Every so often I do a Google search for the name of my old school, Kesgrave Hall. (Even before Google came online, I used to search for it using other search engines like Infoseek back in the mid-1990s.) The first thing I found out was that the building had been taken over by a timber company called KDM, which had turned the old dining hall into a “high-tech” timber trading hall (you can find some more pictures of the place here, mostly posted by an old boy). Then they moved on, and the building itself was taken over by the Ryes School, a special needs institution based near Sudbury. Then they moved on (because the education department decided it was too big for purpose), the building went up for sale and adverts appeared in Country Life among other places, and this year it got sold to the Milsom’s restaurant chain, which own a number of posh restaurants and small hotels in Essex. They intend to call the new place “Milsom’s at Kesgrave Hall”, which to me has a similar ring to “the Factory Lane Ritz”, the latter being the site of the rubbish tip in my old home town of Croydon.
As for the school, this week I found out something quite different, not about the building as such but about the school: a man was tried, and then convicted, this week for sexually abusing someone there. The man, just in case the newspaper’s website pulls the story, is one Alan Stancliffe, aged 68, from Pontefract in Yorkshire, who already had several other convictions dating from 1982 and 1999 for sexual abuse at Kesgrave. Admittedly this happened in the late 1970s, a decade before I arrived, but I found it somewhat disturbing but not altogether surprising.
I must admit that I was surprised at the details: that the assaults happened in the senior dormitory, namely the Norfolk room, which was composed of cubicles and occupied by fifth formers (today’s year 11; note that form means the same as grade, and there was only one class per form as it was such a small school). When I was there, the fifth formers tended to be the tougher pupils, as you’d expect as they were almost adult, and I find it difficult to imagine that someone could be sexually harassed or assaulted in there. Pretty much all the cubicles were open to view from at least one other occupant, as well as anyone who happened to pass by. Perhaps these assaults happened when the victim was alone in the room. I don’t want to blame the victim or cast doubt on his story as I wasn’t there, but when I was there, anyone who had tried it on with a pupil in Norfolk would have got the daylights kicked out of him.
This doesn’t mean that sexual harassment or abuse didn’t go on, however. On the contrary, when I was in the second year (I spent my first year elsewhere), there were three boys in particular who sexually harassed me and others, and this was done publically and was hardly disguised at all. One of these, a creepy kid two years older than me called Karl Kennell (I’m not sure if that’s the spelling), later did time in Hollesley Bay youth detention centre for sexually abusing young girls while babysitting them, so it just goes to show that such people aren’t picky. Another, who had the nickname Bent Mushroom (mushroom because of his hairstyle, bent because of his proclivities) and was in the form above mine, was far more physical - I can’t remember exactly how physical he got, but it easily included groping people’s backsides. This was done publically, and when people protested, he would pull his sweet and innocent act.
This creep was in the same dorm as me when I was in the second year, and was also a bully. Actually, it’s well known that sexual abuse is about power and not really about sex, although a friend who also suffered Bent Mushroom’s advances told me that he tried it on with people better able to fight him off than we were. Karl Kennell and the third individual, who was in the habit of telling me I had a nice arse (again, in public), were friends with, and in the same dorm as, two of the school’s most notorious bullies. Bent Mushroom had a buddy on the “care” staff, a foul-mouthed thug who assaulted boys on more than one occasion. One evening I returned to the dormitory from the bathroom and found a boy (whom I’ll call Dead President because he had the same name as an early US President) on top of Bent Mushroom, and I don’t mean in a sexual sense. I don’t know what exactly Mushroom had done but he must have given a lot of provocation. Anyway, Mushroom’s pal, Victor Harris, came in and instead of just pulling DP off, punched him first. (This was totally unnecessary, and illegal.)
Mushroom went out, and a short while later came back and gloated to DP, “huh huh, you got done”. DP replied, “only because you’ve got your head stuck so far up Harris’s [backside] you can’t get it out” or something to that effect. A few seconds later Harris walked back in, Mushroom passed this bit of gossip onto him and Harris pulled DP out of bed, said “get out there, you little sh*t” and pushed him out onto the landing, where he remained for the best part of an hour. I remarked on how long he had been out there to Harris, and he told me he was “sick of his f*cking snide remarks”. The fact that DP might have been sick of how people treated him (not very well, as I’ll come to later) didn’t seem to matter. Anyway, a few days later I related this story to another person in the same class as Mushroom. This person (known as Tango Man) said exactly what DP had said when Mushroom gloated at him: that Mushroom had his head up Harris’s backside.
