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MURRAY, ROBERT, Presbyterian minister, author, office holder, and teacher; b. c. 1795, probably the third son of John Murray of Banbridge (Northern Ireland); m. Jessie Dickson; they do not appear to have had any children; d. 30 March 1853 in Port Albert, Upper Canada.

Robert Murray matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1809, was ordained a minister of the Church of Scotland, and served a number of Scottish rural parishes as preacher and teacher. From 1824 to 1834 he was master of the Edinburgh Commercial and Mathematical Academy. During this time he published what was to be a very successful textbook on commercial arithmetic, later reprinted in Upper Canada. He then emigrated to the United States and in 1836 became pastor of the Church of Scotland congregation in Oakville, Upper Canada. Apparently a popular clergyman in his community though he took little part in the affairs of the Upper Canadian Kirk generally, he was unknown to a wider public except as the author of a pamphlet critical of temperance societies, which in 1839 had elicited a vigorous and vituperative rebuttal from Egerton Ryerson*.

During his ministry in Oakville he made a number of politically influential friends including his neighbour James Hopkirk and Samuel Bealey Harrison*. When the passage of a new school act in 1841 made the appointment of a chief administrative officer necessary, it was mainly these three men who promoted Murray’s appointment. In April 1842 he became Upper Canada’s first assistant superintendent of education, the provincial secretary being ex officio superintendent. His chief task was to administer the School Act of 1841. He had, however, no power to enforce uniformity on schools and trustees, and his job was made difficult not only because the act contained unpopular provisions but also because it was in many respects ambiguously worded and self-contradictory. Murray’s efforts over the next two years were thus almost entirely devoted to making the best of a bad situation: explaining and interpreting the act, attempting to solve the problems it raised or ignored, and trying to convince the ministry of the need for better legislation. As part of his official duties he embarked on a tour of Upper Canada and, despite illness, managed to visit teachers and trustees throughout the province. Capitalizing on the tour and his extensive official correspondence, he submitted a report to the legislature in 1843 that summarized the inadequacies of the 1841 act and set out his proposed remedies: raise the quality of the teachers, improve the organization and selection of textbooks and the curriculum, and enlarge the powers of the superintendent.

The new school act brought in by the ministry in the fall of 1843, however, contained few of his recommendations and gave no greater powers to the superintendency. This in itself was a disappointment. As well, however, in early 1844 the new ministry of Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe* had decided that for political reasons Murray had to be replaced by Egerton Ryerson. Since Murray could not simply be dumped, another place for him had to be found, and a convenient resignation at King’s College (University of Toronto) made it possible for Governor Metcalfe to arrange to have Murray appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at that institution. The appointment was formally announced in September 1844.

Little is known of Murray’s life from this point. He continued to officiate occasionally at his old congregation in Oakville and remained a professor at the university until his death at Port Albert in 1853 after a long illness. Murray’s period of public life was brief, and his private life remains obscure. But as Upper Canada’s first assistant superintendent of education, he implemented its first two school acts, established the Education Office, and worked for a stronger superintendency and improved teaching; he thus laid the foundations upon which his successor would build.

R. D. Gidney

[Robert Murray’s popular textbook, New system of commercial arithmetic . . . for the use of schools (Edinburgh, 1830), was subsequently reprinted in Upper Canada; his controversial anti-temperance pamphlet, A course of lectures on absolute abstinence; containing a refutation of the doctrines of the temperance society, advanced in the temperance volume; delivered before his congregation in Oakville, U.C., was published at Toronto in 1839. Murray’s congregation publicized its support for his position in the British Colonist (Toronto), 28 Aug. 1839; Egerton Ryerson’s editorials attacking the pamphlet appeared in the Christian Guardian, 18 and 25 Sept. 1839.

The present study is based primarily on my article, “The Rev. Robert Murray: Ontario’s first superintendent of schools,” OH, 63 (1971): 191204. Additional sources include: H. C. Mathews, Oakville and the Sixteen: the history of an Ontario port (Toronto, 1953; repr. 1971), for information on Murray’s life prior to 1836; PAC, RG 5, C1, 75, file 2195; 76, file 2273; his will (located at AO, RG 22, ser.155); and the obituary notice in the Journal of Education for Upper Canada (Toronto), 6 (1853): 60.  r.d.g.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

R. D. Gidney, “MURRAY, ROBERT (d. 1853),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_robert_1853_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_robert_1853_8E.html
Author of Article: R. D. Gidney
Title of Article: MURRAY, ROBERT (d. 1853)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: April 19, 2014