Reading one of Moor Larkin’s excellent posts the other night, an excerpt from the Pollard report caught my eye. I had seen it before, but in isolation; now I was reading it again in conjunction with the memory of an except from Jimmy Savile’s autobiography (I confess I neither own a copy nor have read it – excerpts only!).
It was Meirion Jones making his disingenuous background notes to Mark Williams-Thomas and talking about the Duncroft girls:
4.5 In the 1950s, Duncroft was an elite institution where only the most intelligent young criminal girls were sent. If you were influential and your daughter had been caught doing something criminal, you would try and work the system so that she could go to Duncroft. As a result, the pupils at Duncroft included individuals who were connected to fairly influential and high profile families.
And again, in Savile’s autobiography a similar sentiment was expressed – that somehow parent’s could influence the result of a court case and ensure that their ‘well connected’ daughter ended up at Duncroft and not one of the many other similar Approved Schools dotted across the country.
It is cobblers. Cobblers on stilts as it happens.
First, and most important, any girl arriving at Duncroft in the 1960s, as I did, had been through the criminal justice system via the local Magistrates Court. The resulting ‘Care and Protection Order’ counted as a criminal record at the time – it barred future employment in the Civil Service or Armed Forces – both still bastions of upright God fearing citizens serving their country.
In fairness, some of the reasons why you might need to be criminally sanctioned as in need of ‘Care and Protection’ would seem laughable today. There was one girl, whose parents had upped and disappeared, who had maintained herself and her young brother by stealing food until caught – unthinkable today that she should be so punished, today social services would be running in circles furnishing a flat for her.
1960 was a different country, and it pays to remember that.
Other girls had played truant from school – today their parents would be punished. Another girl had taken a raincoat from a school coat rack on a rainy Friday night – when she returned it on the Monday morning she was charged with theft. Today you have to ‘intend to permanently deprive’ before being charged with theft. Without doubt there were some girls who had taken to prostitution at an early age, and one I shared a dormitory with, who proudly boasted of her starring role in early blue movies.
The point being that every single one of us had done something that was considered to be against the law at that time. I have detailed my own path to Duncroft. The notion that we were merely ’emotionally disturbed’ and that well-heeled parents had opted for this palatial manor house known as Duncroft to avoid us getting into more trouble is to seriously misunderstand what was going on here.
The courts, having sentenced us to (normally) a three year ‘Care and Protection order, we were then moved to an ‘assessment centre’. The first criteria for Duncroft was IQ. Here again, the thinking was not to isolate some well-heeled elite, but to ensure that the experiment of seeing whether further education, still in its infancy, would help us to return to normal life. The IQ element was not rigid. (I was later amused to find, when some fellow Duncroftians arrived on this site and commenced a conversation about IQ results, that I was the Dunce of the class of ’65. Their Barnardo’s notes revealed IQs of terrifying heights, unlike my own more modest score!). The IQ result was coupled with an assessment of ‘likely to benefit from further education’. That in turn meant that those who hadn’t played truant, and playing truant is far more difficult at a boarding school than it is for those at day school in their home town, had a head start here – they hadn’t missed so many lessons.
Parents, well-heeled or otherwise, had nothing whatsoever to do with this process.
Readers under the age of 60 may not be fully aware that back in the 1960s, ‘being at boarding school’ didn’t necessarily mean that your parents were well-heeled as it does now. The world map was still coloured pink, and boarding school was a sort of gentile fostering service for the children of the army of sometimes quite lowly civil servants and military that were stationed in the outposts of the British empire. I went to boarding school at 3 (Froebel’s in Guernsey) and I wasn’t unusual in having gone at an age that would be considered abuse in itself nowadays. I also wasn’t unusual in being part of the band of children that didn’t go home at Christmas or Easter holidays, simply because the journey to ‘home’ – Australia, Hong Kong or wherever – was really only ‘do-able’ in the longer summer holidays. B.O.A.Cs nanny service for ferrying such children to their parents is a fond memory for many. The more lowly the parent’s overseas occupation, the more likely boarding school rather than a private tutor in the ambassador’s residence…
So, was Duncroft only for the children of the well-heeled? Stuff and nonsense. I did a quick phone round of other Duncroft girls the other night, and between us, spanning 1965 to 1973, we can only come up with a total of two girls who were ex-boarding school, and only one of them (not I, that’s for sure) could remotely be described as ‘middle class’ let along ‘upper class’. The rest of our class mates were defiantly ‘working class’. One was the product of ‘fairground employees’. Two we can think of, had parents who had never been nor intended to be, gainfully employed. Again, as Moor has so painstakingly researched, some had no family home to return to. No parents to speak for them. Nowhere to go on the occasional home leaves. That was why people like Professor Bell took us on camping holidays to Norfolk. (*Waves to Ellen*).
The ‘celebrity connections’ that people make so much of, came about (mainly) because the school psychiatrist, Dr Mason, was married to an Elstree film producer, and the fact that the school and its ethos was a liberal experiment, an early exponent of the idea that neither your cultural background, nor your past, should count against you in ‘life chances’. People, especially the liberal elite, were fascinated by this notion of ‘bad girls’ being given a second chance. Little doubt that there were some who found the notion positively offensive.
The raising of the school leaving age to 16, and the concomitant requirement that everyone received a full time education, posed a problem for the mental health services. Young people are as prone to mental illness as adults. Schizophrenia can strike alarmingly early. Autism, though not a mental illness, can lead to behavioural problems that were not readily understood at the time. Psychiatric hospitals didn’t even have ‘young persons units’ and they most definitely didn’t have educational facilities.
One of the important changes brought about under the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 was that central government divested itself of direct responsibility for the former Approved Schools. Many were closed. Duncroft, already a ‘secure unit’ and with residential psychiatric facilities, became a ‘Community Home with Education’, administered by the Local Authority, and for the use of those with mental health issues who could not, because of the requirement for secure accommodation, utilise mainstream education. I have taken a straw poll of 1975/78, not as comprehensively as I did for the 1965/73 period, and girls from that period don’t remember anyone who would qualify as coming from a privileged background.
It is curious how this myth of a financially privileged elite has taken root. Initially from Savile’s idea that somehow parents were ‘clamouring’ to get their ‘gals’ into Duncroft; then from Meirion Jones’ comments to Pollard, and possibly the news that ‘Fiona’ was parented by a highly placed BBC apparatchik. On the one hand we were ‘poor little vulnerable waifs’ and on the other hand we were the ‘spoilt offspring of wealthy parents’ trying to avoid the court system?
Neither is true. We were an egalitarian experiment in what is now a very modern idea – that neither your past and nor your birth circumstances should preclude you from having a second chance at making a life for yourself.