Victor Harris was not the only thug on the Kesgrave Hall staff. (He was sacked in 1990 or 1991, for drinking with fifth formers.) I was assaulted twice in my first half-term in 1989 by Chris Simpson, the biology teacher who also did “care” duties. On the first of these occasions it was because I refused to co-operate when he insisted I return to the common room where someone who had been intimidating me was also in there, and there was no supervision. I also saw Bill Sutton, a care worker who joined after Christmas 1989, kick someone for muttering “sh*t” under his breath - a common enough occurrence at that school - on his first day there, and throw kids round rooms during evening prep. He ended up having a heart attack during a fight with a boy, who had complained about his attitude previously. Then there was Maurice Telford, the maths teacher who punched a boy in the stomach in front of me and another witness for calling that person a “pr*ck” during the lesson (this was illegal). Telford was also reported on Friends Reunited to have put his hands around a pupil’s throat during a fight in the dining hall.
There was a general culture of violence and impunity at Kesgrave, and it was not really discouraged by the attitude of the staff (as you might have already gathered). In my first couple of days, for example, when I finally got Eric Richardson, the deputy head, to listen to my complaint that a fourth-former had been troubling me, the best he could do was to call that person a “golliwog” (nigger) in front of both of us. As you might have gathered, his colour wasn’t central to my complaint, although probably that individual had called Richardson “Taffy” (or other insults related to his Welsh origin) more times than he had received racial abuse from him. Richardson, in response to a later complaint from a Jewish boy that another boy had called him a “fat Jewish Yiddish M. F.” replied that he was indeed a “fat Jewish slob”. Racism, like the sexual abuse, was open and undisguised, and usually went entirely unpunished. The school’s policy towards bullying usually consisted of simply blaming the victim. If the victim had been “mouthing off”, that was excuse enough. (In my first few days, I got numerous lectures about “mouthing off” from certain staff, notably Sean Common, who told me that the aforementioned black bully wasn’t to be trifled with as only he, and one other named care “worker”, could handle him.) On another occasion, I was punched in the face, in public, by someone in the form above mine for supposedly “mouthing off” after he had tricked me into sitting on a wobbly chair after he took my decent one. I demanded that he be punished, and was told that my swearing would cost me more than his assault! He pulled similar tricks on three other occasions, and got away with it every time.
There were a couple of other factors which added to the climate of violence at Kesgrave. The first was the fact that boys with incompatible problems were mixed up - those with autistic-type conditions and “disturbed” boys. I’m not really sure how disturbed some of Kesgrave’s thug boys really were - just because they are ill-behaved and loutish doesn’t mean they are disturbed or victims of abuse or anything like that, but the school should have specialised in one or the other and, instead, mixed them up. I have a lot of resentment towards the headmaster, Michael G Smith, for inviting me to his wretched school when he knew this. He knew full well that I was unsuited for it and that I would get hurt, and see a lot of others get hurt; I can only think that he did this for money. I also must put the question of why the person in the form two years above mine (nickname: Weevil), who besides his autistic tendencies (he was a number plate expert, for example) was not all that intelligent and was a mark for terrible bullying by his form-mates, and others (sample excuse: “he was being a tw*t”), was allowed to stay there. (And if this guy was such a good judge of character, and could “read body language” as he told us, why on earth could he not work out that people like Bill Sutton were not desirable care staff when I could after five minutes in his company?) The second, particularly in my first year there, was the situation of the prefects. All of the fifth formers that year were “sub-prefects” and were entitled to go round giving orders, and often used fists on anyone who disobeyed. I recall fifth formers attacking people in the corridor in my first year, shouting “keep your f*cking language down”. I was publically assaulted in the dining hall, for example, by my table-head in 1989 for refusing to “shut the f*ck up” when he shouted at me to do this (I’d not heard this phrase before, and was offended). He wasn’t punished, as far as I know.
Later on, after the first headmaster I knew left to become the head of a “remedial” special school in Lincolnshire, Eric Richardson became headmaster. Some of the pointless rules which had made life under the old régime oppressive were scrapped, like the rule banning going through the front door, but he also decided to appoint the class thugs in my year as prefects. Richardson lasted a year (he left, to become the head of Netherton school in Devon, when it appeared that the school would close in the summer of 1993), and after him another long-standing teacher, John Williams, took over. He had the bright idea of appointing “sub-prefects” in the form below mine and the one below that. Both were obviously chosen for their hoodlum potential rather than seniority, sensibility or anything else. The one in the lower form had the nickname BAP (Bad Attitude Problem). When I heard that I knew that my decision to leave and study for my A-levels in Croydon was the right one; he clearly had no intention of doing away with the cancer of “thug privilege”. The school folded, for financial reasons, a term later.
