For all Eton’s ancient history, few, if any, have made as great an impact on the College as Eric Anderson. Barely 40 when he arrived in Eton, he had already a glittering career behind him with two major headships and, when in the ranks, tutoring a future king and being house master to a prime minister (and Head Master to two more). Thereafter whether as a parent, Head Master, Provost, and finally grandparent Eton became his natural stamping ground.
Arriving as Head Master in 1980, he succeeded Michael McCrum, who had taken the first steps to stem the tide of reaction. Immediately Anderson saw the opportunity to transform Eton into a much more meritocratic, ambitious institution at a time nationally when few institutions displayed much self-confidence. Alongside the expectations of character, he helped to steer Etonian self-belief towards achievement and the pursuit of excellence. A scholar in his own right he restored the academic provision to the fore – to be measured not simply by Oxbridge results but by the vitality of the teaching and the independence of mind shown by the boys.
Nevertheless, education for Anderson was not confined to the school room. He was an enthusiastic attender of plays, society meetings and concerts, and a regular on the touchline. Much as rugby was a favourite, he was insistent on supporting all activities, however minor. He also was one of the first to see that Eton’s future lay in increasing engagement with the state sector. As Head Master he encouraged the university summer schools; as Provost he led the fundraising campaign for scholarships raising £50m. Such sums indicate how much Etonians appreciated their time under him.
Like all great school masters, he had a presence. Aided by a lingering burr of a Scottish accent, he had a natural authority without having to display it. He would take great care to explain himself clearly so that boys knew exactly where they stood. This earned him their respect, even if his values weren’t always theirs but ones that had stood the test of time. But they also learnt, somewhat to their surprise that he was often on their side. He understood the scrapes boys could get into and could look beyond the rules in pursuit of justice for all. More importantly, he enjoyed their company and got as much of a thrill from their successes as they did.
This was also true for beaks. Remarkably, he was a Head Master liked by both beaks and boys. Wholly unconcerned with promoting himself, he was on the other hand quick to promote his staff, be they young or old. His colleagues came to appreciate his approachability and humanity – not least his readiness to laugh rather than explode over the latest absurdity of beaks and boys. Together with Poppy, they were tremendous supporters of the whole Eton community and did much to break down social barriers from a past age.
Eric served for 14 years as Head Master and 9 years as Provost and during this time he laid the foundations for the Eton we know today. He was one of our greatest servants and under him we indeed enjoyed a ‘Golden Age’. He would, of course, be the first to deny this – out of modesty perhaps. However, it is typical of the man that, right at the end of his days, he was far more excited over what Eton might become than over what it might have been.
Andrew Gailey Vice-Provost
Sir Eric Anderson, educator, was born on 27 May 1936. He died on 22 April 2020, aged 83.