A Popular and Well-liked Teacher
Listening to Siôn Jenkins’ emotional statement after his acquittal at the Old Bailey made me cast my mind back ten years.
Mr Jenkins taught me GCSE English for two years in the mid-Nineties at all-boys William Parker School in Hastings.
To me he seemed a man with a sure touch, popular and well-liked by pupils, respected and admired by colleagues. You would be hard-pressed to find a teacher so able to make Shakespeare enjoyable to a group of apathetic 14-year-olds. Even pupils without the slightest inclination to learn would happily attend his lessons, not because he was a soft touch who would overlook bad behaviour, but because he had an ability to muster enthusiasm about the most dusty of subjects.
During lessons he would talk enthusiastically about his football club, West Ham, and how he would attend games when he lived near Upton Park in east London. He would always ask those of us in the football team how we fared after a match. He could switch comfortably from figure of authority to one of the lads. He and I shared a common interest in that our families both hailed from mid-Wales.
One of my abiding memories of him is of a lesson just before our GCSE English exams. He told us emphatically “You will not fail this. Every one of you has the ability to pass this.” No other teacher had as much confidence in us.
My last tenuous contact with my former teacher came during his latest retrial at the Old Bailey. A representative from his London-based solicitors, Bindman and Partners, asked me questions to gauge whether I would be a useful defence witness. As it turned out, I was never called to give evidence because I had already reported on the case for this newspaper.
I can still see Mr Jenkins now, with his head bowed, striding up the path linking the upper and lower schools, his black gown blowing furiously behind him, books and folders under his arm. He was always ready with a cheery smile if you passed him, always happy to stop and talk. With genuine feeling, he would say: “How are you? Is everything OK?”
The announcement that he would assume the headship of William Parker upon the retirement of long-serving Roger Mitchell came as little surprise. You got the impression he was considered something of a rising star in teaching circles. Of course, he never did take up the position of headteacher in September 1997 because the previous February Billie-Jo was murdered. Mr Mitchell agreed to continue as headteacher for another year while a replacement was sought.
When I heard Mr Jenkins had been arrested on suspicion of murder, the shock was profound. I remember hearing the news on the radio and standing in stunned disbelief. It was a shock shared by many others at William Parker and across Hastings and St Leonards. Nobody could quite make sense of it. How could a man who had taught us for two years be suspected of such a crime? The answer seems no clearer now than it did in 1997.
Following his arrest and amid a media furore I can recall an extraordinary assembly given by Mr Mitchell in the Phoenix Arts Centre at the upper school. In an unusually personal address, he revealed how Mr Jenkins would visit his home with his children and play happily, like any model father. He spoke glowingly of him and told how he had backed Mr Jenkins’ bid to take over as headteacher at William Parker on his retirement.
Afterwards, one teacher, knowing I was already involved with newspapers, told me : “I don’t want to see that end up in the Press, Tom”.
Days later, however, came more extraordinary developments. Mr Jenkins had been charged with murder, news which somehow deepened the shock. Suspicion, it seemed, fell on him very early on, particularly after his extraordinarily calm press conference appearance beside wife Lois. Speaking to those who staffed that conference at Hastings police station, the general feeling was that something was not quite right about Mr Jenkins’ reaction.
People, of course, react to trauma in different ways. But the juxtaposition of Mrs Jenkins, pale, drained and redeyed, and Mr Jenkins, who belied not a single emotion, left some asking: Did he do it?
Certainly opinion was split in Hastings. Some had him convicted in their minds as soon as he was charged. Others were less inclined to agree with the first jury’s guilty verdict.
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: Did he have a temper?
In all honesty, I cannot recollect a single time when he lost it. He seemed to deal with confrontation well, even with the most difficult of pupils. Others he taught agreed with me that he was firm but fair.
As he and I caught each other’s eye amid the media frenzy outside the Old Bailey that Thursday, I imagined what a nightmare journey these last nine years have been. Incarcerated in a cell at Category A Wakefield Prison for six years, deserted by your wife and children, your life entirely destroyed.
Then my mind turned to the real victim in all this. The question that must be asked now is, where’s the justice for Billie-Jo?