Purging of the demons (24.10.01)

The Guardian, 24th October 2001

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 – at Wallis 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.”

  1. Owen said:

    London24.com article, 27 March 2014:

    “Review of documents by Metropolitan Police officers has uncovered allegations dating back to the 1960s that the DJ abused children in homes and schools across the country.

    Five of the 21 named in a statement by Education Secretary Michael Gove are in London, including a Barnardo’s care home in Redbridge.

    Claims are also to be investigated that abuse took place at Hollies care home in Southwark, St Leonard’s in Tower Hamlets, The Ride in Hounslow, and an unnamed home in Islington.”


  2. Owen said:

    East London Advertiser, 27 March 2014:

    “A Town Hall spokesman revealed: “A former children’s home run by Tower Hamlets in the 1990s [St Leonard’s] was subject to a police investigation into sexual abuse, resulting in some staff members being prosecuted and jailed.

    “The latest allegations made public (involving Savile) appear to pre-date this investigation and the council will be investigating them as a matter of priority and working with the relevant authorities.”


  3. Owen said:

    BBC News, 2002:

    Abuse victim’s compensation cut:

    “A man who was sexually abused as a child by a worker in a care home has been told he will not be allowed full compensation because of his criminal record.

    Thomas Worrall, 36, served four months 10 years ago for handling stolen goods.

    That followed a string of probation orders and community service orders for breach of the peace.

    He will now receive only £3,000 – £10,000 less than expected – after being abused over an eight-year period at St Leonard’s home in Hornchurch, Essex.



    • Owen said:

      Full date of item: BBC News, 21 August, 2002

  4. Owen said:

    Romford Recorder, 16 May 2012

    Developers change name of housing development after concerns about link to notorious Hornchurch children’s home

    “The company behind a new housing development in Hornchurch have been forced to change its name after complaints from angry residents.

    “Bellway Homes have agreed not to call their new development in Elmhurst Lodge in Torrence Avenue, St Leonard’s because of fears that it was a reminder of the notorious children’s home of the same name.

    Cllr Barbara Matthews (RA, Hacton), who received complaints from residents said: “I am really pleased that they have made the decision to change the name.

    “It’s still living history for a lot of people in Hornchurch but it shows that they really want to be good neighbours.”

    Last Friday a sign went up outside of the development, which is just a site away from the former children’s home.

    The residents living nearby claimed it brought back a lot of painful memories about the abuse that happened at the home.

    Celebrity fitness trainer Paul Connolly, who grew up in St Leonard’s and wrote a book called Against All Odds about his experiences there, said he was inundated with phone calls and messages from concerned residents.

    He said: “I don’t think Bellway were aware of the history.

    “I think they were just trying to cash in on the St Lenoard’s Hamlet, but the name St Leonard’s has really bad connotations.”

    In 2000, authorities launched operation Mapperton an investigation into the Tower Hamlets run children’s home after many of the former residents killed themselves.

    In 2001 former assistant director of social services, magistrate and Labour Havering Councillor Alan Prescott, of Hornchurch was sentenced to two years in prison after admitting indecently assaulting four boys in his care between 1970 and 1980 while he was superintendant at the institute.

    William Starling of Norfolk, a colleague and house parent at St Leonard’s was jailed for 14 years for 19 offences including including two rapes and other sexual assualts.

    Cllr Matthews said: “A lot of the friends of the victims live in the area and a lot of them are still very upset that they didn’t pick up on what was happening.

    “It’s a legacy that people in Hornchurch will always have to live with, but it’s good that they are not going to be constantly reminded of it.”



    • Owen said:

      nb This Romford Recorder reference clarifies that Alan Prescott was a Havering councillor.

  5. Owen said:

    “Against All Odds”, by Paul Connolly:

    “Paul Connolly is a celebrity fitness trainer and encourages his clients to enjoy the physical and mental gains of regular physical exercise. Yet the reality for him is that exercise gave him the chance to escape the mental shadow cast by growing up in the infamous St Leonard’s Children’s home in East London.

    Paul now runs a successful Personal Training Business, is the creator of Boxerobics and happily lives with his partner and two sons in Essex – although this is a far cry from his abandonment at two weeks old.

    All seven of his siblings were also rejected by his parents when Paul was taken into care but his mother perversely would not allow him to be adopted. Vulnerable already, “every child in care has the realisation at an early age that they are utterly alone in the world and nobody even cares whether you live or not” worse was to come when at the age of 7 he was moved to St Leonard’s.

    In 2001 house parent ‘Uncle Bill’ was found guilty of rape and indecent assault on children in his care and Principal of the home, Alan Prescott found guilty of indecent assault during their time in charge of the home. Shockingly Paul was told by the police prior to the trial that, of the eight children in his dormitory, six were dead (“several by slow suicide in the form of heroin abuse and at least two by faster means”) and that his best friend at the home, Liam, had jumped under a train.

    While Paul suffered physical abuse and a near starvation diet worse for him was the ceaseless verbal abuse (“you’re rubbish, you Irish lowlife scum. Prison fodder from the day you were born, nobody ever loved you”) which was repeated so often like a mantra that he began to believe it was true and to react by becoming aggressive and violent.

