Wednesday, May 02, 2018


Part Two | 1908-1942

'Ronald William Vernon Selby Wright (12 June 1908 - 24 October 1995) was a Church of Scotland minister... He became one of the best known Church of Scotland ministers of his generation and served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1972... He was a probationer assistant at Glasgow Cathedral in 1936, prior to becoming minister at Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh in January 1937. His only ministerial charge, he remained at Canongate until he retired in 1977...' [Wikipedia]

Much information about Ronald Selby Wright's life and work can be found in his memoirs, 'Another Home' (1980). His family history that involved religion, teaching and royalty foreshadows his own individual trajectory and entanglements during the 20th century.

Here is RSW describing the last school that he attended as a pupil:

'..Today I think with gratitude of men like John Henderson who ran the games, was P.T. instructor, acted as School Secretary and Bursar, Captained the Corps, was everyone's friend and often had boys to tea at his home. How he did it all so willingly and so cheerfully I don't know. When I left school in 1927 he asked me to help him as a Royal Scot Cadet Officer in the Corps Camps; and I was the last to see him leave with his wife for Australia - an old man now - to stay with his only daughter, and there he died soon after, "Johnny" was the most-loved, respected and dedicated schoolmaster you could ever meet.

Then there was Robert Rose who taught classics with the drive and ferocity and dedication that made even the poorest scholars pass exams. His voice could be heard sometimes throughout the whole school, shouting at his class and calling some of the boys "dolts" and "duffers", throwing chalk at them and making frequent use of the tawse. Yet when off parade he was the kindest and quietest of men greatly loved and respected...'

We can see here that, in the case of the P.T. instructor, the author seeks to lead us to think that a man, who was, for unstated reasons, known by the informal name 'Johnny' and who 'often had boys to tea at his home', was a major marvel of humanity, beyond the reach of anyone's critical enquiry. Apparently, everyone thought this hard-working fellow was an absolutely fabulous man - there was no doubt about it, chaps, so don't even try to think otherwise for a single moment.

In the case of the ferociously driven and dedicated classics master, he was - according to RSW's fawning description - clearly a disgusting abuser of the boys in his classes; and yet, perhaps, because he 'made even the poorest scholars pass exams', we are expected to consider this warped character acceptable.

It is not possible that someone who behaves like this in school classes, could really be 'the kindest and quietest of men' elsewhere.

Hence, Ronald Selby Wright's own schizoid proclivities and priorities have been well-indicated within the space of a mere two paragraphs on page 17 of his memoirs. This is not a straightforward thinker, speaker, teacher, writer or human being that confronts us.

Ronald Selby Wright and his younger brother first attended, as pupils at the Edinburgh Institution (later Melville College) in the autumn term of 1921. In 1922 (or thereabouts), a boy began to be educated at Fettes College, Edinburgh, who, like Selby Wright, would much later come into contact with Tony Blair, at that same boys' school:

'Sir Samuel Knox Cunningham, 1st Baronet, QC (3rd April 1909 - 1976) was a Northern Irish barrister, businessman and politician. As an Ulster Unionist politician at a time when Unionists were part of the Conservative Party, he was also a significant figure in United Kingdom politics as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Harold Macmillan...' [Wikipedia]       

After leaving school, Ronald Selby Wright '..continued (his) interests there... as an Officer under John Henderson in the School Corps, and also in running a cricket team for the Prep...'

Under the influence and guidance of Dr. Charles Warr and Dr. George MacLeod, he began to pursue his 'main outside interests':

'..And so in a room in Fisher's Close which belonged to St.Giles', I started in 1927 what became the St. Giles' Cathedral Boys' Club, and later the Canongate Boys' Club...'

In the book 'Our Club' (1954), Selby Wright details the history and general activities (e.g. camping, sport, religion) of his Boys' Clubs:

'..By December I was back again in the Canongate, this time as Parish Minister, and although I was Hon. Warden of the St. Giles' Club, we also started in the basement of the old Manse at 3 St. John Street a small club which we called the Canongate Club.