When I arrived in the autumn of 1989, the school was not at all generous about allowing boys to see family, let alone go home. There were half-term holidays and “nominated weekends”, which took place on average every three weeks. Before Smith had taken over (and no doubt during the period when the Stancliffe abuse happened), boys boarded the whole term without remission other than, as Richardson told us, for weddings and funerals. I got the impression that he, and various others, would have liked to return to that system. During his period as headmaster, however, weekly boarding became allowed (for legal reasons, as I was told). I don’t really know why this had not been allowed before; perhaps it was so that boys who did not really have homes to go to would not be distressed by seeing others go home. However, this was at the expense of causing distress to those who did, and had to spend their weekends with people who made their school lives difficult. First and second years, while I was a second year (it changed the year after), simply had no escape. We were not allowed off-site unsupervised, we were not allowed in the woods (supposedly for safety reasons), our weekend shopping trips (usually to Woodbridge) were done in an escorted group trip, we were not allowed bicycles (also, ostensibly, for safety reasons), and there was no privacy. If I was doing something private in a room on my own, this could be disrupted (and often was) by anyone who wanted to cause trouble. Boys slept six (on average) to a dormitory, and this was a real shock to me as I had not shared a room with anyone since my parents split my sister and me up when I was 8. The conversation, particularly in my first term, was not something I was prepared for; it was often about sexual matters about which I didn’t know much, or at the age of 12, care much.
Since leaving Kesgrave, I’ve met with only one former pupil by purpose (two others came to my old house by chance in 1994, selling something or other, and told me the story of how the school had closed). However, I participated in some of the discussions on Friends Reunited, which started in 2001 when the site became well-known. Someone (who was from my home town and was in the upper 6th form when I was in the second year) posted a poem about his memories, which he said were mostly happy ones. I posted that he was welcome to his happy memories, but mine were dominated by the surly and abusive “care” staff like Sutton and Harris, the sexual harassment, the “corrosive atmosphere of continual backbiting”, the thug culture, the fact that the nice staff all seemed to leave after a while, and so on. There are those with the sentiment that the good outweighed the bad, that we “could have rotted in a local comprehensive”, and that bad memories are best left buried. For some of us, however, they are not buried and are still pretty vivid years later. My overriding memories are of the stress, the climate of fear, not knowing whether people would be my friends or at my throat from one day to the next, and the misery of living with people I didn’t much care for and who didn’t much care for me.
Eric Richardson, in one of his morning lectures, once told us that he would be quite happy if one of us said to him, “thanks Taff”, after leaving the school, but he did not expect anyone to say such a thing to him then and he certainly didn’t want to hear “Taff”. Frankly, I don’t know what gratitude he, or most (I admit there were some good ones) of the staff there expect. They did a job, not very well in a lot of cases, and got paid for it. End of story. I’m not grateful, least of all to them. My time there feels like four years ripped out of my life and thrown to the dogs. Yes, it’s true that there were good times - the two trips to Germany and Fred Miller’s mystery tours, for example - and the food was good, at least when it wasn’t contaminated by cigarette ash or insects, and the disasters and the less inspired servings, like the luminous green mousse known as “Sizewell Tart” after a nearby nuclear reactor, gave some of us a good laugh. I’m not saying I was a saint or that I never deserved to get punished or that I didn’t get corrupted by the culture myself to some extent, but I also believe I wasn’t in the best of positions to change that culture, and I am not just talking about what I suffered. I have a sense of being cheated; I went in with good intentions and with a sense of a new start, and had a rude shock when I got there. Kesgrave was not really a special school, despite what some of the newer boys believed. It did not live up to its sales rhetoric at all. It was, essentially, a dumping ground.
I promised to come back to Dead President, so now here I will. He was expelled from the school in the summer term of 1993 (weeks before he would have left anyway) for a drunken assault on a former teacher against whom he had a grudge, carried out on a weekend trip to Felixstowe. I am not entirely sure what drove him to drink; perhaps it was his family problems, or perhaps it was the abuse he received from other boys, who bullied him for the cigarettes he was addicted to but not allowed to have. On top of this, people generally regarded him as a worthless, dirty individual, called him scum and suggested that he had been fished out of the toilet by his mother rather than flushed down it as he should have been. I shared a dorm with him for most of my fifth form, and he was a nightmare to live with because of his unpredictable, drunken behaviour. Now, Mike Smith told me to have compassion for him because of all his problems etc., but back then I didn’t feel in a position to do so (and besides, others were paid to care for him; I wasn’t). Nowadays, I can see that he got that way in large part because he had been treated like filth for the past several years, but that’s as easy for me now as it was for Mike Smith to say it then.
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