"Whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me".
(Matthew 25, verse 40): said to be the inspiration for St Vincent de Paul, when founding the Order of the Daughters of Charity
Of all the posts that have been published on this blog, the one that continues to receive the most re-readings, and certainly the most comments, is the piece I wrote, in a blaze of fury, some while ago, about the Catholic primary school I attended in Mill Hill, that was run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul.
To be clear - the school I attended has now been replaced by a more modern one, across the road from the original site, and is well thought of by local Catholic families.
The scripture quoted above is said to have been at the heart of St Vincent de Paul's mission, when he founded the Order: evidently a man of great compassion, and tenderness, towards the foundlings and poor children he felt driven to help. It would be wrong to overlook the good work that his charitable mission has undertaken, all over the world. Sadly, however, there appears, in much of the twentieth century, at least, to have been in some part a failure in the vision and values of those trusted with the continuation of his legacy.
That the impact of something that happened in childhood can follow you into adult life is of no surprise to those who also attended St Vincent's, or the orphanage that stood behind the school. Some of us have memories that have never faded, and seem as intense now as they were then. Fellow local blogger Roger Tichborne was also a pupil here: it is no coincidence, I think, that an early experience of injustice leads in later life to a deep need to take back control, and compensate for the abuse you suffered in silence, as a child.
I don't publish all of the comments I receive, usually because some of them relate to individuals who may still be alive. The ones that I do publish are difficult to read, but I think need to be placed on record.
The need for acknowledgement of this sort of abuse, and the harm that it did, is now something recognised by government, to a limited degree. There is now an investigation into child sexual abuse, in the form of the IICSA inquiry, which covers England and Wales : the Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse - its purpose largely being as follows:
To consider the extent to which State and non-State institutions have failed in their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation; to consider the extent to which those failings have since been addressed; to identify further action needed to address any failings identified; to consider the steps which it is necessary for State and non-State institutions to take in order to protect children from such abuse in future; and to publish a report with recommendations.
In Scotland there is a similar process, The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, or SCAI - with a wider remit, which includes all forms of abuse while in care, in childhood: sexual, psychological - and emotional. This is their definition of abuse:
"Abuse" for the purpose of this Inquiry is to be taken to mean primarily physical abuse and sexual abuse, with associated psychological and emotional abuse. The Inquiry will be entitled to consider other forms of abuse at its discretion, including medical experimentation, spiritual abuse, unacceptable practices (such as deprivation of contact with siblings) and neglect, but these matters do not require to be examined individually or in isolation.
So: the Scottish inquiry is looking at abuse of children in care: and IICSA is investigating only sexual abuse, but not only in care, and includes educational establishments.
This means there is no investigation of non sexual abuse of children in English schools or care institutions, as there would be in Scotland. This seems wrong.
The Scottish Inquiry is of interest to me on two counts: in that it has a broader definition of abuse - and that it has directly addressed allegations of all three types in regard to one of the institutions run by the order of nuns who were responsible for St Vincent's School and Orphanage in Mill Hill, that is to say the Daughters of Charity.
Recently someone left a comment on my post -unpublished - in regard to an individual they claimed had worked at one of the Mill Hill institutions, as well as Smyllum, a focus of the Scottish inquiry. I wasn't sure about this at first, as one of the details seemed inaccurate: until I checked and found an obscure piece of information that proved the reference was correct, suggested the comment was authentic - and should be investigated. The commenter said that they had tried to involve the police, who had not taken the allegations seriously. I wonder if they took the trouble to check the Scottish Inquiry's published findings?
Because I then looked at the Scottish inquiry's website, and noted that there had already been a judgement, published on October 11th, 2018, in relation to the Daughters of Charity. It was late at night, when I noticed this: I thought I would have a quick look.
Hours later, I was unable to sleep, after what I had read. Link here. To clarify: this is a formal finding of abuse by the Inquiry, chaired by Lady Smith, based on a case study of only two of the homes run by the order in Scotland, ie Smyllum, and Bellevue.