    For Paul salvation came in the form of boxing. While other contemporaries from the home were in trouble for mugging and street violence he was ‘beating up’ people in the boxing ring and getting praise and medals in exchange. It also meant he had no interest in alcohol or drugs and via the club had the beginnings of a support network. He became an amateur boxing champion winning local and national titles.



  6. Owen said:

    British History Online, A History of the County of Essex: Volume 7, ‘Hornchurch: Introduction’, A History of the County of Essex: Volume 7, W.R.Powell (editor), 1978, pp. 25-31:


    St. Leonard’s, Hornchurch Road, formerly called Hornchurch Children’s Home, was built in 1889 by the poor-law guardians of the parish of St. Leonard, Shoreditch, to the design of F. J. Smith. (fn. 117) It was designed as an improvement on the barrack type of home, and comprised 11 ‘cottages’, each originally for 30 children, with school, workshops, bakery, swimming bath, infirmary, and other buildings, on an 80-acre site. It was extended between 1893 and 1895. The home was taken over by the L.C.C. in 1930, and in 1965 by the London borough of Tower Hamlets.



  7. Owen said:

    The Workhouse – Shoreditch (St Leonard’s), Middlesex, London. Scroll down to Hornchurch Cottage Homes for description, photographs (1909/1910 and 2004) and layout (1920)


  8. Owen said:

    [Informal summary of the report to Tower Hamlets Corporate Management Team on the investigation of an allegation concerning Jimmy Savile and St Leonard’s children’s home – full 24-page report available at:

    Report to: Tower Hamlets Corporate Management Team
    Date of Meeting: 30th September 2014 (original draft agreed 27th May 2014)
    Report Revised 24th September 2014 (revisions followed comments from Verita on
    behalf of DfE)
    Author: Steve Liddicott, Interim Head of Children’s Social Care

    The Department for Education had received information about Jimmy Savile relating to several children’s homes and schools dating back to the 1060s, 1970s and 1980s. One specific allegation concerned a child at St Leonard’s children’s home.

    In autumn 2012 a former resident of St Leonard’s, anonymised as Mr G, contacted Operation Yewtree to report that that he had been abused by Jimmy Saville in 1976 or 1977, during a visit to the BBC Television Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, London. Mr G would have been 11 or 12 years old at the time. He and other young people at St Leonard’s had successfully applied for tickets to see a recording of “Jim’ll Fix It”. Mr G said that Savile had invited him into his dressing room and sexually assaulted him.

    (In the lates 1990s a police investigation of allegations of abuse at St Leonard’s [Operation Mapperton] led to the trial and conviction in 2001 of several former members of staff, including Alan Prescott. Mr G gave evidence to the police investigation, which concluded that he had been abused at St Leonard’s.)

    An investigating team led by Steve Liddicott, Interim Head of LBTH Children’s Social Care Services, and including the council’s child protection advisor and allegations manager, a legal advisor, an insurance investigator and the council’s communications officer met in April and May 2014 and produced a draft report submitted to the LBTH Corporate Management Team in May 2014 and a final report agreed in September 2014.

    Mr G told the LBTH Allegations Manager (“LADO”) that he did not want to be interviewed or to be involved in the investigation. He was described as appearing to be “of the view that he had suffered abuse and it would not go away regardless of any investigations or reports”. He did not remember the names of anyone else who had been with him on the trip to Jim’ll Fix It. He had not mentioned the incident before he contacted the police in 2012. According to the LBTH investigation team his main concern appeared to be to have the incident on record as additional evidence of Savile’s abusive activities. Apart from the apparently chance encounter at the BBC, Mr G did not suggest that there was any other link between the home and Savile.

    A member of the team reviewed files relating to Mr G and St Leonard’s. “A consultation [was] undertaken with a police officer involved in both investigations [it’s not clear which two investigations are referred to]”. The LBTH investigation team also “sought assistance from” the Department for Education, the police and the BBC. The Dame Janet Smith review had no additional information suggesting a link between Savile/Jim’ll Fix It and St Leonard’s /Tower Hamlets .Some current LBTH employees (not from the home) provided anecdotal evidence. The team found no evidence that contradicted Mr G’s report of Savile’s abuse and considered it probable that the abuse had occurred as he had described. It also found no evidence that the children and young people at St Leonard’s had been abused by outsiders.

    The team found a small number of records relating to the policies and procedures applicable at St Leonard’s and other LBTH children’s homes at the time. There appeared to have been a substantial loss of records since the 1970s. Record keeping and retention at the home was poor and no information relating to this particular trip was found.

    Although the investigation widened its focus from Savile himself to investigate whether other celebrities might have visited the home and examine evidence of fund-raising activities involving outside organisations and individuals as well as trips from the home to events in London, it did not pursue these issues in relation to any other Tower Hamlets children’s homes. It also decided not to to interview former members of staff or residents from St Leonard’s when Mr G was unable to provide information about the other individuals who went with him on the Jim’ll Fix It trip or the date when the incident occurred.

    See also the Tower Hamlets Local Safeguarding Children Board website:

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