The queue for taxis at York station was a proper doozy and would have tested the patience of someone far saintlier, with a long line of pupils returning from half-term pushing the wait time beyond 30 minutes. They were a mixed bunch in age and ethnicity, and all were wearing a uniform I recognised. I’d had a word with myself about not moaning, so when I eventually got into a cab, I said to the driver: ‘I bet you’re glad for the Queen Ethelburga’s business.’
His response was instant: ‘Don’t get me started on Queen Ethelburga’s.’ Here was a live one. ‘Why’s that?’ I asked. I buckled in and listened with increasing astonishment to what he had to say.
The taxi driver claimed that he’d worked for the taxi firm that had held the exclusive contract for ferrying QE pupils to and from the school, some ten miles outside of York. The work was all well and good, he said, but the firm had to kick back ten per cent of every fare to be permitted access to the grounds of the school for collection and drop-off.
I expressed incredulity. This did not seem standard practice for an independent school. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘he’s not your normal private school owner, that fella.’ I was about to inquire who that fella was when the driver went on.
‘That’s not all,’ he said. ‘It’s the same deal with takeaways. There’s a Chinese restaurant that all the Chinese pupils order from.’ They, too, he alleged, paid the school ten per cent on all orders delivered to the Thorpe Underwood site. Again, I expressed my shock at these practices. He explained that the owner of the school was a very sharp business operator, though not in precisely those terms. Almost as an afterthought, he added: ‘And he’s up in court for historic sexual offences.’ I may be softening the language for general consumption.
I thought I would take this last utterance with a pinch of salt: it seemed too much like the sort of rumour that is passed around taxi drivers between fares. Unlikely. I was sure I would have heard of this. Earlier that year I’d looked around QE with my family. We’d visited a number of schools and had found QE peculiarly alienating. I’d been curious to have a gander because I’d been at school myself with the son of a former headmistress, and her husband, the historian Lawrence James, had been a teacher at my place.
What we’d found at QE had been pretty weird. The place was soulless, more car park and sporting facility than school, and the staff we’d met had been singularly uninspiring, more like council officials than teachers. We had been given a promotional teddy bear. I remembered that we’d subsequently read a gossipy thread on Mumsnet about QE where numerous messages had been redacted under threat of legal action. We’d taken it as confirmation of our instincts and chalked off the experience as instructive.
As soon as the taxi driver dropped me at home, I googled ‘QE and sexual offences’. I discovered that, sure enough, that past summer, Brian Richard Martin, the owner and ‘provost’ of QE, had been tried on 24 counts of sexual assault and acquitted of 21 of those charges. I also found some pretty eye-opening stories: about the fact that QE had been the beneficiary of fees from individuals involved in an international money-laundering scheme dubbed the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’ and of money linked to the Sergei Magnitsky fraud. There seemed to be a lot of material that was not quite pulled together.
I looked again at the Mumsnet thread and made a note of a couple of the posters who’d been the most vociferous. I signed up to the website and reached out. Before I was thrown off the board for violating their privacy terms, I’d made contact with a former QE parent who was happy to chat on the phone.
Tom was a former army officer and a teacher himself. His daughters had been at the school, which offers generous bursaries to forces parents, who can access government funding for private education if they are posted abroad. Tom said he was not at all surprised to read the news of Martin’s trial. He’d become concerned at the extent to which he was involved with the day-to-day running of the school, as an owner and governor and not a teacher. I resolved to start asking around.
Shortly after arriving in York my daughter had made friends with a classmate whose father worked the Leeds court circuit. At one drop-off following a playdate, I mentioned to him the story and asked if he’d heard of the CPS barrister who was prosecuting the case against Martin. ‘He’s my great friend,’ he replied. ‘I’ll get him to give you a call.’
That Saturday, I spoke to Mark McKone KC on the phone. Once again, I buckled in, this time for an hour, as he ran me through the details of the case he was preparing for a retrial on two counts undecided in 2018. It was abundantly clear that both McKone and the police had been distressed at their failure to secure a conviction at Martin’s first trial and, for the sake of the accusers who had agreed to be witnesses in court, were determined to get a result at the retrial. I decided to attend court on the basis of what McKone had told me. The details of Martin’s behaviour that were not in dispute – for example, that he took groups of pupils for rides in a fire engine he owned, or invited them to swim in his own pool – seemed like major red flags. And there was much, much more that would be subject to discussion in court.
Over the course of the week-long trial, I met a small group of fellow court attendees: former acquaintances of Martin who, for various personal reasons, were keen to see justice run its course. They had all attended the first trial. Having witnessed what happened, they were not confident that Martin would be convicted. He had an expert defence who were able to cast doubt on the testimony of vulnerable witnesses even as the judge attempted to protect them.
I made friends with Martin’s bodyguard, a former RAF serviceman from Hartlepool. We didn’t discuss the case, just hung out during the breaks.
My sense over the course of the trial was that the jury could surely only reach a verdict of guilty. When Martin’s defence invoked the Magna Carta in summing up, it seemed like an act of desperation. I scrawled angry exclamation marks into my notebook. The jury room must have been fascinating. They decided to convict on only the more serious of the two counts.
I came away from the trial determined to find out more. Through the contacts I’d met in court I was introduced to further people who had stories to tell about Martin. I studied Companies House documents and worked out the Byzantine way in which the companies he established Martin were interconnected. This led to some startling discoveries, not the least of which was that the whole set-up was owned by an offshore parent company, Foxlow Limited. Martin’s brief had suggested that the school was owned by a charitable trust, as many independent schools are. This was not that. On a hunch, I plugged the name Foxlow into the Panama Papers database and bingo: Foxlow was the Brian Martin Settlements 1 and 2, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. I shared this discovery with McKone and the investigating police in case it might be useful to them.
I started firing out targeted Freedom of Information requests. I wanted to know whether North Yorkshire County Council had any records on their allegations database relating to Queen Ethelburga’s. I wanted to know what the Department for Education knew; Ofsted, who’d inspected QE in 2010, and the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) who’d inspected in 2015 at the request of the Department for Education (DoE). Most of these requests were declined on privacy grounds, as they won’t share information that identifies individuals. North Yorkshire County Council farms out their FOI to a private company. The ISI don’t buy into the process. Responses took an age to arrive.
The only hit I got was a heavily redacted email chain from the DoE detailing the commissioning of an emergency inspection – already reported – in 2015 that had found 700 CCTV cameras at Thorpe Underwood. The DoE felt it necessary to consult London-based legal counsel before briefing the ISI inspectors. I hope they felt that public money was well-spent.
Meanwhile, I’d discovered a list of properties owned by Foxlow. One of these was a lock-up garage on an industrial estate not far from where I live. I drove there and poked around. I was conscious of the ridiculousness of cosplaying a David Peace character. I didn’t tell anyone about that.
The investigation published by The Fence was the fruit of these years of poring over documents and doing countless interviews. Of those, perhaps the strangest meeting I had was with a former member of the QE teaching staff who agreed to meet on neutral ground: the RAF club in St James’s. He asked me to reassure him that I wasn’t secretly recording our conversation before telling me an array of unpublishable tales. I hope that now that our story has been published, such sources might consider going public. It would be a great support to Martin’s victims.
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