Bellevue and Smyllum, the two institutions
that were the main focus of the case study.
The abuse which took place was physical,
emotional and sexual. In particular, children
were beaten, they were humiliated, they were
punished for bed-wetting, they were forcefed,
they were subjected to abusive washing
and bathing routines, some were sexually
abused and they were subjected to a range
of treatments amounting to emotional abuse.
Details are given of the types of abuse perpetrated on children in the 'care' of the order:
• For many children who were in Smyllum
and Bellevue, the homes were places of
fear, coercive control, threat, excessive
discipline and emotional, physical and
sexual abuse, where they found no love,
no compassion, no dignity and no comfort.
• Children were physically abused. They
were hit with and without implements,
either in an excess of punishment or for
reasons which the child could not fathom.
The implements used included leather
straps, the “Lochgelly Tawse,” hairbrushes,
sticks, footwear, rosary beads, wooden
crucifixes and a dog’s lead.
• For some children, being hit was a normal
aspect of daily life.
• The physical punishments meted out
to children went beyond what was
acceptable at the time whether as
punishment in schools or in the home.
No mercy was given to children who - unsurprisingly - wet themselves at night:
• Children who were bed-wetters were
abused physically and emotionally.
They were beaten, put in cold baths and
humiliated in ways that included “wearing”
their wet sheets and being subjected to
hurtful name-calling by Sisters and by
other children who were encouraged by
Sisters to do so.
My own experience of St Vincent's Primary School, with Maureen O'Donovan, the teacher I had at the age of six, when I transferred there, was not dissimilar: the same cruelty and humiliation. It was a sharp contrast to the nearly two years I had spent at an ordinary state primary school, where the teacher was kind, funny, and gentle. My mother took me out of there, however, because she thought I would be brainwashed by Anglican heresy. Brainwashing of children in the Catholic tradition was perfectly fine, of course: and much more effective.
St Vincent's came as an almighty shock: but if it was that bad - for many of us, at least, in the school - what on earth was it like in the Orphanage?
The headmistress of the school, an elderly, short tempered Irish nun, ran the school on the basis of harsh discipline, and fear. Although I know of no cases of sexual abuse in the school, one of my classmates reported the experience of being forced to undress, alone, in front of this headmistress, in her office, supposedly before a medical examination, a routine practice, and one she clearly enjoyed. I was terrified of the same thing happened to me, for all the time I was at that school. Was her behaviour abusive? I think so. We didn't know what sexual abuse was, at that age - we only knew this 'interest' of hers was something peculiar, and frightening: meant to humiliate.
Beating was a part of the culture of fear at the school: Sister had what was known as 'the bat', which was reserved for boys who stepped out of line in some way: on one occasion I remember one boy being threatened with it being used in front of the class. The threat was effective: the fear of it was usually enough in itself.
In O'Donovan's class of six year olds, beating was common too: boys and girls - the favoured implement a heavy wooden ruler, with a usefully sharp metal edge. The friend who reported the headmistress's prurient interest in undressed children once had the palm of her hand cut open by the ruler. More usually you had to have it on your knuckles, as I recall, the hand held tightly in a fist, so it would expose the bone, and hurt more.
When it was my turn, it was usually for spelling mistakes, or not remembering times tables, or part of the catechism. Untidy writing was also a crime worthy of assault: being dyspraxic and naturally left handed, and being forced to write right handed in O'Donovan's approved italic style didn't help: deviance from the norm was not allowed, and had to be punished. I write laboriously in fountain pen, now, with a special nib, so that my normally illegible handwriting (illegible even to me) is readable.
We were absolutely not allowed to visit the toilets other than at break time. Inevitably children would wet themselves: pools of urine on the parquet floor & wet seats were not even anything unusual. If you were caught, though, you would have to clean it up, and be exposed in front of the whole class.
