Stephen de Gurbs

Born: 31 March 1800 in Mitcham, Surrey, England
Died: 14 December 1892 in Brighton, England

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Let us explain upfront why we have included a biography of Stephen de Gurbs despite him apparently having little to do with mathematics. I [EFR] was asked by someone who won the "De Gurbs Prize for Mathematics" from the University of Aberdeen, "Who was the mathematician de Gurbs?". With the help of Isobel Falconer, we found some information about de Gurbs which we present below. His parents were, we believe, Stephen Gurbs and Ann Waller who were married 18 July 1798 in Southwark, London. As to the Gurbs family origins, [3] states:-
It appears that Stephen Gurbs's father was a French peer who had fled from that country when the Revolution broke out.
This information will have come from Mrs de Gurbs but, as we shall see below, we need to treat her statements with some caution. However, we see no reason to doubt that the family were originally of French origin. We have seen no evidence that Stephen Gurbs used the name "Stephen de Gurbs" or "Baron Stephen de Gurbs" in his lifetime. All uses of these forms of his name that we have seen come after his death.

The first fact that we know of Stephen Gurbs, after his birth, is that he matriculated at King's College, Aberdeen in 1823. Two things about this are a little strange. Why did someone born, and presumably brought up, in Surrey choose to go to Aberdeen for his university studies? As stated in [3]:-

How he came to Aberdeen is not known, but in 1823 he entered King's College and attended for three sessions in succession.
The second slightly strange thing is that he was 23 years of age when he began his university career, so was considerably older that most of the other students who matriculated in 1823. Gurbs clearly was an outstanding student. He received an 1823 edition of Thomas Simpson's book The doctrine and application of fluxions as a prize for being the best student in natural philosophy (physics). This edition of the book was "A new edition, carefully revised, and adapted, by copious appendixes, to the present advanced state of science by a graduate of the University of Cambridge." The date this prize was awarded is not recorded but we guess it was 1825. Certainly, on 24 March 1825 he was awarded the first prize for mathematics receiving the sixth edition of Charles Hutton's Mathematical tables which had been published in 1822. In April 1826 he received the second edition of Robert Hamilton's Mathematical tables (published 1816) as the first prize in the natural philosophy class. After the highly successful session 1825-26, he was absent from the university for two years [3]:-
There was a lapse in his attendance of two sessions - 1826-27 and 1827-28 - during which time no record of him could be found. The following session, however, he returned to King's College, and in 1829 he graduated and was the winner of the Hutton Prize, which goes to the most distinguished graduate of the year.
Exactly what Gurbs did following his graduation with an M.A. in 1829 is unclear. All we have been able to find is that he appears in the 1841 and 1851 census as living in London. In the census, as well as in various London directories in the 1840s and 50s, he gives his occupation as tutor, private tutor, or classical and mathematics tutor. All we can add to this is that he owned John Radford Young's The elements of the differential calculus; comprehending the general theory of curve surfaces, and of curves of double curvature. Intended for the use of mathematical students in schools and universities. He also owned John Radford Young's The elements of analytical geometry; comprehending the doctrine of the conic sections, and the general theory of curves and surfaces of the second order. Intended for the use of mathematical students in schools and universities. The editions of these two books that Gurbs owned were both published in 1833 and if he was using them for his tutoring, which seems likely, then he must have been tutoring in London at university level. Although we have no reason to believe Gurbs tutored students who were attending University College, London, nevertheless it is worth pointing out that teaching began there in 1828 with Augustus De Morgan as the professor of mathematics.

In 1869, when he was 69 years of age, Gurbs married Eliza Hayward (1833-1918). He was living at Montpeller Street, Brighton when he died in December 1892 at the age of 92. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London and his widow erected a tombstone which reads:

   In Loving Memory 
Stephen Baron De Gurbs, M.A. 
   Born 31st March 1800
 Died 14th December 1892
"Beloved" "Lamented"
Also of his mother whose remains were removed from the catacombs to this grave.
This is the first time that we find the name "Baron De Gurbs" used.

You can see pictures of the tombstone at THIS LINK.

On 6 March 1899, Eliza Gurbs changed her name to Elise, Baroness de Gurbs, placing notice of this change of name in The Times. She must have already made a trip to visit King's College, Aberdeen, since we see the following report in 1902 in [3]:-

In connection with the unexpected gift of a memorial window to the University of Aberdeen by the Baroness De Gurbs in memory of her late husband, the Baron De Gurbs, as intimated at a meeting of the University Court yesterday, it is interesting to note that four or five years ago the baroness paid her first visit to Aberdeen and called at King's College. She appeared greatly interested in everything she saw, and on entering the library she asked the librarian, Mr P J Anderson, if the old records of the college were still accessible, and whether the name of Gurbs appeared in them. Mr Anderson very soon found the name of Stephen Gurbs, who entered the college in 1823. About three weeks ago Mr Anderson was favoured with a second visit from the baroness, who intimated that the purpose of her visit was to arrange about presenting to the university a memorial window in remembrance of her husband.
For the full report [3], see THIS LINK.

