Monday 28 December 2020

The Treasure House: Barnet Tories resume their war on libraries and plot the closure of their former flagship branch

Hendon Library, pic courtesy Historic England

Updated 26th March 2021

It has since emerged that not only is it intended to close Hendon Library, Barnet Tories and their development partners want to demolish the listed building, and leave only the front wall as a facade ... See new post here.

There is a time for everything, in Broken Barnet: a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. All of these rites of passage, fittingly, are now supervised and monetised by Capita PLC, the council's outsourced provider.

There is also, of course, a time to roll out controversial proposals that might cause fury amongst the populace, if not carefully managed, and pushed through, while everyone is otherwise engaged. 

Normally the optimal moment for such plotting is in the summer, while (so the Tory councillors and their masters in the senior management team and Capita imagine) everyone is away on holiday, and not interested in what is going on. 

This year, of course, the year of Covid, offers an unprecedented opportunity to roll out any controversial proposal, and hope to get away with it, unopposed - and that, as we now see, is exactly what our scheming Tory councillors have attempted. 

They tried this tactic earlier in the year, when they disposed of local planning committees - removing even further the extent to which ward residents and their representatives may take part in any democratically run planning process. As much as was possible with a Tory majority loaded committee, of course. But interfering  opposition councillors and their pesky residents were getting in the way of the best interests of Capita and the flock of predatory developers who are grabbing every piece of land available in the borough, and screwing out of it as much profit as possible, regardless of whether or not their ghastly buildings meet the real needs of the local community. As with so many other anti-democratic measures taken by this administration, it becomes clearer and clearer whose interests are now prioritised in this borough. And it is not the residents and tax payers.

In the latest example of Covid opportunism, Tory members have turned their attention to another pet project.

After some effort by Labour councillors to secure an independent review of the devastating library cuts which have turned the former nationally recognised, value for money service into a parody of its former self, a report was published a year or so ago which criticised the depth and severity of the actions taken and highlighted the impact on users, especially children, elderly and vulnerable residents. 

The consultants concluded that the cuts had gone too far: not only had staffing been minimised to a barely workable level, and book stock savagely reduced, the physical space for library functions in their own buildings had been shrunk to a nominal and totally inadequate level, with unstaffed hours having a clearly detrimental effect on the standard of service. 

'Refurbishment' of Hendon Library - cutting the library footprint to a fraction of its former space within the building - cost half a million pounds of public money, only three years ago. Now the building is to be given to Middlesex University.

Perhaps the most obvious example of what the cuts had destroyed is demonstrated by the plight of Hendon Library. A handsome building that stands next to the Town Hall, (both of them listed properties), this was once the flagship of an outstanding, beacon standard service: the central borough library. As well as a large volume of books for borrowing, it had a reference library, and a music library, a lecture room, and a children's section that covered half of the ground floor. 

Above the door lintel is an inscription:

Non mimima pars eruditionis est bonos noscere libros: 'not the least part of learning is to be acquainted with good books'.

The idea of opening a library in Hendon had first been suggested in the early 1920s, at a time when providing free access to books was seen as a civic duty, not simply for the leisured classes, but those less advantaged, as we see in this extract from a local newspaper report from February, 1923, of a meeting of the 'Childs Hill Ratepayers Association', and a motion proposed by a Mr Widlake:

I sure that any opponents of the scheme on the score of cost will be ready to admit that public libraries are not only a necessity, but that their cost is not to be reckoned an expenditure, but an investment.” Councillor Taylor seconded the motion moved by Mr. Widlake, and said that personally he would not mind seeing an increase in the rates provided benefits were given. “Poor people,” he said, “should be enlightened as well as the rich.”

A copy of this resolution was sent to the District Council, and in due course plans were made for the building we now know, which was opened in December 1929 by Lord Elgin, President of the Library Association, and chairman of the Carnegie Trust, from whom a grant of £7,000 had been made towards the overall cost of £30,000. A newspaper report of the opening filled three columns, listing dozens of local dignitaries who had attended the ceremony, begun in the Town Hall, and moved to the new building, which was unlocked by Lord Elgin, after he had been presented with a golden key, which Councillor Mrs Bannister, heady with civic pride, explained would 'unlock  our treasure house' ... 