Children who cried after such treatment were mocked, and jeered at as 'cry babies' by O'Donovan: one girl, called Alison, was perpetually in tears, and labelled in this way - her parents removed her from the class. Most of us did not dare cry in class - rather than do this I used to dig my nails into the palms of my hands, when on the verge of tears, good old Catholic mortification of the flesh, not as a penance, but a distraction. It usually worked, but I still fear crying in front of anyone.
The worst cruelty and punishment was reserved for the children who could least resist: those who were not so intellectually able, dumped on the 'baby' or 'lazy' table: often made to stand on their chairs for ages, hands on head: as I said in the older post, this sort of torture was pretty much up to CIA standards of torture: bound to break the spirit of any dissenting child, which is what was intended.
Most parents would anyway not have dared criticise such discipline : the Catholic Church, its schools and teachers, at that time, were above criticism. We did not dare tell our parents that we had been 'in trouble', anyway. My own mother would probably have thought it only what we deserved.
As one commenter remarked on the previous post, however: we were lucky in one sense. We went home at night, and escaped. Those who were at the Orphanage had nowhere to go. And what happened there, only they know. And the Order would know: because at least in one case, according to another commenter, a legal claim in regard to his treatment was allegedly settled out of court. What form the reported abuse took, is unclear: but it strongly suggests to me that a similar inquiry to the one that has looked at, and continues to look at, the Scottish homes run by the Daughters of Charity, necessarily should be created to investigate all their homes and schools in England and Wales.
The Scottish Inquiry did look briefly at St Vincent's in Newcastle, to which place a Smyllum family had been transferred: the finding tells us that in 1995, a priest had admitted sexually abusing boys at this English home - he pleaded guilty to six charges of indecent assault. We also learn that although his behaviour had been known about since 1994, he was not laicised for another eighteen years.
At the beginning of this month, the Inquiry announced further investigations into other Scottish care homes run by the Order: and a good thing too.
After contacting IICSA to see if they will be investigating the Order as part of their remit, I had the following response:
As you may be aware, the Inquiry does have an investigation into the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. As part of that investigation the Panel selected two institutions as case studies. The first is the English Benedictine Congregation and the second is the Archdiocese of Birmingham. The Inquiry has held three public hearings to date in relation to those two case studies. In October this year the Inquiry will hold a further public hearing that will consider matters relating to the wider Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. No decisions have been taken as to what matters or institutions the Panel will hear evidence about, including whether it will consider matters relating to the Daughters of Charity, for example. The Inquiry will publish any update on its website in due course.
I suggest therefore that anyone who reads this who wishes to report any allegation of sexual abuse in any institution in England or Wales run by this Order does so, via the Inquiry's website: link here - or to the police.
The terms of reference also state that IICSA will:
Liaise with ongoing inquiries, including those currently being conducted in Northern Ireland and Scotland, with a view to (a) ensuring that relevant information is shared, and (b) identifying any State or non-State institutions with child protection obligations that currently fall outside the scope of the present Inquiry and those being conducted in the devolved jurisdictions;
Anyone who suffered non sexual abuse, in England or Wales, of a psychological, emotional or spiritual nature: it seems that there is no one to tell, other than by seeking counselling - of the right sort. That can be very difficult to find, unfortunately.
One might hope that the Catholic church in England and Wales would voluntarily set in course their own investigations - but that seems to be unlikely. And in my view that is a gross misjudgement, as until this shameful episode in the Church's history is acknowledged, as well as the damage done to victims - and to the image of God and Christian love that it claims to represent - it will never recover its credibility as a religious organisation.
The UK headquarters of the Order of the Daughters of Charity is in Mill Hill: across the road from the old school and orphanage, which were sold to developers - even the old chapel is being advertised for would be conversion - and much of which now has now become another conglomeration of luxury housing - next door to the site of the demolished National Institute for Medical Research.
The Scottish findings make the following observation:
The Order’s position
The Order has not admitted that children
were abused whilst in their care although
Sister Ellen Flynn, the Provincial of the
Order in the UK, did indicate that it was
now accepted that there was more than a
possibility that some abuse had occurred.
