Downside’s Future Threatened (Updated)

The current issue of The Spectator has an article about the future of the two remaining Benedictine order public schools in Britain. These are Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset. A combination of falling enrollments (Roman Catholics are now welcomed at public schools such as Eton that used to deny them entry), rising costs (as the number of Monks falls, lay personnel must replace them at higher costs), and difficulties complying with ever increasing government regulations to prevent child abuse is creating a perfect storm threatening their survival. Another Benedictine public school Douai in Berkshire closed 20 years ago.

Evelyn Waugh has a long association with Downside. This is partly recognized in the Spectator article:

There was a time, we pupils were often told, when the captain of the school’s 1st XV rugby team would consider joining the monastery. Those days, when Evelyn Waugh used to attend the Easter services, now seem very distant.

It went deeper than that, however. Evelyn frequently attended services and retreats at Downside throughout the year, not just at Easter. He also sent his oldest son Auberon to the Downside School, although Auberon himself has no particularly fond memories of that experience. Auberon sent his own children to day schools and they lived at home. Evelyn was also a close friend and correspondent of Dom Hubert van Zeller. Van Zeller was Ronald Knox’s confessor and helped Waugh as a source for his biography of Knox. He was also, according to Martin Stannard,  the subject of Waugh’s last published work which was a review of van Zeller’s autobiography One Foot in the Cradle. That article appeared in the Downside Review for April 1966. Downside also graciously and generously hosted a memorable conference of the Evelyn Waugh Society in 2011.

The Spectator article, by Will Heaven, a Downside alumnus, ends on a slightly more positive note:

What happens next? It’s possible that if the monks relinquish more control and hand over to experienced Catholic professionals, both schools will revive themselves and experience what Cardinal Newman called a ‘second spring’. Numbers may start to climb again, perhaps aided by pupils from overseas. Many parents are very loyal — understandably so, because they see their children doing well and they personally like the monks.

But some might feel differently. An old monk, I remember, once told me at a drinks party that he was relaxed about Downside closing one day. Sometimes it’s better for something to end with integrity, he argued, than change with the times too much.

Earlier this week, the Spectator’s USA edition published an article by Jacob Heilbrunn about the trial of Paul Manafort (former aide of Donald Trump) that was then about to begin. The article described a likely result of the trial to be :

A further spate of publicity about Trump’s Russian entanglements is sure to come tomorrow when his former campaign manager Manafort goes to trial — unless he cuts a last-minute deal with Mueller. It would probably take an Evelyn Waugh to chronicle Manafort’s exploits abroad, which sound like something out of Scoop.

No such last-minute deal was announced and the trial is ongoing as this is written.

UPDATE (9 August 2018): Milena Borden has kindly sent us an update to the story posted above. The report of an independent investigation into sexual abuse in the schools at Downside and Ampleforth has been issued. The Spectator story mentions the report’s pendency. It is not particularly helpful to the schools. According to the Guardian:

The true scale of sexual abuse at two of the UK’s leading Catholic independent schools over a period of 40 years is likely to have been far greater than has been proved in the courts, a report by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse has concluded. Ten people have been convicted or cautioned in relation to sexual offences at Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset. The schools “prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children … in order to avoid scandal”, says the 211-page report published by IICSA on Thursday after hearings last year. The monks avoided giving information to or cooperating with statutory authorities investigating abuse, it says. Their approach could be summarised as “a ‘tell them nothing’ attitude”.

The Guardian’s description of the report’s conclusion sounds much like that forseen in the Spectator:

The report recommends a strict separation between the governance of the two abbeys and the schools. It acknowledges that some steps have been taken but says neither school has formally established a comprehensive redress system and no public apology has been made. In April the Charities Commission stripped the charitable bodies that run Ampleforth of their safeguarding oversight and appointed an interim manager.


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