For generations of boys, sexual abuse was part of the everyday cruelty of boarding school. In this painfully honest report, writer Alex Renton confronts the demons of his past at Ashdown House, where some of Britain’s most powerful men were also educated – and reveals the scale of the outrage about to engulf the private education system.
If Ashdown House‘s pretty Georgian facade reminds you of Washington’s Capitol and the White House that’s because the architect,Benjamin Latrobe, had a hand in those, too. It is an excellent look for the entrance to a temple of education: it speaks of classical wisdom and the rule of reason. We boys weren’t allowed to go in that way, of course.
Today, 40 years since I last saw the school, we step in through Latrobe’s columned porch as though entitled. Nothing can touch us: we’re parents. Ruth, my wife, grips my hand. A friend who works in post-traumatic stress disorder warned us, quite gravely, of the risks when people visit scenes of past troubles; of hyper-arousal – sweats, nausea, high heart-rate. Or the opposite, hypo-arousal: a state of lethargy, a feeling of unreality. But I’m fine. Pulse steady. People hurt you, not places.
There were no ghosts, no shocks as we toured the corridors and classrooms. I have not been looking forward to the smell. I could summon the brew: disinfectant, boy sweat, meat stew, chalk dust. An incense of misery. But it is gone. There is no chalk these days.
It is the details from other senses that clamour. The give of a floorboard in a corridor, the sunlight through a window, the shape of a wooden refectory bench, an echo of children‘s voices. We enter a cosy girls’ dormitory where the low black beams were, suddenly, shockingly familiar. And the brick fireplace. This used to be headmaster “Billy” Williamson’s study. I’d scrutinised those bricks, the way they sat upon each other, many times over those five years. Waiting for his flap-jowled face to stop shouting and get to business: detail the punishment or the beating.
Just down the corridor, two worn wooden steps led to the tiny dormitory where I slept in my first term at the school. I and the other eight-year-olds would turn our faces into our mattresses, pull pillows over our heads. If you wept out loud, the 10-year-old dormitory captain and his deputy threatened to whip you with a belt. That was their prerogative, they told us on the first night, a few hours after our mothers had extracted promises from them to look after their little ones.
The last seems such a cliché of boarding school life – surely the tearful mummy pleading with the bullies is in Tom Brown’s School Days? Or a Michael Palin sketch? – I wonder if I’ve made it up. The memories are blurred. I’m shocked how few of them there are. And telling and retelling the few stories that stand out in bright light carries risks – they gather accretions. Now when I meet men who were at the school I tend to check detail obsessively – He was called what? That happened when? – as if without reaffirmation what was real might slip into the darkness. Old Ashdownians sometimes tell me things that make my jaw drop.
But I do know that after the half-term break that first autumn we came back to a terrifying dressing-down, delivered under those low beams in the headmaster’s study. One of us new boys – I still don’t know who – had complained about the regime in Dormitory V to his parents. This was the cardinal sin. What happened in school stayed in school. Billy punished us all. We didn’t tell tales again.
Some of the key locations have shrunk absurdly small: the brick chapel where Billy gripped the Bible and harangued us with the backing of his three trustiest prefects: Jesus, the Holy Ghost and God. Just as tiny now is the assembly room where, daily, 120 boys aged seven to 13 were ranked on wooden benches. Here the diatribes, the mass punishments and public humiliations happened. This was where he would detail who had cried under the cane the previous night: “Jones and Smith took it like gentlemen. But Renton blubbed like a baby.”
That was then. Now the site is the “play-room”, with a cushioned chill-out area adjoining. The larky 12-year-olds playing pool round a table seem to take up half the space. In the corridor I find a familiar picture, a print of the Pietro Annigoni portrait of the Queen, done after her coronation. She is young, beautiful and brave. I remember I used to watch her during assembly. I would wonder what she would do if she knew how unjustly we, her young subjects, were being treated. I’d will her to descend, glorious like the first Queen Elizabeth, and order Billy and his staff to the Tower. Or, like Boudica, ride down on the teachers and the prefects, slashing them to bits with the spinning swords on her chariot wheels.
The school has prospered since, as has the whole industry: now there are 22 full-time teaching staff. In my time there were only 10 or 12, some of them just graduated, and I wonder how many of them had any qualification at all. There’s a new teaching block, a purpose-built canteen, a swimming pool and a kindergarten.
Lost in this warren is the classroom where, one afternoon when I was nine or 10, a hated and violent young teacher I will call Mr X slipped his hand into my corduroy shorts and tugged at my penis. This was a known hazard – in return Mr X gave you a Rowntree’s fruit gum. Mine was a green one, nobody’s favourite. Is this a memory I can trust? No doubt. I can feel my face against the rough tweed of his jacket, scratchy.
As the visit goes on, corridor after corridor, a sadness grows in my chest. Afterwards, utter exhaustion. I’m very glad, though, to see these rooms now full of light and character.
Especially that. Where our walls were bare and the only softness the identical candlewick bedspreads, now there are teddy bears and familyphotos; posters of ponies and Chelsea footballers. Peering into classrooms, the children are lively – unnaturally polite, compared with the ones at my daughter’s state primary – but no one looks unhappy. As if they would. I realised I’d sort of expected that. Little rooms full of children with faces like The Scream.
After the tour, there are coffee and biscuits – we’ve come posing as prospective parents – with the headmaster and his wife, a couple in their 40s. They seem kind and practical. We chat about how boarding schools have changed and who from my days stays in touch. Who sends their own children to Ashdown. This stiff conversation is interrupted by a dazed little child who has brought a letter to be sent to his parents.
The headmaster calls him “my dear boy”: when the child stammers what he wants and leaves, the headmaster explains a little, adding that winter is a bad time of year in a new school. We make sympathetic faces. I say that if my daughter comes to the school, she would like not to board immediately. The headmaster nods. That’s fine. Weekly boarding is good, though an initial period of no contact with parents is for the best. One of the boarders, he tells us, is just six years old. That’s been fine, too. His wife nods. At Ashdown now there is, the brochure reassures you, a “warm, kind and trusting home-from-home environment”. No hugs, though.