Charles Spencer’s headmaster was a paedophilic villain – I remember him

A teenage Charles Spencer, outside the family seat, Althorp House
A teenage Charles Spencer, outside the family seat, Althorp House - Ian Tyas
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Charles Spencer’s A Very Private School begins with a dedication, “For Buzz”, and a quote from Hilary Mantel: “I am writing in order to take charge of my childhood.” It is not until the end of this searing, heartbreaking book that the full import of both these statements becomes clear.

The school in question is Maidwell Hall, a turreted Northamptonshire prep school “without love” and with an “inner heart that contained something sinister in the lining of its critical valves… a beautiful place under a dark power”. The English boarding-school system occupies a wide place in the national psyche, and Spencer’s take on Maidwell is much closer to Flashman than Hogwarts, as evidenced by some of the chapter titles – ‘Willing Henchmen’, ‘Blood on the Floor’, ‘Facing the Past’.

I arrived at Maidwell just after Spencer (today the 9th Earl, and younger brother of the late Diana) left, in 1977. The school I remember was an altogether more temperate and kindly place than his, for one main reason: I had only one year with Alec Porch, a headmaster of terrifying malevolence, base paedophilic tendencies, craven snobbery, and a mania for secrecy and control (hence the title of Spencer’s book).

Quoting Solzhenitsyn – “unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty” – Spencer portrays Porch, who died in 2022, as charming to parents and vile to pupils, a monstrous Janus who acted “as prince, parliament and police chief” in his kingdom. “He didn’t like boys,” Spencer adds, “but he did enjoy hurting them” with one of two canes, the Flick and the Swish. The accounts of how Porch would alternately beat and fondle a cursed chosen few pupils are at times almost unbearable to read, as are the passages about another master who would take photos of naked boys, and the heavily-trailed accounts of Spencer’s abuse at the hands of a young assistant matron.

This book, however, is about much more than simply the headline passages. Even allowing for the retrospective wisdom of age, Spencer is acutely observant of the myriad power imbalances at play within this imperial throwback – “the last of the Victorians”, as a friend says – the teachers who meant well but refused to call out the abuse, the bullying prefects who curried favour by finding miscreants for Porch to beat, and the matrons who guarded their turf with attack-dog intensity.

Maidwell Hall, in Northamptonshire, pictured today
Maidwell Hall, in Northamptonshire, pictured today - Getty Europe

There has been a steady stream of non-fiction books about boarding schools in recent years, and in those terms there’s little that will surprise here. But two things mark Spencer out from the crowd. First, he is by title and birth the ultimate establishment man, but he’s still prepared to take on the shibboleths of his class and upbringing. Second, his turn of phrase is often delightful: his father’s butler Mr Betts “liked to walk quickly, his nose in the air, face clenched, his eyes fixed ahead, as if engaged in a never-ending egg and spoon race”; “underdone vegetables that sighed in defeat on the plate”; and a matron’s hand “cocked on her hip like the hammer of a duelling pistol”.

As ever in this genre, the shattering impact is not merely what happened to a child seen and heard by adults in only the most superficial ways, feeling that he had been sent away “because I had somehow fallen short as a son” and not wanting to make it worse “by being difficult or questioning”. It is also the effect which this abuse continues to have even on outwardly successful men for the rest of their lives. “To survive the trauma,” he says, “a small but important part of us had to die.”

Spencer acknowledges the insulating effect of privilege and money, but is at pains to emphasise the indiscriminatory nature of this kind of damage. Indeed, it is only when his second marriage breaks down and he realises that he has “next to no understanding of intimacy” that he seeks therapeutic help, which in turn leads him to confront the deep trauma of his childhood years.

Maidwell is not the only culprit for Spencer’s unhappiness. He writes movingly of his anguish at his parents’ divorce, speaks of how his mother had a beloved dog put down without telling him or his three elder sisters because of a ‘skewed but sincere’ desire to spare them grief, and of being a little boy lost and ignored in the vastness of his family’s Althorp estate.

Charles Spencer is the 9th Earl, and brother of the late Diana
Charles Spencer is the 9th Earl, and brother of the late Diana - William Collins

This is also the scene for one of the book’s few flashes of humour, when he recounts how Phyllis the cook would stage a massive row with Spencer’s father every mid-December and resign in a huff so as not to have to cook over Christmas before reappearing early in the New Year as though nothing had happened.

Those years are a half century ago now, and Spencer emphasises that this is a historical document, “a record of a time when things were quite different”, rather than a treatise on education today, with all its emphases on safeguarding and pastoral care rather than the “unregulated amateurs with unknown tendencies” of yesteryear.

It is only on the penultimate page that we find out who “Buzz” is – Spencer himself at six or seven, pre-Maidwell, so nicknamed by his mother because he had the “happy effervescence of a bee”. And it is not until the final line that, echoing Mantel, he says “I feel I have reclaimed my childhood” – a painstaking and traumatic process, but one for which any reader must surely give a cheer.

A Very Private School is published by William Collins at £25. To order your copy for £19.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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