Paul Foot

It’s rare to be able to test a book against one’s own direct experience of its subject-matter. I therefore make full use of mine, as a pupil at Shrewsbury School in the Fifties. In his Foreword to a new biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench,[*] one-time headmaster of Eton, Sir William Gladstone writes that Trench’s ‘interest was in drawing out the best from boys as individuals’. Another interest, not mentioned by Sir William, lay in drawing down the underpants of boys – as individuals – before ordering them to lie on his sofa while he spanked their bare buttocks. In his Introduction, the author Mark Peel pays tribute to Trench’s ‘common touch’ without referring to his most common touch of all: the sensuous fingering of his pupils’ buttocks before and during the interminable beatings. He goes on to describe Trench’s ‘contribution to the life of the school’, in this case Bradfield:

He was in addition tutor and confessor to a large number of his flock. Those who were the holders of unflattering reports were summoned to the study on account of their lackadaisical ways. Such indolence might lead to an immediate thrashing, but these encounters were normally forward-looking and liberating in their tone. Because the majority appreciated Tony’s concern for their welfare, they would happily comply with his instructions to return at recurring intervals to submit an up-to-date account of their progress ... Housemasters were known to be kept waiting to see Tony as some fourth former had the Latin gerund carefully explained to him. By dint of personal rapprochement many of Tony’s geese became swans.

At Shrewsbury, I was one of Trench’s geese – he was my housemaster from 1952 to 1955. When I first encountered him I was 14, underdeveloped, and utterly bored with the way I was being taught classics. Trench closely followed reports from the classroom and suggested I could improve my performance by regular visits to his study with my prepared work. He seemed to have endless time for these encounters, and the reason quickly became clear. He announced that if there were fewer than three mistakes in the work, I would get a piece of chocolate; if more than three mistakes, a beating. Beating on the backside with a cane was a common practice in the house, but it was usually inflicted by senior boys on their juniors. A beating by the housemaster was a serious and painful business. The prospect drove me to approach some of the older Greek scholars in the house, who, in solidarity with my predicament, helped all they could. The standard of my Greek translations improved miraculously, but three mistakes could usually be found. A beating was certain, but then, to my relief, the prospect of the cane diminished. Trench explained that I had a ‘choice’: the cane, with trousers on; or the strap, with trousers off. There was no choice, really, though Trench enormously enjoyed watching me make it.

When the relatively painless strap was nominated, he became extremely cheerful and excited. Clapping his hands in joyful anticipation, he would lead me out of the study to his upstairs sitting-room on the ‘private side’ of the house, where he locked the door, pulled down my trousers and pants, lowered me onto his sofa and laid into me with his belt. The blows hardly hurt at all, though the humiliation was excruciating. The worst part of the ordeal, however, was yet to come.

The beating over, Trench would insist on the deep and lasting nature of his friendship with me. In particular, he was keen to get my approval for what he had done. Wasn’t it only fair, he drawled, to offer a boy a choice of punishment? ‘Oh yes, sir,’ was the prompt reply. On one occasion, Trench, who stank more than usually of drink, questioned me closely as to whether I thought there was anything reprehensible in his behaviour. ‘Oh no, sir! Of course not, sir.’ Did I ever contemplate the possibility, he continued, that he was some sort of paederast (a word which he pronounced, probably correctly, ‘piederast’). ‘Oh, my goodness no, sir,’ I stammered, quite honestly, since I had not the remotest idea what paederast meant. My slender knowledge of Greek helped me a little – pais, ‘child’; eros, ‘love’. But when, in probably the only piece of independent research I conducted in my first three years at Shrewsbury, I looked up the word in the dictionary, I found, simply: ‘paederast: n. sodomite.’ And I was none the wiser. Trench was not a sodomite. In a revealing remark to a senior boy at Bradfield he described buggery as ‘not only messy but futile’. He was what is now known as an abuser. He derived sexual pleasure from causing pain to young boys, especially by smacking their bare buttocks.