Oh, Councillor Mrs Bannister: what would you make of the barbarians in the Barnet Tory group who have so thoroughly trashed your treasure house, and thrown away the golden key?

Post war, Hendon Library had been the base of the magnificent Eileen Colwell, a widely respected professional librarian who pioneered the international children's library movement - of which I was later a grateful beneficiary, in Edgware, as a child with few books at home, liberated by access to endless supplies of reading material at the new library I visited every Saturday, devouring my allotted three books usually by Sunday evening, re-reading them throughout the week until I could borrow more. I would never have passed the eleven plus, or progressed to grammar school without this resource: and that was true of generations of children from all backgrounds, whose standards of literacy, and educational well being, were entirely dependent on the provision of such libraries.

The pathetic replacement children's library in Hendon, post 'refurbishment', overlooked by the ghost of Eileen Colwell.

This is all destroyed now. Ironically, Barnet Tories think, if they think at all, of themselves as the natural heirs of their heroine, local MP, PM and milk snatcher extraordinaire, Margaret Thatcher, but fail to remember that she embraced and defended the public library system as crucial to the cause of social mobility, through access to education and self improvement. 

They have effectively torn away all chances of disadvantaged children having somewhere safe and quiet to study, somewhere to have free access to books, to guided information. They have removed a vital social hub for lonely or isolated older residents. Many disabled users no longer feel able to access the unstaffed libraries, let alone remain inside one, without assistance. But the Tory members do not give a f*ck about any of this.

The innate materialism and anti-intellectualism of the average, intellectually challenged Barnet Tory councillor means that even if an ideological hostility to the very idea of the public sector was not deeply embedded in their clockwork mechanisms, their antipathy to anything that hints of cultural values, equality or community, would ensure that their war on libraries would continue. 

And so, continue it must, spurred on by the other motivation of their abominable administration: profit. In case you need reminding, a library is not, to the Barnet Tory councillor, and their contractual partners Capita, who now manage the portfolio of library buildings, a temple of education and learning, or leisure. It is a potential property development, or generator of income. 

When councillors first began selling off the family silver, and turning their beady eyes to the council owned properties they could flog off, one of the first targets was the historic Church Farmhouse Museum, just yards around the corner from the Town Hall, and the Library. It was the only local authority owned museum of local history, and held a unique collection of historical artefacts, much of it donated by residents. The then Tory leader Richard Cornelius said this collection was 'worthless', and it was sold (for a tidy sum, as it turned out) at auction, while the listed building was put up for sale. But not all went to plan: no one wanted to buy the building, with all the listed features they would have to preserve: such a nuisance! So they tried leaving it empty for a few years, decaying, a perfect metaphor for their contempt for our local heritage, defiant in its refusal to comply with their would be procurement of its history. 

In desperation, they tried selling or leasing the property to Middlesex University, the usual customer in the marketplace of council properties in the Burroughs. Like any sole customer on whom the retailer depends, despite much pleading from the council, the Uni stuck out for a deal which was entirely beneficial to them, and a sorry bargain for the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, robbed of a museum, and their heritage. 

The relationship between Barnet Council and Middlesex is very close, and often secretive. They have been awfully helpful and bailed out the council in one or two scrapes, not just in regard to the Museum: their involvement in the curious Saracens story is a crucial factor in propping up that very interesting loan of £22 million which Barnet officers brokered between the authority and the private rugby club, when it was refused commercial funding for the new stand they wanted to build - but which has still not appeared.

Middlesex Uni, in the course of its apparently unstoppable colonisation of the Burroughs, has taken over Hendon Town Hall, in all but name: the Tory councillors still cling to the council chamber and a couple of committee rooms, due to their primary reason for becoming councillors, that is to say, to pretend to be very important members of the community, jostling every year for a nomination to become Mayor, and the chance to be carried about the borough in a limousine, with the grateful populace bowing before them, and a never ending round of all you can eat buffets, at other people's expense.