That represents some progress from the
position adopted in the 1990s as illustrated
by the evidence of an applicant, Sister “Louise,”
who was in Bellevue and Smyllum
as a child and later became a Sister herself.
When she was at a conference in Mill Hill in
London, in the 1990s, a Sister from the Order
who recognised her tried to pressurise her
into saying that the allegations of past abuse
that were being made were not true.
13 Her response was to tell that Sister that the Order
needed to listen to what was being said,
explaining that she herself had also been
It was accepted on behalf of the Order
that many of the practices spoken about
by applicants, including responses to bedwetting,
force-feeding, certain washing
practices and beatings would, if they
happened, constitute abuse. In relation to
the evidence given by applicants about
humiliation for bed-wetting, for example,
Sister Ellen Flynn, stated that, if children
were humiliated for wetting the bed, “... that
would be completely against our values
and we would consider it wrong and we
would consider it a form of abuse.”
14 She “absolutely” accepted that force-feeding
would be a form of abuse and that beatings
using implements would be abusive.
I have had some correspondence with the head of the Order myself, in the autumn of 2017, and she knew about my experience of the school; the 'discipline', the humiliation; the fear instilled in small children.
The way in which this correspondence came about was rather unusual, entirely by coincidence: I had been engaged in some historical research which connected in part to Mill Hill, and was taken aback to find one of the properties was owned by the Order which had run St Vincent's. I wrote to the Order's archivist to ask if they had any information, but had no reply, at first - so wrote again, and the Provincial head responded. I also took the opportunity to mention that I was a former pupil, and had to admit to having had less than happy memories of my time in the school.
I directed her to the post I had written, and pointed out that I had contacted the Diocese of Westminster to ask what sort of support or guidance they offered the people who were contacting me with reports of ill treatment or abuse either from the Mill Hill school or orphanage, or other local Catholic institutions. The reply had been useless: all they came up with - eventually, after much prompting - was a copy of a leaflet, and the assurance that all parishes now had a coordinator for sexual abuse issues. I replied to the Diocesan representative that those who had been abused while in the care of the Church would now hardly be likely to be practising Catholics, or parishioners.
The head of the Order replied, and said: "I assure you of my hopes and prayers for all those who have suffered any form of abuse and especially in connection with the Daughters of Charity ..."
"In connection with" ... not 'by' ...
She is in an invidious position, of course: made responsible for dealing with the damage done by previous generations of nuns and priests, and left as guardian of the reputation of an order, and representative of a Church, whose service, charitable and pastoral work is now overshadowed by allegations of abusive behaviour in the past. As Lady Smith commented, in relation to the homes in Scotland run by the Daughters of Charity:
The provision, by the Order, of homes for
the residential care of children in a way
which routinely and consistently met that
description would have been in keeping
with their mission and with Christ’s teaching.
Sadly, I have, in the light of the evidence,
concluded that that did not happen.
The morning after reading this report I was by chance in Mill Hill, for an appointment, and decided to walk part of the way home, past St Joseph's, another Mill Hill Catholic building - and now another development - then past the house where my aunt, uncle and grandmother lived, off Lawrence Street, up to the Ridgeway, passing the former St Mary's Abbey, now - yes: more housing. Outwardly not much has changed, since my childhood: but it was a melancholy walk, all the same, family members no longer there, and the buildings that remain on the Ridgeway holding painful memories.
Mill Hill village was once a place of nonconformity, and religious dissent: home of a public school for boys with such a background; a settlement of Quakers - and the chosen location for several Catholic institutions.
I walked along the Ridgeway, past the Provincial House, where the coach that used to take me home always parked: I remembered the sense of relief I associated with reaching the Lodge to the House, knowing I was safe at last, and going home.
Crossing the road, you pass along the old wall of the school, and all these years later, I still feel the sinking feeling I always had, in the pit of my stomach, as soon as the morning coach stopped here.
Down the side track, which slopes down to the Orphanage, the first thing you see, after the former infants' playground, is the one school building they have not knocked down: Miss O'Donovan's class.
