Beating posh boys for Jesus: John Smyth and his fanatical evangelicalism

Barristerblogger generally avoids religion. It is a subject of enormous importance but I have little enthusiasm for most of the arcane disputes over which religious people love to argue, and sometimes to kill each other.

Sometimes, though, it is unavoidable. The story about John Smyth QC flogging posh teenage boys in the name of Christianity is hard to ignore.

First, however, a warning. Channel 4 is a far more responsible outfit than some other news organisations that have peddled salacious stories about boys, sex and “top people.” Nevertheless, fairness to Mr Smyth demands that we keep an open mind, especially if he volunteers an account of his own. 

That said, there is no doubt that the Channel 4 story is grounded in a solid basis of fact. That Mr Smyth knew the named complainants seems incontrovertible. That he espoused (and probably still espouses) a conservative Christian evangelicalism also seems pretty much beyond doubt. When surprised by Cathy Newman’s microphone Mr Smyth chose not to answer any of herquestions – we should not blame him for that – and so we do not know his explanation.

We should also bear in mind that even if Channel 4 has behaved responsibly, any story involving sex, teenagers and the privileged classes is liable to get out of hand; throw in floggings, a top QC (and part-time judge) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you can bet that before you can say “Operation Midland” the internet will be awash with hogwash about Uncle John and Uncle Justin bringing out their canes at parties attended by Leon Brittan, Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris.

The story was very vividly told by Channel 4 and more details have since emerged. Some of the beatings took place at Smyth’s home near Winchester. According to one man, Mark Stibbe, he was invited back to the house, and

He made me strip off my clothes and he got out a cane and started to beat me. He said, ‘This is the discipline that God likes, it’s what’s going to help you become holy’.”

The Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, has now revealed that he too was beaten in the shed, a “violent, excruciating and shocking” event, although in his case, unlike some others, it was a one off. He has expressed the view that:

… absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since. It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”

A third pupil at Winchester, so far unnamed, is said to have been so traumatised by the experience that he attempted suicide.

Smyth’s apparent taste for flagellation first came to the attention of the Church in 1982 after his behaviour was reported to the Iwerne Trust, a Church organisation that, amongst other things, organised “Christian summer camps” for public school-boys. One of the aims was to foster their leadership potential. Mr Smyth was the Chairman of the Trust. To my mind, even without the beatings, the camps sound perfectly horrible on every conceivable level, and so they apparently were for some of those who came under the spell of Mr Smyth. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a camper and “dormitory officer” in the early 1980s. Mr Welby has said, and there is no reason to disbelieve him, that he did not know that Smyth was in the habit of beating boys.

Nevertheless in due course the Trust heard disturbing allegations about its Chairman’s activities, and, to its credit, a report was prepared in which shocking details were given:

… the boys were given beatings of 100 strokes as punishment for masturbation and 400 for exhibiting the sin of pride. One was said to have received a beating of 800 lashes for an unspecified sin.

The report says that eight of the boys received a total of 14,000 lashes, with two sharing 8,000 strokes over a three-year period.”
After administering the floggings, “Mr Smyth was said to have kissed the necks of the naked boys after beating them, and to have recited bible verses about the virtues of punishment.”

All the recipients of the beatings were said to be in their late teens or early twenties. It is unclear whether any were under the age of 18, something of potential legal significance.

The report has not been published in full by Channel 4, but the broadcaster displayed a page from the report which revealed a little more beyond the details of the physical violence itself.

First, as the blogger Richard Bartholomew has pointed out, Mr Smyth does not seem to have acted alone. The floggers are described as “operators” and given the letters “J” and “S”. If J is Mr Smyth, he asks, who is S? It is a pertinent question not least because it seems that “S” beat even harder than “J”:

“S, wanting to be the best for God, beat as hard as he could.”

Secondly it gives a decidedly creepy explanation for the beatings:

The motives were always seen as good by operators and participants – the sanctifying of young Christian men and the blessings of fatherly discipline. I believe this but cannot really understand it. Prayer, praise and loving concern in Christ’s name were evident at every point.”

Thirdly, although the report condemned the beatings, it did so partly on abstruse theological grounds that had nothing to do with their possible criminality.

The practice destroys the direct access of the believer to the Lord (Hebrews x.19 etc.) and makes the way always to be through one of the operators with whom sins were shared. This seems to strike at the great Reformation truth, and is very akin to the Roman Catholic system of confession and penance with the list of sins to be shared with J and S, and the severity of the beatings being proportionate to the seriousness of the fall as they saw it.”

Smyth and his fellow operator were being criticised not just for the beatings themselves, but also because the beatings appeared to be a flirtation with Popery. To my mind that seems a relatively minor issue, but of course I am no theologian.

