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The public school past that Marxist McDonnell tried to hide

There is a story told by ‘Holy Joes’ of a certain age about the day local yobs tried to storm their bastion of privilege.

A mob of working class youths had gathered at the gates of St Joseph’s College, a public school set in 60 acres of Suffolk parkland. The pampered sons of the capitalist oppressors were about to be taught a lesson.

Students of Marxism will no doubt be reminded of the Bolshevik assault on the Tsar’s Winter Palace in 1917. But this battle of the classes, fought in East Anglia half a century later, was to go a different way.

Confronting the downtrodden proletariat were the strapping chaps of St Joseph’s 1st XV rugby team, armed with cricket bats and golf clubs.

The proletariat were put to flight. The Old Order was maintained. There might even have been an impromptu rendition of the school hymn ‘Jerusalem’ — that favourite of true blue Etonians and pinko Blairites alike. Certainly not the socialist anthem the Red Flag.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is fond of the Red Flag. He’s boasted of having been able to play the opening bars on the trombone. He sings it at party conference with clenched fist upraised.

Shadow Chancellor ≈(pictured) is fond of the Red Flag. He’s boasted of having been able to play the opening bars on the trombone. He sings it at party conference with clenched fist upraised

McDonnell has also made much of his working class credentials. He was born in Liverpool in ‘one of the worst slums in Europe’, he says. His father was a dock worker who became a Norfolk bus driver.

Young John apparently scavenged for discarded herring on the Great Yarmouth quayside. He was fed on broken biscuits, he has claimed. Hardscrabble indeed. And the toffs will pay for the iniquity.

Labour’s election manifesto says a Jeremy Corbyn government would strip private schools of their charitable status and hit them with VAT on fees. It estimates this would force around 30,000 parents to move their children to state schools, at a cost to taxpayers of £1.5 billion.

Last week, McDonnell envisaged the integration of private schools within the state system within 15 years and, at this autumn’s Labour Party conference, he supported a motion calling for their abolition.

Herein lies a considerable irony. For unlike 93 per cent of the population — the ‘many not the few’ to borrow the Corbynist slogan — Corbyn himself and many of his hard-Left inner circle have enjoyed the privilege of private educations.

Corbyn went to prep school. His director of strategy, Seumas Milne, was educated at £39,000-a-year Winchester College. His director of strategic communications James Schneider went to St Paul’s School in London, while another close adviser, the aristocratic Communist Andrew Murray, is an Old Worthian. Diane Abbott sent her son to the £19,000-a-year City of London School for Boys, while Momentum founder Jon Lansman attended Highgate School.

But what is rarely mentioned is that the Marxist Shadow Chancellor also spent several years as a public schoolboy.

He was a boarder at St Joseph’s, that establishment on the outskirts of Ipswich which so aroused the jealousy of local youths and today charges the parents of those boarding £36,000 a year.

He was a boarder at St Joseph's (pictured), that establishment on the outskirts of Ipswich which so aroused the jealousy of local youths and today charges the parents of those boarding £36,000 a year

He was a boarder at St Joseph’s (pictured), that establishment on the outskirts of Ipswich which so aroused the jealousy of local youths and today charges the parents of those boarding £36,000 a year

Pupils have long been known locally as Holy Joes, for obvious reasons. Alumni are more formally referred to as Old Birkfeldians —after Birkfield House, the mansion built for a Hanoverian prince, upon which the school was established in 1937.

Old Birkfeldians include earls, ambassadors and captains of industry. And John Martin McDonnell MP. All were kitted out at Grimwade’s gentlemen’s outfitters of Cornhill, Ipswich. ‘Uniform was grey suit for two terms and, in summer, navy blue blazers sometimes accompanied by straw boaters,’ one contemporary recalls. ‘Otherwise it was caps with the school badge and they always had to be worn when off the premises.’

It is only very recently that McDonnell’s attendance there became known.

