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The Shocking Cover-Up Of Abuse In Private Boarding Schools

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At the beginning of April, journalist Alex Renton wrote a detailed article in the Sunday Times about the abuse he suffered at Ashdown House, the Sussex boarding school where he was placed by his parents at the age of eight[1].

He talks of being full of rage at the now deceased headmaster, Billy Williamson, who oversaw a nightmare of fear, cold, beatings and sexual abuse; how Williamson would administer drunken beatings to small children for talking after lights out; and the French teacher who put his hands down boys’ sports shorts to check whether they were wearing underwear. 

Mr. Renton also writes of a particularly distressing encounter with his maths master, Mr. Keane.  One afternoon, when he was alone with the master, he pushed his hand down the front of his trousers.

“I did not fully understand why he was fumbling around there, but I knew that there was a sweet for me, a Rowntree’s Fruit Gum if I submitted. The boys who annoyed Keane got hurt. Pulled along by the ear and thrown down the steps into the next classroom – that was his signature move.”

An inundation of reports of abuse at boarding schools

Mr. Renton wrote that when he began to talk about the abuse he had suffered at Ashdown House (whose alumni includes Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, actor Damian Lewis and the Queen’s nephew, David Linley and the 2nd Earl of Snowdon[2]), abuse stories from other famous UK boarding schools began to surface.  Arrests were made, and convictions followed, including;

  • In February 2017, Patrick Marshall, 70, a rowing coach and geography master at St Paul's School, was convicted of the abuse of ten boys in the sixties and seventies.  St Paul’s, which is usually top of the academic chart tables and counts George Osbourne, TV presenter Dan Snow and actor Rory Kinnear amongst its alumni, has seen three ex-teachers convicted of sexual abuse[3].
  • Prince Philip and Prince Charles’s former school, Gordonstoun, has been battling allegations of sexual abuse for years, with investigations being frustrated by official files having gone missing or being destroyed[4].
  • In 2015, a teacher at Wellington College, Berkshire, was found guilty of sexually abusing five boys.  Wellington college counts the broadcaster Peter Snow, the comedian and impressionist Rory Bremner, the pop star Will Young and the journalist and author Sebastian Faulks among its alumni[5].

Backlash to the allegations

According to the Office for National Statistics, 9% of adults aged 16 to 59 have experienced psychological abuse, 7% physical abuse, 7% sexual assault over their lifetime, with women more likely to have experienced sexual assault in childhood than men[6].

Despite these high statistics, Mr. Renton stated that he received some negative reaction to his story, including being called a “class traitor.”

However, he also received hundreds of emails from others thanking him for being so open and outlining their own experience of physical and sexual abuse at boarding school, and the years of sorrow and pain that have since followed.

“Most of my correspondents were thoughtful and reflective, but some were angry, scratching at their scabs decades after they had escaped their schools and their abusers. There were stories of paranoia — child abuse breeds that — and others of quite justifiable suspicion. After all, the private school industry’s first recourse at the whiff of scandal was clearly to cover it up”.

Supporting victims of historic abuse in schools, boarding schools and other institutions 


If you were physically or sexually abused at a British school or boarding school in the past, you can make a claim for compensation to help you access the professional help you need to rebuild your life.

So many victims are still suffering in silence.  As adults, it is important to understand that you can take control and seek justice for the trauma you suffered as a vulnerable child.

People can hear you now.

At IBB, our personal injury team, led by experienced abuse compensation lawyer, Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you wish to make a claim following sexual or physical abuse. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence and handled with the utmost sensitivity.








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