Here I need to make a disclosure: I was a pupil at Winchester College from 1975 to 1979, both my parents taught at the school and my father was “second master” (in effect the deputy head) for about 17 years from 1962, although he had reverted to being merely an assistant teacher by 1982. I therefore grew up surrounded by the school. It was my home as well as my school so you will understand that I feel a considerable affection for the place, and indeed for the excellent former Headmaster, John Thorn, a good and wise man who is now in his 90s.

As far as I know I never met Smyth, although in the late 1970s his name was certainly familiar to many people in the school community. Within the college there was an organisation of evangelical Christians called “Christian Forum” with which Smyth was in some way associated, although how formally I have no idea. He was not a teacher at the school, although his name would crop up from time to time. Some of my more evangelically-minded contemporaries used to receive invitations to Sunday lunch at his house. I never received any of this hospitality, if that is the correct term, so I certainly cannot speak to the truth of his “infamous shed” or of the canes with which he is said to have administered savage beatings as punishment for masturbation or impure thoughts.

I never heard of any violence, although I was vaguely aware of the Christian Forum’s obsessive disapproval of homosexuality. In those days there was nothing very unusual about that: sex between consenting men had only been legal since 1967, and then only where both parties were over 21 and so long as nobody else was present. In the 1970s a belief in gay equality was very far from mainstream; indeed it would probably have been considered eccentric by most. One housemaster even gave a moral lecture to the boys, gravely informing them that “homosexuality leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth.”

By those who were not amongst its initiates the Christian Forum was regarded as a clique occupying the ground somewhere between ridiculous and unpleasant. There was of course something of an overlap with the more mainstream Christianity in the school, but to those on the outside the Forum members seemed inclined towards self-righteousness and sanctimony, and it did not help that they operated in partial secrecy. One particular group used to hold regular prayer meetings in rooms above the school bookshop. On one occasion word leaked out that prayers had been said for my father, a quietly religious but very tolerant man who loathed the Christian Forum both for its evangelical theology and because he didn’t much like many its members, at least one of whom was a member of the teaching staff. The feeling was mutual, although on one occasion it leaked out that the prayer leader – who for all I know could have been John Smyth – was said to have announced that prayers would be held for my father, “because even Martin Scott can be saved.”

As far as I know the only thing my father had in common with Smyth was that both of them owned canes. My father’s was a traditional whippy walking-stick-shaped model, and as a child I remember playing with it until it got lost. When he started teaching in the late 1940s a cane was regarded as an essential tool of the teacher’s trade, like a mortar board or a pocket full of chalk, and he said that he had bought it to kit himself out on his first visit to an educational supply shop. I’m pretty sure that he never used it to beat anybody at all and absolutely certain that he never did so while he taught at Winchester.

Nevertheless, canes were still in use in the 1970s: my own house-master, a normally genial and humane man, beat me with one once or twice, but fortunately his heart wasn’t really in it. Apparently he had had to borrow the cane from the more punitively minded housemaster next door. I certainly never encountered anyone like the Rev Giles Fraser’s headmaster who kept a collection of canes in his study – “Thick ones; thin, whippy ones; long and short. Different materials” – and often sent the young Giles to bed with his “underpants drenched in blood.” My underpants remained very much on and blood-free.

Mr Smyth has described his motivation for beating the young when he was in Zimbabwe, the country to which he moved after leaving Winchester. In an extraordinary letter to parents of boys – it is not quite clear how young – booked to attend one of his Zimbabwe summer camps he wrote:

We must, however, have good discipline and experience has shown that with so many high-spirited boys we need some form of sanction. I never cane the boys, but I do whack them with a table tennis bat when necessary.

Such are the opportunities for pranks that I sometimes have to use this fairly liberally to deter high-spirited naughtiness and to ensure obedience and reasonable standards of tidiness.”

According to men spoken to by Channel 4, he sometimes beat them so hard with table-tennis bats that the bats broke. His ostensible reason for the beatings in Zimbabwe was, it seems, the conventional – if rather old-fashioned – belief in the need to discipline rowdy youths.

He has not been so forthcoming about his reasons for beating young men in his garden shed at Winchester. They were not high-spirited youths playing pranks: on the contrary they were (if my memory serves) polite and well-behaved young students. He did not beat them because they threw bread rolls at his lunch table but because they confessed to impure thoughts. Here we may need to look into Mr Smyth’s writings, which for those of us that did not know him may give more of a clue to his otherwise inexplicable reasons.

Mr Smyth seems to be a man who sees spiritual value in suffering. Unfortunately his personal website seems to have been taken down, but some of his sermon notes are still available. One document entitled 1000 Whys: The Problem of Suffering talks about “personal suffering” being “the path to maturity and greater holiness.”

