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Really? More about Downside?

This is a part of the story I’d not heard:

In the late 1970s, a boy who I’ll call Charles arrived at Downside. As was usual, he was sent to the junior boarding house, sleeping in a dorm with 30 other boys. Its housemaster was a monk called Dom Denis. He was a large, ebullient man who kept a train set in his study, where he would invite boys to play with it and drink cocoa.

One night, Charles told me, Denis came into the dormitory and sat by his bed. He slipped his hand under the covers and fondled his penis. That first time, Charles was too frightened to make a sound. But when Denis came back on subsequent nights, he shouted. Denis fled. Charles was 12.

Soon afterwards, Denis was moved away from the junior house.

I was still there then (in the junior house in, umm, 1976, left the school in 81) and I knew nothing at all about this.

Perhaps the most serious of those involved Fr Nicholas White. He taught geography and, the inquiry found, throughout the 1980s he repeatedly molested the children in his care.

Ah, now this, yes.

According to many, the Downside of the ’70s and ’80s was a hard place. Hierarchies were rigid, discipline harsh and violence common.

Really? My abiding memory of the place is the laxity. Obviously, lines not to be crossed and all that. But the overall scene seemed to be that of course boys will be boys. So, allow them to be so along with some guidance about how to be good at it.

Charles described elaborate initiation rituals, such as ‘crucifixion’, where younger boys were strapped, sometimes naked, to their bed frames by prefects and older boys. Occasionally, boot polish would be rubbed on to their genitals – something known as ‘blacking’.

Sounds more like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Indeed might have come from that. Obviously, I don’t claim to have known everything that went on everywhere over the 5 years I spent there. But having never heard of this, in the slightest, means it might not have been there.

And there was a year there – 1980/1 – where I was the Deputy Head Boy. In charge of all the prefects, effectively. Perhaps I am simply wildly unobservant. But I think I would have heard of it if it was something institutionalised in any way.

Hmm, no.

19 thoughts on “Really? More about Downside?”

  1. Occasionally, boot polish would be rubbed on to their genitals – something known as ‘blacking’.

    Parade Gloss, I assume.

  2. “Charles” may very well believe every word said. Human memories get edited, combined with fantasy and reinforced over the years. After more than 40 years no recollections should be accepted as reliable, yet courts of law do. No doubt if “Dom” (or John or Bob or whatever his name) could be located then this testimony could get him convicted.

  3. People are prepared to believe any old rubbish about boarding schools I suspect.

    Though I did note as a boy that my father never mentioned his with any affection even though he was a clever laddie who had also won lots of sports trophies. In fact he hardly mentioned it at all. He did say that they played rugby in the autumn because the ground was soft and soccer in the winter because the ground was hard. That’s it: one anecdote. Not a lot for several years there, was it?

    I did observe his relief when we all opted to go to the local secondary school. Which, apart from the way the science teaching petered out at the end, gave us an excellent education in the best Scottish rural tradition. When we reached university and met lots of private school Old Boys my brother and I felt we were the ones who had been privileged. Dear God, their fathers had stumped up for that second class schooling? Absurd!

  4. It sounds rather akin to the Anna Raccoon/Jimmie Saville situation. Accusations are made about historical abuse at an institution, up pops someone who was also there at the time in question who says ‘Hey, that doesn’t fit with what I recall, who are you, were you even here then, if at all?’

    I think its fair to say that a non-zero percentage of the population is, for want of a better phrase, away with the fairies. They are living in a fantasy world that has very little to do with reality. And such people can make serious accusations against perfectly innocent people, as the whole Carl Beech case showed. We need some way of testing accusations. Just ‘Believe all accusers’ does not cut it.

  5. @addolff
    In scouts it was Deep Heat. At least, that was the threat made to juniors during the first camping trip with the troop. Never actually happened while I was there.

  6. I’d guess with multi occupancy dorms dodgy stuff has to be institutionalised and or ritualised because it’s hard to conceal. Nowadays boarders are all in single or double rooms, where arguably its easier for bad eggs to go off piste without a dozen other witnesses.

  7. Bloke in the Fourth Reich

    I’m blown if I can remember much about my own far less interesting secondary education. If I try very hard, maybe.

    The worst abuse I can remember was if you forgot your PE kit boys were made to wear girls kit from a mouldering, stinking pile of lost and abandoned clothing. And vice versa. No doubt that would offend all manner of sensibilities these days.

    Abuse went in the other direction by sixth-form, with the annual “slime a teacher” event, all in a good cause. As one of the few people working at the time I put an unmatchable, and for the time eye watering sum of £50 on my favoured victim. Also something that elfinsafety would have a few words about now.

    I am sure boarding schools have rather more elaborate and evolved hazing rituals than secondary comps, and certainly surprised you can’t remember any as head boy would likely have one all to themselves.

  8. Perhaps I am simply wildly unobservant.

    Did you know about “bad things” to a level of understanding such that you were specifically looking to see if they were happening?

  9. Being someone who went to a very typical CofE primary school and a very typical comprehensive school in the 1960s and 1970s, I think that many younger people would be pretty disbelieving if you told them about the amount of bottom beating that took place and how it was considered to be perfectly normal. The cane, the slipper and the blackboard ruler were just a part of school life. In the wood shop there lived a wooden bat which was jokingly referred to as the board of education.

  10. Correction: I can remember a second anecdote about my father’s boarding school which puts such schools in a much better light.

    At morning break the boys had a choice of milk or small beer.

  11. I went to an independent day school which liked to think of itself as basically a public school without the boarding (it had one house of boarders until shortly before I started there), and I was in the cadets and the BB. Nobody ever tried to rub my tackle with anything, and I never heard of anything like it happening. What is wrong with some of you?

  12. As an apprentice toolmaker in the early 1970’s, I had to endure the standard initiation rite of having my balls smothered in “engineer’s blue” (look it up). This was, I much less humiliating/painful than what happened to my mate who bragged that he’d warned me of my impending fate. As a punishment he was re-intiated with metal turnings from the lathe added to the blue. As you can imagine, much delicate tweezer work was required prior to him being able to walk, or indeed, to put back on his underwear!

  13. @Gunker, I well remember the day I filled in as wicketkeeper. Somebody helpfully reminded me to put on my box….bastards had put Deep Heat in it, which I discovered on reaching the pitch. Had to apologise to the umpire for the ensuing language…

  14. @stonyground, our physics teacher had a “cricket bat” named Beelzebub, made by the woodwork teacher for whacking people with. If you accumulated 10 whacks you got to sign it. Obviously, towards the end of the last school year some recidivists were actively misbehaving, just to get their name on it!

    Either their understanding of children was so bad that they couldn’t see this coming, or they just enjoyed it too much themselves…

  15. It can happen out of some pupils’ sight.

    State 14-18 comprehensive school, 1500ish pupils, mixed sex, but with a small number of boarders who tended to be Forces’ offspring, in two very nonadjacent nonmixed boarding houses. So I sometimes wonder if the school was a formally Approved one… But I don’t think I heard anything of such goings on even in the much smaller sixth form until there was a very unfortunate incident on school premises which revealed a birthday ball blacking “tradition” among the boarders. Perhaps what was wrong with them was the aping of what they thought were Forces rituals – I really don’t know.

  16. I think the private schools need to get rid of child abuse. Child abuse is evil. People who support child abuse are evil.

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