A prominent Conservative politician and close friend of Winston Churchill set up a bogus “summer school” in Scotland where he posed as a 16-year-old schoolboy and hired other teenagers to cane him, according to a new memoir.
Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s wartime minister of information and one of Britain’s most successful newspaper publishers, was 54 in the mid-1950s when he embarked on a secret double life as a schoolboy named “Mike” who was said to suffer from a premature aging condition.
The man who founded the modern Financial Times — whose London headquarters is named Bracken House — hired tutors and classmates who were led to believe that “Mike” was a troubled teenager in shorts and long socks who needed to be punished regularly for smoking and drinking.
“The instrument of chastisement in our mini boarding school was … the cane,” writes David Campbell, one of several teenagers hired as “prefects” to supervise “Mike”. Campbell, 85, writes in his memoir Minstrel Heart that although he found Mike “a bit odd”, Bracken’s fantasy world was so carefully constructed with forged letters from supposed guardians, lawyers and an imaginary uncle that he came to accept the premature aging story.
Although “surprised” to be asked to administer the cane, he noted that Mike “never evinced any grudge” about being punished. It was not until several summers later that a new tutor arrived at the school, recognized Bracken, and the fantasy crumbled. “Part of me was stunned, part [had] already begun to unpeel the cataract of credulity that had let myself, tutors, companions, cooks and housemaids in successive Scottish grand house ‘schools’ become part of the masquerade,” Campbell writes.
Bracken was Churchill’s loyal ally through successive periods of war and peace. The two were so close, several biographers noted, there were rumors he was Churchill’s illegitimate son.
When Churchill returned to Downing Street in 1951, Bracken declined a ministerial role and retired from politics. He became Viscount Bracken of Christchurch, his last constituency as a Conservative MP, but never took up his seat in the House of Lords.
Instead he embarked on what Campbell describes as “an unimaginable journey” from the halls of Westminster to the privacy of remote Scottish estates where he could dress up in grey flannel shorts, attend lessons with his “prefects” and bend over a chair for a regular beating.
Bracken once courted Penelope Dudley Ward — daughter of Freda, sometime mistress of Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales — but never married, and there were inevitable rumors that he was gay. Yet Campbell insisted recently that the man he knew as Mike never evinced a hint of sexual interest in the “prefects” at his school. “He never, ever touched any of us in a sexual way, although there was clearly an element of masochism,” he said. “It just seemed to be this strange fantasy we were all sucked into. I was 16 or 17 at the time, and yes, you think that’s really odd, but he made a friendship with me and my family and after a while you came to accept it.”
Brack and Churchill were so close there were rumors he was Churchill’s illegitimate son.
Bracken had a record of inventing alternative lives. The son of an Irish builder who died when he was three, he turned into an unruly child and was sent to Australia to live with a cousin who was a priest. By the time he returned to Britain in 1920, he was posing as an Australian four years older than his real age. He would later claim his parents had died in a bushfire in Australia.
In London he moved into publishing and politics and was introduced to Churchill. A series of publishing deals brought him a stable of newspaper and magazine interests, and eventually earned him the post of Churchill’s propaganda chief in 1941.
It was in 1957 on the remote island of Scalpay, near Skye, that the schoolboy fantasies of Churchill’s best friend came crashing down. Campbell writes that a private tutor, Michael Green, arrived at the summer school, recognized his new pupil immediately and asked to speak to “Mike” privately. Green, a former army chaplain, then appeared at Campbell’s door. “This has to stop,” he said. “Do you know who Mike actually is? He is Lord Brendan Bracken … you can imagine the feast the press would make of the set-up here, the nature of the implications they would draw. I’ve spoken to Lord Bracken and he has, of course, agreed. The matter is at an end.”
It was not quite at an end. Whether Bracken was anxious to avert public scandal or merely inclined to be generous to his departing “classmates”, he paid Campbell handsomely for his prefectorial role. He covered school and university fees for Campbell and his brother, and bought a house in Edinburgh for their mother. Campbell says Bracken never asked him to keep quiet about his experience. A year after his “school” was disbanded, Bracken died of throat cancer, aged 57.
Today Campbell believes that whatever Bracken’s sexual proclivities and taste for being beaten, what the viscount enjoyed most was “the manufacture of drama”. Campbell has 34 letters, all apparently written by Bracken under different identities in support of the fiction that he was an ailing schoolboy with special needs. “The elaboration of his fantasy was a work of genius,” he said.
Campbell later became a teacher, then a BBC radio producer and latterly a traditional storyteller. His memoir is out now from Luath Press, an imprint in Edinburgh.
Tony Allen-Mills is a writer for The Sunday Times of London