There develops, doesn’t there, an indefinable something, a fragrance, about those who take their suffering well?”

The word “fragrance” is rather jarring, bringing to mind the extraordinary summing up of Caulfield J in the Jeffery Archer libel trial:

Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance?”

Anyway Smyth goes on to refer to Hebrews Chapter 12, which contains plenty of material which seems to support the idea that suffering, and even whipping, is a good in itself:

6. For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?

  1. But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons.
  2. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?
  3. For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
  4. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

It does not seem a very great leap from a belief that “grievous chastening “… yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby,” to the belief that it was Mr Smyth’s holy duty to administer the chastisement.

A great many questions remain.

Both the Church and Winchester College have questions to answer as to why they did not report the contents of the 1982 report to the police. We simply do not know the answer. Channel 4 reported that the School had not done so because the “parents” of the boys concerned asked them not to do so.

The 1982 report was given to both the Iwerne Trust and Winchester College. Neither reported Smyth or his fellow “operator” to the police at the time. With the benefit of hindsight this was no doubt a mistake, although it is not entirely obvious what the police would or could have done. The report makes clear that although some 8 out of the 13 “young men” – it sounds as if they were probably adults in law – had suffered bleeding “on most occasions,” they might not have been willing witnesses for the prosecution. Faced with witnesses who believed that they had been beaten “with the blessings of fatherly discipline” and with “prayer, praise and loving concern in Christ’s name,” it seems very likely that the police would not have pursued the matter at the time.

There is another possible consideration. It is not certain that what Mr Smyth and his fellow “operator” did would even have been considered criminal. Corporal punishment of children was still legal. As late as 1987 a teacher was cleared of assault occasioning actual bodily harm on the orders of a Crown Court judge, even though his caning of a 13 year old boy had left large bruises and weals on the boy’s buttocks. Mr Smyth, of course, is not accused of punishing children, but of beating people who were (in most cases at least) legally adults, with their consent. It may be that the consent was not freely given, but for what it is worth the Iwerne report seems to suggest otherwise.

The criminality of consensual violence against the person was not always clear (and in fact in some respects it still isn’t). In 1993 the House of Lords decided (by a slim 3-2 majority) in R v, Brown [1994] 1 AC 212 that violence resulting in injuries during the course of consensual sadomasochistic sex between adults was unlawful. Reading the speeches of the majority is to enter a different era. One is struck by their Lordships distaste for homosexuality almost as much as by their distaste for violence. There was then (as Lord Mustill noted), and in fact is still now, no direct authority on whether consent is a defence to a charge of wounding during the course of “religious mortification.” It was then, and it remains today, uncharted territory. There is at least a possibility that the courts in the 1980s would have been more forgiving towards violence inflicted out of an ostensibly religious motive than they were in the 1990s towards violence inflicted out of an openly sexual motive.

Of course, one question might have been whether the beatings were at least partly inspired by a sexual motive, despite the fact that nothing unambiguously sexual took place. Interesting – which is another way of saying difficult and uncertain – questions of law might have arisen as to whether consent (normally a defence to a charge of indecent assault) was truly given if Mr Smyth had concealed an underlying sexual motive. Generations of law students have, for example, learned of the case of Williams (1924) 17 Cr. App. R. 56 in which a singing teacher was convicted of raping a 16 year old and indecently assaulting a 19 year old girl having procured their consent by telling them that having sexual relations with him would improve their singing voices. As the Lord Chief Justice put it: “The girl never consented to an act of sexual intercourse; she consented to the act not because she thought it was an act of sexual intercourse, but because she believed it was a necessary operation.”

And providing the young men were under 21 their consent would have been irrelevant to a charge under what is now regarded as the notorious S.13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956:

It is an offence for a man to commit an act of gross indecency with another man, whether in public or private, or to be a party to the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.”

But whatever the criminal law might have said about the matter, without the willing participation of the victims no prosecution could have succeeded. In such circumstances one can perhaps more easily understand why the Headmaster – who had a duty to protect his school from what he undoubtedly regarded as the thoroughly undesirable influence of Smyth – would decide that the next best thing to do was to insist that Smyth stayed away from the school for good.

Mr Smyth has made no public comment since the Channel 4 story was broadcast.

The Hampshire Police are now investigating the allegations. It is possible that he could yet face charges.

The Bishop of Guildford may well be correct in saying that what he did “was not the natural fruit of any Christian theology,” but clearly Smyth’s somewhat fanatical brand of evangelical Christianity led him to believe in, or at the very least to pretend to believe in, the spiritual value of flogging young men.

The Bishop of Buckingham took a rather different line from the Bishop of Guildford. He told Channel 4 that some evangelical theology “has an element of violence and nastiness in it … [that] does blind people to what’s going on in front of them … Blinds you to what’s in front of your eyes.”

