DETECTIVES probing historic child abuse allegations are investigating a former South Lakeland school.
Underley Hall School, in Kirkby Lonsdale, was a residential boarding school for ‘troubled’ young boys before being shut two years ago.
Former pupil Joseph Ryan, who was at the school in the 80s, this week welcomed the investigation but said: “Questions need answering”.
Another pupil, Martin Dye, 51, who was there in the 1970s, told the Gazette: “It’s something that has needed to be done for a long time.”
Two MPs are calling on Home Secretary Theresa May to hold a public inquiry into the privately-run school, which was not under local education authority control.
It is not the first time 188-year-old Underley Hall, set in its own grounds on the edge of Kirkby Lonsdale, has been subject to serious allegations.
Seventeen years ago, Grange-based outdoor pursuits teacher John Wadlow gassed himself in his car in the town’s Eggerslack Wood.
Wadlow had appeared in court and was facing a number of sex charges against Underley Hall pupils which, his inquest heard, he ‘totally denied’ in his suicide note.
A few months later in 1997, another inquest heard that Philip Jefferson, 31, a former pupil, who returned to the school to work as a handyman and gardener, also committed suicide by setting his car on fire near Settle, and only being identified from his dental records.
Jefferson claimed he had been sexually abused at the school and was interviewed by police as both a victim and alleged perpetrator, the inquest was told.
This month Cumbria Police launched a major child abuse inquiry called Operation Tweed to investigate historical complaints about ‘a number’ of residential schools across Cumbria.
Police say it centres on allegations dating back as far the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s which have come to light recently.
In a brief statement to the Gazette this week, police said: “We can confirm that Underley Hall School is one of the schools that are under investigation.”
Former Underley Hall pupil Joseph Ryan told the Gazette he had been interviewed and that he was in touch with 10 other former male pupils.
Now living in Crumpsall, Manchester, Mr Ryan, 44, was at Underley Hall between 1980 and 1986.
He said that, because of family problems, he was subject to a care order handed down by a court and stayed at the school Monday to Friday but was allowed to go home to see his parents in Burton-in-Kendal at weekends.
Mr Ryan, who later spent his teenage years living at Romney Gardens, Kendal and now suffers from serious health problems, said: “I do welcome the police investigation because questions still need answering. I don’t think the whole story has come out yet. I went to the school and am personally still in touch with some of those who went there.
“We all believe that there should be a proper full inquiry – not just a police inquiry but a full public inquiry into the whole set-up of the school, the regime and how it was managed.”
Mr Ryan added: “I have asked Tim Farron (MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale) to ask for an inquiry into Underley Hall School.”
Mr Ryan told the Gazette he was not sexually abused by staff at Underley Hall but has made numerous allegations to the Gazette about his treatment there.
He said a law firm specialising in child abuse cases was now representing him and others.
Mr Ryan’s MP, Graham Stringer, has supported the call for an inquiry. In a letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, Mr Stringer says: “My constituent believes there should be a full investigation into what went on in the school during his time there.”
Westmorland MP Tim Farron said: “Any allegation of child abuse must be taken with utmost seriousness – I have offered to help in any way I can. I want the police to investigate fully. We must get to the truth about what happened at Underley Hall.”
In his letter to Theresa May, Mr Farron said: “I strongly support the view of Joseph Ryan that there are more than sufficient grounds for a full investigation to be commissioned and I very much hope that you will agree to sanction such an inquiry.”
Cumbria Police’s Operation Tweed - headed by DCI Doug Marshall - is investigating allegations of child abuse at ‘a number’ of residential schools throughout Cumbria.
It said detectives involved in Operation Tweed were “highly trained and specialised in dealing with children who are abused.”
A Cumbria County Council spokesperson said: “Underley Hall was a private school. It closed in 2012 following an Ofsted inspection which judged it to be inadequate. Up to that time, the home was used by local authorities across the country, including Cumbria, as a residential school.
“All children placed at the school by the county council were removed following the inadequate judgement.
“We are currently working with the police to review any files relating to Underley Hall as part of their on-going investigation into these allegations.”
The Westmorland Gazette tried to contact the headteacher of Underley Hall School during the period Mr Ryan and Mr Dye refer to but was unable to do so.
The Home Office yesterday confirmed it had received letters from the two MPs.
A spokesman said: “As the Home Secretary has announced, we are establishing an independent panel of experts in law and child protection to consider whether public bodies – and non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse.
“The Government will do everything it can to facilitate the investigation of child abuse whenever and wherever it occurred, to support its victims, and to bring its perpetrators to justice.”
* The allegations and police investigation have no connection whatsoever with neighbouring Underley Garden School, which was found by Ofsted to be good and outstanding.
JOHN Eric Wadlow was a former outdoor pursuits instructor at Underley Hall School from its opening in January 1976.
Back then, it was described as a ‘school for emotionally disturbed boys aged seven to 16’ with a roll of 55 pupils drawn from across the North. Mr Wadlow was described as a house father and was responsible for the school’s outdoor pursuits – taking pupils to the Lake District to places like Tilberthwaite Ghyll at Coniston and the school’s camp on Windermere. But 19 years later on November 20, 1997, an inquest was held at Grange’s Victorial Hall after his suicide.
His body had been found on September 24, 1997 – just six days after he had appeared in court.
Mr Wadlow, then of The Avenue in Grange, had been charged by police with several counts of child abuse against pupils at Underley Hall.
The inquest heard that Mr Wadlow denied all the charges and had decided ‘his life wasn’t worth living’.
His body was found in a car parked at the entrance to Eggerslack Wood, not far from his home.
A note on the dashboard, addressed to the police, read: “I have decided that my life is no longer worth living and have therefore decided to end it. I have done this alone and without help. I totally deny the allegations that have been made against me.”
Mr Wadlow’s brother, Peter, said Mr Wadlow had made two previous attempts on his own life. Coroner Ian Smith found that Mr Wadlow died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.
* Philip Stuart Jefferson, 31, was a pupil at Underley Hall school between the ages of 10 and 15.
But at the age of 16 he got a job at the school as a ‘handyman and gardener,’ his inquest was told.
In 1997, he was found dead in his burned-out car by a forestry worker at a remote location near Settle.
He could only be identified by his dental records, the hearing was told. Friends told the inquest that he claimed to have been sexually abused at Underley Hall.
The hearing was told he also confided to a friend that he himself had been involved in sexual abuse.
At the time, Cumbria Police confirmed Jefferson had been quizzed as both a potential victim and potential perpetrator.
Mr Jefferson was said to have become ‘paranoid and depressed’ and fearful of getting in trouble with the police.
The inquest found he took his own life.
* Underley Hall, a Tudor-style building, - is set in 31 acres of woodland north of Kirkby Lonsdale
* It has been a racehorse stable, a manor house, a convalescent home for soldiers, a prep school, girls’ school and a college
* Underley Hall School came into being in January 1976
* It originally provided a residential education for 55 emotionally disturbed boys, between the ages of seven and 16, drawn from all over the North
* When the school opened, it kept a very low profile because the four co-principals were reported to be keen to get off on the right footing in view of the controversy at the time surrounding proposals for a special school at Moresdale Hall, near Grayrigg
* The school’s aim was to provide ‘an affectionate caring environment for boys of normal intelligence but who cannot come to terms with the demands of an ordinary school’
* Each day began with formal lessons but in the afternoon pupils had a choice of activities, such as motorcycle trials riding, abseiling, canoeing and walking
* The school closed on July 20, 2012, following an Ofsted inspection which judged it to be inadequate