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A boyhood built on fear

The cruelties of Maidwell Hall boarding school, described by Charles Spencer in his memoir, have blighted my adult life.

By Andrew Motion

Maidwell Hall is a grand-ish house in rural Northamptonshire that was completed in 1637, gutted by fire in 1895 and rebuilt shortly afterwards by John Alfred Gotch, who raised a tower on the four corners of the main building and topped each with a roof of hammered lead which climbs into a sharp peak; the allusion seems to be to the Tower of London. In 1933 an ex-artillery officer who had fought with distinction in the First World War bought the house and opened it as a prep school, of which he remained headmaster (though pupils always referred to him as “Beak”) for the next 30 years. The building was large enough to accommodate 75 boarders, all boys, aged between eight and 13. The ten-acre grounds included a pretty lake where golden orfe loafed among the lily-roots and allowed Beak to indulge his passion for gardening. His special interest was dwarf bulbs and lilies, but he also cultivated a new species of snowdrop named after the school.

Beak’s generally rather shuffling and modest manner, combined with these horticultural enthusiasms, gave an impression of gentleness that boys’ parents found reassuring. In fact, it was a cleverly managed front. His rule was ferocious, even by the standards of the day: beatings with a slipper and cane were frequent, bullying was commonplace and the pursuit of academic excellence was always secondary to the maintenance of stale and suffocating conventions.

When Beak retired, a master already on the payroll, Alec Porch (generally referred to as “Jack”), took over as head. Because Porch – unlike his predecessor – was married, there was some expectation that he would introduce a more tolerant regime. But Porch had deepened his own taste for brutality while serving as Beak’s wingman, and until his retirement 15 years later he set about traumatising a large majority of the boys who were placed in his care.

One of these boys was Charles Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana and now Lord Althorp, who arrived at Maidwell aged eight in 1972 (the family’s stately home is nearby). A Very Private School is an account of his time there and spares no details in its description of Porch’s systematic cruelty and the collusive violence of other staff. If anyone suspects that Spencer might be exaggerating, I can assure them that he’s not. I also went to Maidwell, arriving there in the autumn of 1959 when I was seven years old: I had two years of Beak and three of Porch, and the ill-effects of their influence have, in several respects, blighted the whole course of my adult life and several times threatened to capsize it altogether.

Spencer feels much the same way about the school’s influence. He describes his book as “a blend of chronicle and memoir that’s intended to stand as a piece of modern history”, but the most arresting parts of his narrative inevitably have to do with the “casual cruelty, sexual assault and other perversions” that were both practised and allowed by Porch: these things have, he says “snared part of my psyche for ever”. Because of this, the book sometimes blurs its own structure – the orderly progress from subject to subject (school rules, school food, school traditions, etc) is always liable to be interrupted by another horrified reminiscence. But these intrusions feel understandable, and are counterbalanced by Spencer’s determination to ask larger questions. Especially questions of responsibility.

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What cause did Porch think he was serving, beyond the gratification of his own perverted desires? What did parents think they were doing, sending their little ones away at such a tender age, then seldom if ever responding to their complaints about ill-treatment? What did we, the pupils, think we were up to, meekly going along with it all? In the final sentence of the book, after doing his best to answer these questions, Spencer writes, “I feel I have reclaimed my childhood.” Good. But at what cost?

Every boy arriving at Maidwell for the first time, whether they were under Beak’s jurisdiction or Porch’s, felt plunged into isolation – ripped away from their familiar routines and incarcerated in a sadistic sub-world with no easy way to reconnect with home. There was no landline available to boys (and no mobiles, of course), and parents were only allowed to visit for an “exeat” twice a term. In Spencer’s case the trauma was especially intense because his parents had divorced when he was still a little boy, and his need for affection was therefore correspondingly acute.

Enter Mrs Ford, the school matron, who Spencer presents as the granite-tempered tyrant that I remember (like Porch, she had learnt all kinds of cruelty from her Matron-predecessor, PC Gibbons, whose name gives a fair idea of her character). In a world where women appeared only occasionally and peripherally, Mrs Ford’s main role in the school’s hierarchy of vileness was to raise hopes of gentleness only to crush them. By night she tippled and stoked the fire of her resentments. By day she administered laxatives or enemas, and scattered pine sawdust on the floor whenever our stomachs repelled the disgusting food she forced us to swallow (“Clean your plate, boy!”) at mealtimes.

Like Spencer, I find it impossible to think about Mrs Ford without remembering the sound of weeping. She was a brutally bad influence on our lives. But first Beak, and then Porch, were even worse criminals. Every evening after supper a procession of boys would troop down the dark corridor from the main body of the school to the headmaster’s quarters, then receive their punishment for a large variety of so-called misdeeds (they ranged from treading on the flowerbeds to doing badly at work or being perceived as cheeky).

The routine was foully ritualised: each guilty party would be ushered into Porch’s study by a prefect, asked to confess, then – depending on the severity of the sentence – either be whacked hard with the heel of a slipper or be told to lower their trousers and underpants, kneel down and submit to being walloped on their bare buttocks with the Flick (a whippy little stick) or the Swish (a firmer item). In extreme cases, it was a cane which had been especially cut from one of the bamboo clumps that sprouted in the grounds.

Also like Spencer, I have many ineradicable mental pictures of boys in the showers after these thrashings, with blood still oozing from their wounds. An additional range of slipperings, which both Beak and Porch administered in our dormitories when they came round last thing to turn out the lights, were differently humiliating and painful, because they took place in front of our peers. I also remember several boys losing control of their bladders as the blows rained down.

These beatings evidently had their erotic aspect for the perpetrators: several of the witnesses that Spencer calls to support his accusations recall Porch pressing his erect penis against his victims or fondling their genitals. I have similar memories myself – yet outside these encounters, both men during my time there kept us in a state of almost complete ignorance about everything relating to sex. Of course they did, so that we wouldn’t understand what they were up to.

For Spencer it was different – and worse. Just when his account of perversion seems that it can’t get any worse, he tells the horrendous story of a junior matron who systematically assaulted many of her charges, Spencer included – and was never called to account. This episode is in a sense the culmination of all the other accounts of depravity and exploitation contained in the book, but as Spencer realises, the various outrages in fact all reinforce one another. A Very Private School is not a roll-call of random cruelties but a complete and utterly dismal picture of institutionalised horror.

The short-term damage to boys at the school hardly needs to be spelled out. But what of the longer-term effects? Spencer realises that one of the original aims of such places as Maidwell, and the public schools for which they acted as feeders, was to desensitise boys so that they could endure the isolation of colonial service overseas and reproduce the strategic injustice they had previously known themselves. When the British empire eventually crumbled, these insults were concentrated within the organisation of politics at home – as they still are today. Concentrated, but also elaborated by men who as children were trained to cauterise their sensitive feelings for others, to cultivate all sorts of skin-saving deviousness, to live with a simultaneous fear of intimacy and dread of abandonment and to have a seriously compromised idea of what love might be.

In his poem “Dockery and Son” Philip Larkin says that “life is first boredom, then fear”. For Charles Spencer, and for thousands of other children who underwent a similar upbringing, Larkin got it the wrong way round. Life for us was first fear, after which a bit of boredom might have been a blessed relief.

Andrew Motion is a former poet laureate. His books include the memoir “In the Blood” (Faber & Faber)

A Very Private School: A Memoir
Charles Spencer
William Collins, 304pp, £25

[See also: The price of private education]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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