Denied The Chance To Love: Examples Of Abuse In British Boarding Schools
By Benjamin Fry
There has been a huge response in the press to the journalist Alex Renton’s courageous article about examples of abuse in british boarding schools, which you can read here: Abuse in British boarding schools – why I had to confront my demons
He was writing about his experiences at Ashdown Prep School and the appalling abuse that the children suffered there.
As he says at the end of the article:-
“I thought of those others .. who wanted to speak up. I thought of the children in council care homes, in borstals and mental institutions, who over the years were left in thrall to adults without protection. I thought of .. the great swathe of collateral damage that psychological trauma leaves. I thought of all the kids taken from their homes too early and thus denied, as the writer David Thomas once put it, the chance to love”.
I think Alex Renton’s article is timely as, despite some increasing openness, people in positions of power undoubtedly still feel they can get away with abuse, and proper deterrents are not in place. It is important that there is a strong message in our society that causing sexual harm to children will not go unpunished.
To give you a case in point, a teacher whom I knew at prep school, up to the age of 12, was prosecuted in 2001 following complaints against him by six former pupils. He was acquitted, which shocked me. You can see why in the extract below from my 2004 book, ‘What’s Wrong With You’.
You will see that I am fairly certain that there has been miscarriage of justice. I hope that Alex’s brave article will go some way to helping to correct the culture which has facilitated that.
Case Study: Hot Rod
It turned out that there were four pedophiles teaching at my prep school. That’s quiet a lot among the staff for only one hundred and fifty boys.
The school was a top quality boarding school for young boys. I went there a few days after my eighth birthday. I was there for five years before going on to Eton. It was known as a prep-school because originally these kind of schools were used to prep-are boys for their grown up boarding schools.
Its main duty to the parents was to groom the boy for entrance to the school of their parents’ choice. Unfortunately while doing so, some of the staff had it in mind to groom the children for an entirely different sort of graduation.
We were there for eight months of the year. Each term there was a long weekend allowed at home for half-term. Otherwise you could go out for the day on Sunday (after chapel) three times each term. I have no idea why it was restricted to three times per term. I can only imagine that the school didn’t want to create an inequity among those boys whose parents could make it more often and those whose parents were not so keen. In any case it wasn’t much relief: eight hours at home, three times in three months. For the rest of the time we were living with our schoolmasters, the pedophiles in loco parentis.
I only became aware of this furtive undercurrent to our education during my final term. The deputy headmaster of the school, known as Hot Rod, was becoming a larger and larger figure in my life.
He was an urbane, charming and educated classics scholar. He had been at Oxford with my father. I had always felt comfortable with him because of the family connection. He had suggested that I learn a musical instrument and pointed me to the French Horn. He conducted the school orchestra.He was the head of the house where I slept. He taught Latin to the top form. And crucially now, he was the master in charge of cricket. It being the summer term there was a new cricket team to be found and a new captain to be appointed.It was clear from the opening games of the season that I was first choice for this post.
And so we fell into a cosy relationship. He would be the one to turn out our lights at night and to wish me goodnight. He would wake us up in the morning. He would supervise our washing. He would take morning assembly. He would teach me Latin. He would conduct the orchestra. He would coach the cricket and increasingly annex me into the management of this term’s cricket team. There would be conversations snatched during the morning rush to prepare for the day. There would be conferences in the hall before bedtime. I felt quite grown up, quite a part of his world.
There was always something a little unbalanced about Hot Rod. He had a temper, that much was abundantly clear. He was middle-aged and yet single. He was rumoured to drink, although we had little idea what that really meant. But to a pre-pubescent boy, the strangest thing about him was undoubtedly his habit of wearing his shirts tucked into his Y-fronts. These Y-fronts would protrude above the waistline of his trousers and had the moniker Y-jockey repeated around their elastic waists. Seeing the deputy headmaster’s pants was hysterical for us small boys.
However, it is hard now not to reflect differently on Hot Rod’s pants. Was it an unconscious leak of where the man’s real thoughts lay? Was it a warning to the boys? Or to the staff? Or a coded message advertising the existence of the demons that perhaps he used the drink to keep at bay? I can not in retrospect see it as a coincidence that every boy in the entire school was able to see the pants of the most senior paedophile on the staff. After all you’d have to presume that pants was what he wanted to get into. Perhaps this was his way of playing ‘I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours’; something that the boys themselves were innocently pursuing as they stumbled into the earliest stages of adolescence.
