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My boarding school Hell – AN Wilson

Blog | By AN Wilson | Mar 13, 2024

A beating in 1839 George Cruikshank

I see that the Prime Minister’s prep school, Ashdown House, is to close down. Good!

A journalist wrote almost lovingly of the place the other day, recalling that a former headmaster, Billy Williamson, “charmed parents and flogged pupils with equal gusto”.

One old boy, now Lord Snowdon, recollected, “On one occasion, our entire class was caned because a boy did something fairly petty and didn’t own up”.

At least, after two years of this hell, Snowdon’s nice parents, Anthony Armstrong-Jones and Princess Margaret, took the boy away from the school.

I endured six years at my prep school which was less fashionable than Ashdown House, and where the headmaster’s sado-sexual love of the cane was out of control.

By a strange co-incidence, it was the father of the journalist who wrote about Ashdown House, another pupil at my dreadful school – Hillstone, Great Malvern – who opened my eyes to the full horror of what had gone on there.

I had supposed, until this distinguished diplomat told me, that the worst which went on was uncontrolled sadism, and a bit of unwanted fumbling and touching at bath time, but he told me of dreadful life-histories, boys who had been anally raped, growing into men who were unable to cope with the emotional wounds.

I have since met others whose family members- fathers, uncles, brothers, had been utterly ruined by the suicides or depressive lives of boys raped, tortured and maltreated by Rudolph Barbour Simpson and his wife Barbara at Hillstone.

Would you send your child to a boarding school? Did you go to one yourself?

Those who aren’t British find our whole relationship with these institutions quite puzzling.

People of other nations apparently have their babies because they want them. They enjoy family life, at least some of the time, and consider it to be one of the greatest privileges in life, to watch their children develop. Family occasions – whether Sunday lunch or bigger festivities such as birthdays and anniversaries, are just that, with all generations gathered around a table.

The British, the more privileged they are, no sooner have a baby than they want to pay someone else to take it away from them . The first few years of the child’s life it was looked after by a nanny. And then, as early as possible, it was packed off to a boarding school. You do not need to have read about Dotheboys Hall, the horrific boarding school in Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, to know that British boarding schools have always been a by-word for discomfort, cruelty (by the children to one another, and by adults to the children) sadism and sexual perversion. Yet people continue to shell out sums in excess of £25,000 or £30,000 per annum, out of taxed income, to send their children to such places!

British boarding schools grew up, for the most part, during the period of the British Empire, and of the two world wars. Many parents felt, while they were District Governors in Nigeria, or serving officers in the Indian Army, or posted abroad during wartime, that a boarding school in Bexhill or Great Malvern provided an element of stability for their child which they could not provide for themselves. Several people I know whose parents worked in India during the time of the Raj were sent to boarding school in England as young as four.

But that was in the days of the Raj! What is the chief reason for sending your child to a boarding school today? There is no longer an empire. The numbers in the armed forces is shrinking year by year. The chief reason for boarding schools is snobbery.

Ninety years ago, in a genteel suburb in Cheshire (Bramhall) my grandmother’s best friend Mrs Berry remarked that the daughter of one of their neighbours, educated at the excellent local grammar school, had a detectable Northern accent. Horror of horrors! It was decided at once that my mother and her best friend Enid should be sent off to Cheltenham Ladies, lest they be heard to say “buke” instead of “book”.

Both my parents went to boarding schools, and they sent me, my brother and sister to similar places. My own experience of being sent away at seven to Hillstone School, Great Malvern was horrific. The headmaster, Rudolph Barbour-Simpson, a local magistrate and a much-respected bigwig, was a sexual sadist. His wife was also a monster. When she discovered that her husband fancied one of us, and had been fiddling about with us, she would jealously punish his latest crush, with tortures worthy of the Gestapo : forcing you to eat your least favourite food until you vomited and making you eat the vomit; pushing you into the swimming bath with a pointed umbrella before you could swim; locking you in a cage all day and encouraging the other boys to jeer at you as you wet yourself.

I wrote an article in the Daily Mail about my experiences at the hands of these brutes. It generated a bigger postbag than anything I had ever written before. I had been under the impression that Rudolph’s worst sin was beating the boys until their bottoms bled, sometimes while himself masturbating; or a bit of “fiddling about”. My correspondents told me of far worse stories, including anal rapes, and later suicides of Hillstone boys.

You will say that my school was not typical. Maybe it was an extreme case, but I do not think it WAS atypical.

When the child abuse scandals began to emerge in the Roman Catholic Church, it was very easy for the rest of us to sneer at the pervert, often Irish, priests and reflect smugly that “we” were different. But WHY was child abuse, in the RC Church, at the BBC in the times of Jimmy Saville, and in care homes and borstals, so blithely ignored or even tolerated during this era? It was because so many men in the so-called Establishment had been abused themselves at boarding school.

