Pissed-off Toff

What harm has this Eton beak done?

in Big Issues

Sacked from Eton, Matthew Mowbray faces crucifixion for a series of sex-related offences. Pissed-off Toff questions the justness of the fate that awaits him.

In a vague and general way, one was brought up to believe that the Middle Ages were a time of crazed supersitions, a strange era of crusades and witch-burning before the Enlightenment ushered in our own age of unlimited wisdom. 

How deluded we are. Because nothing can match the madness of our own times, characterised as they are by mass hysteria, by the absence of any sense of proportion, and by not just one, but two ‘scientifically’ approved death-wishes of epic extent. I refer, of course, to the well-established myth of ‘man-made global warming’ and to the newer myth of Covid 19 as a modern visitation of the Black Death … myths which make the prophets, priests and soothsayers of old look like the most sober of rationalists.

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In the face of all this, a lesser manifestation of the hysteria that characterises modern Britain might not seem very important. But let us nevertheless consider the story of Matthew Mowbray, the 49-year-old Eton beak who has just been arrested for a number of sex-related offences. With his career destroyed, he probably faces a longish term of imprisonment before emerging to face disgrace for life. What, then, has he done?

There’s one count of voyeurism, relating to Mowbray covertly filming an Eton boy getting dressed. To this he admits … although it is not clear why there are not more counts of voyeurism, since another boy claims to have seen Mowbray peeping through the keyhole of a the bedroom of a 13-year-old Etonian on a different occasion. (Which suggests that the doors to the rooms of Eton boys have been fitted with locks; because a generation ago there were no locks on the boys’ rooms.)

There are also six counts of creating indecent images of children on his computer, most notably by superimposing the faces of Eton pupils onto the naked bodies of children. To these he admits.

More seriously, it would seem, there are a further nine counts of ‘sexual activity with a child’, involving four boys at Eton, and one girl elsewhere. Mowbray denies these charges, which relate to events over a ten-year period; but it’s difficult to see how he can get off. 

Here, for example, is what one of his accusers says. “At around 10pm he came into my room when the lights were off. I was wearing just pants, and he sat on the middle of my bed. He was in my room for about 15 minutes and he was comforting me [the boy was having problems with his school work] by stroking my arm quite lightly. And then he put his head on my arm.” This must have been a junior boy, since lights-out for older boys is later. So we can assume that Mowbray was visiting a pretty new boy. And we can also assume that he was a housemaster, otherwise he would not have been under the same roof as boys at night or had access to their bedrooms.

In a more sinister vein, we hear of one boy who, during his time at Eton, received six or seven visits from Mowbray. On one of these visits (or perhaps on all of them: the three reports I have read are not clear) Mowbray went into the boy’s room, turned off the lights, and stroked his thigh through the blankets. Oh dear!

Whatever the details, the pattern is clear. “In each case, the event occurred in a boy’s own bedroom,” said John Price QC, for the Prosecution. “He was alone. He was only partly clothed, and in his bed. Mowbray was sat [sic] on the bed when a chair was available. The door was closed and the light was off. If a boy switched it on, Matthew Mowbray would turn it off again.”

Otherwise we learn that Mowbray was once married, but is now divorced. Also, that he was “renowned” – as the Prosecution put it – for taking photos of boys on the playing fields. Furthermore, that the ‘dame’ (a matron figure) in his own house had warned him against being alone in boys’ rooms at night. And we lastly learn that following his arrest after about twenty years as a master at Eton, the school sacked him.

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It is perhaps just another sign of my complete alienation from the modern world that I find it difficult to get very worked up, morally speaking, about the misdeeds of Matthew Mowbray. The story does, however, surprise me on two counts. How, one wonders, did he get away with it for so long? Given the mass of evidence presented at Reading Crown Court, where he is on trial, it seems clear that Mowbray was far from discreet. So surely various people in authority at Eton must have known what he was up to? Certainly the ‘dame’ in his house knew, or strongly suspected. And secondly, how can the man have been so remarkably foolish? It is the sheer idiocy of his behaviour that most strikes me.

