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The best of Heads

Sir Eric Anderson employed the best and let them get on with it

Features Sir Eric Anderson KT 1936-2020

Sir Eric Anderson was Head Master of Eton 1980-1994, then Provost, and teacher of three prime ministers. Guy Walters recalls a stern and awe-inspiring figure while Graham Stewart asked colleagues, friends and former pupils, including Tony Blair, for their memories of a hugely influential educator


We used to call him “Big Balls”. To recall that now, in the immediate wake of his death, may seem both disrespectful and childish, but then who, when hearing of the passing of a schoolteacher, does not immediately think of their nickname?

Besides, the sobriquet, while vulgar and supposedly derived from his gait, was appropriate. We pupils knew it was at least metaphorically true, because we deeply respected and perhaps even feared Eric Anderson, who died in his sleep last month at the age of 83. During his 14 years as our Head Master at Eton, there cannot have been many of the estimated 4,700 boys who passed beneath the shadow of his mortarboard who did not feel in awe of him, especially when his tall, dark form whisked down the nave of College Chapel.

Of course, our number included future politicians, generals, captains of industry, dukes and editors, all of whom, even today, will still feel a slight chill when recalling the man we also privately referred to, in a tone of ironic familiarity, as “Eric”.

Rightly, the obituaries of Anderson have made much of his greatness and goodness. He was, after all, the holder of a knighthood, several honorary doctorates, a fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was a trustee of numerous charities and funds, and had not only been the head of Eton but also its Provost — a role somewhat like a chairman of governors.

He had also led two other public schools, taught at both Fettes and Gordonstoun, and was Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford. It was, in many ways, the perfect scholastic career, and although the cynical might say it was dedicated to the establishment, his governorship of state schools and charitable work belies the argument that his efforts were purely geared for the elite.

Much has also been made of his illustrious former pupils, who included not only the current prime minister, but also two previous holders of the office — David Cameron at Eton, and Tony Blair at Fettes — as well as a future monarch in the form of the Prince of Wales, whom Anderson taught at Gordonstoun. Here is not the place to recount the shopworn anecdotes of these pupils, including Cameron’s drug bust, Blair’s argumentativeness, Boris Johnson’s last-minute preparation of essays, and Anderson’s imbuing Prince Charles with a love of Shakespeare.

I now realise that my childhood opinion — an opinion I held for decades — was almost completely wrong

Naturally, such stories tell us more about the taught rather than the teacher, and run the risk of making an appreciation of any educator seem more like a compilation of greatest hits. It also raises the question of how much credit one man — even one as impressive and able as Anderson — can take for the success of his former pupils.

Appropriating the glory of distinguished alumni is something that all schools do, of course, and even that is problematic. But the question of how a teacher’s legacy can be measured is an important one, and it is coupled with how former pupils remember their teachers. What is so unfair for teachers is that our opinions of them are formed when we are children, and these immature judgments are carried through to adulthood and on for many decades without any modification or updating.

if we are to put aside grades and famous alumni, how then can a man like Eric Anderson be judged? Perhaps I could start by offering my own memories of him, based on my experiences as a boy at Eton from 1984 to 1989, from the ages of 13 to 17. I was at the school right in the middle of his head mastership — he had done four years when I started, and would serve five more after I left.

My first and abiding memory was that he seemed distant, almost impossibly so. Eton is a big school, with around 1,200 pupils, and about the same number in teaching and non-teaching staff. As I was not a scholar — and the vast majority of boys are not — I was therefore not housed in the inner sanctum of the oldest buildings that constitute the original College, and where the Head Master lives and works. As a 13-year-old, my relationship with him was nonexistent — I was as close as a serf to a medieval monarch.

Glutton for punishment: Guy Walters at Eton

He seemed immensely tall, austere, authoritative, and, as he was always dressed in “school dress” — which involved a starched wing collar and a white bow tie — very formal. However, by my third year, I came somewhat regularly into contact with him, for the simple reason that I was quite naughty. My misbehaviour was largely rooted in alcohol and cigarettes, and if you were caught with either of those, you were dispatched to the Head Master to receive your punishment. There was very little caning at Eton: my punishments involved weeding boatyards, being fined, or copying out Latin poetry. I admit that when I was first summoned to see him I was terrified, but after repeated visits, familiarity removed a little of the mystique. What also became clear was that he had a sense of humour. On one occasion, he informed me that a tobacco habit would ruin my chances of winning an athletics cup. It was to his credit that he returned my smirk when he presented me the following week with a tankard as a winning member of the relay team.

In the Sixth Form, I had a little more contact — not all involving dispensation of justice — although I became closer to his wife Poppy, who taught me English literature, and was a far more approachable figure. Eric, however, always maintained his distance. When my year group left, I recall him giving us a valuable piece of advice, when he said that as the world was expecting us, as Old Etonians, to be arrogant and dreadful, it might come as a nice surprise to people if we weren’t. I’ve done my best, depending on who you are talking to.

However, I now realise that my childhood opinion — an opinion I held for decades — was almost completely wrong. The moment came when I had to telephone him to research an obituary of a much-loved history teacher called Michael Kidson. Once more, I must admit to being a little terrified, but my fear was misplaced. The voice on the end of the line was warm, and yes, as the obituarist’s cliché has it, with that unmistakable Caledonian burr. Eric was friendly, helpful, kind, and seemed to know everything about my career as an author and a journalist. I felt flattered. Here was I, one of the more average boys, and he was treating me like one of the stars. This wasn’t a distant or austere figure: this was quite the opposite.

I last saw him at the launch of a biography of Kidson, and even allowing for a little physical diminution with age, I realised that there was something else I had got wrong — he wasn’t particularly tall. Granted, he was in a room full of people whose families have never gone hungry in 20 generations, but if he was taller than me, he didn’t seem it. And again, he was warm and kind, and interested in what I was up to. I realised that my impressions of him were completely clouded by my teenage self being unable to distinguish between a person and their role. It seems so stupid, but I had carried those impressions through to my forties, and had never questioned them. And when I think about it, he probably didn’t even have a mortarboard.

Am I unusual in this regard? Probably not, because such reappraisal surely seems unnecessary. After school, we should be getting on with our lives, not analysing the personalities of our teachers. And what I could not have possibly seen then was that he was a brilliant Head Master — he appointed the best, and let them get on with it. What I understand now is that his very distance was beneficial, because in a way he was not there for us, but more to ensure that the staff who were directly involved in our lives were the kindest and best possible.

I know he got that right, because ultimately, the school saw me right. Of course, some of us were less happy, but when I attended our Class of 1989 reunion, it struck me that despite being dreadful Old Etonians we all seemed a pretty good lot. And if you had to name one man who could take credit for how we have turned out, then that would surely be Eric. He was a great man — and his balls will always be bigger than those of any of his pupils.

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