Frank McEachran: the real-life model for The History Boys’ star Hector
Alan Bennett’s award-winning play The History Boys features the eccentric, brilliant, and ultimately flawed Hector: a teacher of general studies whose determination to give his pupils a broad grounding in the classics overrode the limitations of the examination syllabus
The real-life inspiration for Hector was Frank McEachran, a schoolmaster who taught the likes of Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot, and Michael Palin. One of McEachran’s most unusual protégés, however, was the communist intellectual and reluctant spy James Klugmann, who as a youngster had found himself in McEachran’s French classes.
Klugmann went on to become the intellectual mentor of the Cambridge Spies – a ring of British spies recruited at the University of Cambridge who passed information to the Soviets during the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War.
Here, writing for History Extra, academic Geoff Andrews introduces you to real-life Hector, Frank McEachran…
McEachran was a remarkable tutor, man of the arts, talent-spotter and castigator of orthodoxies. Arriving at Gresham’s School, Holt, as a young Oxford graduate in September 1924, McEachran taught the future famous poet WH Auden during the latter’s final two terms at the school and, according to the Auden scholar John Bridgen, it was McEachran’s knowledge of European history and literature that provided Auden with his “basic literary and philosophical framework”.
McEachran also influenced Auden in other ways. The gentle liberal anarchism of the young schoolmaster brought out the rebel in Auden too – notably in defiance of Gresham’s so-called progressive ‘honours system’, which in place of caning encouraged pupils to confess misdemeanours or inform on their fellow pupils. This, Auden noted later, “made one furtive and dishonest and unadventurous. The best reason I have for opposing fascism is that at school I lived in a fascist state”.
The future communist intellectual James Klugmann started at Gresham’s the year after Auden left, and spent five years under the tutelage of McEachran. As with Auden, McEachran had talent-spotted a brilliant pupil who came top of all his classes and won most of the academic prizes. He also imbued Klugmann with his early radicalism, though in later years would have been dismayed by where it had taken this shy, scholarly pupil who shared his tutor’s sense of being an outsider.
McEachran introduced Klugmann to the emancipatory ideals of the French enlightenment, the best of the European liberal tradition, and the philosophy of Karl Marx. According to Klugmann, McEachran “opened our eyes to new horizons of ideas, new excitements to rouse imagination in books and theories and liberalism and languages”.
Though nominally teaching languages (primarily French and Italian), McEachran effectively provided an unofficial syllabus in European history and civilisation, while nurturing the radicalism and intellectual interests of Klugmann and his close friend and classmate –who later acted as a spy for the Soviet Union – Donald Maclean.
McEachran also founded The Grasshopper, a school magazine that enabled the boys to experiment with poetry, philosophy, and what would now be called creative writing. He also encouraged them to participate in the school Debating Society, where Klugmann lost some of his shyness and, inspired by his tutor, formulated early political opinions, including the one that ‘modern man’ was in danger of losing his core values at the expense of narrow materialism.
Klugmann, like Auden, also benefited from McEachran’s radical stance towards the college authorities. He joined Benjamin Britten, another of his school contemporaries, in opposing the officer training corps, and it was under McEachran’s influence that Klugmann first started calling himself a ‘communist’ as a sign of his dissent in his last year at Gresham’s.
Klugmann’s knowledge of Marx was limited and he knew nothing then of the party to which he would later devote his life. But his sense of rebellion as an ‘outsider’ against a ‘system’ had been cemented, while his friendship with Donald Maclean, Roger Simon, and others, thrived in small political discussion circles.
McEachran left Gresham’s not long after Klugmann and Maclean had both won scholarships to Cambridge. After a short time travelling in Europe, McEachran took up a post at Shrewsbury School, where he was to remain for 40 years until his death in 1975. Here, ‘Kek’, as he had by then become known, introduced his pupils – who now included Richard Ingrams, Michael Palin, and Paul Foot – to the heretical writings of DH Lawrence and others, and asked them to recite extracts of poetry or prose standing on a chair in the middle of the classroom. A collection of these ‘spells’, as he called them, were later published and, in addition to his earlier books on Europe, provide some lasting intellectual legacy.
McEachran’s warnings on what the ‘fever of nationalism’ would mean for the unity of Europe at the start of the 1930s could inform today’s debates, but there would be little space for his ingenuity as a teacher and scholar in the current education system, let alone his dissident stance towards authority. As for Klugmann, perhaps McEachran’s most brilliant pupil, he went on to become a defender of communist orthodoxy and, as the intellectual mentor of the Cambridge spies, ended his days haunted by his own reluctant entry into the espionage world.
Geoff Andrews is the author of The Shadow Man: At the Heart of the Cambridge Spy Circle, (IB Tauris, 2015) which tells the story of James Klugmann. He is senior lecturer in politics at The Open University.