Andrew Norfolk, ‘Colet Court and St Paul’s: a culture of child abuse’ (The Times, 20/5/14)Posted: June 7, 2014
Colet Court and St Paul’s: a culture of child abuse;
Andrew Norfolk on how the closed world of Colet Court and St Paul’s schools made possible decades of abuse against boys
The Times, May 20th, 2014
At the height of the 1960s, when London’s pulse was a planet’s heartbeat, sex had just been invented and blessed were the young for they had inherited the world and all the LSD it contained, a nightly ritual was performed within the walls of a large Victorian building on Hammersmith Road whose values belonged to an older, more monotone land, one in which Britain still ruled an Empire, everyone knew their place and good boys did as they were told.
Here, after lights-out, a middle-aged bachelor schoolmaster descended from his room to deliver a cup of tea to his 14-year-old beloved, a child angelic of looks and voice. The teacher would scan the boys’ dormitory before selecting at random another pupil upon whom fell the task of returning the empty cup and saucer to the master’s room once Ganymede’s thirst was quenched.
This was School House, one of two boarding houses at St Paul’s School, an institution that since 1509 had steadily forged an unchallenged reputation for its ability to mould, from the bright offspring of the capital’s aspirational middle classes, young gentlemen fit for Oxbridge and a glittering future.
Across the road from School House stood Colet Court, the junior division of St Paul’s, where director of music Alan Doggett was also fond of nocturnal dorm visits. Here was no faux romance. The same 11-year-old boy lay back passively each evening as the teacher lifted his bedsheets and set busily to work. Fellow pupils sat quietly in the dark, watching. Everyone knew; no one said a word.
A few miles and a million light years away, Carnaby Street may have been swinging as old roads aged rapidly, yet some pillars of the British establishment held firm. None was more a bastion of tradition than the English public school. It inspired fierce loyalty, worshipped the team ethic and demanded high standards of children from whose parents submissive gratitude was expected at their son’s good fortune in winning admission to the hallowed privilege for which they were paying so handsomely.
Delight was taken in arcane terminology and age-old customs, their purpose long since lost to the mists of time. In classroom, playing field and dormitory, a master’s word was law, sneaking was for plebs and outsiders were viewed with polite but barely concealed contempt. Girls were a foreign country and secrets, even the darkest, were made for keeping. A man could do mischief here; some did.
Attitudes towards child sexual abuse in Britain are a long road slowly travelled. There was a time when no one looked behind a family’s front door; when a Catholic priest’s moral conduct was deemed irreproachable; when children in care were invisible; when what some celebrities did to underage girls was par for the course; when a pro-paedophile group won affiliation to a civil rights organisation while seeking to lower the age of consent to four; when men in the back streets of towns such as Rochdale groomed and sold children for sex while police and social services stood by and shrugged their shoulders.
Conspiracies of silence and complacency were eventually broken, lids lifted, victims given a voice. Eventually, sometimes decades after they plundered childhoods, guilty men were held to account. As each abuse model was exposed, it was asked how such crimes could have run unchecked for so long. In part the answer was chillingly simple: child abuse will flourish when there is an imbalance of power, a setting free from external scrutiny and a culture that plays by its own code. Small surprise, perhaps, that a famous independent school has joined those institutions stung by a long-overdue reckoning for alleged past sins.
There have been public-school scandals in the past, of course, notably those involving England’s three best-known Catholic boarding schools, Ampleforth, Stonyhurst and Downside, and in recent years there has been a steady rise in criminal investigations. In January The Times listed 64 fee-paying boys’ schools at which a male teacher has been convicted of sexually abusing a pupil. The offences dated back to the 1950s, but 62 of the 64 cases were brought to court in the past 20 years, 18 of them since 2012.
The article triggered long-buried memories. Men aged from their thirties to their seventies wrote and phoned in large numbers, seemingly compelled to share their own story. Some spoke of their abuse for the first time; a few broke down. Here were decades of unresolved shame, anger and confusion. Allegations were made against staff at 41 independent schools, of which 26 were not on our original list of 64. There was usually one alleged offender but the case of St Paul’s – two former pupils separately named four teachers – seemed on a different scale.
