceeded on top of a goods trucks loaded with timber. They were showered with burning sparks from the wood-burning engine until those trucks derailed – 20 times in 24 miles. Then, engine derailed and ganger’s trolleys were used to take them to Chimoio. There was no time to rest. They set off by ox-wagon, mule-drawn post-cart and flat-bottomed boats through flooded rivers. Attimes they were moved in large buckets slung from over-head cables, while the mules swam across. Thomas regained his health, held several top posts in Rhodesia. He was an official representative at Rhodes’s funeral.


Robert Walker Watson’s path through life took him from London to the Klein Karoo. After qualifying as an apothecary in 1882 and becoming a member of the Royal College of Surgeons the following year, he came to South Africa where he was licensed to practice as a doctor. He went to Ladismith where he worked as district surgeon for his entire career, diligently sending regular reports to authorities in Cape Town. He married Jane Sarah Edwards, daughter of the Reverend Edwards, of Budleigh Salterton, on August 21, 1889, The ceremony was conducted by Reverend Edward Watson, assisted by the vicar, Reverend W F Green, reported South Africa a weekly journal on September 14, 1889. Sadly, the marriage did not last. They divorced in 1903. In 1905 Robert became a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science when it held its annual meeting in South Africa. The main aim of this society, which was founded in 1831, was to get more people interested in science through a wide variety of activities. Robert loved the Karoo and one of his greatest pleasures was walking in the veld searching for fossils. He presented many fossils from the Bokkeveld to the South African Museum. In 1907 he obtained an irrigation loan to develop Bosluiskloof farm, north of the Swartberg, states Cornelis Plug in the Biographical Database of Southern African Science, and in 1911 a similar loan enabled him to develop Buffelsrivierspoort.


The introduction of Edward Jenner’s vaccine in the 1800s helped local authorities to control the disease. By the end of the 1850s communication with the country districts was again opened and business received a considerable boost. The Cape and Natal News of January 31, 1859. reported that property sales in the hinterland had been favourable. The value of land and buildings had increased; farms, which were once sold for a “mere song”, were realizing considerable prices, reported thee newspaper.


Several members of the Robinson family, which had its roots in Scotland, served as veterinary surgeons in South Africa. The first was Peterborough-born John Andrew Robinson, who came to the Cape in 1896 to take part in the rinderpest campaign. He went to Kingwilliamstown in 1908 and in 1911 was transferred to Grootfontein School of Agriculture in Middelburg, where he died in 1915 at the age of 51. His son, E M Robinson, who also qualified as a vet, became a professor of veterinary science and his son, (John’s grandson), followed this family tradition. He was killed in a motor accident near Worcester after completing a two-month game cropping inspection in the Karoo for the Directorate of Veterinary Services, states the vetsweb history site.


Scottish-born William Roberston, who qualified as a veterinary surgeon in London in December, 1893, played a vital role in the Eastern Cape. After completing special training at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, he came to South Africa in 1896 to take up a post in Grahamstown as assistant to Colonial Bacterioligist, Dr A Edington. In July, 1897, he accepted a post as veterinary officer with the Diamond Field Horse Regiment that went to Mashonoland to help suppress the Rebellion. During his career he was involved in research into rinderpest, African horse-sickness, heartwater, malignant jaundice in dogs, east coast fever, and osteoporosis in horses. He contributed to veterinary journals. visited Arnold Theiler’s laboratory at Daspoort, attended the several top congresses and the opening of the Onderstepoort laboratories. In August 1906 while still based in Grahamstown he became director of the Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Laboratory (formerly the Colonial Bacteriological Institute). This facility produced mainly vaccines. In April 1912 he was appointed assistant director of veterinary research in the Union. He later transferred to Onderstepoort, but ill health led to his return to Grahamstown 1914. The farmers of the Albany district presented him with a silver plaque in gratitude for services. He died on December 22, 1918, aged 46.


At the end of WWII Thomas Marnewecke Brummer, son of Thomas Butler Brummer and his wife Anne Marnewick, from Barkly East, badly wanted to become a dentist. However, when he went to register at Wits Dental School it was full. That did not deter him. He knocked on the Dean’s office door every day until there was a vacancy and he was accepted. The next hurdle was accommodation. Eventually two kindly old aunts in Kempton Park let him have a room. While travelling back and forth on the train each day a young lass, Millicent Yvonne Hoffman, caught his eye. He was delighted to find that they were members of the same church. A romance soon developed and they were married just before he qualified in 1951. They had three children, two daughters and a son. They moved to Beaufort West where they spent seven years. During that time Thomas, a devout Christian, conducted many church services. They then moved to Carnarvon where he became a travelling dentist visiting Victoria West, Williston, Fraserburg and Sutherland, once every three months. He was a kind, honest and gentle man and his patients loved him. He worked alone and central to his mobile surgery was a folding chair, which the Red Cross had used during WWI, as well as a special cabinet for his instruments, and sterilizer. He was a keen nature lover and studied the plants of the Karoo. In his spare time, he started a waterski club near Loxton. He and a friend, who had a small air craft, regularly flew over the Karoo checking on water levels in the dams. In the late 1960s Thomas became Director of the Middle East Christian Outreach Mission which started in Syria in the 1860s. He retired from this post in the mid-1990s. He died in June 2017, two days before his 88th birthday.


In England the rules of Victorian society were very strict and clear. At the end of the 1800s men were the ultimate authority. Even the ballroom was their domain. They attended top schools, indulged in a wide variety of sports, like boxing, cricket, rugby, polo, sailing, horse racing, rowing and yachting. They served in the army, joined clubs, could vote and held powerful political and business positions. Social rules required them to marry, but they could (and did) have affairs and people turned a blind eye as long as they were discreet. Victorian women, on the other hand, had little status, needed to be careful of their reputations and avoid scandal. They were referred to by their husband’s name. They lived in a social whirl of parties interspersed by riding, “the hunt” and croquette. That is until they came to places like the Karoo. There they were able farming assistants. They helped plant crops, count sheep and load guns, while still cooking, keeping house and raising children.

You don’t find happiness, you make it – Camilla Eyring Kimball