Charles Spencer

The writer, historian, podcaster and 9th Earl Spencer Charles Spencer talks about boarding school trauma, class aspirations and the importance of speaking out

It’s the first real day of summer sun in London and we’ve chosen to meet in the dark. Or rather, in a rickety eighteenth-century building amid the chipped furniture and faded roller blinds of a writers’ club in Soho. Charles Spencer sits on a threadbare banquette by the open sash window as the clinking of bottle deliveries and shouted conversations drift up from Lexington Street. Close your eyes and you could be in the Soho of the late 1700s, when grand houses for aristocrats stood shoulder to shoulder with artisanal workshops.

The author of five bestselling history titles, the 9th Earl Spencer appears thoroughly at home in such surroundings, an approachable and beguiling figure with an air of curiosity. An Oxford graduate and former correspondent for American TV network NBC News and the Today Show, it’s clear he’s worked in the real world, because you can see he’s taking in every detail of our surroundings. It’s an alertness he brings to his work as an energetic writer of “non-fiction historical adventures”, an insightful presenter of the History Channel, and BBC4’s expert on their three-part series Charles I: Downfall of a King.

That same spirited style will no doubt be pressed into service for his new book project, commissioned off the back of the highly successful podcast The Rabbit Hole Detectives, which Spencer co-hosts with Reverend Richard Coles and Cat Jarmon. An aristocrat, a clergyman and an archaeologist – it sounds more like the opening line of a joke than a trio of presenters, though the three friends are clearly enjoying themselves enormously as they riff on the provenance of historical objects; with over 40,000 listeners already, its popularity looks set to grow.

But we’re here to talk about something far more serious: Spencer’s recently released memoir A Very Private School, which took him far longer to write than his standard three-year “formula” or, as he puts it: “A year of messing about, a year of serious research and a year of writing and editing.”

It is a piercing read that somehow strikes a balance between the bewilderment of the unsettled child and the perceptions of Spencer’s older, wiser self. The book starts with comforting descriptions of home life – pets, friends and parents, siblings, nannies and a housekeeper – depicting a 1970s setting imbued with nostalgia: Her silver-haired husband, Ernest, looked after the garden. He mowed the lawn with stiff-backed precision, wearing a knitted, grey, sleeveless sweater, no matter how hot the day, a packer of Player’s No 6 cigarettes always to hand.

There’s a filmic quality to Spencer’s scenes, immersing the reader in the sepia sadness of the past. For this life soon broke down as a result of his parents’ divorce, the subsequent disintegration of his family, and finally his total exile from the comforts of home life, when he was dispatched to prep school.

“This book took me four and a half years to write – I spent two years writing it, really, making sure every word was right. I must have edited it nine times,” he says.

It is clear from the opening pages why such care and attention were crucial. Spencer reveals a horrendous culture of brutality and sexual predation at Maidwell Hall, the prep school in Northamptonshire where he was sent as an eight-year-old. It is a harrowing account of rampant cruelty and shattered innocence. The author’s courage cannot be doubted, and his gaze is unflinching, even though a number of his private school contemporaries warned him against “letting the side down” or turning into “some sort of class traitor”.

But the determination to speak out for truth is something we have come to associate with Spencer, whose courage moved the world when he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of his sister, Diana Princess of Wales. Nor is this book the first time he has spoken out about sadism and paedophilia at Maidwell. In a segment recorded for NBC in 1987, Spencer, who at the time was employed as a network correspondent, took viewers on a tour of his former prep school and pulled no punches when asked about his time there. Taken off guard by his revelations, the programme host attempted to make light of the physical abuse, by calling it “spanking”. Bristling, Spencer calmly restated his point. “No, beaten,” he said. “With a cane.”

He tells me now that, before writing the book, “I was worried that, as a concept, it would be seen as an incredibly privileged man’s whinge.” He’s relieved that “people have responded to it on a completely different level – it’s about childhood and vulnerability and abuse, which is the essence of the story whatever the setting. I am relieved people have seen it in its own true form. As a man’s memoir of a particularly testing time.”

Writing it was understandably cathartic, yet he says the ferocity of the memories made the process almost unbearable at times. “I didn’t know how bad it all was until I wrote the book and got other people’s reactions, because I’m afraid there was a part of me that had normalised some of it. There are parts where I was surprised readers were shocked, because you [start to] think it’s normal.

“It was a very violent environment. The fact that six or seven boys out of 75 were beaten every single day – it just became so normalised. And the canings were vicious. We had these communal showers every day and you would see the lacerations on the boys’ buttocks, gradually fading into different shades of bruising.”

His research included interviews with past pupils and friends that Spencer still sees after almost 50 years. “What best sums up Maidwell?” Spencer asked one old friend. “Fear” was his simple response.

It is a harrowing account of rampant cruelty and shattered innocence

“I wasn’t one of the main sufferers in this,” he notes. “It’s a guilt I have that I couldn’t do anything to help others. Essentially there is a survivor’s guilt.”

Sold to parents as a “gentle environment”, Maidwell was in practice a frightening and very dangerous place, presided over by an outwardly charming yet sadistic and highly manipulative headmaster, “Jack” Porch, at whose hands the boys suffered appalling physical and sexual abuse.

“I can’t believe that the people who did it to us got away with it,” Spencer says now. “Actually, there is a regret among my age group that we didn’t do something while these people were alive, but it just didn’t seem doable. Even ten years ago, being a victim was a different thing.”

Bereft of any means to defend themselves, the boys coped as best they could. “One friend became a very devout Christian. He used to pray at Maidwell every day that he would survive. That’s become the cornerstone of his life. Just because he survived, he believes there must be a God.”