All the boys at School House, Shrewsbury, knew of this abuse. The identities of Trench’s special victims were also well known. Peel quotes the then headmaster of Shrewsbury, Jack Peterson, describing the reaction when, in 1952, he disclosed the name of the new housemaster to the boys at School House. ‘There was first an audible intake of breath, then the widest grins on all faces and finally when I got out of the room a pandemonium of excited and happy chattering.’ Peterson, whose lack of contact with schoolboys was legendary, took this to be a sign of delight at Trench’s appointment. In fact, as I clearly recall, the laughter was mainly in mockery, the chattering in amazement, distress and even fear. Only two years previously Trench had been ‘house tutor’ (with extensive powers to beat boys) and his passion for bare bums was the subject of much gossip. Older boys with broken voices and hairs on their legs had nothing to worry about. Treble-voiced, smooth-legged classics students should try to keep out of his way. Most of the older boys who remembered Trench were inclined to excuse his strange behaviour on the grounds that he had had ‘a bad war’ – at least six months building the Burma railway as a prisoner of the Japanese. I could never quite understand why ill-treatment by the Japanese should drive a man to child abuse, so I am delighted to find the Burma excuse put to flight by Francis King, a school contemporary of Trench’s. He remembers Trench the schoolboy as ‘supercilious, capricious and cruel’ long before the Japanese ever laid a finger on him.

Mark Peel describes the floggings at Shrewsbury as ‘a real outlet for Trench’s unabated enthusiasm and carefree simplicity’. His line is backed up by other, older boys of the time who insist that Trench’s beatings didn’t do them any harm. My own often expressed hostility is explained away by Peel with reference to my supposed political antagonism to Trench. I am ashamed to admit that when I was 14 or 15 at Shrewsbury I had no political views at all. Nor is the case for or against Trench a rerun, as Peel pretends throughout, of the old argument for or against corporal punishment. Enthusiasm throughout the public schools for corporal punishment obviously provided a cover for Trench’s consistent abuse. But Trench was assaulting boys in his charge for one reason only: his own sexual gratification.

We boys all knew as much, and so, I suspect, did several other members of staff – but not the parents. The key to Trench’s rise in the public schools was his mastery of public relations. He spent hours gushing to parents about the brilliance, wit and sporting prowess of their sons. The parents, kept in the dark by that instinctive solidarity with which adolescents protect each other against the adult world, adored him. Not one of us would have dreamt of ‘sneaking’ on Trench to our parents or to any other adult. In 1955, to the intense relief of everyone in School House, Trench, then only 36, was appointed headmaster of Bradfield. His new position gave him even more power to indulge what Peel calls his ‘foibles’. He won universal praise as a headmaster who continued to teach, but he carefully picked classes of 14-year-olds whom he could invite to his study for extra-curricular supervision.

After reading this book, I telephoned David Blackie, who now runs a computer language course in Bedfordshire, and who was unlucky enough to be patronised by Trench at Bradfield in the early Sixties. Blackie is quoted by Peel as criticising Trench’s ‘penchant for unrestricted and unsupervised corporal punishment of adolescent boys’. Our long conversation took us back more than three decades to the Trench study, and those tortuous conversations about punishment alternatives. ‘I was once beaten on the marital bed,’ Blackie reported in disgust. He reminded me of something I’d forgotten: Trench’s habit of insisting before delivering each blow that his victim must not contract his buttocks in anticipation. ‘Just relax’ was the persistent growl from the great educationalist.

David Blackie was beaten over and over again during nocturnal visits to the headmaster’s house to ‘go over’ his classical compositions. He was certainly not the only one at Bradfield who got the Trench treatment. Yet at Bradfield, too, there was universal ignorance of the abuse among parents and authorities. Sir Eric Faulkner, later chairman of Lloyds Bank, who sat on Bradfield’s council and in 1964 became warden, is quoted here as saying: ‘We were never worried by his use of corporal punishment.’ Consequently, Peel records, the fact that Trench was a prolific and consistent abuser of young boys played no part in the discussions which shot him, in 1963, to the highest pinnacle of his profession: the headmastership of Eton.

The tone and style of Peel’s book are admirably established in its opening sentence: ‘As Britain awoke from the long, hard winter of 1962-63 the news that Anthony Chenevix-Trench had been appointed headmaster of Eton brought a spring to the step of all those who bemoaned the growing sense of drift and complacency in the country.’ Never mind that Trench had been a crusted Tory ever since, at the age of 19, he had campaigned for Quintin Hogg in the ‘appeasement’ by-election in Oxford in 1938. Never mind that drift and complacency were two of Trench’s most enduring characteristics. The arch-flogger, arch-creep and arch-hypocrite had somehow established himself as a wonderful teacher (which he was not: in the classroom as elsewhere he was discursive, reckless and self-obsessed) and a reformer (which he wasn’t either). He was sycophantic enough to his superiors to survive for a long time at Eton. Even his increasing dependence on alcohol could have been overlooked in an environment where drunkenness was generally considered a sign of manliness. Only one thing cut short his career at Eton: the buttocks problem.

