Next Witness: Call Captain Grimes

Alex Renton recently wrote a book about pederasty in British prep schools and public schools called Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class. He has now made a documentary about the same subject which aired on ITV Monday, 19 February 2018 and is now available online on itvPlayer. (A UK internet connection is required.) This is “Boarding Schools: The Secret Shame: Exposure.” An article about the background of both the book and the documentary appeared in a recent issue of The Sunday Times: “A conspiracy of silence: Alex Renton on sexual abuse at top British boarding schools.”

The article recounts Renton’s own experience with a pederast at his prep school Ashdown House in the 1970s. His researches among former students at his own and other schools in the private sector turned up numerous similar incidents. Such occurrences are also reported in the public sector but these are typically concluded with legal action against the perp. In the private sector, however, Renton demonstrates that in most cases, the pederast in question was, if confronted, punished by, at most, a dismissal and rarely faced criminal charges. In many cases they simply took up positions at another school. That conclusion is, perhaps not surprisingly, buttressed by a citation to Evelyn Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall. According to Renton:

Evelyn Waugh, who had been both boarding schoolboy and teacher, based one of his greatest comic characters, the prep schoolmaster Captain Grimes of Decline and Fall, on a serial child molester. Waugh declares elsewhere that “pederasts” were normal in schools. “Never did me any harm,” public-school chaps will say, even today, as they recount their formative experiences with fumblers and groomers. (The women — and perhaps 20% of my postbag comes from female former boarders — are rather more reflective.)

Renton’s mention of the reference “elsewhere” by Waugh to boarding school pederasts probably comes from A Little Learning (CWEW 19, pp. 191-92). Although not mentioned by Renton, the recent BBC TV adaptation of Waugh’s novel made an adjustment in the script of the TV version that is relevant to Renton’s subject. The only evidence of Grimes’ sexual preferences in the film relates to his having it off in a garden shed with the adult chauffeur of one of the parents on visiting day. He is caught in flagrante by the headmaster and is told he must leave. It is clear from Grimes’ discussions with Paul Pennyfeather that this has happened before at previous schools where he taught, but, unlike in the novel, no schoolboy incidents are hinted at or mentioned in the TV film. It could be that this change in the story was influenced by Renton’s campaign. Boarding school abuse of students may no longer be a laughing matter as it was in the 1920s.

According to Renton’s research, the boarding school child abuses peaked in the 1960s-1980s and have abated in recent years. The reasons for their relative acceptance in previous years continue, however, to have some resonance today at some levels of society:

Many parents would accept the cover-up, convinced by the school that it would be better for all if police attention and scandalous court cases were avoided. Though one, whose son was abused at Gordonstoun’s junior school, Aberlour House, told me three years ago he felt the school had “hoodwinked” him with its promise that, if he agreed police were kept away, the teacher in question would never work in a school again. Of course, without going to the authorities there was no way the school could guarantee that. Deep in the ethos of many parents of boarding school pupils was the notion that some misery was a good thing for a child, and that learning to cope with life’s unpleasantnesses was best achieved by experiencing a lot of them, early on. This has played out in some shocking ways.

One of these shocking outcomes was illustrated in the ITV documentary. Robin Lindsay, headmaster and owner of the Sherborne Prep, feeder school for the public school attended by Arthur Waugh and his son Alec, had repeatedly been accused of child abuse. Gill Donnell, the Dorset Police Superintendent who investigated the accusations in 1993, was interviewed by Alex Renton on TV. She recalled speaking with parents of allegedly abused children who refused to allow them to be interviewed by the police investigators. Donnell says that in many cases the parents made clear that they were not prepared to risk scandal by cooperating with the law enforcement agencies if that were to jeopardize their child’s chances for entrance to the “required public school”. Renton concluded and Donnell agreed that, to those parents, the children’s futures were more important than their present suffering. Lindsay was forced to resign in 1998 (one year before his planned retirement) after an administrative tribunal recommended that he be barred from teaching, but he never faced police charges for his alleged repeated offenses.


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