Thomas Barker

Quick Info

9 September 1838
Murcar, Old Machar, Aberdeen, Scotland
20 November 1907
Woodlea, Lightwood Road, Fairfield, Buxton, England

Thomas Barker had an outstanding undergraduate career, being Senior Wrangler in the mathematical tripos at Cambridge and 1st Smith's Prizeman in 1862. He went on to play an important role in Owens College, Manchester where he was professor of pure mathematics for twenty years.


Thomas Barker was the son of the farmer Thomas Barker Sr (1772-1849) and Margaret Knowles (1798-1857). Thomas Barker Sr, the son of George Barker and Margaret Youngson, had been born on 19 January 1772. Margaret had been born on 21 January 1798 at Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland and she married Thomas at Old Machar, Aberdeen on 24 July 1832. Thomas and Margaret Barker had four children but Thomas, the subject of this biography, was the only one to survive infancy. At the time of the 1841 census, Thomas Barker Sr (aged 68), Margaret Barker (aged 42) and Thomas Barker (aged 2) are the only Barkers recorded living at their home but William Knowles (aged 76) is also living with them. Thomas' father died in 1849 when Thomas was eleven years old and at the time of the 1851 census he was living with his mother Margaret, Ann Knowles (aged 43) and Jane Knowles (aged 14) at their home.

Thomas attended Aberdeen Grammar School, one of the oldest grammar schools in the country founded in the 1250s. The headmaster of the school at this time was James Melvin (1795-1853), a Latin scholar who also lectured at Marischal College, Aberdeen. Barker graduated from the Grammar School and continued his education at King's College, Aberdeen. We should make it clear that at the time Barker entered King's College, it was a separate university from Marischal College. King's College was the older institution, being founded in 1495. Marischal College was founded almost exactly 100 years later and the two only merged to form the University of Aberdeen in 1860, three years after Barker graduated from King's College. He had excelled in mathematics and, following the tradition of the top Scottish students of the time, following his graduation from King's College in 1857, he went to the University of Cambridge to continue his studies. In fact he was admitted to Cambridge only a few days before the death of his mother on 29 March 1857.

Barker was admitted as a sizar to Trinity College, Cambridge on 22 March 1858 and began his studies of the mathematical tripos at the start of the Michaelmas term in October. Being a sizar meant that he was given financial assistance but had to earn this by acting as a servant to other students. He was a Foundation Scholar in 1860 and in 1861 he was a Sheepshanks Astronomical Exhibitioner, meaning that he received a financial scholarship awarded because of his excellent performance. This Exhibition had been set up in 1859 with money donated by Anne Sheepshanks which she inherited after the death of her brother, the astronomer Richard Sheepshanks. Barker was studying the mathematical tripos coached by Edward Routh. Routh became the most famous of the Cambridge coaches but when he began coaching Barker he was near the beginning of his career. In fact it was the group of students studying for the mathematical tripos along with Barker, with Barker as the best, who established Routh's reputation as the best Cambridge coach. Barker was the Senior Wrangler in 1862, meaning he was ranked first among the First Class students. He also received the prestigious 1st Smith's Prize.

Already in 1861 Barker had been appointed as an Assistant Tutor, a position he held until 1865. In 1862, after graduating, he was elected as a fellow of Trinity College. It was a remarkable achievement but Barker was not at all happy with the system which operated at Cambridge at the time despite having been so successful as a student in that system. He was, therefore, happy to leave Cambridge and did so in 1865 when he was appointed to the chair of pure mathematics at Owens College, Manchester.

Owens College had been founded in 1851 following a legacy left by the industrialist John Owens. At this time the only university level college in England, other than the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, was in London. Owens College struggled over its first few years since Manchester was famed for merchants who did not see the benefits of educating their sons to a university level, rather they wanted them to join the family business as soon as possible. Owens College, however, began to develop a different educational approach from Oxford and Cambridge, modelling the college more on the German universities. This, of course, meant that Barker was the type of professor they were looking for with his vision of mathematical rigour and building the subject on firm foundations. When he joined, however, Owens College did not have the authority to grant degrees and most of the students prepared for the external examinations of the University of London.