Mr Smyth cannot now be charged with common assault. That is a summary only offence in respect of which charges must be brought within 6 months.

It is, however, possible that he could face charges for assault occasioning actual bodily harm, wounding, or (if there is evidence of really serious injury having been caused) causing grievous bodily harm; and potentially even for indecent assault. Should he be living in South Africa, where he was last heard of, it would be possible to request his extradition back to England although whether he might have grounds to resist such an application is a matter of South African law beyond the scope of this blog.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

40 thoughts on “Beating posh boys for Jesus: John Smyth and his fanatical evangelicalism”

    1. Hi Moor Larkin,
      Many thanks for writing about the John Smyth abuse and taking part in the discussion. We (John Smyth survivors) think you might be interested to see the messages and short videos we have posted on Twitter @AndyMorseUK which reflect some of our opinions on the Church and Justin Welby.
      Best wishes,

  1. So is ” consent” not in doubt if the victim’s mind has been “groomed” by the horrendous and deliberate misinterpretation of primitively conceived theologolical barbarism. ?

    Am also minded to observe that Smyth’s words to C4news were “how did you find me?.”

    1. I perhaps didn’t make myself clear; not for the first time.

      I am not saying that the subjects of the beating consented as a matter of law (although they certainly seem to have “submitted”). I am saying:

      (a) They may have consented (if adult, or at least over 16)

      (b) Because of the background that consent may not have been genuine (for the reason you give)

      (c) Even if their consent was “genuine,” that may or may not have a legal effect.

      On the current state of the law I would expect a court to hold that a person cannot consent to severe, and probably not any, injury for the purpose of religious mortification, but the law is anything but clear cut, and probably was even less clear in 1982.

      On the other hand I would not be a bit surprised to find the Supreme Court over-ruling Brown at some point in the future. Consensual sado-masochism would probably be regarded as a better reason for inflicting injuries today than religious mortification.

      1. Hi Matthew,
        Many thanks for writing about the John Smyth abuse and taking part in the discussion. We (John Smyth survivors) think you might be interested to see the messages and short videos we have posted on Twitter @AndyMorseUK which reflect some of our opinions on the Church and Justin Welby.
        Best wishes,

  2. This is a fascinating and enlightening commentary that raises so many disparate issues that it’s impossible to do any justice to it in response.

    However, I’d like to tackle the minor point.

    “Smyth and his fellow operator were being criticised not just for the beatings themselves, but also because the beatings appeared to be a flirtation with Popery. To my mind that seems a relatively minor issue, but of course I am no theologian.”

    I know the Irish Christian Brothers had a reputation for beatings, but really the ‘Popish practice’ is rather more of self-flagellation as ‘mortification of the flesh’ as opposed to the long history of disciplinary beatings in protestant English public schools in the pursuit of the more ‘muscular Christianity’ in hardening resolve as leaders.

    And in fact it was W T Stead – the protestant evangelical childprotection campaigner – who railed against the routine cruelty of corporal punishment in protestant public schools, contrasting this with its enlightened humane absence in catholic ones. Presumably he was talking about equaivalent boarding schools.

    So the Popery taint was not only minor, but largely misguided.

    But to go on from there, in an essay in the London Review of Books in the mid 90s the late Paul Foot, responsible for much of the Kincora conspiracy mythology, wrote about the North Wales allegations and conspiracy in which he was a fervent believer and journalistic evangelist.

    He listened to the tales of beatings and buggery ‘on an industrial scale’ retailed by former students at approved school in the 1970s – the likes of Bryn Estyn and Bryn Alyn – and recalled his own experiences of corporal purnishment and sexual predation (by older boys) at Shrewsbury public school in the 50’s and 60’s.

    If this could happen to the privileged upper middle classes without censure, he reflected, how much worse must it have been for the lower classes warehoused in such hellholes, both in nature and scale?

    But this was a false analogy. The unwritten code of silence in the public schools did not routinely translate to children’s homes which was the generic term covering remedial institutions. Corporal punishment was spare when still legal in the state sector and there was a greater emphasis on incentives for good behaviour rather than punishment.

    Furthermore there was no internalised inhibition as to complaint against teachers and staff. And secrecy was virtually impossible on site – everybody knew everything, and what they didn’t, they could make up.

    Of course abuse occurred as may happen anywhere and was not always dealt with propitiously. However, the point I am trying to make is that many of the ‘narratives’ of the children’s homes scandals were accepted without question by middle class journalists of the likes of Foot who transposed magnified memories of their own public school experiences onto the state run children’s homes.

    This might go some way to explain why it was the broadsheet newspapers – the Independent, the Guardian and the Observer as well as Private Eye – which made the running in the original children’s homes scandal claims and not the tabloids – and why critical scrutiny was so lacking. It was outside their experience, but within their imagination, based on a false analogy inciting the ‘corruption of pity’ (Graham Greene – Heart of the Matter).

