Benjamin Ross’s account of Colet Court SchoolPosted: June 8, 2014
As well as the various articles by Andrew Norfolk on abuse at Colet Court and St Paul’s Schools and my article on Alan Doggett, Benjamin Ross has also provided a distressing account of life at Colet Court School (the original Mail article is here), which is reproduced below. This belongs together with Alex Renton’s powerful article on the abusive, bullying, inhumane culture of British boarding schools and ultimately with George Orwell’s 1952 essay ‘Such, such were the joys’. Above all, it is important to note how deep-rooted was the concept of omertà[ – a binding loyalty to the ‘family’ represented by the school, married to a complete prohibition on any type of ‘betrayal’ such as might be evidenced by informing external people or authorities about what goes on within.
Benjamin Ross, ‘My Sadist Teachers at St Paul’s Prep School Betrayed a Generation’ (1.6.14)
Daily Mail, June 1st 2014
By Benjamin Ross
I’M ONE of a class of 15 eight-year-olds, shivering as I stand by the edge of a state-of- the-art swimming pool. The master walks along the line, pulling open the front of each of our standard-issue red trunks so that he can stare inside and inspect our name tag’.
This happens every week, to every class. Why it’s so important that each pair of trunks be so rigorously identified with its owner is something we are never told.
And it isn’t just the eccentric action of one strange man but an institutional practice. The school has specifically insisted that each boy’s name be sewn into the front of his trunks.
I recall my mother proudly doing as instructed while we considered the strangeness of this protocol – one of those mysterious rites of public school culture that one didn’t question if one wanted the privilege of sending one’s son to a place of grand tradition. Could the reason, which seemed so obscure then, really be so blindingly, pathetically obvious now?
Our teacher, one year, is a charismatic man. He is also a sadist of whom we are in perpetual terror. I return to his classroom from a music lesson one day to discover him in a frenzy of rage, provoked by some unspecified act of insolence from a boy in our class – our hero, the best at sports and the best-looking. Our teacher drags him bodily across the desk, ripping the buttons from his shirt, beating him – with a fierce backhand – so badly across the face that he draws blood.
Then he places our sobbing classmate across his lap and, in a bizarre display of sympathy, begins to stroke his head and back while offering a detached third-person narrative – This is where the boy weeps, this is where the master feels regret’ – which, looking back on it, I can only describe as pornographic, post-coital even.
These are a few examples of what is now being called historical’ abuse: not in Dickensian England, as the phrase might suggest, but the 1970s. Although my experiences were unpleasant, it turns out that I got off lightly. I was one of the luckier ones.
Colet Court and its parent school, St Paul’s – which is often described as one of the top three independent schools in the country – together alma maters of Chancellor George Osborne, Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the billionaire Lloyd Dorfman (the founder of Travelex) et al, find themselves at the centre of a storm of media scrutiny.
The schools are now, as a result, the subject of a massive police investigation into practices of sexual abuse and concealment dating from as far back as 50 years. Many of the incidents and practices I have already described will be familiar to anyone who has attended or read about public schools over the past five decades.
What is different in the case of St Paul’s is the scale. There are currently 18 masters being investigated, alive and dead, and 180 victims, witnesses, and potential witnesses have come forward. And the numbers are growing. So far, the media have focused on a handful of names: Anthony Fuggle, classics master at Colet Court, who left the school in September of last year after being arrested and released on bail for possession of indecent material discovered on a school computer.
Keith Perry, history master at St Paul’s for 38 years, was convicted earlier this year for possession of indecent material involving the most serious level of child pornography. Paul Topham (deceased) was investigated but never convicted of sexual abuse.
Alan Doggett, music and boarding-house master at Colet Court until 1968, was a member of the Paedophile Information Exchange who killed himself ten years after leaving the school when he was being charged with child abuse. Patrick Marshall, geography and rowing master, is currently on bail after allegations of abuse, which he denies.
I clearly recall another occasion during my schooldays involving the same charismatic master who assaulted our class hero. He issues instructions over the school’s public address system that we are to assemble in the hall during lunch break – an unusual occurrence which presages high drama.
We are not disappointed. Hands literally shaking, he announces that excrement has been smeared over one of the upstairs lavatories, and that he has made his class get down on their hands and knees to clean it up, describing them as s***-house wallahs’. A number of them are sick. The combination of appalled indignation, disgust and excitement is, again, highly memorable – but perhaps hard to picture if you’ve never met such a man.
One Monday morning I arrive at school to hushed talk among the other 11-year-olds. A boy I know has been forced into oral sex by a boarding-house monitor several years his senior. He is not the only one. And where was the boarding-house master, known to preside over his empire with a slipper, while this was going on?
We are expected to express no weakness, vulnerability or sympathy. The cruelty which our masters show to us we then visit upon one another singly or in groups, and soon we are doing their job for them. Bullying is commonplace and takes many forms, not just physical. The lingua franca of the school is a kind of sneering insolence, in imitation of our elders and seemingly with their approval.
