In 1969 Ian Mucklejohn went as a supply teacher to Crookham Court School, a private boys’ school in Berkshire, where he kept a diary of its eccentricities and odd characters. But it became clear that these peculiarities disguised a sinister undercurrent. Years later, he helped to expose one of the biggest scandals in modern British education, as evidence emerged of the sexual abuse by teachers of dozens of boys at the school. He writes here about the book recounting how the abuse came to light and the lessons that need to be learned.
‘How’ I asked a Norwegian client last summer, ‘can Norway exist as the incredibly open society it is?’ I asked because, within a minute of tapping his name into a search engine, I had discovered not only a Norwegian enquirer’s full address, but also his landline number, his mobile number, his date of birth, his wife’s name and date of birth, his salary, the tax he paid and what that tax was spent on. My client looked me in the eye. ‘I think,’ he mused ‘It’s because we trust each other.’
What a precious commodity is trust. I run a language school for children in the summer and have done for 43 years. Everything is built on a basis of trust. Take away the trust and nothing would be left.
Children trust grown-ups. They trust their parents who give them life and who are the bedrock of their existence. This trust extends to all those in positions of authority until, little by little, life’s experiences chip away at this innocence.
When Crookham Court School was started in 1961 with Roy Cotton as its first headmaster, parents enrolled their sons in a school that did not even exist, trusting that all would be well. Hundreds of thousands of parents send their children to school every day trusting that their children will be safe, nurtured and educated. I do this myself. Children believe in and trust in those who look after their education. It was in this atmosphere of mutual trust that Crookham Court School started and it was with this unthought assumption that the 21-year-old me walked through its front door as did parents and children for the 38 years of the school’s existence. We didn’t think we were innocent – but we were. Our too-trusting nature was ripe for exploiting.
It is this trust that institutional abusers rely on, test the boundaries of, and damage beyond repair. Those who abused children at Crookham Court School knew all about trust, saw it as a weakness, and cleverly created a bond of complicity with their victims that has lasted a lifetime.
Had: The Tragedy of Crookham Court School recounts how what I thought might be a story about a real-life Llanabba Castle, so bizarre that I started diarising it almost from day one, turned into something altogether more sinister. Yet it was 20 years from the day I started there before what would now be seen as obvious was broken to an amazed TV audience in 1989. This was one of the first stories that took our collective innocence from us. I had worked with men who were committing vile criminal acts against children I was teaching and I was not to know. None of us was to know. I had no idea that such desires existed. Even when the school was being run by a man I wanted to expose as someone who was bad for children, I had no idea what he was really about. None of the staff at the time even privately suggested it as a motivation. Now, the assumption would be jumped to at once, but not then.
Most parents, staff, and boys had no idea what was happening around them. This enabled the drama to be played out over 38 years. The initial exposé and subsequent media revelations have perpetuated guilt by association and I hope that this book will redress the balance. It was possible for many pupils to receive an education that was more-or-less effective (more pre-Cadman and less post his arrival) and there were good teachers who did their best. The rot was there from the start, though, and the corrosiveness was such that by 1989 one revelation brought the structure down.
The question is how it could have taken so long; how so many children could have been damaged so badly – some so badly that what happened has defined their lives. Even today, 26 years after the criminals who were brought to trial following the initial investigation went to prison, survivors break their silence. The last imprisonment was in 2014. The crimes were committed four decades earlier.
Had is a story of trust in its various forms. The contributors who have let me use their words have trusted me to use their material wisely. On the basis that honesty is a good thing, I have included the descriptions they have given me of what was done to them. I have asked myself if I may have become blasé about my subject matter, met too many men whose childhood has been taken away from them in their early teens, have become desensitised to what has been done to them. My feeling, however, is that within these details there is one of the keys to the strange bond of complicity that can exist between a male abuser and his male victim and is a mainstay of the narrative.
It’s unusual for men to talk about their body’s reaction to stimuli. Those who disclosed to me what happened to them within the walls of their school were in extremis and, in their desperate need to externalise, were to ready to tell me, a trusted teacher, what they knew I knew; a physiological fact that could be expressed in a few words and explained in even fewer, but that had kept these men in thrall for decades.
The physical details they gave of their abuse are, I feel, germane to the story and, when they had been dispensed with as an automatic male reflex, the victims were able to see that the bond was a grotesque deception. Their bodies were telling them one thing, their brains another, and their abusers were insisting that the experience was a mutual one. Decades of confusion, silence and misplaced loyalty resulted from this trickery.
The long silence of the victims has been as distressing as any other aspect of their ordeal. I hope what happened has been presented in a sensitive way, albeit directly, and that my book will help to demystify this form of abuse.
Ian Mucklejohn has a degree in English from the University of London and was a teacher for twenty years. His professional life has always been with children. While teaching, he founded a residential Summer English Language and Activity Course for foreign children, ‘Vacational Studies’, which continues to flourish with many second-generation students. He is a single dad to three 14 year-old sons, Piers, Ian Jr and Lars, about whom he has written several published books. The family lives in Newbury, Berkshire.
His book, Had: The Tragedy of Crookham Court School, has just been published by Karnac.
Reviews and Endorsements
‘An outstanding book, told by the people who were there – those brave enough to recount their horrific abuse, those committed to advocating on their behalf, and their abusers. Ian Mucklejohn has knitted these voices together in a moving story that, unlike the many official reviews that are still gathering dust, will reach a wider audience. This book should be required reading for all those responsible for keeping young people safe.’
– Dave Grimstead, former Detective Inspector and investigator of child abuse
‘This is a very powerful and informative book. Ian Mucklejohn shows how abusers can manipulate their victims into believing that they consented to the abuse, and describes clearly how children grow into adults who still bear the scars of their abuse years later. For anyone hoping to learn from the mistakes of the past in order to make society safer for children today this is a very relevant book.’
– Jon Bird, Survivor Support Manager, National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC)
‘Utterly gripping. Ian Mucklejohn’s tale of thirty years spent at the heart of one of Britain’s worst child abuse scandals is a detective story and a confessional. Through his doggedness and bravery, we find out some terrible truths, which show just how easy it is for the evil to delude the good, and how hard we all have to work to get justice for the vulnerable.’
– Alex Renton, investigative journalist and Contributing Editor of the Observer Magazine