The first public reference was in St Joseph’s 2017 prospectus with him featured on a page of notable alumni. One imagines this revelation was not authorised by the man himself. It might even have caused him embarrassment. All the evidence suggests that since McDonnell entered public life — and one suspects long before that — the man who famously tossed Mao’s Little Red Book across the Commons has been at pains to suppress this ideologically awkward episode. Certainly it has been written out of his history in a most efficiently Stalinist fashion.

Since being first elected as an MP in 1997, McDonnell has appeared in 20 annual editions of Who’s Who. His entry is best known for giving one of his recreations as ‘generally fermenting (sic) the overthrow of capitalism’. The section on his education — unchanged throughout the last two decades — has a reference to Great Yarmouth Grammar School, where he spent less time than at St Joseph’s.

The section on his education — unchanged throughout the last two decades — has a reference to Great Yarmouth Grammar School (pictured, believed to be McDonnell), where he spent less time than at St Joseph's

The section on his education — unchanged throughout the last two decades — has a reference to Great Yarmouth Grammar School (pictured, believed to be McDonnell), where he spent less time than at St Joseph’s

But so busy ‘fermenting’ has he been, that he’s consistently forgotten to include any reference to being an Old Birkfeldian. Nor are his public school days mentioned in his entry in the 2019 Dods Parliamentary Companion — though it, too, lists the grammar school — his latest official Labour Party biography, or his constituency website.

When pressed, both McDonnell and the Labour Party have offered scant detail; detail which has been contradictory, opaque or downright dubious. McDonnell never refers to St Joseph’s by its correct name, calling it ‘De La Salle College’.

There are a number of schools around the UK and abroad with this title. The one in Basildon, Essex, is a comprehensive.

But there is no De La Salle College in Ipswich. St Joseph’s was founded by the De La Salle Catholic brotherhood. Was this a deliberate obfuscation?

2017: Now you see him... McDonnell mentioned in St Joseph's 2017 prospectus

2017: Now you see him… McDonnell mentioned in St Joseph’s 2017 prospectus

Last month, the Mail revealed how, while on the Greater London Council in the Eighties, McDonnell allegedly ordered the shredding of documents which revealed inconvenient truths.

So the Mail decided to look a little more closely at the secondary education of the man who could become our next Chancellor.

We examined archives and official inspection reports, talked to contemporaries and the De La Salle order of monks.

We compared the results of this research with the claims McDonnell and his party have made.

There is an unavoidable question: has McDonnell’s narrative been shaped to serve his political ambitions rather than the historical truth?

John McDonnell was born in working-class Liverpool, in September 1951. His family had been moving back and forth between Merseyside and coastal Norfolk.

... 2019, Now you don't... But he is missing from the 2019 prospectus

… 2019, Now you don’t… But he is missing from the 2019 prospectus

His father, Bob, had served in the Royal Anglian Regiment, according to his parents’ marriage certificate. His older brother, Brian, had been born in his mother’s home-town, Great Yarmouth.

When John was seven, the McDonnells returned once more to East Anglia, where he was to grow up. There, his dad became a bus driver and union activist, while his mum worked in British Home Stores.

John was educated at a local Catholic primary school, passed his 11-plus and got a place at the selective, state-run Great Yarmouth Grammar School.

At Labour conference in 2015, he told delegates he’d worked hard but found the grammar school system ‘appalling’.

The following year in an interview with the Great Yarmouth Mercury, he railed against grammar school education.

The article stated that he was the only one of his classmates to go on to Great Yarmouth Grammar School — ‘where he says he did all right’.

McDonnell said: ‘I resented leaving friends behind. At the age of 11, large numbers of people were classified as failures even though they were extremely bright and talented.

‘That was why I was so in favour of a comprehensive education and opportunities for everybody.’

He spoke about studying for A-levels at the grammar school, but left aged 17 because he was ‘too busy doing other things’. There’s no reference to his longer attendance at St Joseph’s, located 65 miles to the south-west of Great Yarmouth. But it did not remain a secret for much longer.

