Before Jimmy Savile, there was ‘Mr G’ – the 1920s philanthropist who abused children in hospitals

In plain sight. PA

From Kate Lampard’s “lessons learnt” report, it is clear that NHS hospitals such as Stoke Mandeville and Leeds Infirmary failed to safeguard children from sexual abuse at the hands of Jimmy Savile.

The role of volunteers, casual staff, and fundraisers is hazy, and regulation of them even more so, with inadequate vetting procedures. While Lampard insists hospital leaders must do more, and offers comprehensive suggestions for how to implement change, historical research suggests that despite strong pressures for change, institutions do not easily learn from their mistakes.

After all, concern over “indecent handling” of children has regularly emerged over the past 100 years – only to recede, with little achieved to protect children from abuse.

Money for access?

In 1925, a 60-year-old businessman, magistrate and parish councillor, known as Mr G, was found guilty of indecently assaulting a 15-year-old girl. Mr G was also a charity fundraiser for St Thomas’s Hospital, London. He raised vast sums for the hospital – in today’s terms, £3m-£4m. He exploited this position to gain the trust of teenage girls who were helping him to fundraise.

The difference from the case of Jimmy Savile is that Mr G was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison. But Mr G’s crimes are strikingly similar to Savile’s in the NHS and elsewhere, many of which also occurred as part of his hospital fundraising.

In an extraordinary ruse, Mr G invited girls to his home and workplace on the pretence that he had a new device that could project their images using radio waves. He asked them to undress so he could take their measurements to ensure their suitability for modelling or dance work – all undertaken whilst the girl’s mothers were in the room. Motivated by deference or prospects of employment, the mothers did not intervene.

Mr G’s crimes took place at a time of high visibility and concern over child sexual abuse. The issue had been prioritised in the early 1920s by newly enfranchised women voters, and by the new women MPs in the House of Commons. In an eerie foreshadowing of the current historical child abuse saga, the home secretary was forced to appoint an inquiry.

Ignorance, carelessness and indifference

The resulting Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People made sensible suggestions about the need to tighten the law to protect the young: the defence of “reasonable belief” that a girl was over 16 should be abolished, young witnesses should be provided with a separate waiting room in the court, and their evidence should be given in camera.

The report’s authors also challenged institutions to respond to child sexual abuse with something better than “ignorance, carelessness and indifference”.

The report’s recommendations closely resemble today’s standards for safeguarding, and they show how good policy on child protection and the treatment of children in court has come frustratingly close to implementation many times before.

We’ve been here before: Kate Lampard delivers her findings. Steve Parsons/PA

Tragically, however, the public outrage that greeted cases such as Mr G’s was insufficient to change the cultures of hospitals and schools. Despite Mr G’s eight-month prison sentence, there was little sense of outrage. The jury even praised his self-restraint for not committing a more serious sexual assault on the girls, and seemed more concerned with criticising the mothers for letting their daughters be measured and viewed by a man in the first place.

Police records suggest that for much of the 20th century, the vast majority of complaints and accusations of rape and sexual assault on children were never even brought to court. In many cases, fears of scandal and reputation trumped concerns about child safeguarding; parents often preferred not to press charges, as court appearances were regarded as too damaging to children.

Children who accused people in positions of authority were rarely believed. Even campaigners against child sexual abuse could not believe that offenders might be figures of authority or public esteem. Instead, offenders were suspected of being “mental defectives”, or victims of some kind of delusion. Cases involving clerics, teachers and scoutmasters were sometimes brought to court, but the general climate of disbelief meant that allegations were hard to prove.

Instead, the reputations of children and young people who made complaints were often the focal point of investigation. In most cases, child sexual abuse was unlikely to produce witnesses, and the evidence of children alone was insufficient to gain a conviction.

Meanwhile, concerns about sexual abuse and exploitation were often rolled up with other types of “immorality”. In schools, for example, there was a system of black-listing from the 1880s for teachers found to have committed “misconduct” – but that extended not just to teachers who abused or had relationships with pupils, but also to women teachers who got pregnant outside of marriage or were found to be living with male partners. And there was no misconduct system in place for private schools.

Scapegoats

When public concern about child abuse sex abuse hit a fever pitch in the 1880s, leading to much stronger measures against abusers and raising of the age of consent from 12 to 16 years, press campaigning played a pivotal role. But in subsequent decades, journalists have tended to focus on demonising individual offenders rather than discussing policy solutions.

Child abuse moved back up the press agenda in the late 1970s and 1980s, thanks to a combination of feminist campaigning, a backlash against “permissiveness”, and the exposure of a number of high profile scandals in children’s homes. But journalists generally turned their fire on convenient institutional targets, such as “incompetent” social workers and local authorities and excessively “liberal” judges. They put little effort into working out how prevalent of this type of offence really was, and how to prevent it.

“Ignorance, carelessness and indifference” remained characteristic of 20th century attitudes towards child sex abuse. This was not for lack of concern – earlier generations did condemn child sexual abuse, and periodically, tried to strengthen safeguards. However, history shows that for change to happen, firm leadership and transparent management across government and the voluntary sector is vital. A robust investigative press is also essential. Without these elements, potentially pivotal moments such as those in 1925 and 2015 will all too easily become missed opportunities.