The premises of a groundbreaking Jewish boarding school played an active role in both WW1 and WW2, and hide some rarely seen Modernist architecture – but also dark stories of child abuse.

The country south of Oxford is simply beautiful, in a typical English way. Gently rolling hills and endless green pastures give way to quaint villages where life is mostly quiet, and nothing ever seems to happen. It seems like the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie novel, where unbridled rural passion or ancient grudges often lead to ruptures in the fabric of local society, and almost always, to crime. Oh wait – Agatha Christie actually lived at Winterbrook House near Wallingford for nearly 40 years. She would have sourced much of her inspiration from her surroundings. It is indeed said that the mansion house at Carmel College makes a cameo appearance at her famous  novel Mousetrap.

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The mansion house at Carmel College

In 1948, a unique boarding school was established within the grounds of Mongewell Park, near the village of Wallingford, Oxfordshire. Boarding schools had been the bedrock of private tuition in Britain since Victorian times : offering room, board and top class education, these establishments became the Empire’s most exclusive, upper class schools for boys and girls. British imperial culture was branded upon the young minds of the privileged students – albeit academic excellence and a masterful curriculum often went hand in hand with stringent regulations and corporal punishment. Boarding schools forged the character of many powerful men, such as future prime ministers, business leaders, or armed forces officers. But also also often created or harboured monsters, and produced a steady supply of young victims. The shocking scale of abuse in boarding schools was almost institutional, and very well documented.

Mongewell Park through history

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The ruins of St. John the Baptist Church, Mongewell

Mongewell is an ancient parish referred to in the Domesday Book. The nearby 12th century St. John the Baptist Church (restored in 1880) is also abandoned and a very picturesque ruin. This is the final resting place of Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham and Salisbury, who built a magnificent Georgian mansion at Mongewell Park between 1769 and 1782. The old building was replaced by a large brick mansion in 1890 by its then owner Alexander Fraser, a Scottish financier whose initials can be still be seen on the lodge gates today.

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Alexander Fraser’s brick mansion

Upon Fraser’s death in 1916, the manor house was requisitioned as a hospital for wounded officers returning from the Great War fronts. This was a practice that continued after Howard Gould became the new owner. He was an American millionaire financier, the son of the notorious Jay Gould, the robber baron of the golden age of American railroads. Howard Gould purchased the mansion in 1918 and allowed it to be used for the orthopaedic treatment of American officers until 1920, when he began utilising it as a private residence. He sold the estate in 1939, as war loomed over Europe one more time.

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Howard Gould owned the mansion between 1918 and 1939

With the outbreak of World War 2, the manor house was requisitioned again, this time by the Royal Air Force. Mongewell Park accommodated various elements of No. 2 Group RAF of the Bomber Command throughout the war. In the aftermath of Operation Chastise in May 1943 (better known as the Dambusters Raid), a reconnaissance Spitfire PR IX plane flew over the target to take the first photos of the breached dams and flooded Ruhr valley. Those famous photos made an absolute sensation in  the newspapers of the time – it was unusual for photo recon material to make its way to the press, but these were too good for propaganda and this was 1944 already . The briefing for that recon mission reportedly took place at what was to become the headmaster’s office at the Mongewell Park mansion.

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Operation Chastise, 1943

By January 1944, Mongewell Park had become No. 2 Group’s headquarters. This is where  Operation Jericho was likely launched from : it was a daring, low level bombing raid over a German prison in Amiens, France. The objective was to breach the compound’s walls and perimeter to allow hundreds of captured Maquis (French Resistance fighters) escape, ostensibly before their execution further compromised operations in the area. But despite employing delay fuses and special explosive mixes intended to cause damage to the buildings without fully collapsing these, some collateral damage was expected.. out of 717 prisoners, 176 were killed or wounded during the raid, while 258 managed to escape, with many recaptured a few days later. It was a very unusual, even nebulous operation, ending up shambles : there’s still some confusion among historians over who ratified and ordered it.

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Operation Jericho, February 1944

At any case, the Mongewell Park mansion played an active role in both world wars, before becoming a boarding school in the post war period.