Again and again, his lust for flogging upset the delicate balance of control at Eton, where corporal punishment, though central to the culture, was traditionally a matter for housemasters and senior boys. The more difficult he found his job (he was a hopeless administrator), the more Trench lashed out at boys’ bottoms. These boys were not, as at Shrewsbury and Bradfield, the sons of mere Northern manufacturers or Home Counties bourgeoisie. Their fathers were dukes, earls and viscounts who were not at all opposed to corporal punishment but who expected a modicum of consistency in its application to their own sons. When Trench turned down the advice of head boy James Mackay and flogged a couple of seniors for staying out late, Mackay told his father, the Earl of Inchcape. Rough treatment of the appropriately-named Viscount Brocas caused dismay in the household of his father, Earl Jellicoe. I recall the outraged indignation of the young Hume Shawcross, son of Lord Shawcross, who travelled to the offices of Private Eye to spill the beans. Also expelled was Caspar, son of Ann Fleming, whose influence in high society was legendary. In White’s and Brooks’s and at the Carlton the conversation turned invariably to ‘the flogger they’ve got in charge of Eton’. There was only one thing for it: the bounder had to go.

Trench was sacked. That he was a drunkard and a child abuser could not be revealed, so he left in a blaze of glory. The Eton Chronicle, in what must have been a stab at satire, mourned the departure of ‘a gentle and considerate schoolmaster’. There were the usual feasts, at which Trench was showered with the usual gifts and the usual breathtaking hypocrisy. The official explanations poured out of a well-oiled Rentaquote machine. Tony was tired, Tony was ill. It was time for a change. Throughout the long process of dismissal, there was hardly a public whisper about the conduct that had occasioned it. He applied for the headmastership of Fettes. ‘We did examine his application to see if anything would invalidate it,’ said the chairman of the school’s finance committee, ‘but of course there was nothing.’

Ludovic Kennedy, whose daughter went to Fettes in the Trench years, has revealed that his floggings grew in intensity as the years went on. Often, in desperation, Trench picked out wholly innocent boys for beating. He became ill and resorted increasingly to drink. Early in 1979, he was sacked. Before he could be ousted from his lodgings, he died, aged just over 60. This time, the chorus of official praise was tinged with relief.

When I first wrote about Trench’s beating habits, in Private Eye in 1969, one or two amateur psychologists suggested that my encounters with him had made me bitter and formed my anti-public school opinions. In fact, I was very happy at Shrewsbury, especially in my last year, when Trench was replaced at School House by Michael Charlesworth, a kind and courteous man, quite the opposite of his predecessor. It is not true, as naive left-wing rhetoric sometimes has it, that British public schools dragoon their boys into rigid and orthodox opinions. At Shrewsbury in the mid-Fifties, as I suspect in every other similar school, older boys were encouraged to think for themselves. Laurence le Quesne, who taught history, urged me every week to read the leader in Kingsley Martin’s New Statesman. Frank McEachran, a Henry George Liberal by politics, introduced me not just to a different Milton and Shakespeare but to entirely unheard-of poets: Auden, Eliot, Hopkins, E.E. Cummings. These were taught by McEachran not as classroom fodder but as living poets. In that last summer of 1956 there was no cruelty or sadism endured or inflicted. I was sad to leave, and was naturally grateful to the public school system for its many advantages. My opposition grew later, as I came to see the narrow, prejudiced exclusivity on which the system depends.

It is this tendency that explains the resistible rise in life and after death of Anthony Chenevix-Trench. Just as the earls and viscounts rallied to protect their boys’ buttocks, so, in the general interests of snob schools, they rallied to protect his reputation. Peel’s wretched hagiography, full of clichés and bad jokes, is part of that process. If Tony Trench was a little ‘exuberant’ with his floggings, so what? Peel tells us: ‘His bent for personal relationships amongst his pupils wasn’t simply the means to an end, it was the end.’ The dark side of Trench must be passed over because of the ‘overriding need of boarding schools like his to create leaders of men’. In any normal circumstances, he should have been the subject of a police investigation and criminal charges. In the world of the public schools, however, he is a heroic figure.

[*] The Land of Lost Content: The Biography of Anthony Chenevix-Trench by Mark Peel (Pentland, 249 pp., £16.99, 25 July, 1 85821 400 9),