The first media mention of his connection with the public school came in 2017 when The Sun reported that he’d attended St Joseph’s ‘prep school’. A Labour spokesman was quoted as saying: ‘John attended the school for two years on a church grant at the start of his training to become a Catholic priest. However, John decided against the priesthood and left the school forthwith.’

The first public reference was in St Joseph's (pictured) 2017 prospectus with him featured on a page of notable alumni

The first public reference was in St Joseph’s (pictured) 2017 prospectus with him featured on a page of notable alumni

The ‘prep school’ inaccuracy allowed McDonnell to issue a disingenuous tweet which said: ‘Story on me in Sun untrue. I did not attend a prep school. I went to Grammar and then for a period to De La Salle College to prepare for priesthood.’

This suggested that ‘De La Salle College’ was a kind of seminary and his stay had been brief. But the private education cat was out of the bag. Initially, little information was forthcoming from Labour spin doctors.

More detail, though, was provided last year in a sympathetic profile in the Left-leaning Prospect magazine. It was admitted McDonnell had attended grammar school for only one year, after which he was ‘sent on a church grant to De La Salle College in Ipswich, a Catholic boarding school, to prepare him for the priesthood’.

The Shadow Chancellor was quoted as saying: ‘We were the classic Irish Catholic family, which meant one of us was going to be the priest.’ The article continued: ‘The altar boy who had to get up early every morning for Mass didn’t enjoy the experience and doesn’t talk publicly about it, but others have heard him speak of De La Salle in terms of ‘sado-masochistic Christianity,’ a regime that enjoyed ‘kicking the s**t out of you’. McDonnell sticks to: ‘I did a few years there until I was 15, 16 and basically discovered girlfriends, so celibacy wasn’t going to be an option.’ ‘ So now it appeared McDonnell had been at ‘De La Salle College’ for four, not two years.

The ‘church grant’ claim was repeated in another interview-profile this year in which he said that going to St Joseph’s was his own idea, but ‘after a couple of years getting up early every morning for Mass, he decided the priesthood was not for him’.

But did young men really train to be a priest at St Joseph’s College? And did the Catholic Church provide grants to cover fees?

The UK spokesman for the De La Salle order, which operated the school until 1995, told the Mail: ‘St Joseph’s was an ordinary private boarding school. It was in the business of educating boys, not training them to be priests.’

Bill Moss, 88, was head of English at St Joseph’s throughout the time McDonnell was there. He, too, was puzzled by the suggestion any boy was receiving training for the priesthood at the school. ‘He (McDonnell) would have received a standard education like everyone else,’ said Mr Moss. ‘I never heard of any other kind of course. It was a Catholic school, but there was no religious training as such.’

A retired priest and Old Birkfeldian was similarly perplexed. Canon Michael Hazell said there could be no formal training for the priesthood until a candidate turned 18.

A more persuasive explanation for boys such as McDonnell attending St Joseph’s comes in a 1967 Department of Education Inspection report, which the Mail found in the National Archives.

It sets out the numbers of pupils, their backgrounds and how their fees were paid.

In this particular year, the school had 418 boys, of whom 233 boarded. Most fees were paid by parents — many working for the military or in business abroad. But it adds: ‘All told, there are 75 boarders and 61 day boys assisted by local education authorities.’

Of these, eight boarders were funded by the Conservative-controlled Norfolk LEA, which served Great Yarmouth.

The inspection report explained: ‘Catholic boys allocated to grammar schools can take up aided places at St Joseph’s.’

Former St Joseph’s history teacher Michael Thuell, 77, explains further: ‘If there was no Catholic grammar school in your area and … if you were Catholic and passed the 11-plus, you were sent to St Joseph’s on a Local Education Authority grant.’