Although remaining loyal to St. Giles' Club, all the older boys, with the approval of St. Giles', transferred to Canongate Kirk since most lived within the parish of Canongate and naturally began to seek the Church near their own door. Still, St. Giles' kept on the grand job of keeping the Club going in Gullan's Close, and giving all the help they could. When our much loved premises in Gullan's Close had to be given up as War came nearer and nearer and they were requisitioned, the St. Giles' Club transferred to the old Canongate Manse at St. John Street, the Manse having moved to Acheson House. The St. Giles' - Canongate Club, still largely sponsored by St. Giles' Cathedral, began to take shape...'

In ' Another Home', Selby Wright included selections from his diaries of the period March to December 1942. They reveal a lot about his attitude and his activities. The first two of these three excerpts tell us something of how he saw education, and the third identifies the year and ostensible purpose of an early visit by him to Fettes College:

'What is wrong is not the Public School, it's just that there are not more Public Schools, and that there is not an opportunity for everyone to attend or have a similar experience. In a sense Boys' Clubs try to do that; but only in a sense... The only thing wrong with "the old School tie" is its exclusiveness - let's give everyone an old School tie (not do away with it)...'

[RSW 21.03.1942]

'A good Head Master should stamp his pupils like Arnold did.'

[RSW 26.03.1942]

'Went back to Barracks, Exeter.. After dinner in the Mess where I met an old Fettes boy called Hepburn - a Lieutenant aged about twenty, who told me he remembered my sermon at Fettes in 1938!'

[RSW 10.07.1942]

His diary entries for 23rd and 24th July 1942 describe meetings with the Archbishop of Canterbury:

'..Caught the train at tea-time for London and after leaving my kit at the Authors' Club went to Lambeth Palace to see the Archbishop of Canterbury (William Temple). He was most friendly and I sat for a long time in his study talking to him...'

'..After the (BBC Radio) recording (Dr. James W.) Welch, the Archbishop and I, went to the Athenaeum and drank coffee and had a most interesting conversation...'

Selby Wright's involvement with BBC Radio - most famously as the 'Radio Padre' - is (unsurprisingly) documented in 'Another Home':

'The whole idea of the Radio Padre originated through General Sir Frederick Pile, Dr. James W.Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting, and Melville Dinwiddie, Director of Scottish B.B.C., who between them felt that something should be done for the Forces who didn't have padres. I had already done a series of broadcasts with my Boys' Club before the War - a series of ten discussions which was later published by the Oxford University Press under the title Asking Why, and I was asked to do a similar shorter series with some of our troops in our Division in 1941.

...And so it was that.. I went down South to join the Staff of the B.B.C. in 1942 with a secondment to them for six months, which later turned out to be seven, and later still, though not now as a secondment, for at least a couple of years...'  

In October 1942, his work for the BBC became less clear cut, as was explained in a diary entry and elaborated upon at greater length in the book:

'Received a most mysterious Top Secret and Most Secret message in two envelopes to go to Aberdeen and meet two people there from M.I. and not to tell anyone - but of course I had to tell Neil Ritchie. Can't write anything about this as SECRET! It will mean carrying on Radio Padre broadcasts from the Division, but with a slight but important difference!'

[RSW 22.10.1942]

'Well I went to Aberdeen and met Colonel Winterbottom and Miss Howatt and the gist of the conversation was that the War Office wanted me to go on broadcasting as Radio Padre and to combine this broadcasting with certain work for M.I.9. It happened that a great many prisoners-of-war were listening to my Radio Padre talks.. It was felt, therefore, by M.I.9. that they could get some messages across to them if part of my talks were coded.. It would also mean slightly altering the beginning of each of my Radio Padre talks. When I began "Good evening Forces" it meant that I would give them a coded message. If I left out the words.. it meant there would be no message for them that week. When I came to the word "but" it meant that the message was over...'

[RSW / Another Home]

'There was more reason than one why I went to Jordans. In addition to my daily visits to London where I was Senior Chaplain in North East London, I visited from time to time Room 527 in the Hotel Victoria, Northumberland Avenue, a rather mysterious John Buchan-like visit where I entered by one door and left by another; and used to go, when at Jordans, with Alison Cooper.. and her dog Gay across the golf course at Seer Green - not in uniform - with a new script, and hand it over to someone there, by arrangement, which was taken to "Camp No.20" which was nearby...'

[RSW / AH]