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John Henry Muirhead: Putting Principles into Practice

He is, I think, the best man I know. I don’t mean the best philosopher, but the best man, full of human kindness and charity.

Sir Oliver Lodge, 1924

Throughout his life, Professor of Philosophy, John Muirhead, sought to put his ethical principles into practice. Indeed, whilst philosophers are often caricatured as people who are ‘brilliant at dealing with very abstract thought… but hopeless at dealing with the practicalities of life’ (Warburton), by contrast, John Muirhead aimed to bring ‘theory into relation with life’. He embodied the humanist values of compassion, inclusion, and social reform, ensuring these beliefs were not just theoretical ideals, but lived principles. In 1886, along with civil servant James Bonar, and Liberal Party politician John Murray Macdonald, he was one of the founding members of the UK’s first ethical society, the London Ethical Society.

Following his appointment as Professor of Philosophy in Birmingham in 1897, he became an influential force in the social reform and practical affairs of the city. He was passionate about increasing access to higher education, enthusiastically engaging in a series of educational associations. He was also concerned about working conditions in the city and the plight of the poor, visiting workplaces and, following the 1909 parliamentary review of Poor Law provision, putting forward his ideas for reform. Fittingly, an article in the publication Philosophy, written shortly after his death in 1940, describes him as ‘a great citizen of Birmingham’.

Royal Crescent, Glasgow from Allan and Ferguson’s Views in Glasgow, 1843. University of Glasgow Special Collections

John Henry Muirhead was born at 4 Royal Crescent, Glasgow, on 28 April 1855, the third son of writer, John William Muirhead, who died when John was just two years old, and his wife Mary Burns. His education in philosophy began under Edward Caird in the early 1870s, and continued at Oxford after he won the Snell Exhibition in 1875, an annual scholarship awarded to students from the University of Glasgow to allow them to undertake postgraduate study at Balliol College. Here he became a devoted pupil of philosopher R.L. Nettleship.

In 1892, Muirhead married Mary Talbot, a women’s rights campaigner and sister of political psychologist and educationist, Graham Wallas. He taught at both the Royal Holloway College and Bedford College before being appointed Professor of Philosophy and Political Economy at Mason College in Birmingham in 1897. After Mason College and Queen’s College combined in 1900 to form the University of Birmingham, becoming the first civic university in England to receive its own royal charter, he retained the chair of philosophy until his retirement in 1921.

He wholeheartedly engaged with University Extension schemes, becoming District Chairman for the West Midlands branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, whose aim was to open up the opportunity of ‘serious study’ in subjects such as literature, history, economics, and philosophy, to those already employed in trade or business.

In line with his humanist principles of inclusivity and civic responsibility, Professor Muirhead enthusiastically supported the expanding role of this civic university, and advocated widening the reach of education beyond those who attended his university classroom. He wholeheartedly engaged with University Extension schemes, becoming District Chairman for the West Midlands branch of the Workers’ Educational Association, whose aim was to open up the opportunity of ‘serious study’ in subjects such as literature, history, economics, and philosophy, to those already employed in trade or business. In his autobiographical book, Reflections by a Journeyman in Philosophy (1942), he describes the inspirational men and women he met, who he felt attended the courses, not for personal advantage, but in the belief that gaining knowledge would enable them to further the causes ‘they had at heart’ for the ‘betterment of Society’. As part of the Association’s 1908-9 programme, he put his principles into practice by editing a work entitled Nine Famous Birmingham Men. Through its pages he sought not only to honour influential men such as Joseph Priestley, George Dawson, and James Watt, but also to instil in the younger citizens of Birmingham a sense of civic pride and community by calling on them to ‘remember to what manner of city they belong and to what manner of men they owe it’. Retirement from the University in 1921 did not dampen his enthusiasm for the Association; indeed, for some years in the early 1920s he was Director of Studies at the summer schools held at Repton School, where students took classes in History, English literature, Modern Drama and Social Philosophy.

John Muirhead was also actively engaged in the Civic and Moral Education League. Its aim, as stated by inaugural President of the Union of Ethical Societies (now Humanists UK), and President of the Moral Education League 1908-1916, Dr John Stuart MacKenzie, was to ‘emphasize the importance of good citizenship as the fundamental object that education should seek to promote’. Indeed, in 1916 demands of the Great War initiated a change in name from the Moral Education League to the Civic and Moral Education League, to reflect a focus on the promotion of civic responsibility. In August 1916,  John Muirhead, along with fellow philosopher, H.J.W. Hetherington, delivered a series of lectures at the League’s summer school, held at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. These were later published in a work entitled Social Purpose in 1918, which discussed the philosophical ‘nature of civic society’ and ‘social organisation’.

John Henry Muirhead by Walter Stoneman, 1932 © National Portrait Gallery, London

As well as opening up opportunities for higher education, John Muirhead was actively involved in improving education for those in state schooling. The Education Act of 1902 looked to address the problem of how to establish a system of secondary education by creating new local education authorities to provide secondary schools and develop technical education. University representatives were co-opted onto newly formed Education Committees and given new responsibilities and powers to influence educational policy. John Muirhead served as the member for the county of Warwickshire in the Midland District, and as ‘something that particularly appealed’ to him, took on the duty of visiting secondary schools, which, under the new Act, applied for financial assistance. His comment that he ‘came to realize how much might be needed to raise some of the schools [he] visited and which ranked as secondary, even to the level attained by the better-class elementary schools under the old School Boards’, reveals this was both an enlightening and concerning experience. Again, his practical humanist values of social reform and inclusivity are evident in his observation that he could ‘conceive few things that were better fitted to bring members of [University staff] into living contact with the educational system in which they occupied the highest and most responsible position’.

