Edgeborough School, Farnham, Surrey
‘Why did Dad send me back to the school if he knew I’d been raped?’: Actor Donald Sinden’s son on the horror of being abused by his headmaster – and the horrific secret his father took to the grave
- Marc Sinden, 61, has only recently come to terms with his childhood ordeal
- He revealed for the first time that he was viciously raped at the age of eight
- He was attacked by his headmaster at Edgeborough, a Surrey prep school
- Cathartic moment came with a visit from two officers for Operation Yewtree
- Sinden said he is haunted by the possibility his father, Donald, sent him back to his tormentor in the full knowledge that he had been attacked
When Marc Sinden, the actor son of much-loved theatrical knight Donald Sinden, found himself playing a paedophile priest in a new film, Property Of The State, he was flooded with painful and previously half-buried memories.
Called on to act out the rape of a vulnerable youngster, he froze in front of the cameras because of a haunting parallel with his own experience at the hands of the head of the prep school chosen for him by his proud father.
‘I kept telling myself: “It’s just a part and I am only acting”, but when it came to it, I couldn’t do it,’ he revealed in an emotional interview with the MoS. ‘Eventually, I was able to do the scene, but the fact is reality can sometimes be too much to bear.’
Actor Donald Sinden with his son Marc, and his granddaughter. Marc Sinden, now 61, has only recently come to terms with being raped by his headmaster as an eight year old boy
Now 61 and a well-respected actor, director and writer in his own right, Marc has only recently come to terms with the boyhood ordeal which has blighted his life.
For not only does he reveal for the first time that he was viciously raped at the age of eight by the headmaster at his prep school. But he also confesses that he is haunted by the fear his father may have sent him back to his tormentor in the full knowledge he had been attacked.
Marc had been sent to Edgeborough, a prep school in Frensham, Surrey, by a father who was one of Britain’s top box office stars for more than half a century, famed as an actor who could embody a certain stiff-upper-lipped Englishness.
Sir Donald, who died aged 90 last year, appeared in such stirring wartime epics as The Cruel Sea and Above Us The Waves and cosy TV sitcoms like Never the Twain. Yet his origins were humble, growing up above a chemist’s shop in Sussex.
Perhaps that’s why he took such pride in being able to pay for his sons Marc and Jeremy to get the opportunities he never had in the shape of a private education. And perhaps that’s why he made the catastrophic decision that his small son should display the ‘stiff upper lip’ he had so often portrayed, even when family friends were so concerned at Marc’s distress they threatened to call social services.
Strangely, the cathartic moment that allowed Marc to confront his demons came when two police officers from the celebrity sex crime investigation Operation Yewtree visited him at home to question him about a fellow actor accused of making inappropriate approaches to an actress.
‘When they mentioned the name of the suspect, whom I had shared a dressing room with on a long tour, I was amused, but also disappointed,’ says Marc, the father of two children by his former wife, Jo. ‘Amused because the man was well known as a homosexual. Disappointed because I’d assumed they wanted to ask me about what had happened at Edgeborough.’I remembered the first ghastly night in the dormitory – the sobbing, the whimpering, the howls of pain from all the other boys.Marc Sinden
A perceptive officer asked him whether he wanted to talk about something else. That was the moment, says Marc, when the dam finally burst. ‘All those emotions that had been building up came out in a huge torrent. I took the officers back in time to the cold, bleak day in 1962 when my parents dropped me at the doors to that wretched school, with my trunk and my tuck box, and drove away.
‘I remembered the first ghastly night in the dormitory – the sobbing, the whimpering, the howls of pain from all the other boys, who had, like me, never before spent so much as a day away from their homes, without their parents. One was clasping his teddy bear and our cruel dormitory captain grabbed it from him and threw it out of the window.’
The school was populated by characters who wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a Dickens novel. ‘There was a Miss Charlton, the matron, who was known as Chalky as she always wore very white make-up. There was a Col. Stone, the one-armed PE teacher, who gave us what we called rabbit punches: karate chops to the back of the head which would give you a headache for the rest of the day.’
The young Sinden started to come to the attention of Charles Mitchell, the tall, cadaverous headmaster with brilliantined hair. He had a cheerless wife whom the boys got used to seeing putting out bags clinking with the empty gin bottles the two of them used to consume together in vast quantities.
Marc Sinden (left) aged 10, and his 14-year-old brother Jeremy. The headmaster of Edgeborough School, in Surrey, used to stalk the dormitories after lights out and he would occasionally instruct a boy to get out of his bed and accompany him to his study.
Mitchell was notorious for the demonic canings he would dispense to boys who had been guilty of even the most trivial transgressions. Sometimes Marc would find himself alone with him. ‘He would get very touchy-feely. Nowadays I would recognise straight away what was going on: there would be little pats on the knee, a hand might stay on my body longer than necessary, my hair would get ruffled.’
Mitchell used to stalk the dormitories after lights out and he would occasionally instruct a boy to get out of his bed and accompany him to his study.
