‘A blind eye to violence’

Last month the former owner of a Cumbrian school was found guilty of historic abuse of two boys. But the case might not have been brought at all had it not been for another victim at Underley Hall.

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The beatings are etched on Joseph Ryan’s memory. During his time as a pupil at Underley Hall – a residential school in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria – he received harsh punishments for relatively minor infractions.

“The school’s regime was strict and the level of brutality towards lads who transgressed was inhumane and bizarre,” he says talking about the cruel treatment of children.

“Because I was under-confident and weak I was bullied by pupils and staff.”

Ryan recalls being pinned against a wall by a teacher and punched, being stood on a chair that was then kicked from under him and having his face pushed into a plate of pheasant stew he did not like, in front of the whole school. The details of each punishment dished out were written up for all to see on a poster in a public area.

He says: “This was degrading and embarrassing to the lad concerned. The punishments were extreme. If boys were deemed to have broken the rules – by smoking, for example – they would be made to run around the courtyard for hours on end, or put in shorts and a T-shirt for weeks, in all weathers. Once I was forced to only wear a towel for several weeks.”

Originally from Kendal, Ryan, now aged 48, was removed from his family in 1980 and sent to Underley Hall, where he stayed for six years. He would return home at the weekends and for holidays.

At the time the school had around 60 pupils, referred there by social services. They slept in dormitories and followed a military-style morning routine of washing, dressing, breakfast and assembly, followed by lessons. After lunch there would be activities such as woodwork, motorcycle building and outdoor pursuits.

In the days before inspection regimes, Underley Hall – as an independent school – was run with little official oversight. Boys arrived with a range of challenging experiences, including problems at home and behavioural issues.

Ryan recalls a culture of bullying and says staff were emotionally abusive as well as physically rough. Last month the school’s owner was jailed for two violent incidents, dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, included headbutting one boy and attacking another in the dining hall.

“I was young when I started there and I was very timid,” explains Ryan. “Because I was weak and under-confident I was bullied by pupils and staff. And those staff could access your case history – it didn’t matter whether they were so-called care staff or teachers. It was commonplace for staff to work in several roles – I know they were employing a handyman as a night care worker. And they turned a blind eye to the bullying and violence.”

This is only half the story, however. Rumours of sexual abuse also swirled around the school and, in 1996, a formal complaint was made against former teacher John Wadlow. He was charged with a dozen sex offences but committed suicide in 1997 after absconding from a bail hostel. His initial accuser also went on to take his own life.

When Ryan heard of Wadlow’s arest he decided to come forward with his own complaints. Although he had not been sexually abused by staff at, he was repeatedly molested by an older pupil.

He says: “I knew this was the time to open up about my own abuse and the brutality in the school. But Cumbria Police didn’t want to know – they were focused on Wadlow. And once he died they decided not to go any further.”

It took a further 17 years – and the shocking revelations about Jimmy Savile and widespread institutional abuse – for Underley Hall to be re-examined by police. Operation Tweed was launched in 2014 – later expanding to look at other schools in Cumbria – after Ryan and South Cumbria MP Tim Farron persuaded the local police and crime commissioner to re-open the investigation. By then the school, open since 1976, had been closed following a scathing 2012 Ofsted report.

As well as pushing for an investigation, Ryan took to the media to urge other victims to come forward. He was overwhelmed by how many got in touch – and saddened by the direction some pupils’ lives had taken.

“Everyone’s been affected in different ways,” he says. “I can’t sleep in the dark. I leave the light on to this day because of what would happen to me at night.

“It’s difficult to trust people and to talk to strangers about what happened. When I met ex-lads who were telling me about their experiences at school, some had gone into crime, some into drug and alcohol abuse and others had serious mental health problems. We know of two deaths of victims, there may be more.”

Ryan was receiving calls and messages for months on end, from victims and even parents. The burden grew too great and he had to pass the reins to the police.

He says: “The idea was that I would act as a meditator for anyone who felt they couldn’t approach the police, because they didn’t trust the authorities, or had a criminal record or just didn’t think it was worth it. I’d opened a can of worms though. It got difficult after a while because it was affecting me personally. People were sending me messages on Facebook and phoning me at night and I had to change my number. Eventually I started referring people to the police.”

Last year, six ex-staff members were charged. Former school owner Derrick Cooper and headmaster Errol Mayer denied multiple charges of assault and child cruelty, while four others each denied one charge of assault.

Mayer – who dished out many of Ryan’s own punishments, including kicking the chair out from beneath him – was eventually deemed unfit to stand trial, due to serious illness.

Cooper, 77, was convicted of historic abuse against two boys and was last month sentenced to 20 months in prison. He was found not guilty of six other charges, and four other defendants were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Sentencing Cooper, Judge James Adkin described the violence towards the pupils as a “huge breach of trust”. While Ryan is pleased there has been a conviction, he says many former pupils feel cheated by their long wait for justice. He is now suing Cooper under the Duty of Care Act, as the person responsible for the school.

“We question why the school wasn’t investigated as a whole back in 1996-97, rather than just one person,” he says. “Had Cumbria Police carried out the appropriate investigations in the 1990s, certain individuals would have been tried in court and sentenced appropriately a long time ago. We then wouldn’t have got to the position we’re in now, where abusers have died or become too ill
to be tried. We all feel let down by that.

“If Errol Mayer had been well enough to stand trial, I would have given my evidence in court. But half the witnesses were denied this opportunity because of his health, which we are all annoyed about.”

These frustrations notwithstanding, Ryan is keen to encourage anyone who was abused as a child to come forward and report it. His own experiences with the recent investigations into Underley Hall have convinced him that police attitudes have changed for the better.

He says: “They are taking people seriously nowadays. There are procedures in place now for historic child abuse which are much better than in the past. My experience as a victim and in pushing for the police inquiry has shown me what a widespread problem this is and how frightened many people still are to speak out. But police say all complaints of historic abuse will be investigated.”

In a statement delivered outside the court when Cooper was convicted, Detective Superintendent Doug Marshall, of Cumbria Police, said a dedicated team had investigated almost 100 reports about the school and would continue to look into other complaints.

He added: “We have worked sensitively to ensure that suspects are charged and brought before the court and to enable those who made reports be heard. I thank them all for having the courage to come forward and tell us what happened to them.

“The verdict delivered in respect of Derrick Cooper shows it is never too late to report abuse and police will continue to take all such reports seriously.”

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