In the course of his research seeking out the experiences of former classmates, Spencer found himself suddenly privy to long-held secrets, and you can see why they would take him into their confidence – he exudes empathy, trustworthiness, discretion. “The worst things tended to happen in isolation. There was the regime of beatings which we all knew about, but the serious perversion was very one-on-one, whether it was in the headmaster’s study late at night or on the assistant matron’s rounds.’
The sexual grooming carried out by the predatory assistant matron in the darkened dormitory is particularly chilling. And while Spencer’s peers remember her advances as a source of alarm and confusion for them as young boys, revisiting the memories as adults has doubled down their suffering with a fierce sense of shock and anger.

But there was a definite split between those who were happy to talk and those who preferred to let sleeping dogs lie, Spencer tells me. “The people who were at that school with me were either totally straightforward and said I haven’t thought about this for 50 years but this is what happened, or else, they just didn’t want to know. I don’t look down on them – it’s just a way of coping. I said, it helped me to talk about it. I don’t know if it will help you. But I would encourage you to think about talking about it – to a therapist or a spouse. It’s a hell of a thing to sit on.”

Spencer remembers his contemporaries with palpable fondness. To protect their real names he adopted a code that readers familiar with his book To Catch a King might appreciate. Cornelius Holland and Robert Tichborne join Perry Pelham, Anthony Stapley, William Purefoy and Thomas Scot, among others, as pseudonyms – all taken from regicides who put Charles I to death. It’s an ingenious device that shields identities while conveying a sense of the individual characters.

The details in the book are very precise – the description of the hallway where the boys guilty of some minor infringement await their punishment with the headmaster makes the blood run cold. There is a very real sense that traumatic events laid down at such a young age are burned into the memory with searing clarity.

“Every word in there is true. In fact, I left out some much more sensational things because they were too negative for those involved. My duty as a friend overrode the necessity to add another layer of ghastliness to the tale.”

Former classmates were amazed at the accuracy of Spencer’s memories, though he tells me that, “Before I started talking to people I wondered if I had remembered everything.” Later he came to understand that: “I think I had trauma. A therapist had told me that because I had such a shock with my mother leaving, I became ultra-aware of everything around me. Like a meercat – you’re on full alert most of the time.”

Without exception, the boys kept the extent of the evildoing from their parents, although it must be said that some would have seen signs of abuse on the bodies of their children. “One mother, who must have had to clean the bloody pants of her son, never mentioned anything,” he observes of the prevailing culture of silence.

While carefully crafted school reports and the charm offensive mounted by Porch helped to allay parental fears, their indifference is a dark refrain throughout the book. How they could willingly have returned their traumatised children to a place that was steadily eroding their self-confidence is hard to fathom. “The idea of class, of doing the right thing, of practising the sort of arms-length parenting that everyone expected of you, seem to be the prevailing excuses,” says Spencer.

It is heart-breaking to read that, when they were finally confronted by their children as adults, many Maidwell parents were dismissive, responding with such comments as “it wasn’t that bad”.

Spencer is at pains in the book to be as fair to his own parents as he can manage under the circumstances, acknowledging that they followed the expectations and customs of their class. However, he admits to “an undertone of anger”, telling me:
“I am disappointed that my father didn’t crack the code of what was going on. And also my mother was NOT remotely interested.” This is generational trauma – “well-meaning but misguided fathers thinking this is how we’ll make a man of you,” says Spencer. So, I put it to him: when fathers do to sons what they had done to them: who are the victims and who are the survivors?

“I think it is a class issue,” he responds. “Essentially, it’s parents wanting to fit in because that is what their families have always done, or they aspire to be part of a set they find socially admirable.

“One of my friends who was knocked unconscious and had a collarbone broken [at Maidwell] told his father eventually how it had all been and his father said, All that money! That’s what he was worried about. The fathers find it very hard to apologise. The mothers are far more open to the fact that they might have got it wrong.”

People said: ‘Thank you, I now understand my father and why he couldn’t connect with us as children’

The volume of correspondence Spencer has received since the book came out is staggering. He has no hope of replying personally to everyone, although he sends back information about where people can access support. His personal replies are to those fellow students he remembers.

“What’s been so sad are the letters from the people who were at the school with me. Each of them had no idea they were going through something that others were going through. There was this toleration of the intolerable and it’s had a devastating effect on their lives.”

Spencer plans to incorporate some of these responses in the paperback edition which comes out in just under a year. “I’m going to have a whole extra chapter with the reactions of people in their letters to me.” He believes the book will help his own children to see their father more clearly. While it appears he has made his peace with his own father, the anger has taken a very long time to disperse. But the cycle has been broken.

Spencer is convinced children should not be sent away from home before they are thirteen. Before then, “they’re tiny, tiny people” and even though “people try and justify it”, the decision should belong to children alone, “not parents who hanker after a ‘Whole Charge’ approach to schooling.”

He is glad the memoir has attracted a big response. “I feel that this book has opened up a conversation and that is what I was trying to do. People got in touch saying: ‘Thank you, I now understand my father and why he couldn’t connect with us as children and our grandfather was the same.’ I think it’s helped.”

It’s a good place to end our interview – with the darkness lifted and London’s sun still shining outside. Later, I see from news headlines that Spencer slipped away to attend the tenth anniversary celebrations of his nephew Harry’s Invictus Games. A stalwart uncle and supporter, he clearly holds no truck with putting anyone in exile.

“A Very Private School” by Charles Spencer is out now, published by William Collins

Joanna Grochowicz is a polar historian and author.Her latest book “Shackleton’s Endurance: an Antarctic Survival Story” is out now (Murdoch, £7.99)

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June / July 2024, People

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