Otherwise, I feel some sympathy for him. It must, after all, be a form of torture to find oneself irresistably attracted to objects of desire which are illegal, especially when what is and is not legal is so arbitrary. So much so that the homosexual act, which was illegal until I was aged seven, is now not only perfectly legal, but even positively celebrated. So Mowbray has committed no crime in nature. He has, on the other hand, broken the modern taboo that our puritanical country most abhors: he is guilty of ‘child abuse’.

But let us consider what harm he has done … what real, undisputed, identifiable harm. I’d say absolutely none. Voyeurism might be a little ‘pervy’, to use an out-of-date term from more forgiving times, but it’s a strange crime where the victim does not know it’s happening and does not suffer from it in any way. And as for Mowbray stroking the limbs of adolescent or pre-adolescent boys, no conceivable harm is done. Not even the most sensitive of children can claim to have been even remotely ‘traumatised’ by such acts. Indeed, if this is ‘sexual abuse’, then the term has lost almost all meaning.

I am not for one moment argueing that what Mowbray did was acceptable. Of course it wasn’t. My point is, rather, that the punishment which is coming his way will almost certainly be out of all proportion to the offence, or to any harm caused by the offence. His career is finished. He will almost certainly go to prison, where he will be routinely beaten up by the other inmates … a vicious self-righteousness towards paedophiles being the only way they know of feeling better about their own crimes, which in most cases are rather more serious than lightly stroking the arm of an adolescent.

In short, I would not like to be in Mowbray’s shoes. And I think myself lucky indeed that I am not tormented by sexual tastes which lie beyond what the law permits.

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Indeed, luck – or the lack of it – is an important factor in this story. If Mowbray had been luckier he would have been hauled up in front of the headmaster of Eton ages ago and warned in no uncertain terms that if he touched or even photographed another boy ever again, he’d be sacked on the spot. That, surely, would have brought him to his senses.

He is also unlucky to be living today, and not a generation ago, because I can immediately think of a number of masters at Summerfields – my prep school – and later at Eton who routinely got away with behaviour that might now land them in the clink.

From the former school, I remember a jovial purple-faced maths master, addicted to snuff, called Mr Porthouse (‘Porty’). He was universally popular, and as he leant over me in the classroom to help me with some question he had set, he used to massage my shoulders with a warmth that went beyond the purely avuncular. Deprived as I was of parental affection, I did not mind in the least.

Still at Summerfields, there was the sinister Mr Steadman (‘Steady’), who used to patrol the dormitories at night, rounding up any boys who were misbehaving, as we so frequently were with pillow fights and assorted ‘dares’. There would often be a queue of a dozen of us outside his study, waiting to be beaten on our bare bottoms. His six-of-the-best with a slipper nicknamed ‘Horris’ were excruciatingly painful. But if we refrained from screaming, he would reward us, at the end of the ordeal, with a Mars Bar. To boys half-starved on a diet of food so awful that it would have caused a riot in any prison, this was a rare prize, to be savoured in small slivers over the days that came.

Neither ‘Porty’ nor ‘Steady’ would have survived for long in any school today. At Eton, too, in the late 1970s, there was a discreet coterie of gay beaks, one or two of whom went a little too far. Take the blue-eyed Mr Coleman, now singing in a heavenly choir, who taught me French literature. He was an inspiring teacher, and particularly strong on Racine. But he had his demons, and when, late one night, he was found wandering down the High Street brandishing a large kitchen knife in a state of semi-undress, he was informed that enough was enough. Rather less amusing was his suggestion to an Oxford don that an Eton boy being interviewed for a place at the university might, if accepted, be sexually available. He was lucky to get away with that.

And then there was Giles St Aubyn, son of Lord St Levan and considerably richer in his own right than many a parent. As a housemaster, this eccentric bachelor overstepped the mark. Of undoubted homosexual tendencies, he would find reasons – and the flimsiest pretext would do – to call the prettier boys into his study and spank them. Perhaps an angry father had words with him, because for some reason this practice came to an abrupt halt. Nowadays he would have been sacked. Or worse.

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So however foolish Mowbray has been, I have some sympathy for his predicament. It is no fault of his own that his sexual tastes are deemed not only perverted, but criminal. And no matter how misguided his behaviour, he has caused no real harm … and a great deal less pain than the beatings which I regularly received from the fearsome ‘Steady’ at my prep school.

He has, however, ignored the mood of these mad and terrible times. And for that, he will pay.

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