Shrewsbury School

Sir Eric Anderson

Friday 1 May 2020

In memoriam of Sir Eric Anderson, Shrewsbury School Headmaster 1975-1980, by Dr David Gee.

Widely regarded as the greatest Independent School Headmaster of his generation, Anderson, with typical modesty, always insisted that that title properly belonged to Dennis Silk of Radley; but that Anderson’s influence, wide experience and extensive connections in the Independent sector were unrivalled, is incontrovertible. Several of the assistant masters who served under him were inspired by his example to become headmasters of leading Independent Schools themselves and took him as their model.  His name is always associated with Eton, and rightly so, for twenty-three years of his academic career were spent there, fourteen of them as Headmaster and (after a six-year interlude as Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford), a further nine as Provost, the resident Chairman of Governors. Earlier in his career, however, he had served as an English master, first at Fettes and then at Gordonstoun, subsequently returning to Fettes as a Housemaster, before successively becoming Headmaster of Abingdon (1970-1975) and of Shrewsbury (1975-1980).

During his distinguished career Anderson encountered many pupils who were later to become prominent figures in national life, four of them exceptionally so.  At Gordonstoun he nurtured the Prince of Wales’ love of Shakespeare and cast him in the title role of Macbeth, in the school play: at Fettes he was Tony Blair’s Housemaster, and at Eton the Headmaster both of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. This unique connection with the heir to the throne and three Prime Ministers made Anderson’s name familiar in much wider circles than the strictly educational.

He was born into a ‘solidly middle class’ family in Edinburgh on 27th May 1936, the eldest of the three children of William Anderson, who ran a long-established and well-respected  firm of kilt-makers and outfitters, and of his wife Margaret (née Harper). He was educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews, where he took a First in English and met his future wife Elizabeth Mason (always known as ‘Poppy’), who also took a First in the same subject. He subsequently took a higher degree in Literature at Balliol College, Oxford. He and Poppy married in 1960 and they celebrated their Diamond Anniversary, quietly at home in Oxfordshire, less than two full days before he died.

Although Eric’s headmastership at Shrewsbury was brief (the change from the use of Eric’s surname to his first name marks the movement of this tribute from the public to our domestic Salopian sphere), the character, assets and qualities which were later, at Eton, to enable observers to describe his headmastership as a ‘Golden Age’, were all in evidence here.  From both Abingdon and Shrewsbury Eric was, in effect, recruited as the result of invitation rather than of application on his own initiative; and at each of these schools, in turn, he felt an initial reluctance to move on further. While at Abingdon, he was approached by Dr. Walter Hamilton, who then exercised the same influential role in Independent Education which Eric was later to achieve, with the words, “Young man, I think you ought to be the next Headmaster of Shrewsbury”. (Hamilton happened at the time to be Chairman of our Governors.) Eric and Poppy paid an incognito visit to look at the School and they recorded that it was their first impression of the natural and friendly manner in which boys and masters greeted each other on ‘The Drum’, in front of the School Building, which caused a dramatic change of mind.  The next five years strongly reinforced those very favourable impressions. Similarly, in 1980, Eric and Poppy had serious doubts about accepting the invitation to move on to Eton. They were happy where they were and Eric was deeply concerned that his tenure at Shrewsbury had been ungraciously brief. It took the concerted encouragement of governors and senior colleagues, who knew that he was the man for the challenge and ought to accept it, to persuade him to proceed.

When asked what he considered to be his greatest asset, Eric instantly replied “My wife”.  Theirs was a true partnership, not only in personal, but also in professional life. They were determined to be – and thoroughly enjoyed being – totally immersed in the life of the School. One of them (and usually both) would appear at every school occasion- plays, concerts, lectures and matches. They gave a high priority to establishing personal relationships with colleagues and pupils alike. Eric was always eager to escape from his study and, accompanied by his dog, Dusty, he took every opportunity to talk to the boys he encountered on the Site. Poppy, meanwhile, chatted to them in the School Bookshop, over which she presided, or in the intervals of her popular Scottish Dancing classes. Their colleagues, with their wives, were frequently entertained at home; all new boys were invited to tea during their first term; their extensive knowledge of who everyone was and what they were doing could at times be distinctly alarming!

This extensive personal knowledge and interaction proved invaluable in the crises and disciplinary incidents which schools like Shrewsbury and Eton experience from time to time.  Eric’s calmness, realism and innate good sense stood him in good stead on such occasions, enabling him to take problems in his stride. His adherence to his own personal standards of rectitude, probity and loyalty supported him in matters of discipline. His authority was natural; he did not need to rely on his position.  A kindly and friendly person by preference and disposition, he could be steadfastly firm when the situation required it. In general his sanctions were both imposed with humanity (and occasionally with humour) and also equably accepted, because their recipients were already well aware of their headmaster’s ability and integrity. Eric succeeded in the difficult task of being both well respected and well liked:  colleagues and pupils recognized that he was the master of his brief.