The classic pattern of the abused child – I know because I am one – is to feel ashamed and to say nothing about it. This suppression of an experience comes out in all kinds of ways later in life, often with very peculiar attitudes to sex.

People think that the RC bishop, Cardinal O’Brien, was a hypocrite because he denounced homosexuality while secretly making passes at his prettier young priests.

But that is classic abuse and abused behaviour. When you have been abused you are in denial, whether you are the abuser or the abused. That is why so many boarding schools got away with it for so long. The left hand literally did not know what the right hand was doing.

Many of our most respectable boarding schools shielded men who were a danger to children. Only a few of these men have been caught, and are now serving their time.

Apart from the sadism and sexual perversion of teachers at boarding schools, there is another reason why such institutions are a danger. And this remains the case, even if such places have now cleaned up their act, and made some attempt to weed out the rotten apples from their staff. That is the innate tendency of children to be cruel to one another.

You can not police a child twenty-four hours a day. But at least, if your child is living at home with you, it is possible to know when he or she goes to bed, when they get up, and to have some general idea (even during the most secretive teenage years) of their state of mind and health. Boarding school teachers will tell you that they stand in the place of parents and can do this on parents’ behalf with their pupils. But this is simply not the case. Very few boarding school pupils are supervised in the evenings. And there is no way that a boarding-school teacher (in all likelihood less sophisticated than the pupils in the ways of computer technology) can possibly police the cyber-bullying and humiliations which monsters inflict on their victims in so many of these places.

Let me give you a few examples based, admittedly, on anecdotal evidence which belong – not to the bad old days of the 1950s but to now – or to the very recent past.

About ten years ago I was visiting a leading public school to give a talk. Afterwards I was given tea by the chaplain, and we fell to talking about those of different faiths. I asked him if there were many Jews in the school (which numbers about 700 pupils). “Tell him”, interrupted the chaplain’s wife. The clergyman was shy. “Well, I’ll tell him”, said the woman. “There are three Jewish boys”, she said. “They are all in our attic. Hiding like Anne Frank. In their ordinary boarding house, they were systematically bullied. Their homework was trashed, and anti-Semitic abuse was heaped on them every single day.. Their lives were made intolerable. When we complained to the housemaster, he said that it was better to leave children to work out these things among themselves”.

As far as I know, this school has never done anything serious to counteract the effects of bullying. This is why I believe this. Last year I was at a literary festival. One of those taking part seemed in some distress and over dinner I asked the reason. Her son, at this same school (he was a white South African), was so badly bullied that he had just ring up threatening suicide if he was not taken away. Their instinct as parents – I still find this incredible – was to leave him in place to cope with the situation on his own. He shared a dormitory with people who sent him abusive text messages all the time. They had stolen his laptop and, using his address, had advertised himself on the world-wide web as a male prostitute. Highly specific and horrifically obscene descriptions were given of what this 13-year old boy “offered” to his clients. His whole life was in ruins.

In the very week I heard this story, another family were coming to a very different conclusion about their 14-year old son at a different leading boarding school – a school which costs £30,000p.a. and has not only huge snob-appeal but a smug reputation for being arty and liberal. Great He was being so badly and so consistently bullied they decided to take him away.It never let up. The staff did nothing to help. He is now going to a local day school and the transformation in that boy’s character is a marvel to behold.

I tell these stories not to be sensational but as evidence of what it is actually like, now, as you read these words on the page of the newspaper, to be locked up in a boarding school away from your family. I am sure that most head teachers hope against hope that most of their pupils are not being tortured by their fellow-inmates. And of course, compared with our day, the level of physical comfort is much higher. Children have their own rooms. The houses are heated. You do not have to break the ice in the water each morning before you clean your teeth. Also, corporal punishment has been abolished. But there is still no way you can prevent young people being nasty to one another. And you can not police them 24 hours a day. That is why the incidence of dangerous drug-taking at all our leading public schools is so much higher than in state schools.

If you are separated from your family at the age of seven, you are cut off from an essential learning-process. Something far more important than mastering a middle-class accent or getting an A* in GCSE- that is, the more middle or upper class you are, the less chance you have to learn how to love. I was fond of my parents, but in a distant way. I never had a row with them – any more than I’d have thought of wrestling emotionally with some distant relations I saw a few times a year. Like most Englishmen of my class, I grew up without any emotional education. Learning about the emotional life has been a chaotic journey, for me, and my lovers and children. No wonder the Establishment, filled with chaps like me, took so long to wake up to the terrible damage done by sexual molesters, bullies and – yes, by the very institution of boarding schools themselves.