I wasn’t the easiest pupil. Despite intellectual and sporting talents, I was quite frequently in trouble. I never fitted easily into an organisation. I didn’t cooperate naturally with rules. I liked to understand them and appreciated their structure, but more than that I liked to break them and to get away with it. I was a compulsive rebel, but I managed it with charm rather than confrontation. It created quite a conundrum for my teachers. On the one hand I was engaging and talented, just what the school looked for to promote its qualities, and on the other hand I undermined the institution with my behaviour.
It was still early in the term and I had found myself in serial trouble. I can’t remember the details. It was always something trivial, a missed music lesson here, a bad prep there. The incidents themselves never provoked too much outrage but the pattern had the teachers flummoxed. This flouting of authority challenged them all the more because I should have been a shining example of the school’s successes. Finally, I was summoned to a crunch talk with Hot Rod. There had been dark muttering about my behaviour rendering me unsuitable to be appointed captain of cricket. Such an important member of the school should not be transgressing its rules so regularly. The issue needed a resolution and, unusually, I was invited to see Hot Rod in the private side of the school in the headmaster’s house.
I went after lunch. There was always a strange feeling to these rooms. They had a musty smell and a lack of proprietary care that comes from staff accommodation. There was no-one there on that day but Hot Rod. He invited me into the study to talk. He seemed a little distracted. He began by cataloguing my failures that term and outlined the concerns of the staff about my suitability for any kind of senior responsibility. I was used to this. I’d had it on and off for the last five years. I would tend to argue a bit, justify a bit, apologise a bit, charm a bit and get through it. But there was something different going on today. I was hesitant in this intimidating atmosphere and Hot Rod was almost conspiratorial rather than didactic in his recital of the staff’s concerns.
He presented little admonishment, more the proposition of a problem that we needed to solve, so I had little to say in return. He paused, presumably wrestling with himself, and then handed down his sentence. He had decided that I was to be beaten. This would then be sufficient to absolve me of all my sins so far that term and we could start from a clean sheet. I would be free to become the cricket captain in my pristine state of virginal discipline.
This was a shock. Corporal punishment was whispered about but even in those days rarely encountered. When it was so it was usually for quite severe and dangerous transgressions such as the wilful destruction of property or malicious harming of a pupil or teacher. It seemed to me to be such a harsh word: beaten. I was to be beaten. And for what? Missing a few music lessons? Cheeking a few teachers? And what was this artifice for? To purge me so that I could be appointed the cricket captain? Even then I was aware that something ddidn’t quite add up although I could not have guessed yet the real motives at work.
I half expected that he was joking, that he would relent and send me on my way. Indeed it seemed that he was himself struggling with that same possibility. There was a pause, his opportunity to reverse the course of events that he may had plotted for some time, but in the end there was no mercy. He left the room and returned a little while later with an object that shocked me anew. He was holding what was euphemistically referred to as a hairbrush, but I believe that the only hair that it was meant for was on horses. Now, what was a stable grooming instrument doing secreted in the headmaster’s quarters? Hot Rod was well known for carrying a butter pat in his briefcase; a small wooden paddle that he threatened as an instrument of discipline. (A butter pat in a briefcase! How could that not alarm adults who encountered him?) I’m not sure that I had had any idea what to expect, but I suppose the butter pat had seemed likely. Instead I was facing a much more fearsome weapon. The hairbrush was about three feet long with a heavy wide head where the bristles were mounted. It looked dangerous. Hot Rod had a strange excited air about him as he asked me to bend over. Thankfully my clothes stayed on. I was grateful at least for that dignity as I grabbed my knees, unable to imagine what was about to happen.
He struck me damn hard with the first blow. I couldn’t believe the violence of it. The pain was bad enough but what was worse was to be assaulted like this, in cold blood, by this otherwise avuncular figure in whose pastoral care I found myself more often than any other teacher. He was, on purpose, attacking me, literally beating me, and all the while on the most flimsy of pretexts. There were other blows that followed, but by then I was in shock. When he had had his fill, he invited me to stand. All I could do was to choke back the tears. I couldn’t speak. He let me go. I walked out of the room, down the hall back to the school, and when the door closed behind me only then did I let the sobs overwhelm me. I couldn’t believe the pain and the violence that I had just experienced in the tranquil setting of the headmaster’s study. All I could remember was the gentle ticking of the mantelpiece carriage clock suddenly being interrupted by the explosive force of the hairbrush on my arse. Tick tock, tick tock, beat my arse, jolly good, well done fella.
Half an hour later Hot Rod was taking our fielding practice on the cricket pitch. I was late. He smiled at me in welcome as if nothing had happened. My whole bottom was black and blue for days. But I was appointed captain of the cricket team the next day, and from then on was able to spend even more time cloistered with my assailant.