We learn to hate and humiliate one another. The most sympathetically advanced among us come to hate themselves, too. Friendships are more like strategic alliances. Violence and humiliation are perpetual and endemic: random fights, organised fights, boys dragged from changing rooms by their peers and thrown naked into the corridor, to howls of laughter.
A conker fight for us doesn’t just mean the time-honoured schoolboy ritual but the use of conkers as missiles. After-school film shows on Friday nights are followed by riots that would seem more fitting at Belmarsh or in an H Block.
Like prison, the atmosphere is highly charged with sex, though not in any way you would associate with affection. We attack each other’s genitals as a matter of sport. But even though we are sometimes caught in these acts by our teachers, no comment or intervention is made.
Inattentiveness, late homework or mischief in class or at games, however, are another matter. On the sports field, discipline is maintained with the unorthodox use of a cricket bat, preferably on naked buttocks in the changing rooms. In the classroom, the preferred media are chalk and those old-fashioned wooden blackboard rubbers, which hurtle through the air towards our unsuspecting heads.
One especially good shot with a piece of chalk from a maths teacher prompts cheers from our class, excepting only the poor object of his target practice, from whom it elicits tears of pain and humiliation. But no fear, our own turn will come soon.
Mine comes at the hands of Mr White (RIP), an Army veteran with a perpetual grin that you mistake for good nature at your peril. For daring to communicate with the boy next to me in class he takes our heads and bangs them together six times (I can still count them) – with such force that I go home and vomit, and am unable to walk all weekend.
When my mother asks why, I say I have a bug. The shame of what’s been done to me is so great I find myself unable to say it. My inability to tell what has happened does even more damage than the act of physical violence.
We graduate to the senior school and life becomes moderately less savage. The violence recedes, but the cold atmosphere of unrestrained power and contempt remains. Where dog eats dog, the favoured attention of our masters provides some kind of solace and protection. My own protector is a seedy teacher who likes to tell me of his lust for young girls.
Then one day a boy climbs out of a third-floor window during class and drops 40ft to the atrium below, miraculously surviving, after which he is quietly removed from the school.
An announcement is made over the public address system that we are not to discuss what has happened, neither among ourselves nor at home, and certainly not with the Press, on pain of expulsion.
No efforts are made to engage with or understand what has happened and why. No counselling or explanation is offered. Omerta.
In response to the current crisis, the school has issued a series of letters over the past few weeks to try to reassure current pupils, parents and governors that these crimes are historical in nature and the school is complying with police procedure.
They mostly say that the school is an institution with nothing to hide or be ashamed of, modern in its standards of child welfare and transparency. Anyone tarnished by the emerging scandal, whether as an abuser or a concealer, is said to belong to history’.
This confident separation of past and present, though comforting perhaps to the school and current pupils and parents, needs closer scrutiny.
In a letter to parents dated May 1 of this year, Tim Meunier, headmaster of Colet Court, advises boys not to gossip or chatter, either face-to-face or online, about matters that have been reported in the newspapers’.
In a memo sent to all tutors on March 25 (the date of the first articles about the scandal) and forwarded privately by a concerned parent, High Master Mark Bailey advises tutors to tell their boys: Do not indulge in careless talk on social networks […] It is neither appropriate nor sensible and saying anything defamatory could land you in serious trouble.’
The dangers of chatting online one can understand. But face-to-face? What does that say about current attitudes there and how much they claim to have changed? Surely an institution like this should be less confident of its position, more questioning, open, humble, curious, self-doubting and analytical?
In response to questioning, St Paul’s said the boys have been told to talk about it if they wish, to speak to independent counsellors who have been provided, and to contact police or social services in the event of any concerns.
The letters remind me of another incident that happened to me at Colet Court when I was eight. My father had, unbeknown to me, written the headmaster a letter. I had been in a fight with a boy who insulted me racially and my father, an East End Jew and Blitz survivor who was bursting with pride that he had come far enough in life to send his son to this prestigious place, wrote to the then headmaster Henry Collis (now deceased), in indignation.
Collis invited me to recount my side of the story, but when I began to say the boy’s name, he shut me up with a threatening wave of the finger and the admonition that gentlemen don’t tell tales’.
I was being told, in no uncertain terms, that I and my father didn’t understand the first rule of gentlemanly behaviour, which was not to talk out of school.
I decided, out of pride for myself and my father, that I would henceforth make every effort to defy this man’s definition of a gentleman. I am delighted to be able to do so again here, on behalf of myself and of my late father.
The point of this is not to whinge about my treatment, but to question a mind set which, in my day, opened the gates to other kinds of immorality. The school has a history of not listening. Will it finally change?
lYou can contact detectives investigating masters from the school on 020 7161 0500, or email firstname.lastname@example.org