    1. While I do not doubt your legal expertise, I believe that you have misunderstood the theological point being made, which, if I understand it correctly, does not in fact have anything to do with practices involving mortification of the flesh, self-inflicted or otherwise. To quote again from the report produced for the Iwerne Trust:

      ‘The practice destroys the direct access of the believer to the Lord (Hebrews x.19 etc.) and makes the way always to be through one of the operators with whom sins were shared. This seems to strike at the great Reformation truth, and is very akin to the Roman Catholic system of confession and penance with the list of sins to be shared with J and S, and the severity of the beatings being proportionate to the seriousness of the fall as they saw it.’

      Hebrews 10: 19 (New Jerusalem Bible): ‘We have then, brothers, complete confidence through the blood of Jesus in entering the sanctuary’. Mark Ruston clearly interprets this verse as meaning that because of Jesus’ shedding of his blood Christians enjoy direct access to God (represented by the sanctuary), making the Catholic idea of the priesthood heretical.

      I believe that what Ruston is saying here is that Smyth’s disciplinary activities bore an interesting similarity to the Catholic practice of the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as confession. It should be pointed out that, while confession is not prohibited within the Church of England, and is, indeed, quite widely practised among Anglo-Catholics, it is a practice that would be considered abhorrent by most people in the Church’s conservative evangelical wing. The theological objection to confession is that it requires the penitent to confess his sins to God, and to receive absolution from God, through the mediation of a priest. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the priest to determine what degree of penance is appropriate to the sins for which absolution has been given (typically saying a certain number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers). Ruston is probably quite correct to say that what Smyth was doing was remarkably similar, at least from his particular theological perspective. The penitent did not confess his transgression privately, and directly, to God, but to Smyth, acting as a kind of confessor. Nor did the penitent have the conviction that God had forgiven his sins automatically and directly: rather, the absolution seems to have been mediated through Smyth. Finally, following the absolution (through Smyth), a penance is required, the severity of which is determined by Smyth.

      The ‘flirtation with Popery’, therefore, was not the corporal punishment itself, but the context in which it was administered. It would not actually have made any difference if the penance had taken an entirely different form. What matters to Ruston is clearly the fact that the process involves an intermediary between God and the penitent. As a Catholic (albeit well and truly lapsed), I do not in fact believe that what Smyth was doing was, sacramentally, in any way similar to the practice of confession in the Catholic Church, but I am certainly able to see how it could have been construed in that way by a Protestant of the rather extreme evangelical kind.

      1. I don’t have your theological expertise but that’s the way I took it too. I suppose that sort of thing matters to a churchman, but to an outsider it does seem to rather miss the point!

      2. Yes it was me not Matthew who ‘misunderstood the theological interpretation’. However I can’t see that Rushton was right in interpreting the rationale as apeing catholicism. Although confession is via an intermediary, it is voluntary, albeit a religious obligation for the penitent. Furthermore the penance meted out is voluntary in its uptake. Smyth’s practice appears to have been one of coercion as a ‘fatherly’ imperative with alleged spiritual benefits not merely retribution and deterrance. In this it does not appear to differ markedly from the protestant idea of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ of wide subscription.
        The great ‘Reformation truth’ – the Lutheran doctrine of grace – seized on confession as a biblical heresy theologically – but in populist terms it was aimed at the practice of indulgences whereby sins might be forgiven through the penance of ‘good works’ aka large donations to the church – something akin to the secular practices of today in securing honours.
        But confession has remained a protestant (and secular) bugbear in the culture wars. In the 19th century the fake misery memoir The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk concerned scandalous sexual victimisation in the confessional courtesy of the imaginative flights of the ghost authors – a nativist protestant sect in the US who were fearful of european catholic immigration – particularly Irish.

        And today there are legal battles in the US courts as to whether the ‘seal of confession’ should exempt priests from the secular obligation of mandatory reporting of alleged sexual abuse.

        So the issue has become not whether transgressions should be a matter between the penitent and God alone, but whether they ought to be a matter between the penitent and the State with the ‘intermediary’ mandated to the role of informer. It’s my understanding that were someone to confess a serious crime, they would be directed by the confessor to report the matter to the secular authorities. So that if the penitent took
        the sacrament seriously, they would so act. But to mandate the confessor to the role of a State informer has wide-ranging and frankly scary implications. And of course it is not simply confessions of transgressors that would be mandated, but any suggestion of an allegation.

        Of course this is nothing to do with the matter in issue re Smyth – other than that if mandatory reporting were to become the law in the UK, the ‘transgressions’ detected and brutally dealt with by Smyth might have to be reported to the authorities as a matter of law. And a catholic priest, hearing a confession of mutual masturbation between minors, might be obliged similarly to report.

