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Charles Spencer's harrowing abuse at prep school - by Hugo Vickers

Blog | By Hugo Vickers | Apr 03, 2024

Althorp, Charles Spencer's Northamptonshire house

Hugo Vickers is moved by the terrors Charles Spencer suffered as a boy

A Very Private School

Charles Spencer

(William Collins, £25)

Charles Spencer has put Stuart history aside to expose his experiences at prep school in the 1970s.

He was sent away at the age of eight to a terrifying institution called Maidwell Hall, in Northamptonshire. A shy boy, he hated the idea of leaving home and dreaded the day (12 September 1972) when he left home.

I have considerable sympathy for him. He highlights the trauma of children being deposited in such schools, into closed communities where they could only communicate with their parents by letters (often vetted by teachers). Abuse was rife, beatings the order of the day, and bullying an accepted part of the way discipline was maintained.

At his school, there was the slipper for a host of minor misdemeanours and two canes for worse crimes: ‘In fencing parlance, the Flick could be seen as the épée, with the Swish the sabre.’

Stories of corporal punishment dominate this book, and since that is the one topic that inspires public school boys to reminiscence when they meet in later life, this book will have a certain readership.

Spencer gives us a devastating portrait of ‘Jack’ Porch (1926-2022), the headmaster, who presented one face to the parents, another to the boys. He was not only a sadist, but also a paedophile. According to an old boy of the school known to me, he was ‘a good educationalist’ and he certainly wrote sympathetic and perceptive school reports to the parents.

I can only hope that the fate of Perry Pelham is exaggerated. For a boy to be given eight strokes of the cane every night for a week would surely more or less kill him? Spencer goes so far as to state: ‘It’s clear to me now that the purpose of Maidwell’s strict structure was to provide Jack with a steady stream of boys’ buttocks to contemplate and strike.’ Porch was removed in 1978.

I could hardly bear to read of his drive to school on his first day. Why were we put through that at such a tender age? How could the parents do it? They knew full well the implications. This book attempts to answer that, but the conclusion is invariably the same - that is what that generation did with their children. ‘To survive it, a small but important part of us had to die,’ writes Charles Spencer.

He gives us vivid portraits of the tyrannical matron, Mrs Ford and of Henry Maude who possessed ‘a chilling menace’, cuffing boys about the head, and yanking them by the ear. Mr Barker was a godsend, and then there was the young matron who groomed some 11-year-olds for her sexual gratification.

There was something sinister about those schoolmasters. If you seek horrific reminders of the type, Google ‘Nevill Holt School’, a similar institution, which was closed down in 1998, following rafts of accusations.

Evelyn Waugh said it all in Decline and Fall when young Paul Pennefeather is unfairly sent down. He hands back his key to his porter who comments: ‘Very sorry I am to hear about it. I expect you’ll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.’ Many of the masters in Spencer’s day would have been damaged by the war, or by their avoidance of it. Today, many would be in prison.

At my prep school, Scaitcliffe, I experienced none of the horrors described in this book. But when I look back, for a third of the year, I lived in comfort at home and ate edible food, and for two thirds of the year, was in an iron bed in a dormitory, eating revolting food and was always slightly frightened. Within days of my arrival, a boy called Best in the next bed was summoned down to the headmaster’s study in his pyjamas. We could hear the distant caning, and we witnessed his forlorn return. Scaitcliffe was a good school, and it may have helped me the the headmaster was a Mr Vickers. Only once, when cornered, did I suggest he was my uncle. The bullies backed away. As Ali Forbes said, ‘Inside every bully there’s a coward desperately trying to stay in.’

Fortunately, these schools have reformed themselves. When my children went to Elstree, it was rather like a country club – they studied a while, ran round the athletics track, and had hot baths or showers. Flexi-boarding eased them in. My elder son asked to be allowed to board. I would have given anything not to.

You cannot change human nature, but you can change what is acceptable and unacceptable in human behaviour. That is a good thing. I believe this book will help.

Hugo Vickers is the author of Elstree 175 – Celebrating 175 Years of Elstree School