Witherslack Hall School, Witherslack, nr Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria
Second South Lakes school in alleged child abuse investigation
Witherslack Hall School. The claims do not relate to the current school owners or staff
DCI Doug Marshall who is leading the Operation Tweed inquiry on behalf of Cumbria Police,
A SECOND South Lakeland school is being investigated by detectives probing complaints of alleged child abuse, the Gazette can reveal.
The allegations relate to the 1970s and 1980s at Witherslack Hall School, a 90-room mansion on the edge of the Lake District, which at that time housed around 55 boys in care.
It is the second school to be named under Operation Tweed, the far-reaching Cumbria Police investigation into historic complaints of physical and sexual child abuse.
The first was Underley Hall in Kirkby Lonsdale, a former residential boarding school for ‘troubled young boys’, which shut two years ago.
DCI Doug Marshall, the officer heading Operation Tweed, said: “The cases we are looking at in relation to Witherslack Hall are historical in that they go back some length of time and aren’t linked to the current school.”
The operators of the school said they were aware of the investigation but stressed the allegations pre-dated the current staff and owners.
So far, the Gazette has been unable to contact anyone involved in the running of the school four decades ago.
Nicki Cozens, of law firm Slee Blackwell in Somerset, said she was acting on behalf of three complainants making abuse allegations relating to Witherslack Hall School.
She said the primary allegations related to physical abuse but with an ‘undercurrent of sexually inappropriate behaviour’.
Meanwhile, former pupils of Underley Hall in Kirkby Lonsdale welcomed confirmation this week that the Government will hear their complaints at a national child abuse inquiry.
MP Norman Baker said a panel of experts would examine whether public bodies, and other non-state institutions, did enough to protect vulnerable children from abuse.
Mr Baker, the minister for Crime Prevention, said that any allegations relating to Underley Hall in Kirkby Lonsdale, would be considered as part of the Government’s specially-commissioned inquiry, led by the Lord Mayor of London, Fiona Woolf.
He said: “This inquiry will consider whether public bodies and other non-state institutions, have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.”
Tim Farron, who wrote to the Home Office about the issue, said: “I am pleased that the Government will make sure that allegations made by former pupils at Underley Hall will be rolled into the overarching inquiry. We must get to the truth.”
Former Underley Hall pupil Joseph Ryan added: “We welcome the news that the police will also look at Witherslack Hall School as it was a similar type of school to Underley Hall.
“It was part of the inter-school curriculum that pupils from Underley Hall would play against Witherslack Hall at things like cross-country, canoeing, football and outdoor pursuits.”
Built in 1874, Witherslack Hall opened as a school for boys in 1973 in what was formerly Sandford School for Girls, close to Whitbarrow Scar off the A590. Described as a ‘Sleeping Beauty Castle’, it started with four boys but by 1975 it had grown to house 55 boys from across the country.
By 1982, its aim was to help youngsters ‘fit back into society’ and across three ‘houses’ – Lake House, Peak House and Dale House – it catered for boys aged 12 to 16.
Like Underley Hall, it was independently-run with around 20 staff and took in boys who had been the subject of care orders from local authorities.
Pupils were educated up to CSE level and went on trips to places like Switzerland and were given pocket money and school uniforms.
This week Witherslack Hall Group, which still provides a 38-week residential and day school for pupils aged 10 to 19 with ‘complex learning needs and challenging behaviour’, issued a statement saying:
“We are aware of a police investigation into allegations of historic abuse of children who attended Witherslack Hall School in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria.
“These allegations date back to the 70s and 80s and we would like to stress that none of the staff currently working at the school were employed at that time and that the allegations predate the current owners involvement in the school.
“Throughout its current ownership the school has been judged to be good or outstanding by Ofsted for both education and care.”
DCI Marshall said: “Officers obviously have to spend time with those people getting accounts of alleged incidents that occurred many years ago – this isn’t a speedy process and I am anxious that it is done properly, allowing people all the time they need to relay their evidence.”