Sinden remembers these individuals coming back unsteady on their feet and looking pale. One night Mitchell stopped at Sinden’s bed. ‘There were no words spoken. I just followed him to his study with a sense of dread. Once he had closed the door behind him, he pulled down my pyjama bottoms, bent me over a chair and raped me. He must have been well into his sixties at that point and it hurt like hell. I had never known such pain.’
The signs of his ordeal were more than obvious. ‘Afterwards, I went to matron. Chalky was a cold, horrible woman. What did she do? Ask what had happened? Oh, no. She silently got a bowl of iodine and made me sit in it. I yelped with pain. And then she sent me back to bed.’
Marc was too afraid to tell anyone about it. He had been brought up in the house of a film star and his ‘defence mechanism’ was, as he explains it, to pretend he was acting in a film. ‘Its effect on me was profound,’ he added. ‘I had been a cheerful, funny little boy, but afterwards I became withdrawn and difficult.
‘Dad was away working at the next half term and I stayed instead with a wonderful old actor friend of the family called Owen Holder, who, with his wife Joyce, had a house not far from the school. They were quick to see how depressed I was. I screamed when I had to leave them to go back to Edgeborough. Shortly afterwards, I had a nervous breakdown and tried to commit suicide. I sat alone on the rugby pitch with a penknife and tried to slit my wrists, but the knife was blunt. I couldn’t cut deep enough and a friend eventually saw me and made me go to Chalky. Once again, she didn’t ask questions. Just some antiseptic and that was that.’
Owen Holder went to London to talk to Donald Sinden. Marc knew nothing about it until the late 90s, when his former wife Jo revealed that his mother, Diana, had confided in her. ‘I suppose to excuse the coldness that Jo had said she had seen in me,’ he said.
‘Owen told Dad that if he didn’t remove me from the school, he would go to social services. Dad jumped into action – and removed me, but only at the end of the following term. It was normal to give a term’s notice when you are removing a boy from a school, but these were hardly normal circumstances. It gave Mitchell another chance to rape me.
‘I’ll always be haunted by the idea Dad sent me back to that school when he knew full well the headmaster had raped me and was likely to do so again. It would have been extraordinary if he hadn’t enquired further when Owen started talking about social services.
‘Dad never talked to me about it. It is so sad because I think if we had been able to talk it through in the immediate aftermath – that he had just been able to give me a hug – I think it would have helped so much.
‘Years later, after a particularly bad break-up with a girlfriend, I remember saying to Dad something along the lines of, “I can’t see myself living without her”. He rounded on me and shouted, “Don’t let me ever hear you saying something so stupid again. You can always live without a woman. There are plenty of others!” To which my mother, sitting just behind him said, “Oh, thank you!”.
Marc (circled top) was raped at his school by the headmaster Charles Mitchell (centre). But after going to see the school matron Miss Charlton (left) she silently got a bowl of iodine and made him sit in it before sending him back to bed
‘My mother recognised that my father didn’t do emotion.
‘Dear Dad, I loved him so much, but that was just how he was.’
Shortly before Marc left Edgeborough for The Hall School in Hampstead, Mitchell summoned him to his study. ‘It seems almost comical now, but he said to me, very brusquely, “I have a note here from this new school and they want me to check the number of testicles you have.” He took down my trousers and conducted an examination, or, as I’d say now, he groped me.’ Marc was happy at his new school and recalls telling the matron – ‘a nice, caring woman’ – he was surprised nobody seemed interested in checking his testicles.
‘The matron looked aghast. I explained what Mr Mitchell had said and done. She immediately took me down to see the head – a Mr Cooper – and told me to repeat what I had just said to her.’ Again, he was unaware of what happened at the time. ‘My understanding is that Dad called one of the governors of Edgeborough and Mitchell resigned at the end of term.It seems almost comical now, but he said to me, very brusquely, “I have a note here from this new school and they want me to check the number of testicles you have”.Marc Sinden
‘There was no scandal. He just left and after that seemed to disappear from the face of the earth.’ He adds: ‘Mitchell can’t be punished as he died years ago. There is no possibility of compensation as the school has changed hands and did not have insurance in place during Mitchell’s day.’
Marc harbours no sense of grievance against the present regime at Edgeborough, but remains angry it still has a house named after Mitchell, and last month he wrote to Chris Davies, the school’s present head, to complain. He has returned to the school only once – on the way back from a theatre in the mid-80s.
‘A lady came out who identified herself as the head’s wife. She was absolutely charming, and, when I told her I was an old boy, she asked me if I’d like to look around, including a room that I realised with a sudden jolt had been Mitchell’s study. A chill ran down my spine. I turned to her and said, “This is the room in which Mr Mitchell raped me.”
‘She touched my arm and said very gently, “If you only knew how many boys of your generation have come back here and told those stories…” There were tears welling up in her eyes as they were in mine…
‘I had tried to erase it from my memory, to pretend it wasn’t real, but in fact I was living with it all the time and it was to blame for just about every relationship I ever had in my life going wrong,’ says Marc. ‘It caused pain for me and for those who got close to me and it goes on still today.’