For East End children, the care home in the Essex countryside could have been idyllic. But one former resident recalls an horrific regime of abuse.
Sarah Hall reports
Nestling in the Essex countryside, the St Leonard’s children’s home should by rights have been a mini Utopia for the 300-odd youngsters in its care. With its 13 “cottages”, each housing up to 30 children, its own hospital, church, school, swimming pool and gymnasium, and generous avenues set amid 86 acres, the late Victorian “village” appeared a world away from the squalid council blocks where many of its residents had previously lived in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets.
“It was potentially idyllic,” says Seamus Carroll, who lived there with his brothers from the age of four, in the mid-1960s, until age 17. “We always said, when we were growing up, it would be a wonderful place to be – if it weren’t for the staff, that is.”
For St Leonard’s, which saw 3,000 children pass through its doors between 1965 and its closure in 1984, was a haven not for children, but for paedophiles who meted out abuse while purportedly providing the children’s care.
Earlier this month, the lifting of reporting restrictions at the Old Bailey meant the full scale of the abuse could be, if not exposed, then at least hinted at. In a revelation largely banished from the news by the start of the bombing of Afghanistan, it emerged that one former house parent, Bill Starling, had indecently assaulted, raped or buggered 11 victims – aged from just five to 14 – over a 20-year period. Another defendant, the home’s superintendent, Alan Prescott, a former JP, Labour councillor, assistant director of social services in Tower Hamlets and, later, chief executive of east end charity Toynbee Hall, had indecently assaulted four teenage boys at various points throughout the 1970s.
A third social worker, Haydn Davies – who already has a 1981 conviction for buggering a teenage boy and who originally faced 37 charges of indecent assault, rape and buggery – had proceedings against him dropped after the judge ruled the loss of video and other evidence from an aborted investigation meant a fair trial was not possible. He was acquitted of 12 charges.
Police believe that figures for the numbers of victims – 12 on the original indictment for Starling and seven for Prescott – may not be the full extent of the abuse, however. Daniel O’Malley, the detective inspector heading the continuing investigation, suggests there may have been as many as 70 victims – with 30 abused by Starling alone.
Nor do the figures adequately convey the legacy of the abuse, nor the culture of despair and secrecy that enabled the supposed carers to perpetuate the abuse with impunity.
“There was a complete conspiracy of silence,” says Carroll, now 40, the man who prompted the police investigation when he finally made a complaint to Tower Hamlets about the abuse he says he suffered from four to 15. “As kids, we never spoke about it to one another because of the sense of shame, the guilt, and the feeling of helplessness, and the staff who weren’t involved turned a blind eye and pretended not to notice. The few children who tried to challenge them were threatened with Borstal, and when I did finally tell someone, he did nothing about it, because he was involved with teenage girls at the home himself.”
One of the original charges against Prescott – again dropped because of the loss of video evidence – also alleged that he indecently assaulted a boy who went to him for help against another abuser.
For Carroll – now a builder, with a partner and two young children – the abuse began almost from the moment he entered Myrtle Cottage, in 1965, with his three brothers, following the suspected suicide of their mother – a death he was not to be told about until he was 16.
At first, the abuse came from a perhaps unexpected quarter – his house mother, who died before police began investigating in 1995 and so evaded prosecution. “It was almost instantaneous,” says Carroll. “It started with her fondling us, and she was very persistent – waking us in the night and touching our genitals under the ruse of putting us on the potty.
“She would do it to the girls as well as the boys, and she picked on the most vulnerable. We were so young that any affection seemed better than no affection. There was a sense that it was better to be touched than not touched at all.”
With his perceptions of adult/child relationships already distorted, it was perhaps inevitable that the nine-year-old Carroll should be preyed on by a male social worker, who cannot be named for legal reasons, but whom he alleges raped him as he shared a bunk bed with him when the house was taken caravanning, and as his brothers lay next door. Afterwards, he says, his house mother saw there was blood on his underpants but washed them without saying anything. “She knew I’d been raped and said nothing about it – and that, for me, was the last betrayal.”
From that point, Carroll says, “the lights went out – I was plunged into darkness”. Until age 15, when, prompted by self-disgust, he sought escape via the home’s Christian group, he claims he was subjected to every kind of sex by his alleged abuser. “He nurtured me to want sex and I used to go to him for it – and I wasn’t the only one. He used to groom people; that was his way of securing his position with you. After he’d raped you, he partially lost interest – hence having so many victims.”
And, all the time, the abuse was being secretly meted out elsewhere – atWallis Cottage, opposite Myrtle, where Starling would bribe his female victims with money and cigarettes for sex and brutally rape the boys while telling them no one would believe the tales of such “problem children”. Prescott, as head of St Leonard’s, had the power to root out the abuse but instead did nothing.
Carroll says: “We were all suffering, but suffering alone because each house was a world unto itself. We lived in an atmosphere in which we were just like meat. When I searched for my files, I kept seeing notes like “he’s a pretty child” or “he’s an ugly child”.
Judge Martin Roberts, who presided at the Old Bailey case, said that although the defendants did not act together, each must have known what the other was doing.
Carroll says that the legacy of such an upbringing has “devastated” his family. One brother flung himself in front of a high-speed train two years ago after being haunted for five years by rape flashbacks. “I’ve one dead brother, one very ill brother, and one brother who’s always struggled,” he says. “Our family paid an incalculable price. We were just four boys with the world at our feet – but sometimes I can’t believe I’m alive.”
He is pleased with the trial’s outcome – despite Prescott’s guilty plea meaning he could not testify against him – and suggests that the case has been cathartic. “The most important thing is that we’ve been acknowledged,” he smiles sadly. “We’ve claimed back a little bit of our humanity from these demons. Finally, we’ve gained the recognition that we were innocent, all of us, and the guilt and the shame isn’t ours – it’s theirs.”