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Historian Charles Spencer on his memoir 'A Very Private School'


Charles Spencer's new memoir about his five years at a posh British boys school is often sad and shocking. Presents individual teachers, staff and the headmaster at Britain's Maidwell Hall in the 1970s, who were abusive and cruel to students in the most intimate ways. Much of this discussion may be painful to hear. His memoir "A Very Private School." And Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer, brother of Princess Diana, an author of several histories, joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHARLES SPENCER: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: You were 8 you when you were taken to this prestigious school. Is it hard even to look at the photo of the - what seems to be a joyless young boy on the book's cover?

SPENCER: Well, it's 51 years on from when I went there, and I still have nightmares about that place - to be packed off to a boarding school for my first term - my first semester was 13 weeks - was a very daunting prospect indeed, and one that frankly, at 8, I just couldn't understand on any level.

SIMON: You write in this memoir that you found, quote, "a mix of quiet and secrecy." You write, many of these adults weren't there for the boys' best interest, but to meet their own darker needs. What were these so-called needs?

SPENCER: The name of the book is opposite. It's called "A Very Private School," and it was ruled by an extraordinarily frightening and powerful headmaster, Mr. Porch. And his needs - it was clear to me and clear to my contemporaries - were those of a sadist and pedophile. And he had complete control. It's an extraordinary amount of power that boarding school masters had in those days. We had no communication with the outside world apart from our weekly letter home. And this deviant headmaster was able to staff his institution according to his own needs. These were unregulated amateurs who wanted to find somewhere where no one was going to pay too much attention to what they were getting on with.

SIMON: Headmaster Porch supervised your daily prayers. I feel the need to be specific. What would he do to you, his students, at night?

SPENCER: Yes. So the headmaster, Mr. Porch, presented to the world, and particularly to the parents, as this devout Christian who - the parents could feel very confident that their boys were in safe Christian hands. But it pretty much seems to me that the school was based around a need, and that was the need for Mr. Porch to be presented with half a dozen pairs of buttocks every evening to beat. And every week, at least once a week, quite a lot of us boys - and there were only 70 to 75 of us there at any one time - would be caned with our underpants down. And he had this art of delivering five parallel strokes of the cane, and then the sixth would go across the other five for added pain. And I'm afraid to say it was very clear that he was physically aroused by dishing out these punishments.

SIMON: Ugh. And I have to ask about the third senior master, the Honorable Henry Cornwallis Maude. Ah. He was master...

SPENCER: Well, he's a chilling figure.

SIMON: Yeah. No, please tell us.

SPENCER: It was interesting when I was writing the book. I didn't put it in the end manuscript, but every single one of my contemporaries I spoke to - and there was two dozen of them - every time Mr. Maude's name was mentioned, there was still a visible shudder in them 'cause he was just so terrifying. He came from an aristocratic family, and he could be utterly charming to the parents. But as soon as they were gone, he was terrifying.

He enjoyed inspecting the boys at shower time, when, of course, we were naked. And he would grab us by the limbs and just lash out and hurt us. I remember once I was in the changing room getting changed into cricket boots, which were spiked metal boots, and I happen to be alone, and he just seized me. I hadn't done anything wrong. He seized me and beat me with my cricket boot, and obviously, the spikes went in and drew blood - so a chilling man, and I believe also - well, clearly, a sexual pervert.

SIMON: Even moments that seemed like fun could be troubled. There's an assistant matron you refer to as Please, who would sneak snacks into your room at night, but for a price, is the way I'll put it.

SPENCER: Yes. So in this very chilled landscape, it was very exciting to have this young assistant matron. She's probably around 20 when I was 11. And we slept in dormitories. And there were two dormitories up near her bedroom. So it wasn't patrolled by any of the other staff 'cause they felt she had us - she would be there to look after us. And I've always been a light sleeper. And I woke up to hear voices, and it was her dishing out cookies and grapes. And then later that night, I woke up to work out that she'd come back again. And I don't know what the right term is, but she set about seducing me, as an 11-year-old, and she was a woman. And, you know, it seemed very exciting at the time. But of course, it was perversion at its worst.

SIMON: I appreciate this is going to sound naive, but I think a lot of people listening to us. May want to ask, why didn't you tell your parents?

SPENCER: It is a question. I think the main answer - not one of my contemporaries told our parents. And I think you have to remember how very young we were - 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-old boys. We had no context to our lives. We didn't know how abnormal this was. We also had very limited relationships with our parents.

One of my contemporaries said the strangest thing about his first day at this boarding school was being driven there by his father - 'cause they had never actually been alone before. This is him as an 8-year-old. They'd never been alone and had a conversation before. But his father wanted to take him school to warn him that some of the older boys might find him attractive, so that was the reason for that conversation.

Essentially, it comes down to just not knowing how wrong it was at the time and just thinking also - I know this from my point of view - I assume my parents were all-seeing, all-knowing beings and that they wouldn't have sent me there if they didn't know what it was like.

SIMON: We ought to mention Headmaster Porch, whom you name, is deceased, and you make it clear in the book that you believe the school's a very different place now.

SPENCER: Yes. I think essentially, this was a regime of one man. And Mr. Porch left very suddenly a year after I graduated from the school. I assume that he was found out on some level because although he was only young for a headmaster - he was, like, 51, I think, when he departed - he never had another job in another school.

The worst part of writing this book was - you know, I have a journalistic and author background - was listening to other people's - what happened to my friends, what happened to my classmates because it was such - it was all done so privately and so cleverly. And I imagine it's a typical way that abusers operate. They're going to do it in the shadows. And I felt this despair - not about my own experiences - because I understood them - but it was listening to other people and what they had gone through.

And in a way, I know this sounds mad because I was a little boy back then, but I was quite a big presence at the school academically and sportingly and all of that sort of thing. But some of these who were picked on were very quiet, sweet kids who've had their lives ruined.

SIMON: You will turn 60 in a few weeks.


SIMON: How do you think this experience still affects you?

SPENCER: There will always be a part of me that's snared by what happened at that school. But I have worked very hard over the last few decades to come to terms with that. I say it in the book, actually, but to survive, to navigate this incredibly bleak environment, a small but important part of me had to die. I'll never resurrect the full sensitivity that I would have had in a more reasonable and sensible place. I know that, but that's that's what's happened. But I am in a much better place than I was before I wrote this book.

SIMON: Charles Spencer, his memoir, "A Very Private School." Thank you so much for being with us.

SPENCER: It was a pleasure. Thank you so much.


SIMON: And in a statement to NPR, Maidwell Hall school says, quote, "almost every facet of school life has evolved significantly since the 1970s. At the heart of the changes is the safeguarding of children and the promotion of their welfare. Although we have not directly received any claims from ex-pupils, the school has made a referral to authorities and would encourage anyone with similar experiences to come forward and contact either Maidwell Hall or the police."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.