The school that never was

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This week’s offering from author and journalist Eugene Byrne takes a look at hoaxes played on a selection of headmasters at a number of public schools by a Cambridge undergraduate, including an invitation to exorcise a ghostly figure

The story

In 1948, the head of Marlborough College public school received a letter from H. Rochester Sneath, headmaster of Selhurst school, “near Petworth, Sussex”. Sneath wished to warn his colleague against hiring a French teacher named Robert Agincourt: 

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“During his stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish’. The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as “the blot on the twentieth century” by a visiting conjurer. His personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap.

He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors. Should you wish any further information, I should be glad to furnish it.”

Sneath, and indeed Selhurst School were fictitious products of the imagination of Humphry Berkeley (1926-94), at that time a Cambridge Undergraduate. ‘Sneath’ wrote to several public school heads. He asked the head of Stowe whether it was advisable to provide sex education for school maids. To the head of Tonbridge he wrote: “Dear Rootie, You will doubtless remember old ‘Tubby’ Sneath — well it will give you a helluva shock, you old bounder, because last year I took on the Headship here. Do you remember prophesying my early death in a South American brothel?”

Most fell for the hoax. One who did not was the head of Wimbledon College, whom Sneath had invited to exorcise a ghost haunting Selhurst. He replied: “It will be necessary for you to have ready for me the usual Bell, Book and Candle, a gallon of holy water and a packet of salt … These operations usually take some time, and remuneration is at the rate of a guinea an hour. An essential condition for success is that all present (myself excepted) should be fasting for at least 24 hours before the ceremony begins.”

When Berkeley was rumbled he was rusticated for two years, but returned in triumph. In later life he was a Conservative MP and in 1965 introduced a bill to legalise male homosexual relations in line with the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations. He later fell out with the Conservatives over the Vietnam War and their support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa and joined the Labour Party. He subsequently joined the SDP, and then Labour again.

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Berkeley published a bestselling book about the Selhurst hoax, The Life and Death of Rochester Sneath in 1974.