A British Educationist & Second Principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College

Mr. Theodore Beck was a British educationist who was born at London in 1859. His father runs a business of optical instrument. Theodore studied at Trinity College, Cambridge University & University of London. At the young age of twenty four, he took the charge as the Principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1884.

Portrait of Theodore Beck from personal collection of author

A few years ago when I had bought this interesting image of an Englishman in oriental attire, I never expected that this man was a great educationist and a prominent advocate for the education of Muslims in India. The photograph indicates his love and appreciation of the Orient. His turban and garments are typical from Islamic heritage. The photograph was taken by H&R Stiles, Kensington – London. The Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are celebrating centennial of the formation of Aligarh Muslim University (1920) from Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental college (est. 1875). Few, can deny the contribution of it’s founder; the visionary Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. However, among many of his admirers and early supporters; an English admirer stands high among any of his contemporaries. Due, to his dedication, skill, honesty and perhaps even through arguably the sacrifice of his life. I am sharing a very rare image from my personal collection of Theodore Beck, the second Principal of MAO College. Sir Syed had a vision for the college and he was looking for a suitable person who could teach Language and Philosophy. He wrote to Syed Mahmood Hassan, who was on a personal trip to England to look for a suitable teacher. Theodore Beck, a 24 year old recently qualified from Cambridge University was the suitable choice. Syed Mahmood Hasan convinced him to join Sir Syed in his mission. Mr. Beck, a softly spoken and dedicated man armed with modern education from Cambridge’s prestigious institution agreed to join Sir Syed in his mission to bring education to Indian Muslims. After the resignation of the first Principal of the college Mr. Henry George Siddons, Mr. Beck at the age of only twenty five, took the responsibility of becoming the principal of the College in 24th January 1884. He was loved and admired by his students. He would visit the sick students in the hostel and support some poor students financially from his own pocket.

Victoria Gate one of the main entrance to MAO College. It was build in 1884 & renamed later after queen Victoria. Now its served as an entrance to the Sir Syed Hall. Pic Source: Wiki Images

The famous poet Hali’s tribute to him in the form of an Urdu verse.

نہ دیکھی ہوں جنہوں نے شفقت و طاعت کی تصویریں
وہ بک اور اس کے شا گردوں کو با ہم ہمسخن دیکھیں

Naa Dekhi hun jinho ne shafqat waa taaat ki tasveren
Woh Bik (Beck) aur us ke shagirdon ko baham hum sukhan dekhen

Sir Syed respected his dedication to the cause and to the college. Once he said
and in this connection to none are we more indebted than to Mr. Theodore Beck, the Principal of our College, who, during five years of earnest labour and self sacrifice, has made our cause his own, and materially furthered it by acquiring that deep insight and intimate knowledge of the social, political and financial needs and requirements of the Mohammedan community which could be achieved only by cosmopolitan sympathies, and by living with and among the community for whose advancement he left the comfort and attraction of a University life at Cambridge to take up abode among an alien population, such as the Mohammaden of India.’

Sir Syed for Theodore Beck
Theodore Beck Papers from Sir Syed Academy Archives: Vol 002, Edited by Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, 1991, Sir Syed Academy
Portrait of Theodore Beck (1859- 1899)

Reciprocally, he referred Sir Syed ‘my respected chief’. There was mutual trust between Sir Syed and Mr. Beck. He suggested Sir Syed the appointment of a teacher in the hostel for the religious and moral instruction of the students. Hence he became the longest serving Principal of Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh. Among many of his reforms, the best he did was to propose a ‘debating club’ in the college that was named after the first Principal ’Siddon’s Club’. He agreed with Sir Syed to keep Muslims away from politics and concentrate on education. However his proposal of debating club would later produce great orators like Ali brothers who will fight in the future for the independence of country. Destiny took an unfortunate turn for him and thus for the MAO College. At the age of only forty he became ill. He often expressed difficulty about the hot weather of Aligarh in the past. To try to get better he was advised to go to Shimla so that his health can improve in the cooler climate. Unfortunately, it was very shortly he died there, most likely due to tropical infection to his liver and post operative complications in 1899. MAO college suddenly lost a talented teacher, a Principal, an educationist, an administrator, a sympathiser and a genuine pioneer who cared about Indian Muslims and dedicated most of his life in India educating and remodelling them. It was doubly unfortunate since Sir Syed had died a year earlier in 1898. After his death ‘Beck memorial fund’ was established in order to commemorate his memory. Beck Manzil and a road was given his name at the campus.

One of his earliest Student Khushi Muhammad Nazir wrote following couplets in his memory after his death.

Faiz Gate one of the heritage gates of MAO College build by Sir Nawab Faiz Ali Khan, the Rais of Pahasu, Bulandshahr.
Pic source: Faisal Hassan

اس کی خُنداں سے تھی اس باغِ قومی کی بہار
بک کو بیٹھا دیکھ کر کا لج سے دل اُٹھتا نہ تھا
اپنےشا گردوں کا وہ دلدادہ و دلدار تھا
تھا کبھی وہ شمع محفل اور کبھی پروانہ تھا
اس کے دستر خوان پر رہتا تھا ہنگامہ گرم
بورڈر سب مہمان تھے اور وہ صاحبِ خانہ تھا
یہ مجالس جانفزا تھیں بک کی بزم آرائیا
ورنہ یاں ؔٗٗ مُرغانِ صحرا کا مُسافر خا نہ تھا
ایک شانِ دلرُبائی اس کی تھی ہر بات میں
معدن اخلاق کا وہ گوہر یک دانہ تھا

Us ki Khundan se thi us baaghe Qaumi ki bahar
Beck ko baitha dekh kar College se dil uthta naa tha
Apne Shagirdon ka woh dildaah wa dildar tha
Tha kabhi woh Shama Mehfil aur Kabhi parwana tha
Us ke dastarkhwan par rehta tha hungama garam
Boarder (hostel students) sab mehman the aur woh sahibe khana tha
Yeh Majalise Janfizan thin Bik (Beck) ki bazm arayian
Warnan Yaan Murghane sahra ka Musafir Khana tha
Ek shaane Dilrubai thi us ki har baat me
Maadan Akhlaq ka woh gauhar yak dana tha

I personally feel that Aligarh Muslim University shouldn’t forget this wonderful gentleman when they are celebrating University centennial. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. Mohammad Sabah Siddiqui is UK based physician. He has a penchant for reading, sharing & writing on history and culture. His personal collection includes rare historical photographs, postcards, magazines and stamps of Colonial India.


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