The early days of Hendon Library: the 'Treasure House'

It was only a matter of time before the University got its foot in the door of Hendon Library, of course. During the massive programme of cuts that they pretended was a 'refurbishment', but which slashed the the service to shreds, in which millions of pounds were spent in order to - ha ha - 'save money', the 'reconfiguration' of Hendon Library was prioritised. The library functions were cut down to a tiny part of the footprint of its own building, and all that was left, in effect, were a few rows of bookshelves. The once outstanding children's library was gutted, and a useless, miniscule replacement shoved into a corner of the building, Eileen Colwell's legacy trashed and thrown in a skip, along with her vision of educating and empowering new generations of children through a love of reading. 

As a final insult, they put her photograph on a wall looking down at the two boxes of picture books and the couple of stacks of shelving that pass for the newly 'refurbished' children's 'library'. 

After the review's damning report was published, you might have hoped that the Tory councillors would have been shamed into some sort of plan to repair the damage they had done to the service. You would have been wrong to entertain such hopes. They feel no shame, and indeed are incapable of ever admitting they are wrong. They now decided, therefore, to double down on the same course of action, thinking they could push through the handover of Hendon Library to Middlesex Uni while the borough was in the grip of Covid, and not in a position to protest. 

Tory councillor Reuben Thompstone, cutter and shutter of Barnet Libraries, pic courtesy Times Series.

As you can read in this account in the local Times, Reuben Thompstone, the pantomime Tory member in charge of (cutting) libraries, informed a meeting on November 18th that 'moving' Hendon Library was an 'exciting opportunity'.  

In the now usual Barnet Tory tradition of take a decision first, then pretend to consult afterwards, they have already agreed to go ahead with the proposal to remove the Library from Hendon Library, and stuff a token replacement in a portacabin, in what they claim will be a temporary measure. Their scheme includes a vague plan to build something on what is now the tiny Town Hall car park, across the road, which they say would accommodate a small library and house an even bigger nuisance, the borough's Archives. 

The latter function, ie the preservation of council documents, is a statutory one, or you can bet your last penny that they would flog off anything of value they found in the Archives, delete the archivist's post, and restart the history of Broken Barnet from Year Zero, in a cultural revolution with no culture, no past, no future - and no responsibility for heritage. 

We do not know where these fragile and irreplaceable documents will be placed, during the 'temporary' decantation of the library into a portacabin. But before the retelling of horrible histories becomes forbidden, in Broken Barnet, let us remember what happened to the civic heritage collection, and the Grass Farm stained glass windows, left in the similarly emptied and abandoned Church End Finchley library. 

Capita was given charge of the safekeeping of all the civic heritage collection. They handed the items to a third party contractor, and, showing at least some regard for the art of ironic gestures, shoved everything in the derelict Finchley mortuary, a few yards across the road from where I live. (Later sold for development, of course). And then - guess what? The items were stolen, and/or destroyed. 

After we raised concerns about the Grass Farm windows, an irreplaceable piece of Finchley's history, taken from what was once the home of the family which included arts and crafts designer Ambrose Heal, and left to the local council, many years ago, it was admitted - after a lot of prevarication - that these too had been stolen, while supposedly in the safekeeping of live in guardians contracted by Capita. Were there any sanctions, or penalties for the loss of these objects? What do you think? 

The Grass Farm windows, stolen while in the keeping of council contractors

We have every reason to worry about what would happen, therefore, to the historic material currently in our local Archives, and it seems that questions raised by Labour councillors about this have not been adequately addressed.

Recent history tells us there is little likelihood of any permanent replacement being built for Hendon Library. We were assured, when Friern Barnet branch was closed, that a wonderful replacement library would be built in North Finchley. A temporary arrangement of shelves in a room in the Arts Depot was the only thing to come out of that - and then disappear.

The authority will simply not be in the position to afford to build any replacement, for the foreseeable future and eventually the 'library' portakabin will be run down and 'disappeared'.

Save Barnet Libraries campaigners have issued a statement (forming part of a letter published in the local press) on the proposal for a massive six-year £90m “Hendon Hub Redevelopment” to expand Middlesex University, and the removal of the library from the listed, purpose built building:

In October 2021, perhaps even before the first tranche of planning approvals, the library will be rehoused in “temporary” portacabins on the Burroughs Large Car Park near the A41.