    1. There were several. I’m not going to name them though, because I’m unclear of the dates they came & went. In any case, I don’t think the “official” chaplains were on the whole very much involved with JS, although I may be wrong.

  3. Not yet having crossed the 75 yr watershed, I don’t watch television in England! I am, however, surprised that the Scots term “mortifying the natural man” didn’t feature in your discussion. Flagellation has long been a part of religious (not only Christian) extasy.

  4. Fascinating overview of the law. Wasn’t there a case some years ago of consenting men nailing each other’s genitals to planks of wood or something like that? I don’t remember the outcome of that case. Speaking as an agnostic (which doesn’t stop me singing in church choirs or playing the organ) I have always found evangelicals too smug and self-satisfied for having ‘found Jesus’, however, I have never encountered one that believed in beating young people – if anything they are too indulgent.

    It is natural that the secular liberal media should latch onto the religious aspect (anything to give religion a bad name) but as a retired lecturer in mental health I have always found that people with a propensity for sadomasochism will be sadomasochistic anyway and need very little religious encouragement to do so. Of course, a religious context can provide the opportunity to practice sadomasochism and to justify it. But The Bible is a book that is part Jewish history, part allegory, part poetry and full of moral tales and metaphors. Evangelicals do tend to take much of it at face value but most mainstream Christians interpret it in the light of twenty-first century secular values. And, of course, it depends on which version of the good book you are reading since there are dozens of modern editions. Personally, I like the language of the King James version but it is a poor guide to picking your way through the complexities of 21st century life.

    1. Thanks for your comment, & yes there was a case about men nailing each others’ genitals to planks of wood; the case was Brown, discussed in the post and the upshot was that consent was no defence. As I said, I’m not 100% convinced the case would have the same outcome today.

  5. I attended Cheam School from 1950 to 1955 and Winchester College from 1955 to 1960 and I have more than 50 years’ experience of the Evangelical Christian world. I have watched Channel 4’s programmes regarding John Smyth with interest, but no pleasure. I am approximately the same age as he and probably from a similar background. I feel qualified to make some comments.
    I want to make three main points about this man’s horrific activities and the way they have been reported.
    1. The canings administered by John Smyth were vastly in excess of anything that normally took place at Public Schools. They were a different order of magnitude. He beat boys 100 or more times in one session and in some cases thousands of times in total. Some boys endured many such beatings over a prolonged period of time. Some testified to having to wear nappies because of the bleeding the beatings caused. Average canings in my own experience at Cheam and Winchester were just 3 or 4 strokes perhaps once or twice a year. Never any blood.
    2. John Smyth claimed that these canings were for the spiritual benefit of their recipients. He based this on a highly twisted interpretation of a passage in the Letter to the Hebrews (12: 4-10). This passage was written to people who were suffering for their faith. The writer exhorts his readers to accept their suffering as chastisement from God. A key verse states, “For the Lord disciplines the person he loves and chastises every son he accepts”. The whole passage is about discipline that comes from God, and relating it to the sufferings of Christ. It has nothing to do with human fathers or others disciplining their sons. The only connection is that the writer uses human fatherly discipline, an accepted practice in those days, as an analogy for God’s fatherly discipline.
    3. John Smyth carried out his activities in his own premises on his own initiative without the knowledge or consent of Winchester College, the Church of England or the Iwerne camps and never on any of their premises. None of these can be held responsible in any way for what he did.

    John Smyth was a lone wolf. In no way was he a product or representative of Evangelical Christianity, the Iwerne camps, the Church of England or the Public School system. Rather he was a deeply perverted individual whose conduct was totally contrary to any normal interpretation of the Bible and the Christian faith.
    He used his social position and knowledge of the Scriptures and Evangelical teaching to gain entrance to circles where he could gratify his evil desires on innocent victims who were totally unable to see how contrary his actions were to the Christian faith to which they were probably new and enthusiastic converts.
    Horrific though the story of John Smyth is, it is the story of just one perverted man and a relatively small number of most unfortunate victims and not remotely comparable to other wide-ranging scandals that have rocked the world in recent years.
    Channel 4 has given the whole episode vastly more prominence and time than it deserves.

    1. ‘Horrific though the story of John Smyth is, it is the story of just one perverted man and a relatively small number of most unfortunate victims and not remotely comparable to other wide-ranging scandals that have rocked the world in recent years.’
      I can’t comment on the truth of the Smyth allegations and whether he was ‘a lone wolf’.’

      But you are falling victim to the carousel – not us but them!

      Do you not see that exaggerated and false allegations might be the lot of the many – not just your principality?