The Carmel College period : Modernism and Modernisation

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Hanukkah at Carmel College, 1950 (© www.carmelcollege.co.uk)

Carmel College was founded on the site of Mongewell Park in 1948 by Rabbi Kopul Rosen, a prominent Anglo-Jewish Scholar dedicated to the promotion of Jewish education in Britain. Rosen had identified a gap in the British higher education system, that was somewhat problematic for the Jewish community : families had no option but send their issue boarding schools that were entirely founded on Christian values. He saw how many Jewish children lost their connection with their culture, even their faith, as a result of the process of assimilation into British society through established boarding school education. His vision led him to resign the rabbinate, and dedicate the rest of his life in establishing Carmel College as a one-of-a-kind academic institution – a hybrid of English public school tradition, and Orthodox Jewish culture and teaching. The new college retained the underlying elitism of both systems, while infusing the Jewish cultural curriculum with the missing ingredients of athletics and team sports, where English public schools traditionally excelled. It was a remarkable achievement : Carmel became Europe’s only known Jewish boarding school, offering its first class education exclusively to Jewish students. It frequently topped the list of the most expensive boarding schools in Britain, and as a result of its academic excellence and distinctive cultural affinity it would often be referred to as the “Jewish Eton”. Among its alumni, businessman Sir Philip Green, owner of the Arcadia Group of retail companies, and Roland Joffe, a well known Academy-award winning film director (The Mission , The Killing Fields).

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Carmel College Synagogue, Thomas Hancock, 1963

By the early 60s, the ever so popular Carmel College sought to expand its facilities with an ensemble of wonderful Modernist buildings. They were commissioned to local architect Thomas Hancock, the visionary urban planner of Peterborough New Town, who designed a spectacular synagogue and adjacent lecture theatre for the college : both spaces are (deservedly) Grade 2 listed today.

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Carmel College Lecture Theatre, Thomas Hancock, 1963  (© www.carmelcollege.co.uk)

True to Rosen’s vision, Carmel pupils enjoyed an expanded Jewish curriculum that included athletics and team sports. And since Mongewell Park enjoyed one of the straightest runs of river Thames flowing next to it, boating was a popular discipline. The location and facilities were frequently used by Oxford University in preparation for the annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race.

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Carmel College Boat Club – 1965 (© www.carmelcollege.co.uk)

In 1966, Eli Gottlieb, a property millionaire and governor at Carmel College sought to create a memorial to his late father. The memorial was intended to be built on the site of the college’s old boathouse, and designed to incorporate a new boathouse with an added space for exhibiting arts and crafts to celebrate the life and art patronage of Julius Gottlieb, an expert cabinet maker and wood carver. The project was delivered by Sir Basil Spence, the Scottish master architect, knighted in 1960 for his astonishing Coventry Cathedral. Spence was a master of geometric modernism – and indeed, brutalism by the mid 60s –  and he designed and built a magnificent pyramid atop the concrete and brick boathouse between 1969 and 1970.

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Carmel College Boathouse and Julius Gottlieb Memorial,  by Sir Basil Spence, 1966

While the boathouse was about modernising an already existing facility, the Julius Gottlieb Memorial was about celebrating arts and crafts, and creating a new and unique exhibition space. Eli Gottlieb described his vision in the 1966 brief : “The Hall will be used as a centre for exhibiting the best in art and design. The displays will include paintings, drawings, sculpture, fine work in rare metals and fabrics and, in addition, the best designs in domestic and industrial projects, as well as machine parts and models of machines.” However, there’s no evidence that the pyramid has ever been used as intended, and it is reported still vacant in 1973.

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Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, Carmel College’s Headmaster in 1971  (© www.carmelcollege.co.uk)

In 1971, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, son of the college’s founder Kopul Rosen, became the new headmaster at Carmel. It was a pivotal point in the history of the school : The College had been changing with the times in the late 60s, and somewhat imitating other English public schools in becoming more open, and more secular.  It had also been a co-educational institution since 1969, allowing young Jewish girls in for the first time in its history. All these departures from its traditionally unique identity were met with scepticism – and no small amount of intrigue – among concerned governors, benefactors, and parents. Jeremy Rosen realised that maintaining high academic and cultural standards at Carmel meant making it again smaller, more selective, and refocusing its curriculum on traditional Jewish values.