Of all the parts of the school to leave standing ... well: I suppose it is a memorial, of sorts. Let the proud new house owner listen very carefully, in the small hours, for the whispering of terrified small children, and the voice of Maureen O'Donovan, in her grating Kerry accent, relentlessly insulting the class: Empty vessels make the most sound ...
Down the steep lane, facing the beauty of Totteridge Valley, is the old Orphanage: as separate from the school as were its inmates, kept away from us, incommunicado, with one or two exceptions sent to the school for eleven plus, before the last few children were decanted into a new, smaller centre, on the other side of the road.
The orphanage now is still nothing more than a grim, late Victorian building so institutionalised in terms of architectural language, it is hard to see why anyone would want to buy a flat there now.
And hard to imagine so many generations of vulnerable children living in isolation there, on the Ridgeway, looking onto what might as well have been a painted backdrop to the grudging misery of their cloistered lives; surrounded by natural beauty on one side, and the bleak indifference of the Orphanage on the other.
Postscript: The lost children
One of the accusations recently levelled against those responsible for the running of the Smyllum care home was in regard to what was feared to be the mass burial, with no record, of children who died there, over the many years it was in operation.
Lady Smith's findings state the following:
Burial records show that between 1900 and
1981, there were 16 under 18-year olds who
were recorded as having been residents at
Smyllum buried in the “Smyllum Plot” within
the cemetery of St Mary’s Parish Church,
Lanark. There is no record of the individual
lairs and there are no headstones to mark
them. Various Sisters and Charlie Forsyth
are also buried in the St Mary’s Cemetery.
However, their graves are marked and have
headstones with inscriptions.
It is important not to over-sensationalise the issue: but this would seem to be a low number of deaths, if it is meant to represent the total number over an eighty year period: the findings here carefully note the records refer to a plot of land in the local parish church. Were others buried elsewhere?
I had asked the head of the Provincial Order where in the grounds of the Mill Hill site there was a burial ground for children who died there. She replied that there were no surviving records of any deaths or burials, and that she was sure any that died would have been buried in local Catholic graveyards, or by their families.
There were no local Catholic graveyards, in fact, for much of the earlier history of the Orphanage. And the children who were sent to Mill Hill, as records cross matched from census entries show, were from workhouses in the poorest parts of London, many therefore likely to be in ill health - and long separated from their families.
According to records held by the Wellcome Library, in 1898, a report of the Medical Officer of Health for Hendon found the following:
At St. Vincent's Orphanage, Mill Hill, 12 deaths occurred,
a high number when it is considered that the average number is
about two hundred. The children at this institution are in the
majority of cases feeble, debilitated, and tubercular when
admitted, and very often are taken from the London streets to
the Orphanage until their healths are improved, and after a stay
of a year or two, may-be, return.
Return: or die, as we see from that year's record. Twelve children in one year alone lost their lives: where were they laid to rest?
It is easy to find a sample pair of infant children - they were all boys, in the early days - who died at the Orphanage, and who very probably were not buried in any Catholic church yard. Smyllum had a Catholic parish with a church yard: hard to think of any local equivalent in Mill Hill.
Let these two at least have a name:
What about Ernest Wattam, who died aged two, from a throat infection, in 1912? The nun who was the informant at death knew nothing about his parentage, other than that he came from Hampstead.
Joseph Vincent Gibson, also aged two, who died in 1892, of congenital syphilis: described only as 'a deserted child'.
Who buried them, and where?
Not all the beautiful and extensive grounds of St Vincent's have been given over to development: some of the grassed over areas have been left untouched. There is, for example, as there was at Smyllum, a carefully maintained graveyard for the sisters, which, as you can read on the Order's website, is the place of a special commemorative mass for them, once a year.
There is no record, however, of the children of many generations who were passed into the hands of the Order, and never left.
It is not impossible that any who died there were buried somewhere in the grounds, in unmarked graves, but if so, and the Order knows where that is, it might be seen as a gesture of reconciliation - and belated respect - to put some sort of memorial there, so they are not forgotten.