In March The Times implicated six former teachers at Colet Court or St Paul’s in alleged sex crimes against boys. By then a low-key police investigation was already in progress into a complaint by an ex-pupil against one teacher. The article prompted a surge of calls to the newspaper, the school and the police. Last month, a specialist team of detectives was set up to lead Operation Winthorpe. They have already recorded complaints against 18 former members of staff at the two schools, some no longer alive. The number of victims, suspects – spanning 50 years, from the mid-1960s to last year – and potential witnesses has passed 200.
Handed a list of England’s oldest and most famous public schools, few would have tipped St Paul’s to be the one to face such extensive allegations. A boarding establishment in a remote rural setting more easily fits the profile than a big London school with a rapier-sharp academic reputation and very few boarders.
Yet it was here, along Hammersmith Road until 1968 and since then at the school’s current location in Barnes, southwest London, that a culture is said to have arisen in which some masters, no matter how effective in sculpting young minds for examination success, treated children shamefully. Tales abound until the 1980s of sadistic violence, cruel bullying and of sexual attacks ranging from minor indecent assaults to extended, intimate relationships.
Teachers are accused of offences in dormitories, classrooms, the swimming pool, their own homes, even in cars. There was a period in the late Sixties and early Seventies when, if several former pupils are to be believed, to emerge after five years as a Colet Court boarder without once becoming the means of a teacher’s sexual gratification was to be distinctly fortunate. Some parents were warned that one endured the prep school because the prize was worth it: a place at St Paul’s.
At the senior school, police are examining whether tolerance of adult homosexuality may sometimes have edged dangerously close to turning a blind eye to pederasty. One boy remembers being assured by an avuncular master that homosexuality was a youth cult. In a 1978 suicide note after he was charged with abusing a choirboy, Doggett wrote that he had chosen “the way of the Greek”.
Doggett is one of six Colet Court or St Paul’s teachers who quietly resigned between 1967 and 1987 after suspected sexual misconduct came to light. Not once, it is alleged, did the school call in the police. The late Warwick Hele, high master of the senior school from 1973 to 1986, is remembered by a colleague as “a very good man but not one to stir up trouble unless he had to”. Another described an era when “protecting the institution from scandal was all-important”. For any fee-paying school, gaining a bad reputation could be extremely costly.
That remains the case today, but many outsiders would feel a degree of sympathy for Mark Bailey, St Paul’s highly regarded high master since 2011. His school is suddenly under fire, hit by a blizzard of alleged past misconduct, yet on the two occasions that concerns about teachers are known to have been raised since Bailey has been in post, the school responded swiftly and contacted external child-safeguarding authorities.
Investigations subsequently led to the arrest in 2013 of two long-serving Colet Court teachers, Anthony Fuggle and Tim Harbord, on suspicion of possessing indecent images and of sexual grooming respectively. Each resigned. Harbord has strongly denied any wrongdoing. Neither man has been charged with any criminal offence.
Had such decisive action been taken in response to pre-2011 complaints against teachers, St Paul’s would not be as vulnerable to the damning charge that it formerly seemed less concerned with the protection of children than with the protection of its own good name. The school, which says it is co-operating fully with the police, has described all child abuse as abhorrent and called for anyone guilty of past offences to be held to account. Its current standards of pupil safeguarding and welfare have been rated by inspectors as excellent.
Public reaction to the police inquiry has been instructively varied. Adults whose school years were not spent in similar institutions seem baffled that a world so seemingly careless of child welfare could have existed so recently. Many who were shaped by similar schooling in the same era know only too well that it did; most are nonetheless taken aback by the sheer scale of what is alleged at St Paul’s.
From some ex-public schoolboys, though, comes irritation that such a fuss is being made by chaps who really ought to “man up” and stop making such a hue and cry about a little mild spanking at schools that delivered a first-class education and bred resilience, independence and loyalty into boys who went on to become life’s winners. Some of them now run the country.
Such critics should rewind to the 1970s and a flat near St Paul’s owned by the late Rev Dr Edward Ryan, the school’s under-chaplain and a man who took a close pastoral interest in the vulnerable among his young flock. Boys invited to his home for a chat are said to have been plied with alcohol, then offered cash for penetrative sex. Those who tried to escape sometimes found their way barred.
One of “Doc” Ryan’s junior colleagues, who knew of his regular invitations to pupils but not of any sexual allegations, said he bore all the hallmarks of a predatory paedophile: “I would not have trusted Edward Ryan in the company of a young boy any farther than I could throw him.”
Should Ryan’s victims, some haunted to this day, be expected easily to forgive the school that for so many years gave him such unrestricted access to adolescent boys?