A 14-month-ordeal for a former Hampshire headmaster ended with two simple words yesterday – “not guilty”.

After retiring for three hours, the six men and six women of the jury unanimously cleared Richard Hilary of three charges of historic sexually abuse of a teenage girl.

Mr Hilary, 63, initially showed no emotion as the Winchester Crown Court jury delivered their verdict but as Judge Susan Evans QC said he was free to leave the dock, he mouthed “thank you” to them.

Smiling, he then shook hands with both dock warders but no sooner had he stepped out of the courtroom he burst into tears and had to be comforted by his barrister Alistair Wright.

Afterwards, Mr Hilary paid tribute to his wife, Sheila, apologising for the hurt he had caused her.

It is understood some 400 people, predominately former pupils, had intended to come to court to support him but he told them through a social network site he did not want them there.

But afterwards he thanked everyone for the ground swell of backing he had received.

In a statement to the Daily Echo he said: “I wish to thank everyone for the outstanding levels of support provided to me and my wife during what has been 14 months of hell. “Without the support of family and friends, especially my wife, I have little doubt I would not have survived the criminal proceedings I have faced.”

He then thanked former pupils, their parents, colleagues and school governors for their backing after the allegations were made public.

“I owe them a debt of gratitude and I am deeply touched by their support, which re-affirms my belief that throughout my career I have strived to do good and help everyone I could.”

Apologising to his wife, with whom he left court, he added: “I am desperately sorry that my wife has had to endure the past 14 months with me when many would not. I am very sorry for the hurt I have caused her. I am blessed she has forgiven me for that hurt.”

Jurors had heard how the former teacher met the girl – who 15 at the time – at the Farley Mount beauty spot near Winchester.

The victim, whose identity cannot be revealed, claimed he had sexually assaulted her three times when he was 28 and a teacher at Winchester’s Montgomery and Alamein School.

“It did happen,” she insisted to the court, rejecting suggestions she had made the allegations up. “I’m not the one living the lie. I thought it was my fault. I thought I was a silly girl.”

Hilary described it as “completely reprehensible” that he had deliberately not told the police the truth when he denied meeting the girl. But he later admitted he had met her on a few occasions outside school and had once kissed her.

The court heard from two colleagues of Mr Hilary who had worked with him at Winchester and at Chamberlayne School, formerly known as Weston Park Girls School who described him as “the best teacher” who was highly regarded by staff and children.