“Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison,” observed Evelyn Waugh. But in the journalist Alex Renton’s polemical new book about boarding schools, the stories of institutionalised humiliation and endemic physical and psychological abuse are worse even than what an inmate might expect in jail.
The courts are making it hard to report on child abuse in boarding schools – and children will suffer the consequences.
Stiff Upper Lip review: A book that asks ‘powerful questions that parents can’t ignore’
Alex Renton is a seasoned journalist, a war correspondent for the London Evening Standard who also worked for Oxfam in East Asia, a prize-winning food writer known for his campaigns and investigations and the author of a robust book about eating meat. He has got about a bit. But when, in 2013, two days after Christmas, he read a headline in the Daily Mail, ‘Boris school at the centre of probe into sexual abuse’, he says he burst into tears.
The prep school, Ashdown House, that he and Boris Johnson had attended was being investigated by police following allegations of historical child abuse. Four months later, having returned to the school for the first time, posing with his wife as prospective parents, Mr Renton wrote a long, moving article for The Observer, part personal, part dispassionate inquiry, about Ashdown House and boarding schools in general.
He had, he said, confronted his ‘demons’. But he also summoned up demons for his readers. Out of the enormous feedback he received then, this heart-breaking book has emerged.
Beaten, bullied, betrayed: Their parents sent them away for the best education, but generations of boys left boarding school traumatised for life
- Alex Renton was sent to boarding school Ashdown House in Sussex aged eight
- According to Renton, this enforced separation has had a catastrophic effect on the mental health of former pupils
- Some are unable to experience happiness because at a very early age they effectively walled themselves up for their own protection
- Emotionally stunted, physically and often sexually brutalised, they’ve stumbled through life with a nagging sense of being incomplete
When Alex Renton wrote about being abused at boarding school, he didn’t anticipate the huge response. Or that he’d end up breaking down in a police station
It is, they say, good to tell the story. Let it out: nightmares are best cured by daylight. But what do you do next? Three years ago I decided to come out as a survivor of abuse, physical and psychological, at boarding school. I’m a journalist, so I did what comes naturally: I published an article in a magazine. I went back to my famous prep school, where a police investigation had begun. Ashdown House had made the front page of the Daily Mail because Boris Johnson, Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew David Linley had been there.
The Times (subscription required)
Longer article on Alex Renton’s blog.
A Brighton teacher, who taught science to Boris Johnson, has been jailed for 12 years for sexually abusing four pupils and for having child porn on his computer.
Martin Haigh, 67, unemployed, of Lavender Street, Brighton, committed 11 sex offences against four pupils at the independent prep school Ashdown House in the 1970s.
A jury at Brighton Crown Court convicted him yesterday (Thursday 23 March) of four offences against two boys – an indecent assault and three counts of gross indecency.
He had previously admitted seven other offences – three of gross indecency and four of indecent assault – against two other boys at the school in the same period.
I saw it in schools; now football is the focus. The pain is the same. Alex Renton
Allegations of sex crimes against young footballers continue to emerge. For two years, the author has heard harrowing accounts from hundreds of victims of sex abuse in [boarding] schools and finds many disquieting parallels
Breaking the silence is immensely powerful and it is good medicine. But speaking up is hard. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has data that suggests one out of three people abused as a child has not disclosed the abuse and that the average victim who does waits nearly eight years to do so. Many of the men coming forward now, encouraged by the testimony of ex-footballer Andy Woodward, had never spoken before of the events when they were children.
In the past couple of years I have read or heard the accounts of more than 700 men and women sexually and emotionally abused as children in boarding schools, state-run and private. They came to me after I wrote in the Observer of the abuse at my own, Ashdown House. The stories are the grimmest reading, but what is heartening is that for so many people the simple act of speaking up is hugely helpful.
Dominic West: Going to boarding school was as bad as my parents dying
Dominic West has said being sent to boarding school when he was young was almost as traumatic as losing his parents.
Earlier this year, Homeland star Lewis described boarding school as a ‘violent experience’.
The 45-year-old, who was at prep school Ashdown House in East Sussex before going to Eton, told the Sunday Times Magazine: ‘I went at eight and I think that’s very hard.
‘You go through something which, at that age, defines you and your ability to cope. There’s a sudden lack of intimacy with a parent, and your ability to get through that defines you emotionally for the rest of your life.
‘It’s a very violent experience in those first few weeks. It’s just boom! And you deal with it … and then you go and run the empire.’
He said boarding ‘does things I don’t like when I see them in me’.
Damian Lewis, the Old Etonian actor, has told how he found being sent to boarding school a “very violent experience“.
The star said children who are sent away from home to be educated are left with an experience that “defines you emotionally for the rest of your life”.
The son of a City broker, he was born in the wealthy London suburb of St John’s Wood and was sent to boarding school Eton, whose former pupils include David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Lewis, who has two children with fellow actor Helen McCrory, said he would not send his own children to boarding school at such a young age.
Recalling his own experience, he said: “I went at eight and I think that’s very hard. You go through something which, at that age, defines you and your ability to cope.
“There’s a sudden lack of intimacy with a parent, and your ability to get through that defines you emotionally for the rest of your life. It’s a very violent experience in those first few weeks. It’s just, boom.”
[Wikipedia has Damien Lewis (b.1971) as attending Ashdown House prep school.]