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Sometime in the 70s. The Pyramid and Manor House in the background (© www.carmelcollege.co.uk)       

Despite his lack of experience in the role, Jeremy Rosen was keen to herald a return to tradition and normality. He made some radical changes, secured the resignation of certain staff and governors, and attempted a throw back to the College’s root values, while trying to retain its contemporary, zeitgeisty air. At the time, a parent stated that “the place was great for those who wanted their children to remain Jewish, but didn’t want to become rabbis”. And another parent remarked that there was “no whiff of cannabis in the air”, which must have been seen as a small victory for any college of the 70s… it was reported that Rabbi Rosen “sighed about the conservatism of the older boys, one suspecting that he would welcome the challenge of the occasional revolutionary”. The revamp into a dynamic, yet traditional values-driven institution did not deliver the intended results :  beset by constant financial pressures and difficulties in finding competent Jewish staff, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen resigned his role in 1984. The college eventually closed its doors suddenly in 1997, citing financial difficulties. This was to the surprise of many of the staff and students, many of whom were in advanced preparation towards their A-levels at the time.

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Carmel College Synagogue in the 70s (© www.carmelcollege.co.uk)       

Sexual Abuse Scandal

Trevor Bolton, a former Housemaster and French teacher at Carmel College, was convicted to 19 years in prison over 25 counts of sexual abuse in 2015. The court heard how between 1968 and 1988, he preyed on homesick or vulnerable boys, pretending to be a “supportive second father”. He would ask them to his flat above their dormitories in select groups, pretending to inviting them to watch TV, offering them fizzy drinks, crisps, or cigarettes. He would then isolate and sexually abuse some of them over the course of an episode of Match of the Day. Some of these boys were as young as 11, and desperately lost in their unfortunate situation, as “Uncle Trevor” was supposed to be the go to person for reporting this kind of behaviour.  The abuse must have not been unknown to the college : the court also heard of two other teachers dismissed as a result of complaints from boys. Bolton’s own indecency in sending weird private letters to some of these children brought about the end of his activities at Carmel : he was sacked after parents brought one of those letters to the attention of the headmaster.

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The Thames at Carmel College

But it took another 25 years until Bolton was fully exposed, and convicted.  It took the courage of many damaged, grown-up men to come forward and disclose their suffering, first to their loved ones, then to the authorities. And it took an intrepid investigative lawyer with a torch, scouring the mouldy basements of the now abandoned mansion, to find an old stack of documents. Within it, an insurance policy that was still good : enough to be eventually used as a basis for successful claims for compensation on behalf of all the abuse victims of Carmel College. One of them, Grammy nominated composer Stephen Endelman, turned his story of abuse and redemption into an award winning short film called A Boy, A Man and a Kite (premiered in 2019)

Carmel College today

The Carmel College is standing abandoned today, and its majestic mansion and Grade listed Modernist infrastructure are rotting away. A developer has acquired planning permission for 166 homes at Mongewell Park, and recently put up the site for sale at £30 million. In the interim, the location has been used in various film productions, such as 2011s The Iron Lady, where Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) practices her Prime Ministerial voice inside Hancock’s Synagogue. Interior scenes of Stalin’s deathbed at 2017s The Death of Stalin  have been filmed inside the mansion house. Kylie Minogue and  Kaiser Chiefs have filmed music videos at the college’s gymnasium in 2014, while Pet Shop Boys granted us a rare internal glimpse of Julius Gottlieb’s pyramid in a recent 2019 publicity photo.

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Pet Shop Boys inside the Julius Gottlieb Memorial, 2019

 

While waiting to be developed, the site remains private, and sadly there’s no public access (except for the ruins of St John the Baptist, where access is allowed). You can get a decent view of the Julius Gottlieb Memorial and boathouse across the river from there. For the foolhardy who will ignore the warnings and venture inside the Carmel College grounds (I am whistling innocently), be prepared for some hide and seek with security, and to be kicked out if caught – in no uncertain terms. I am hoping that whoever owns the site in the future, will grant public access to its uniquely rare Grade 2 listed Modernist monuments, and that the long history and heritage of Mongewell Park and Carmel College will endure.

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Sources

  1. The Jewish Eton, The Observer Magazine, 23 September 1973 pp 40-47
  2. Historic England
  3. Carmel College Alumni site
  4. This article on Jewish Community Watch

All photos are mine, except where otherwise stated

Disclaimer : This is an article about the history and architecture of the Mongewell Park site. Although there are references to well documented, extremely sensitive topics, the article does not intend to pass judgement or portray the entirety of the staff, students and/or other personalities associated with Carmel College or other English boarding schools in a particular light.

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