STAFF, pupils and parents at Scotland’s most prestigious private schools are starting to look with a mixture of horror and dismay at the portraits which line the walls of some of the most expensive teaching establishments in the country … as some are the paintings of teachers who used their high-powered and high-salaried positions to sexually abuse the children under their control.
At top Edinburgh private school, Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools, a portrait of a former headteacher has just been removed from the walls after it was revealed that its subject, Norman Barber, had been convicted in 1945 of indecent acts against young boys and sent to prison for two years.
Meanwhile, a plaque and portrait dedicated to another headmaster, whose reputation has been plagued by stories of abuse, remains hanging at the famed Edinburgh public school, Fettes College, despite angered complaints from parents.
Parents say that the behaviour of Stewart’s Melville has been enlightened when it comes to handling the legacy of historic abuse stories, while they have criticised Fettes for not removing the plaque.
The recently-removed portrait of Norman Barber had been hanging among a gallery of former headmasters at Stewart’s Melville for the last five years. A huge scandal in Edinburgh at the time, Barber’s conviction appeared to have been long forgotten by the school until recently. The current management of the school say they had had no knowledge of Barber’s crimes.
It took a Canadian businessman, John Bruce, investigating his own father’s troubled past, to uncover the shocking story which eventually led to the school removing the painting.
Bruce, a 49-year-old father of three from Vancouver, stumbled across the truth when he was trying to work out aspects of his own father’s personality. His father had been a troubled man, and that had effected Bruce’s own life, leading to what he has described as a tendency to “self-sabotage”. Bruce was aware that his late father, Robert, had left Scotland in a bid to escape his past, in particular his experiences – including corporal punishment – at Melville College, the school he attended from 1937 to 1945.
What Bruce found was a chilling series of newspaper reports about Barber, and his trial and guilty plea to three counts of “lewd, indecent and libidinous behaviour towards young boys” – acts involving seven children. While the reports included no further details of Barber’s crimes, it was noted in one article that a doctor described Barber as “a sick man psychologically”.
It was only later that Bruce discovered that Barber’s portrait hung on the school walls. When he looked at the image for the first time, he said what he saw in it was “a troubled man” – a man who had lost his own father at a young age, and had devastating experiences during the First World War. Barber died in 1948 a year after his release from prison.
“My goal is to let people know about this story and to invite anyone who has some memories to express them,” said Bruce, who believes that abuse inquiries like the current Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry can be important and positive for survivors.
“I think they are good, so long as you put it in the context of helping you understand what is affecting people – rather than blame … We can try to erase this kind of history and remove it, but it’s still in the system. These things come out like ghosts. It’s important that we understand them.”
Stewart’s Meville has a role of around 1200 pupils, with costs running to £18,291-£21,162 for boarding per year. It’s alumni include Paul Wheelhouse, the SNP MSP, Professor Tom Kibble co-discoverer of the Higgs-Boson particle and Jim Calder the Scottish rugby player.
The principal of Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools, David Gray, said that when he learned of Barber’s story he was “appalled” and quickly had the portrait taken down. “That a former head of a school, which no longer exists in its original form [in 1972, it merged with Daniel Stewart’s College to form Stewart’s Melville College], should have behaved in this way is shocking. It is greatly to the credit of the victims that they had the courage to come forward and allow the judicial process to deal with the matter in what appears to have been a very serious breach of trust.”
The Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools of today is a fusion of several independent schools. Gray emphasised: “It is a different institution from Melville College, though that itself was a fine school – it’s just this particular headteacher behaved appallingly. But Melville is in our name and therefore we must speak out because it is important for those in the past who suffered abuse.”
NOT all schools, however, are so obliging when it comes to the removal of portraits and plaques honouring people with a shameful past. Several times in the past few decades requests have been made for the removal of a plaque which hangs in the chapel of the Edinburgh private school Fettes College, which is dedicated to the former headmaster Anthony Chenevix-Trench. Though no abuse stories have yet emerged regarding Chenevix-Trench’s time at Fettes, there are many from his previous positions at Bradfield and Shrewsbury, and it is now widely believed his approach to flogging is what lay behind him being forced to leave Eton where he was headmaster prior to coming to Fettes. Former pupils claim he masturbated while beating them.
Among those who have spoken out about him is David Blackie, who requested in 2012 the removal of the plaque dedicated to Chenevix-Trench which is housed in the school’s chapel and carries the words “His door was always open, for he loved his fellow man”. He continues to ask for it’s removal to this day. Blackie says he recalls many occasions when he was summoned to Chenevix-Trench’s room for a beating, a request that would be made via just the word “bring” written on his Latin prep.
“He would talk about my Latin and sort of snuggle up to me a bit,” Blackie said, “and then he would tell me I was to be beaten. I had to take down my pants and underpants and lie on this sofa, and he would go to the door and lock it. There was no question, his door was invariably locked, he did not want to be disturbed, neither did he want me to look round. He was very clear that what he was up to was his business.”
Blackie argues that the plaque should be taken down “on the basis that Fettes are disgraced by giving credibility and even glory to a man who was really quite such a nasty little creep”.
“It wasn’t just me that had to endure what I did,” he said. “There were others. Because he was so witty and clever, very well connected, very good at public speeches, he could do anything. He got away with it all for these reasons. I just think it’s time to stop it.”
Blackie has compared Chenevix-Trench to Jimmy Savile. “He abused his power to get away with it. What is wrong with it all is that while that plaque is there, he’s still getting away with it.”
In 1996, the eminent journalist Paul Foot, who was a pupil of Chevenix-Trench at Shrewsbury, wrote of his teacher and “sensuous fingering of his pupils’ buttocks before and during the interminable beatings”. Chevenix-Trench died in 1979.
Former alumni of Fettes include ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, actress Tilda Swinton and journalist Harry Reid.
Fettes still declines to remove the plaque. When asked why, The Governors Of The Fettes Trust issued a statement saying: “Fettes College is unaware of any allegations of criminal behaviour by Anthony Chenevix-Trench having been made to the police. Any such allegation should be referred to Police Scotland and Fettes College will co-operate fully if an investigation is launched.”
But Alex Renton, author of Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes And The Schooling Of A Ruling Class, said: “At Fettes many people, staff, parents and children, know the reputation of the man whose portrait hangs in pride of place in their front hall. Chenevix-Trench was a vicious sadist and sexual abuser who would be locked up if he was alive today – he might well have been then.
“The establishment knew all about him: he had abused children and his position as headmaster at four of the country’s most famous schools. My research shows that in 1970 the Fettes governors were warned by their equivalents at Eton – who had effectively sacked him – not to give him the headmastership. But Fettes ignored that advice, just as the governors today have ignored the pleas of Chenevix-Trench’s victims to stop celebrating him.”
Renton continued: “The school is a charity. Its job is the care of children. It is under investigation over historic child abuse by both Scottish police and the independent inquiry: yet it persists in celebrating this vicious child abuser on its walls. What does that say to the children there now?”
Norman K Barber, former headmaster of Melville College
Portrait of Anthony Chevenix-Trench, hanging in Fettes college
Gallery of portraits in Erskine Stewart’s Melville College, including now removed photograph of Norman K Barber