Case Study: Hot Rod, at home
Nothing wrong with a sound beating, I hear you say. Sounds like the snotty little nerd got what was coming to him. A horse’s hair-brush a pedophile does not make. Possibly. But you wouldn’t say that if you were in the cricket team. That wasn’t the end of Hot Rod’s special relationship with instruments of flagellation and it wasn’t the end of Hot Rod’s interesting ideas for new ways to interact with me.
Hot Rod was a favourite with the boys. He played up to his popular appeal. He was suave and charming, urbane and intelligent. The other teachers mostly faded in his shadow. He carried with him a particularly fine confection called “Black Bullets”. These were no ordinary sweets. Sweets to us were consumer products that we smuggled back to school, snatched hastily from a newsagent as our parents bribed us to go willingly. Hot Rod’s sweets were luxury goods. They were as impressive and seductive to us boys as the gleamingly new white BMW that he parked in his drive. And these sweets gave him great power, a unique hold over his inner circle.
The routine after a match against another school was to repair to Hot Rod’s boarding house, the one where I was now the senior dormitory captain, and to post-mortem the game in Hot Rod’s sitting room. Inevitably there were complaints to be made against players and issues raised. This was a great opportunity for Hot Rod. He cajoled us on the one hand, entertaining us in his rooms, pouring out the ginger beer, raising team morale and solidarity, but then he would turn his critical eye and his fragile temper on the stragglers who were failing to follow his directives. There developed a formula for dealing with such failures, a formula that I was already familiar with. During our cosy debriefings, among the fizzy drinks and the black bullets, Hot Rod effortlessly introduced the butter pat into our sporting lexicon. The solution to our weak squad was to punish our transgressions in play with a mild spanking. He would identify a player who had underperformed and then there would be a reckoning. A few mercifully light taps with the butter pat would have them restored to team status, and of course it was all presented as a bit of a gag, a bracing piece of boarding school life: manly stuff.
It had become inevitable that certain individuals were always going to be targets for his post-mortem spankings. He reverted to his technique that he had applied with me of offering a salvation from the beating. He made his victim a hero with a consolation supply of black bullets. We were all getting a black bullet here and there but unreliably and they were heart-stoppingly delicious to small boys eating filth day in and day out. Now Hot Rod introduced the idea of a reliable supply. Those who took the butter pat would get the bullet. Carefully he manipulated the presentation so that the boys began to realise that this relationship could be inverted. Remarkably quickly, he had established his private salon of young boys of sporting excellence, secreted in his boarding house, a thousand yards from the main school, and there, in the cosy seclusion of his sitting room, he dispensed voluntary beatings in return for a gratefully received reliable supply of sugar.
Picture the scene of eleven twelve-year-olds, after a long afternoon doing battle on the field with local rivals, gathered in the warm well furnished rooms of the deputy headmaster. The rest of the school was ploughing through its Victorian routine, stuck in their shorts, sat on stiff wooden benches in cold inhospitable classrooms. But we were regaled, entertained, cajoled and provided for by Hot Rod. Mainly it was a very pleasant diversion and a just reward for our elite status as school representatives. We weren’t looking to find anything wrong with it. Okay, perhaps it was a bit weird that Hot Rod would inevitably open up his briefcase as some point and produce the butter pat. Perhaps it was a bit unfair that one or two boys were always the ones to find themselves on the wrong end of the butter pat. But it wasn’t going to ruin our fun. We were being spoilt. We didn’t want to see that we were being spoiled. Boarding school life is exceedingly grim, especially in terms of creature comforts. We took our pleasures where we could find them. Hot Rod knew exactly how to seduce us.
Not surprisingly, I never asked for a black bullet via the butter pat. By this point I wasn’t entirely comfortable with Hot Rod, his weapons, or his schemes to raise a spanking, fair or foul. Three other very odd things happened that summer. The first was shortly after my initial beating and subsequent appointment as cricket captain. One of the rituals of our mornings was to take it in turns, dormitory by dormitory, to go to the washrooms. This was a process sometimes supervised by Hot Rod himself. Then we would return to our dormitories to dress and tidy our beds. This morning, Hot Rod asked me to come to his room when I was dressed to discuss the cricket team. His room did not mean his study but his bedroom, which was about ten yards down the hall from my bedroom. I duly ventured in after getting myself ready. He called out to me to enter, but he was not there. He was in his en-suite bathroom and emerged naked from the waist up, brushing his teeth. His signature Y-fronts were most firmly in evidence. He finished his brushing and we made some small talk about the cricket team. Again he seemed somewhat distracted and again I was aware of the incongruity of discussing these ordinary school details but in the extraordinary setting of his bedroom with him half naked. Then without provocation he suddenly clasped me to his chest and exclaimed, “my dear boy, how could I have done such a thing?”