Referring to McDonnell’s reticence on the subject, he commented: ‘I don’t see what he’s got to be shy about — you don’t get to choose where you go to school.’

At the time, around one quarter of pupils were non-Catholic. There is no reference in the DoE inspection report to religious education or training or to any funding provided from church grants. Could it be that McDonnell’s parents had simply taken advantage of a Tory education policy which allowed their son John to get a top class schooling?

What, then, was life like at St Joseph’s at the time?

The inspection report speaks of the school’s ‘delightful’ setting and an open-air swimming pool. There was a choral society and a sailing club which had its own flotilla of craft moored on the River Orwell.

The backgrounds of the pupils were varied. Miner’s son James McElhinney recalls his parents paid his boarding fees until the sixth-form, when the LEA gave them a grant. He said of St Joseph’s: ‘It had a certain social standing; (it’s) where people wanted to send their children for a broader education, not just a purely academic one. You were quite lucky to be sent there.’

A farmer’s son was a day-boy at the same time as McDonnell and recalls having to ride his bike to school through the Chantry council estate, where he would ‘run the gauntlet’ of hostility from boys at the nearby secondary modern.

Former Labour MP Chris Mullin boarded at the school in the early 1960s and observed in a memoir that St Joseph’s ‘was run by the De La Salle Brothers, a religious order founded in the 17th century to educate the children of the poor, although somewhere along the line the mission had changed and they had ended up educating the children of the prosperous’.

Many speak fondly of their time there. Others have made allegations of physical and sexual abuse by monks. A number of allegations are on a blog site run by Pat Mills, an Old Birkfeldian who created the celebrated comic book character Judge Dredd.

Dredd, a policeman from the sci-fi future is a pitiless disciplinarian who inflicts on-the-spot justice. Mills says Dredd was based on a monk, the Prefect of Discipline. Dredd’s first name is Joe — after Mills’ alma mater.

McDonnell himself was less memorable. A contemporary, now a retired GP, recalled him as ‘a nerdy, non-descript, pious sort’. Presumably he was not the boy who flew a pair of knickers from the spire of the school’s new chapel when it was opened in 1967.

Chris Mullin returned to St Joseph’s recently and remarked: ‘Many of today’s students (far more than in my day) are foreigners, children of the Russian and Chinese nouveau riche, one or two of whom have been known to pay their fees with a bag full of cash. As for my contemporaries, most have disappeared without trace.’

Certainly, John McDonnell has mysteriously disappeared from his old school’s latest prospectus. Ten of the 11 prominent alumni featured in 2017 are retained in the 2019 edition. Yet McDonnell, the most famous of all, is not. He has been replaced by Sherry Danlin Liao, the ‘deputy general manager’ of a film production company.

Did McDonnell ask his alma mater to erase him from its own history?

Last night, we asked St Joseph’s College about his attendance and his disappearance from the prospectus. After consulting the school’s Principal and the Board of Governors, a spokeswoman said: ‘St Joseph’s College has no comment to make on (any of) this.’

When first approached by the Mail to comment on his public school days, the Shadow Chancellor’s spokesman said: ‘That’s pure invention. He didn’t go to private school.’ Later, on receipt of our detailed questions, the spokesman changed tack and gave this short statement: ‘It is public knowledge that John went to St Joseph’s College as part of his training to be a Catholic priest.’

The Marxist’s current lifestyle mirrors that of other more politically conventional Old Birkfeldians. It was recently revealed that McDonnell — married to an alumnus of Millfield School (£38,000 a year for boarders) — has a second home in Norfolk. It has its own jetty where he moors a small yacht and a number of other craft. Was his interest in sailing first stirred as a public schoolboy at St Joseph’s, likewise his passion for classical music?

After leaving his Catholic boarding school, McDonnell was to follow a different ideology. He turned away from the values he was taught at St Joseph’s, once vowing a Labour party review of public schools and ‘their privileged position’.

Additional reporting: Simon Trump.


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