Residents are meant to be happy about this, on the Council’s promise of a new library with “curbside appeal” in either Autumn/Winter 2023, or May 2024 – the date is vague. The description of the new library is also vague, promising to “facilitate the provision of a broader and enhanced library offer” that will attract more visitors, incorporate the borough’s archive and be “rent free in perpetuity”. This sounds very like the old Hendon Library which until 2017, was the most well-used branch in Barnet with over 233,000 visitors and 146,000 book loans per year. 

But, unfortunately, the proposals for the future library contain no guarantees at all: no capital budget, design or planning permission. Similarly, there is no commitment to increase staffed hours and library resources - which is what the service really needs to encourage library use. As the Council’s independent evaluation bluntly stated, the cuts to staffed hours have “gone too far”. 

These issues didn’t seem to matter to Cllr Thompstone or his colleagues on the Library Committee (CLCC) on 18 November. After all, they presided over the last decimation of the library service: in Hendon by spending £500k on reducing the library to 13% of its previous size, cutting staffed hours by 72% and leasing the building so that the library became a paying tenant. (One point of this was to make money from the building, but it’s unclear if it broke even, let alone made a profit.) By 2019-20, before Covid, book loans had reduced by half and the Council had stopped counting visitors.

In terms of the so-called “temporary” library, we are only told there will be reduced opening hours which will be, very unsatisfactorily, made up for by the mobile library. We are extremely concerned that the Council gives no consideration to the effect of the move and reduced service on library users, particularly as it appears almost inevitable that the development will overrun on time and costs, threatening the prospects of a new library at all.

They are right to be concerned, and right to articulate the fury that will be felt by many residents and users over the further assault on our library service. Funnily enough, one of the newer local Tory councillors, Nizza Fluss, has voiced strong objections to these proposals. So she should. 

I can’t see any reason to leave this Grade II-listed building ... I do see why Middlesex want to acquire it, but I can’t see how it will benefit Barnet residents or the residents of Hendon.”


She is somewhat naive, and an inexperienced member of the Barnet Tory group and will be ignored, of course, by her colleagues, if she continues to object, and told to vote in line with the party's position. 

Well: if you live in Hendon, or use the library, you might like to write to your MP, Matthew Offord, and remind him of his former pledge to keep all libraries in his constituency open. He claimed, during an earlier Libraries nonsultation, that Unison was to blame for 'scaremongering' in repeating fears about library closures. Of course: blaming a union for telling the truth is the usual fall back for Tories trying to deflect attention from their assaults on our public services.

In the previous cull, library buildings were retained, but with their function as libraries reduced to a small fraction of the footprint of the building, to aid the Tories' assertion that they have closed no branches. The pretence was that the rest of the buildings would be used to generate income. This was nonsense: an excuse to justify the absurd expenditure of £14 million pounds of taxpayers' money, in truth not to make 'savings' (which of course have never made, other than in terms of sacking staff) - but for preparing the next stage in their long term development plans. 

In practice, the Barnet Tory decimation of the library service, the replacement of staffed hours with self service entry - and the massive reduction of the book stock - was far worse, and has had a profound impact, leaving many people with effectively very little or no access to the service.  The longer term effect in terms of the educational and literacy standards of less advantaged children and students, of course, will be equally damaging.

The closure of Hendon Library will have a further, hugely detrimental impact on residents, particularly, as in the case of Golders Green Library, for the families of the local Charedi community. As always with Barnet Tory cuts, however, the consequences for children, the elderly and vulnerable matter not at all, when development or business interests are at stake. 

Oh, and if they get away with shutting the flagship library, you can be sure other valuable library buildings will follow.

Libraries are more than just an easy target for Barnet Tory cuts: they carry a symbolic role in the group's ritualised, instinctive loathing of the very concept of public services, free at the point of use. Although unthinking in their attitudes and half formed beliefs, they naturally object to what is to them a mystifying concept: community, care for others, culture; the love of reading and the acquisition of knowledge, for its own sake, or the importance of social hubs to address issues of exclusion, or loneliness. They see only an unnecessary burden, and a duty they refuse to acknowledge, a cost they do not want to pay. Their emotional distance stands on the same place as every tedious, extreme right wing administration, perfectly demonstrated by the rise of Trumpism (admired by some local Tory members) or the Johnsonian shambles that passes for government in the UK. It is from a heart as hard as flint, and as cold as ice: why should I do anything for others? Only my self interest matters. 