      Those of us who have – dispassionately – been around this field for decades recognise that allegations have multiple incentives – but that the truth is hard to come by. Largely because a denial is not an adequate rebuttal of an allegation in court despite the absence of any reliable corroborative evidence.

      I do hope the implications of this particular conundrum (which may be well founded) will incentivise an interest in the field of false allegations and perhaps you might revise your presumptions as to some, or many, of the ‘wide-ranging scandals that have rocked the world in recent years.

    2. I would like to tie this point to the questions re popery, above.
      The report may appear to miss the point by focusing on the theological rather than the physical. But is that not consistent with it going unsaid that the physical beatings were abhorrent?
      Rather it strikes me as serving one or both of two purposes: a) an introspective report that asks “did we make this monster” and/or b) a prophylactic to prevent people in the future thinking that zeal requires emulating Smyth

    3. I work with someone who encountered Mr Smyth several times in Zimbabwe. He also was a recipient of his many canings at the Christian camps his organisation organised/attended. However the most absurd thing he made my work colleague do upon being invited on a fishing trip for good behaviour, was fish naked with a bible tucked under his left armpit…. holding the fishing rod with the right hand, whilst praying. The rule was that if the bible dropped in the water at any point, that there’d be canings later. Needless to say, they were all caned, whilst naked later.
      Mr Smyth’s son was headboy of Peter House school in Zimbabwe, when my brother attended (around 1992), he seemed quite normal and nice.
      Just thought I’d add my 5p.

  6. You gloss over what is perhaps the most interesting and potentially explosive aspect of the whole matter.

    You say that ‘[t]he current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a camper and “dormitory officer” in the early 1980s. Mr Welby has said, and there is no reason to disbelieve him, that he did not know that Smyth was in the habit of beating boys.’

    Is it not naïve to take at face value the archbishop’s statement – so obviously self-serving – that he knew nothing of the matter prior to 2013 – a statement which is scarcely plausible, even in the context of his role as a dormitory officer, let alone in the context of later years (but well before 2013) and of the many people in authority who avowedly long since knew of the matter, some of whom, including Smyth himself, were friends or associates of the archbishop? Have you considered what the bishop of Buckingham had to say on that aspect of the matter towards the end of the Channel 4 documentary?

    1. I imagine that the good Archbishop was too occupied in campaigning against the civil rights of gay people to marry to deal with this little matter.

  7. A very interesting blog. I chanced upon your website whilst surfing for any new stories. I am one of the boys mentioned in the story. Actually, I’m one of the boys in the C4 programme. Thank you for your insights from a legal point of view. I just want to point out that we weren’t all posh. I wasn’t at Winchester or Iwerne, as quite a few of us weren’t.

    I am privileged in the traditional sense of the word though. But perversely that type of upbringing has it’s price outside of the Smyth story.

    1. Thank you for your comment Richard; I hadn’t actually realised that boys not at either Winchester or Iwerne were involved. And in fact not all the boys at Winchester were particularly posh. I don’t think school fees were quite as steep as they are now and in the seventies there were quite a few boys on assisted places or 100% scholarships.

      The legal points are doubly speculative by the way: I don’t know the ages of the boys concerned, and I’m not confident that the law is entirely settled, although I think it very unlikely that any court would look kindly on 100 lashes at one time as anything other than criminal, whatever the consent. With no injury, just a few strokes of the cane, & an adult complainant I think the law would say that consent was a defence, although there may be difficult issues around exactly what constitutes “consent” in such a strange relationship.

      1. Matthew, if consent is obtained through some trickery or ploy, then surely it is vitiated by the fraud? There are convictions for rape and sexual assault, where consent was obtained through false promises that it was being done solely to improve the victim in some way and so for their own benefit (e.g. R v Williams [1923] 1 KB 340).

        1. Only some trickeries and some ploys will vitiate consent. For example, if I trick you into bed by saying I’ll pay you for sex knowing that I have no money to pay I don’t commit rape (although I probably do commit fraud). Williams is the singing teacher & I’ve mentioned the case in the blog. But it’s not so obvious here that consent was obtained by fraud; it’s more like undue influence, which I don’t think would vitiate consent in itself. It is a very tricky area, not least because consent to physical assault is not the same as consent to indecent asssault, and the law on sexual consent has itself changed since 2003. All these issues are swirling around.

      2. I was at University when it happened to me. So I would be 19 years old. A big part of the influence on me was that my best friend was already involved. The whole thing was about being more committed to God. And as you might imagine, that definitely happened. So there was a positive outcome (in the short term); although by way of a more than dubious method.

        It is very interesting to read all the comments, though I had to look up what vitiated means. There is some sort of comfort in knowing that other people are thinking about it, so thanks again for your blog – even if it is for the legal interest in the story.