Of course I knew what he was talking about. I had known that there was something weird about the beating he had given me and now I had the evidence. His remorse clearly signalled to me that what he had done was wrong. However, this latest chapter was another weird and confusing incident. I had not spoken much about the beating partly due to the shame of it, but also because there had been something creepy about it, something that was easier to forget. So I wasn’t going to broadcast this new incident. It was just too weird for me. Adult passions, rage, violence, grief, shame and remorse were beyond me. I was just a small boy in a dangerous place trying to stay safe. I hoped that would be the end of it.
No such luck. Some time later Hot Rod took me aside towards the end of the day as we prepared for bedtime. He invited me again into his bedroom. He said he had an idea for a game and seemed very excited. That was odd enough in itself. He explained to me in detail his cunning plan. In the morning, he would summon me to his bedroom as he invited my dormitory to go for washing. Then we would play a trick on the other boys. He would shout something at me and then smack two slippers together to make a loud beating noise. This would fool the other boys into believing that he had been beating me. I would then go down to wash. What a brilliant game!
It didn’t really involve me doing anything but I had a very weird feeling that this was not normal. How was this amusing? It what way was it a game? What was the point in trying to pretend that he was beating me? After all, he’d shown that he had the inclination and authority to do so for real whenever he pleased. So just what was the point? Morning came and Hot Rod duly carried out his plans. I was somewhat dumbfounded, hoping I suppose that he would have just forgotten about his silly idea. I stood in his bedroom as he shouted something and then he beat two slippers, very loudly, against one another, after which I went down to the washrooms with the others. No-one said a word. No-one wanted to get involved in what was going on.
There were small boys everywhere in pyjamas and dressing gowns, washing, dressing and undressing. For supervision they had Hot Rod, the Y-front toting grown-up who played spanking games with slippers behind his bedroom door. Was he masturbating in that bathroom, the echo of fresh blows ringing in this ears, young boys in various states of undress so close to him all around the house? Maybe not. Would you rather think not? If you’d paid most of your disposable income to have your son be there, in that house at that moment, would you really rather not even consider it? Perhaps I’m being unkind. Perhaps Hot Rod was just a reluctant and clumsy disciplinarian who had a bad sense of humour. There surely must be an explanation? Was he avuncular and lonely, or really perverted and dangerous? I was going to be given one final opportunity to find out.
I never found it that easy to get off to sleep. I think that I must have mentioned this to Hot Rod once because one night, as he was putting us to bed as usual, he casually let it be known, fully audible to the whole dormitory, that if I didn’t get off to sleep I was welcome to join him downstairs for a drink in his study. I mumbled some reply.
Now I knew what happened in movies when people asked other people to have a drink with them, especially late at night. Even in my own innocence and chastity I couldn’t see this as anything other than an overture of some kind. Sexual? Romantic? Familiar? I didn’t know. I didn’t even know what those words meant. But I did know that down there, in the room below my bed, separated from me by a few joists and floorboards, waited for me a world that I was not advised to intrude upon. Hot Rod was rumoured to drink whisky. A lot of whisky. What was the plan? Were we to share a tumbler late into the night? The housemaster and the twelve year-old boy?
In the morning I saw him again in the washroom. He hadn’t forgotten. He perhaps seemed relieved that I had not come. I wonder how long he waited; how he wrestled with himself over what he might do if I did arrive. He joked with me that I was bound to have fallen asleep straight away after such an invitation. I don’t remember answering. The truth was that I had hardly slept at all.
The following year I heard news of Hot Rod from my old school friends who had gone with me to Eton. He had been asked to give some extra lessons during the Easter holidays to a pupil who lived near the school. Hot Rod attempted to sexually molest the boy while giving him some remedial Latin. Hot Rod made a mistake here. He had acted outside of term-time. The boy went straight home and told his mother. Hot Rod “left”. The rumour was that he went to America. Not jail. That would never do, after all he was the deputy headmaster. Did the police ever investigate? Certainly no-one ever asked me any questions. How many other boys had been interfered with, threatened, toyed with, groomed? Was he acting alone, or was he being encouraged? Did they ever try to find out? Had they done so, they might have spared the student population of my school yet more suffering.
Before I had left Eton I heard of three more paedophiles unmasked among the teaching staff of my prep-school. I was told that one had gone to jail and the two others, one of them an old-Etonian, took their own lives when caught. They were all on the staff when I was there. How many boys had suffered and in how many ways before that tally was reached? How many suffer still today, having never breathed out loud a word of their experiences? How many other children are being freshly damaged every day and every night, while their schools employ perverts to watch over the future leaders of our companies, councils, schools and assets?
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