The meeting of the university court referred to in this quote must have taken place on Tuesday 11 March 1902. Just a few days before that, on 1 March 1902, the following appeared in Notes and Queries [4]:-

Gurbs or De Gurbs Barony. Stephen Gurbs, Surrey, matriculated at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1823, and took the degree of M.A. there in 1829 as Hutton Prizeman i.e., the most distinguished graduate of the year. He appears to have been known in later life as the Baron de Gurbs. Information is desired as to this barony. Q. K. B.
We have not worked out who "Q. K. B." was but clearly it was someone associated with King's College since the same Q. K. B. posted three other queries about King's College in the Scottish Notes and Queries in 1902. Two of these are [5]:-
(i) When did students finally cease to reside in King's College?

(ii) King's College Chapel, Bishops preaching in. - On Sunday, 23rd February, 1902, Dr John Wordsworth, Bishop of Salisbury, preached in the University Chapel, King's College. When did a bishop officiate there before? Not, in all probability, for 214 years at least.

It is clear that the university authorities did not believe that Gurbs had been a Baron and that his widow was a Baroness. The report [3] even ends with quoting Q. K. B.'s Notes and Queries question about the De Gurbs barony.

In 1904 the "De Gurbs stained glass window" in the King's College Chapel was dedicated. A report of the dedication service appeared in The Aberdeen Daily Journal on Monday 21 November 1904. For this description of the service see THIS LINK.

At the service Principal Lang gave a very fine speech but speaking of Gurbs he said [2]:-

But it is the scantiness of the information that we possess that lends a special interest to the ceremony of this afternoon.
Principal Lang clearly knew nothing more than Gurbs's undergraduate record, yet Gurbs's wife was present at the service. He also explained why the De Gurbs window was unique [2]:-
It is the seventh memorial window in this ancient chapel. But it is unique in some of its circumstances. The sixth window, excluding your own, the one in the west ante-chapel and those on either side of me in the apse, are tributes to men who filled and adorned conspicuous positions in the university, the one exception being the memorial to Professor Robertson Smith, an Aberdeen graduate whose fame and reputation were world-wide. He to whose memory you have offered this loving token had no other special relation to the university than that of an alumnus who, when he passed through King's College, seemed to have bidden farewell to academic halls and pursuits.
We have not copied out the rather fine description of the De Gurbs window which is given in [2]. A picture of the window is at THIS LINK.

The window contains the names of 'Stephen Baron De Gurbs' and 'Elise Baroness De Gurbs'. It also has a representation of Baron De Gurbs's coronet which you can see at THIS LINK.

Eliza Gurbs, or Elise Baroness De Gurbs to give her the name she chose in 1899, died in 1918 and in the following year her husband's books went to the library of the University of Aberdeen. There appear to be eleven books in the bequest, five of which we have mentioned above. The mathematics books, in addition to the five already mentioned, are: Samuel Ferdinand Lubbe, Traité de calcul différentiel et de calcul intégral (1832); Thomas Keith, An introduction to the theory and practice of plane and spherical trigonometry, and the stereographic projection of the sphere; including the theory of navigation: comprehending a variety of rules, formulae, &c. with their practical applications to the mensuration of heights and distances; to determining the latitude by two altitudes of the sun, the longitude by the lunar observations, and to other important problems on the sphere, and on nautical astronomy (1820); Silvestre François Lacroix, Traité élémentaire de calcul différentiel et de calcul intégral (1806); and Silvestre François Lacroix, Complément des Élémens d'algèbre, à l'usage de l'École centrale des quatre-nations (1800).

In addition of the books, Eliza Gurbs also left money to fund the De Gurbs Prize in Mathematics and a De Gurbs Prize in Literature at the University of Aberdeen. I have also seen mention of a De Gurbs Scholarship at the University of Aberdeen which again must come from money left to the University by Eliza Gurbs.

I [EFR] find this a fascinating tale since although the Eliza Gurbs appears to have been a rogue with ideas above her position in making her husband a Baron after his death and making herself a Baroness, nevertheless, she certainly did much good with giving money for a very fine stained glass window which still adorns the chapel and in funding a De Gurbs prize in mathematics which had now been awarded for almost 100 years.

Article by: I J Falconer, J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

List of References (5 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. The De Gurbs window in King's College Chapel Aberdeen
  2. The De Gurbs tombstone in Highgate cemetery
  3. A picture of the De Gurbs window
  4. The De Gurbs coronet

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JOC/EFR August 2017
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