      3. I think that had there been serious injury a GP or hospital would have been involved, and they would have called the police?

  8. How odd, and sad, to see how far people will go to try to justify the unjustifiable. Assault upon minors is no more capable of being lawful than would an act of rape based on a spurious claim that it was done ‘with consent’ of a child. I deliberately abstain from commenting about Mr Smyth. Paradoxically it was a Winchester peer, Baroness Warnock, whom later generations of school children and responsible adults have largely to thank for the abolition of corporal punishment in State primary schools.

  9. Expanding on my earlier comment, ‘reasonable’ corporal punishment of children was formerly lawful by their parents and, e.g., school teachers and other persons to whom the parent(s) had delegated that power, acting in loco parentis. There is no question of the child’s consenting.

  10. Thank you Matthew for this interesting post, despite the truly nasty subject matter. I have two points:-

    First, it is indeed high time that the Spanner case (Brown) was revisited. The remarks of some of the majority judges, for example Templeman in the last paragraph of his speech talking of how “ucivilised” it all is, have a smell of homophobia and, just as bad, paternalism, about them. Though it is perhaps worth pointing out that the ratio of Brown was followed by the Court of Appeal in a heterosexual context in Emmett ([1999] EWCA Crim 1710). The whole case goes against the principles of personal autonomy (Millian liberalism, if you prefer) that should underpin the law.

    Secondly, while acknowledging the decency of the author’s father and the appalling harm done to the victims, as a gay atheist I cannot resist rejoicing that episodes like this further diminish the respect with which religion is held in this country. Good.

  11. The spanner case was interesting, as all, I believe were over 18, but however ‘sex’ seems to have been involved.
    However the gay S&M scene is far from straightforward, often ‘punishments’ are carried out without any overt sexuality being involved. ‘Advertisers’, these days online, or on apps, will often present themselves as ‘straight’, and offering discipline to straight, and gay men who feel they ‘deserve’ punishment. ‘No sex involved as I am straight’ is the usual ending to these adverts.
    Smyth, it seems, was one of these sadists who being ‘happily married’, could indeed claim to be ‘straight’. The thing I do not understand is how these men kept returning for more beatings, unless they were masochists, also pretending to be ‘sinners’? I can imagine that any member of the spanner group would have willingly become ‘sinners’ in order to attend at Smyth’s shed.

  12. Referring to the Spanner case again, not only were those who inflicted the injuries convicted of assault, but those who received the injuries were convicted of conspiracy to commit assault, (on themselves), as in law you cannot agree to an assault, ‘unless it is in a boxing ring’.

  13. The Spanner trial only succeeded because there was a video of the abuse. No one from the group had injuries that required a hospital, or GP visit. There does seem to be a lot of confusion about this man. In all the descriptions a ‘garden cane’ was mentioned, with some sort of handle. The photo here is not of a garden cane, but a scholastic ‘punishment cane’.

    The fact that many of the punishments were in a garden shed also suggest a ‘garden cane’. Now you cannot hit very hard with a garden cane, and the area of each stroke would be very tiny, probably no more that half an inch. If you did hit too hard with this type of cane it would break.

    Mention was then made of 100 strokes or more, now even a seasoned masochist would struggle with 100 or more with a ‘punishment cane’, and they would have had years of experience to get to that point. Anyone who was not used to that type, and length, of punishment, with a ‘punishment cane’, would, unless they were tied down, be unable to take it.

    So I think we are talking about a garden cane, which would sting a bit, and after several hundred taps, could break the surface of the skin, but the damage would be surface, like falling over and grazing your knee.

  14. Fascinating post, thank you. May I ask an odd sort of question – without wanting to cast doubt on any account, I’m at a loss to understand how a boy could actually survive 100 or indeed 800 strokes of the cane. ‘Strokes’ being perhaps not the right word.

    I don’t think that garden canes mentioned by scotboy were the only options – wasn’t there mention of a sheaf of canes inside the shed? A devoted flagellant would have equipped himself with specialist instruments, perhaps. But wouldn’t the results be scarcely imaginable? If blood were running after 10 or 20 cuts, how could a boy at a public school hide the results from his peers? Is it perhaps the case that Winchester had private bathrooms by then? But even so, changing and showering after games – how was it possible to hide the wounds?
    And then again, on that point, the thousands of cuts delivered with terrible ferocity, over a relatively short time – would they not have crippled the young man? Destroyed his gluteal muscles?

    But I don’t see John Smyth denying it – I’m just wondering how it was possible to survive such a protracted and astonishingly excessive ordeal.

    1. Good question. No, there were weren’t many private bathrooms that I recall. But I think most of the beating occurred after they had left the school. There were lots of day-boys too. But I agree that multiple cane injuries would be difficult to conceal.

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