29 October 2014

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Hidden shame, official silence [I]
The forgotten victims
and the tormentors
who go unpunished

Lochburn Home and Laundry

Searching questions are being asked about the appointment of Fiona Woolf, an Edinburgh-born corporate lawyer, to chair the wide-ranging inquiry into child abuse which has been set up by the coalition government in the wake of the Savile scandal.

Even if she was not seen as an establishment figure, and one with uncomfortably close links to Leon Brittan, there would be doubts about her suitability for so sensitive a role in public life. She has already caused offence by referring to 'the victim community', when so many of the survivors of abuse, far from being part of a community, are isolated and damaged individuals.

But there is a larger question about this inquiry beyond the immediate and personal one. Why is its brief confined to England and Wales?

The answer seems to be that Scotland is excluded because justice is a devolved power. But the abuse did not somehow cease at Carlisle, where Savile habitually changed trains to go to Scotland, occasionally to visit his 'friends' in the State Hospital for the criminally insane, more often to stay at his bolt-hole in the Highlands.

Since the ill-treatment of children is a cross-border issue, the Scottish Government should sign up to the Woolf inquiry or set up its own. Simply to do nothing is unacceptable. Here is one example, among many, of why it is unacceptable.

One autumn night in 1958, 26 teenage girls – about half the number detained in the Lochburn Home and Laundry in Maryhill, Glasgow – broke out by climbing a ladder and dropping from a wall. Newspapers reported that they had made 'a dash for freedom', that police all over the city were hunting for them, and that the citizens of Glasgow should be on the lookout for girls wandering the streets in a uniform of blue frock and white apron. Legally, many of the escapees were children.

In a formal sense they were in the home voluntarily. Unmarried mothers, the mentally disabled, even flirts who dressed loudly could end up there, many of them referred by inadequate parents. They were required to submit to discipline, to undergo industrial training and to devote themselves to a life of Christian piety and observance. The work was laborious, the regime harsh and unyielding, the atmosphere oppressively evangelical. Yet, although none of the girls had ever been convicted of a criminal offence, they were stigmatised in the press as dangers to the public.

Another 18 inmates escaped the following night by climbing down the fire escape, smashing a glass pane in the process; all were 'recaptured', but not before one told reporters: 'If they force us to go back, we will break out every night'. A third exodus within 72 hours occurred as two inspectors from the Scottish Home Department were inside the home conducting the first stages of an inquiry into the events of the week.

Three girls ran along the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal, one of them managing to pass a note to reporters that they had been locked in the linen room but had managed to force the lock. Ten others appeared on the roof of the home. One of them slipped, damaging a foot. Her companions knelt beside her as the girl, visibly terrified, lay against the chimney head on a steeply sloping roof.

The father of a girl who had been in the home for six months told the press that she had been reduced to a bundle of nerves by the experience. When he visited his daughter he was allowed to see her in the presence of a member of staff, but never alone. He understood that the matron censored the girls' letters. The girls themselves claimed that they were brutally beaten and drenched in cold water.

At first the management of the home categorically denied that the girls were beaten. It then reluctantly conceded that they were, but only when they had been 'fighting among themselves'. The management did admit drenching them, but an official added: 'If the girls have water thrown at them, it is only when they become hysterical'.

In the Glasgow of 1958, there was no public sympathy for the victims of Lochburn. Beyond the immediate excitement of their escape, there was little if any interest in the case. I was able to bring it to light it in a book on the life of post-war Scotland only because I'd stumbled across it in newspapers of the time. Had it not been for this accidental discovery, the systematic and sadistic abuse at Lochburn Home and Laundry would have been forgotten – except, of course, by the victims.

These victims are now women in their late sixties or early seventies. Did they ever share their story – or did they shrink from it in shame and embarrassment, as many victims do? And what of the perpetrators? The ones who are still alive will be in their late seventies or eighties, respectable citizens no doubt. None was ever prosecuted; none brought to justice. But, as we have seen in several recent cases in England, advanced age offers no protection to the guilty. Nor should it.

Towards the end of 1958, Lochburn Home and Laundry was closed down as a result of the Scottish Home Department inquiry. Somewhere in the archives of the Scottish Government, there should be an official document justifying that decision, naming names. It is not too late to recover that document from the files and refer it to the police for possible criminal proceedings.

It won't happen. The Scottish administration, despite its demand for more powers, seems strangely reluctant to use the powers it possesses for the thorough investigation of such scandals as Lochburn. Its only attempt to confront historic child abuse – a report in 2007 compiled by Tom Shaw, a former chief inspector of education in Northern Ireland – was narrow in scope and failed to address the personal pain of the victims. If the Shaw report was the best we could do for them, we might as well have done nothing.

There is another reason why Scotland should sign up to the Whitehall inquiry or set up its own. My second example may, however, involve great inconvenience and potential risk to important people.

Click here for Part II: Palmerson Place and the Edinburgh
legal establishment