After nearly thirty years, during which time Owens College flourished and expanded into new buildings on Oxford Road in Manchester, the College became the first constituent part of Victoria University in 1880. Barker held the position of Professor of Pure Mathematics [8]:-
... for twenty years, during which the college expanded, gained prestige, and became the nucleus of the Victoria University in Manchester. While doing his share of committee work, Barker kept a low profile within the university administration.
During these years he had a number of noteworthy colleagues in other departments. For example Osborne Reynolds became the first professor of engineering at Owens College in 1868, holding this position until he retired in 1905. John Steggall was Fielden lecturer at Owens College from 1880 to 1883, William Stanley Jevons worked at Owens College from 1863, becoming Professor of Logic, Mental and Moral Philosophy, and Political Economy in 1866, William Jack held the chair of Natural Philosophy at Owens College from 1866 to 1870 and was succeeded by Balfour Stewart (1828-1887). Barker also taught a number of students who went on to have distinguished careers including John Hopkinson, Horace Lamb, Joseph John Thomson, and John Henry Poynting. Poynting was a student from 1867 to 1872 with a Dalton Entrance Exhibition in Mathematics, then returned for a while as a demonstrator in the Physical Laboratory under Balfour Stewart. Another of Barker's students was John Walton Capstick who entered Owens College in 1880, won the senior Dalton mathematical scholarship in 1882 and took first class honours in mathematics at the examination for the B.A. degree at the University of London in 1883. Franz Arthur Friedrich Schuster (1851-1934) studied mathematics under Barker and physics under Balfour Stewart and then returned as the Beyer Professor of Applied Mathematics at Owens College in 1881.

Although Barker had shown outstanding ability as a mathematician, we can find no publications by him either at research level or at the level of a teaching text. Horace Lamb tried to explain this side of Barker's character in [8]:-
Mathematically, Barker turned his back on Cambridge methods and interests. He had a severely critical mind which restrained him from publishing much and inclined him to follow De Morgan and Boole; like them he was interested in certain fundamental aspects of mathematics. In this respect he was ahead of his time, presaging the introduction of 'rigour' into mathematics. In his teaching he endeavoured to set forth the processes of mathematical reasoning as a connected system from their foundation. His lectures consequently had a reputation for being 'unintelligible to all but the elect' but on these few he made a deep impression. His success as a teacher is attested to by a number of distinguished pupils on whom he exercised a great and possibly a determining influence.
An area in which Barker excelled was in making good financial investments. He never married, lived a simple life without extravagances so, in 1885, when only 47 years old, he felt he could retire and live off his savings and investment income. Perhaps, given his approach to mathematics and to publishing, it is not surprising that he turned to another of his interests, namely cryptogamic botany which is the study of spore-producing plants and similar spore-producing organisms. The plants which he was most interested in were mosses and A Census Catalogue of British Mosses was compiled under the direction of the Moss Exchange Club by Barker and W Ingham.

After he retired, Barker lived first at Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, and afterwards at Buxton. He died at his home, Woodlea, Lightwood Road, Fairfield, Buxton on 20 November 1907. He was buried on 23 November 1907 in a Non Conformist Plot in the Southern Cemetery, Chorlton-Cum-Hardy, Greater Manchester. Probate was [3]:-
London 4 December to Margaret Ann Knowles and Sarah Knowles spinsters and Godfrey Davenport Goodman solicitor. Effects £46833 4s.
He endowed a chair of cryptogamic botany at the University of Manchester [5] (see also [1]):-
MANCHESTER, 27 January 1909. Under the bequest of the late Thomas Barker, M.A., formerly Professor of Mathematics in the Owens College, a Chair of Cryptogamic Botany has been founded in the University, Mr W H Lang, M.B., D.Sc. Lecturer in Botany in the University of Glasgow, has been appointed to the Chair. Dr Lang was a research scholar of Glasgow University. He has travelled in Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula, collecting and studying especially the crypto gams. Latterly Dr Lang has specialised on the Bryophyta, which includes the mosses, the group of plants in which the late Professor Barker was specially interested, and has contributed publications embodying the results of his researches. Dr Lang has acted for three years as external examiner in the University of Manchester, and is now examiner in the University of London.
Barker also endowed bursaries at the University of Manchester for poor students in both mathematics and botany.

References (show)

  1. A New Chair and its occupant, The University Review 7 (Sherratt & Hughes, 1908), 471.
  2. Barker, Thomas, The Times (22 November 1907).
  3. Barker, Thomas, Wills and Administrations: 1907. Aaron-Bywater (England & Wales, National Probate Calendar, 1858-1995), 133.
  4. Bequest, The Guardian (28 January 1909).
  5. Chair of Cryptogamic Botany, Glasgow Medical Journal 71 (A Macdougall, Glasgow, 1909), 218.
  6. H Lamb, The late Professor Barker, Manchester Guardian (23 November 1907).
  7. H Lamb, The late Professor Barker, Manchester University Magazine (December 1907).
  8. H Lamb (rev. I Falconer), Barker, Thomas (1838-1907), mathematician, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
  9. Thomas Barker, Find a Grave (2021).
  10. J Venn and J A Venn (eds.), Barker, Thomas, in Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900 Volume 2: From 1752 to 1900. Part 1: Abbey-Challis (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 153.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Thomas Barker:

  1. Dictionary of National Biography

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2021