The thread about the worst school in the world; why it is unfairly linked with a very different Edinburgh establishment of the same name; and what it has to do with the shortest serving PM of the 20th century

Occasionally it’s worth the reminder that cartoonist Ronald Searle took the name for his riotous girls’ school from a real establishment in Edinburgh – but that it not the basis of school itself, which was inspired by two girls schools in Cambridge, where he grew up

St. Trinnean’s was a progressive, liberal school founded at 10 Palmerston Road in Marchmont by headmistress Catherine Fraser Lee in 1922. It was advertised in that;


Southern Exposure; Large , Airy Classrooms ; Grounds over One Acre.
Girls from Kindergarten to University Entrance Stage.
Boys up to the age of Nine Years
Prospectus , etc. may be had from the Principal , Miss C . Fraser Lee, MA, Cambridge Teacher Certificate, 9 Cluny Gardens, Edinburgh. Formerly Head Mistress of the County School for Girls, Barry, Wales, and of St. Bride’s School, Edinburgh.

Latest Educational Ideals and Methods.

The Scotsman, July 19th 1922

“The Latest Educational Ideals and Methods” referred to the “Dalton System” of education, which was introduced into Britain by Fraser Lee. It resulted in a school described as being of “few rules and much freedom of thought and action.”

Trinnean is a Gaelic (Manx?) form of Ninian, apparently Miss Fraser Lee was a bit into Celticism. Trynninan is a Northumbrian variant. She gave the school the motto “Solus agus Sonas” – Light and Joy in Gàidhlig.

10 Palmerston Road had been the home of Horatius (“Horace”) Bonar, a Free Church minister, popular preacher, poet and hymnwriter, who died there in 1899. Horatius younger brother, Andrew, was also a 19th century Free Church Minister, for whom Andrew Bonar Law was named. Bonar Law holds the dubious record of the shortest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century; his father had also been a Free Church Minister, serving in Canada. (I am indebted to Neil Macleod for this insight.)

Horatius Bonar
Horatius Bonar

In 1925 the school relocated to larger and grander premises off Dalkeith Road at St. Leonard’s Hall, a substantial Scottish Baronial mansion built for the late publisher Thomas Nelson junior next to his Parkside printing works. By this time they were taking boarders, possibly reason behind the move to larger premises with more grounds.

St. Leonard's Hall, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Christian Bickel
St. Leonard’s Hall, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Christian Bickel

The Parkside Works was built by the same architect (John Lessels) in a similar style, and you can see the manion of St. Leonard’s Hall keeping a watchful eye over it in this photo.

St. Leonard's in the distance keeps an eye on the Nelson's Parkside Works
St. Leonard’s in the distance keeps an eye on the Nelson’s Parkside Works

Nelson apparently tired of the opulence and scale of his mansion and preferred to live in a self-contained “cottage” on the top floor of the tower.

The tower of St. Leonards © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons
The tower of St. Leonards © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Nelson junior left a substantial legacy and one of its public applications was in providing a number of “Nelson Halls” around the city as a place “to which persons of the working class and others can go to sit, read, write, converse and otherwise occupy themselves“. A Nelson Hall was opened near the Parkside Print Works in 1913, where Bernard Terrace meets St. Leonard’s Street. Others were provided at McDonald Road, Morningside Road and Fountainbridge public libraries.

St. Trinnean’s was evacuated during WW2 and relocated to Gala House in Galashiels in September 1939. It was while Searle was visiting an artists commune in Kirkcudbright that he visited a couple whose daughters attended the school and he drew some cartoons to amuse them. He was apparently impressed that the school’s progressive approach allowed the girls to organise their own studying schedules, and took this to the extreme that they could do whatever they pleased. He took the name of their school, and changed it just enough, but based the riotous pupils on schools near his home in Cambridge.

1940 Post Office Directory entry for St. Trinnean’s School

Searle’s first St. Trinian’s cartoon was published in Lilliput magazine in October 1941, entitled “Owing to the international situation, the match with St Trinian’s has been postponed“.

Searle's first published St. Trinian's cartoon
Searle’s first published St. Trinian’s cartoon

St. Leonard’s Hall and its grounds were the property of the industrialist John Donald Pollock, who was rector of the University of Edinburgh from 1939-45. The school never returned after the end of the war and was closed by Miss Fraser Lee. Pollock gifted the building and grounds to the University in his will in 1946 and St. Leonard’s became a ladies hall of residence. It is part of the Pollock Halls complex, named for Sir John, but now used as a function / events centre and surrounded by modern buildings, including William Kininmonth’s late 1950s dormitories and refectory and the 1970 Commonwealth Games village.

Pollock Halls complex, CC-BY-SA Richard Webb
Pollock Halls complex, CC-BY-SA Richard Webb

In 1998 the former pupils of St. Trinnean’s held their final reunion dinner (appropriately in the Edinburgh University’s Pollock Halls) and “were unanimous in condemning the films and cartoons which immortalised their school as St. Trinian’s and recalled how the school’s founder-headmistress was “broken hearted” at the image portrayed“.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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