But education was not Professor Muirhead’s only concern. He was also actively involved in looking for solutions to improve conditions for the city’s poor, and alleviate the exploitation of workers. Bemoaning the impact of unregulated factory and workshop conditions, home working, long hours, and low wages, he commented that ‘one had only to step aside from the prosperous business of the central streets to see what this meant in the neighbouring slums’. But he didn’t just theorise. In Reflections by a Journeyman in Philosophy (1942), he describes bicycling along the Hagley Road in Birmingham to visit the workshops of nail makers. Here he witnessed men working for ‘lamentably little’ and a young girl standing ‘among flying sparks supplying him with bits of metal prepared for cutting and shaping’. He goes on to describe the ‘trail of poverty’ that industry and commerce leaves in its wake, and to stress the importance of the university in addressing the resulting ‘material, intellectual and social needs’ of the city. In 1912 he was asked to contribute to a series entitled ‘Social Conditions in Provincial Towns’ in which he considered what he describes as ‘the seamy side of life in Birmingham’. He comments on the difficulties of reforming housing, and the great extent of back-to-backs, which at the time of writing accommodated one-sixth of the city’s population. However, the problem which he considered the most difficult to solve was the obstacles workers of the city faced when trying to establish new trade unions. He explained that this was a particular problem for the large number of women employed in the city where ‘the prevailing local conditions have as yet effectively prevented any combined effort on the part of women to better their conditions’.

John H. Muirhead’s By What Authority?, 1909

As The Times stated in John Muirhead’s obituary, the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress 1905-9, which was set up by Parliament to investigate how the Poor Law system should be changed, gave him another ‘concrete chance to apply philosophy to life’. Muirhead points out that with Poor Laws remaining largely unchanged since the reforms of 1834, this review was urgently needed. In a series of articles, originally published in the Birmingham Daily Post, and later compiled into a book entitled By what authority?, Muirhead set out to contrast and criticise the proposals in a non-controversial spirit, and to suggest how those he regarded as valuable and workable might be incorporated into a comprehensive system of Poor Law and Industrial reform, on which all political parties might unite. Amongst his conclusions, Muirhead suggested that County Councils should be responsible for the administration, and that measures should be taken to combat poverty ‘at source’. His ideas to achieve this included increasing the mobility of labour through the institution and inter-connection of Labour Exchanges, increasing the provision of training, and regulating adult female and child employment. Furthermore, he advocated that the school age should be raised to ‘reduce the adverse influences of the streets or of unregulated homes and workshops’. He goes on to assert that whilst the report stresses the extent to which sickness and disease cause poverty, there is too little emphasis on the opposite position, poverty causing disease’. Legislators, he argues, ‘shut their eyes… to the extent to which disease is caused by remediable incidents in the workman’s life—too little food, air, and warmth, too much labour and worry’. These are powerful arguments, put forward by a man who is clearly in touch with the plight of the poor, and interestingly, his suggestions were largely adopted by later administrations.

He also had in prominent degree, and as though they were part and parcel of his philosophy, wisdom and sweetness, and these combined gave him all his long life the gift of perpetual youth.

‘In Memoriam’ by A.D.L. in Philosophy 15 (59), July 1940

Even as an octogenarian, he remained committed to putting his values of compassion and empathy into practice. Along with his second wife, former pupil, Pauline Bailey, who he married in 1927, following the death of his first wife Mary in 1922, he opened his home to two child refugees from Austria and Germany, shortly after the outbreak of war. He wrote at the time: ‘if I am ever to have a second childhood, it is time at eighty-four and a half that I began practising’.

John Muirhead died on 24 May 1940 at the age of 85. The tributes reflect what an extraordinary man he was. John Harvey, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Leeds and colleague at the Repton Summer Schools, wrote, ‘he never lived to know senility’, and ‘his friends will think of him as illustrating Stevenson’s interpretation of the old Greek saying that those whom the gods love die young’. The physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, who in 1900 became the first principal of the new Birmingham University, wrote of him in 1924: ‘He is, I think, the best man I know. I don’t mean the best philosopher, but the best man, full of human kindness and charity’. The tribute given at his funeral by his colleague, Professor of English Language and Literature, Ernest de Sélincourt, ended by simply stating: ‘he was in truth among the most lovable of men, and the most worthy of love’.

By Joan Turner


J.H. Muirhead (ed.), Nine Famous Birmingham Men (Birmingham, 1909). 

J.H. Muirhead, Reflections by a Journeyman in Philosophy (London, 1942).

J.H. Muirhead and H.J.W. Hetherington, Social Purpose: A contribution to a Philosophy of Civic Society, (London, 1918).

N. Warburton, Philosophy: the Basics (Abingdon, 2012).

J.W. Harvey, ‘J.H. Muirhead 1855-1940’, Mind, Vol. 50, no. 197, January 1941, pp. 88-91.

‘In Memoriam: John Henry Muirhead’, Philosophy, Vol.15, Issue 59, July 1940, p. 226. 

‘Obituaries, Dr J.H. Muirhead’, The Times, 27 May 1940.

John Henry Muirhead | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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