After the whirlwind developments of Donald Wright’s regime, Eric realized that he had to focus on the less glamorous task of the consolidation of the social changes of the previous decade and on the rationalization and reorganization of the existing facilities of the School. The result was a period of ‘All Change’ in which a wide range of school properties were remodelled, adapted and reassigned, in order to put them to their most effective use.  With characteristic self-deprecation, Eric liked to say that the successor of ‘Wright the Builder’ had only been able to contribute some squash courts! He restored stability to School House, realizing that its ethos was a vital component in the morale of the whole school, by quickly and decisively reversing the temporary internal division of the House, which had been in place between 1974 and 1976 and which had failed, partly on account of financial exigency. Eric was also particularly keen not only to develop the facilities but also to enhance the current standards in drama, the Fine Arts and in music. While at Abingdon he had developed an enthusiasm for rowing; he maintained this enthusiasm at Shrewsbury, strongly supporting the Boat Club and realizing that its performance played a significant part in establishing the School’s reputation.  Again, it was characteristic of him that he had noted that this sport, at schoolboy level, required the highest degree of excellence, for Salopian crews at Henley had to compete with opponents drawn from all over the world.

There was one major principle to which Eric was adamantly attached: that education must be judged by its quality, by the excellence of its standards and attainment and that selection was an integral factor in achieving this.  Second only to that, it was imperative to extend its availability. Eric devoted himself to finding, recruiting and developing talent, wherever he could find it. His first impression was that the masters at Shrewsbury were abler than the boys: his opinion was that the ability of the boys should challenge and stretch the masters. Accordingly he initiated a scheme of Sixth Form Scholarships to attract able recruits to the School. He spent a great deal of time and care interviewing their parents, in visiting preparatory schools and in addressing Rotary Societies and corporate bodies such as the Master Cutlers of Sheffield, in pursuit of this objective. After seeing him and hearing him speak, many in these audiences entered their sons for Shrewsbury. Aware that the School’s distance from the metropolitan areas might deprive it of the stimulus of comparison with the highest intellectual standards and lure it into complacency, he took care regularly to invite eminent speakers to address the School. He initiated the Harvard Fellowship Scheme, in which able and talented young men (and in recent years, young women, too) came over to join the Common Room for their first post-graduate year. They have brought great enrichment to Shrewsbury during the last four decades.  Eric considered that his single, most significant decision was to double the number of Day Boys entering the School. This, too, was part of his drive to raise academic standards: Shrewsbury had become the administrative, legal and medical centre of an extensive (mainly Welsh) hinterland. Professional families were flooding into the town and, ever since, their sons have made a major contribution in all aspects of school life, and pre-eminently in academic attainment. Donald Wright had advised the Governors that his successor should be someone able to raise the academic standards of the school: by 1980 that aspiration had been triumphantly achieved. 

The general feeling that their move to Eton was entirely appropriate  was tinged with regret , which perhaps Eric and Poppy shared at the time,  that they had been  plucked too early from their comparative seclusion at Shrewsbury to face the full glare of metropolitan and world-wide scrutiny. Certainly they both retained a deep affection for the School and at his last Salopian Speech Day Eric  admitted : ‘I love the atmosphere of Shrewsbury – the faintly concealed enthusiasms, the friendliness of boys and masters, the devastating individual and corporate sense of humour’ and he spoke of how he would miss  the beauty of the Site and of  the Shropshire countryside .Much later he said that of all the schools he worked in  he would most have enjoyed being an Assistant Master at Shrewsbury, which he remembered as a Common Room of individuals,  many of them highly able, all of them dedicated to the job, a few of them eccentric in ways that great schoolmasters can be. He observed that on the surface nothing was taken too seriously, but that beneath the humour and fun there was serious intent and no school, he thought, had a better team of housemasters than Shrewsbury in the ‘seventies. He and Poppy bought a holiday home in Shropshire and took care to maintain their links with the School, the town and the county. In 1991 Eric accepted an invitation to be President of the Shropshire Horticultural Society and after the Flower Show he, in turn, invited its committee members to Eton and gave them a conducted tour. He served on the Governing Body of the School between 1994 and 2000 and he returned in 2002 to attend the celebration of its 450th Anniversary. He was elected President of the Salopian Society in 2004-2005 and has subsequently paid a number of private visits.

Beyond school walls Anderson had established himself as an authority on Sir Walter Scott, whose journals he had edited and published in 1972 and of whose residence, Abbotsford, he was a trustee.   He greatly enjoyed his role as chairman of the National Heritage Lottery Fund between 1998 and 2001.  Anderson was entrusted with the responsibility of recording the memoirs of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which were later to be made available for the use of her biographer; this was a notable tribute to Anderson’s acknowledged discretion.  ‘A Scot to his eyebrows’, he was appointed Knight of The Thistle, the highest Scottish Order of Chivalry, in 2002. Golf and Angling were his private recreations; he was enthusiastic about both and he wrote recently to an Old Salopian , currently the Ryder Cup Director of the European Tour, who had been his pupil when Headmaster, that if he had not had the opportunity of being the Headmaster of Shrewsbury and Eton, then, outside the sphere of education, his was the job that he would most have coveted.

Sir Eric Anderson died in his sleep, at his home in Oxfordshire, on 22nd April 2020, aged 83 years. He is survived by his wife Poppy and by their son David, Lord Anderson of Ipswich Q.C., former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in the United Kingdom, by their daughter Kate, also a teacher, who is married to Will Gompertz, the BBC Arts Editor, and by their grandchildren.

30 April 2020                                                                                                              

A version of this obituary will appear in the next edition of The Salopian

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