Despite the smouldering contempt Barnet Tories feel for the local library service, with typical hypocrisy, once the Covid crisis was underway, this service, above almost all others, was considered so important that it was the last to close, before lockdown, leaving poorly supported staff - and users - dealing with an unknown situation, expected to carry on, while councillors's surgeries were cancelled. 

On the Saturday before Christmas, Johnson announced the introduction of Tier 4 and warned of an apparently more virulent mutation of the virus: within a short time of this deeply worrying announcement, far too quickly for any proper risk assessment to have been made of the increased risk to health, with all the unknown factors of higher and faster transmission, library staff were told to report to work as usual on Monday. "Click and collect" services continue, which they must administer. Many other library services have closed, of course, in other areas, by authorities with some sense of responsibility for their staff, and the public. But not in Barnet.

So which is it, Tory councillors? A library service of such little importance, that you can slash it to pieces, and leave poorly paid workers to struggle on, regardless, commended by your own consultants for their efforts to do so, in spite of the damage you had done? Or is it so vital that you must now, in the grip of an increasingly dangerous pandemic, merciless in its grip on this part of North London, force those workers to risk their lives, and that of their families, while you sit safely at home with your feet up, cancelling surgeries, holding a few safely Zoomed meetings, but refusing to put yourselves at any risk at all? 

When Hendon Library was opened in 1929, Lord Elgin made a speech, faithfully recorded in the local newspaper report: it was one which would have passed over the empty heads of the current crop of Tory councillors in the chamber of Hendon Town Hall. He observed:

Libraries (are) not mere store-houses of books. They must be centres of social and political life—political in its old and full sense of what pertained to the good of the community. A library should teach us not only that we had a neighbour. It should help us to understand that neighbour, to know his ideals and ambitions, and to know that he wanted to find the best way of making use of the talents with which he had been entrusted. A library service must be treated as the true life-blood of the population. It must the open gateway to all and sundry to knowledge and beauty.

Not content with ransacking the treasure house of Hendon Library, and no doubt leaving the golden key to be stolen with the rest of the civic collection, our philistine councillors are happy to throw the spare key to the building over to their friends at Middlesex University, and reverse the march of progress begun by their predecessors. 

There is no excuse for this. The events of the last year have proved more than ever that the public library service is a vital, fundamental resource for all communities, never more so than in difficult times, and not least for those without means, the 'poor' people that Mr Widmark recognised, even in the 1920s, who deserve access to reading, and information, just as much as those with wealth and privilege.

Just as Barnet Tory councillors care nothing for those without access to books, computers or smart phones, they care even less for Lord Elgin's vision of 'the good of the community'. They do not recognise the idea of caring for one's neighbour, and supporting him or her in their aspirations, or needs. 

And it is fair to say that the paternalistic but caring Conservative councillors of the 1920s would not recognise their supplanters in the chamber of Hendon Town Hall, who are intent on destroying their legacy of philanthropy, and practical help. 

Hendon's 'Treasure House', of course, is the perfect place to start the next phase of their war on libraries: where better than the former central library, that once meant so much to so many people? 

A gateway to knowledge is a dangerous thing, in Broken Barnet: a portal to a world of differing opinions, and the possibility of change. No wonder they cannot wait to shut it down.

Thursday 8 October 2020

Caritas Christi Urget Nos: the Daughters of Charity, and another chapter in the unwritten history of St Vincent's, Mill Hill

St Jeanne Antide Thouret, Daughter of Charity 

Of the thousand or so posts published on this website, over the last ten years, still the most frequently re-visited, perhaps rather surprisingly, are those I have written on the subject of the abusive culture in the schools and institutions run by the Daughters of Charity: including the primary school which I attended as a child, and the separate Orphanage which lay behind the school, St Vincents, on the Ridgeway, in Mill Hill.

These posts continue to be read, on a daily basis, and I often receive comments from some of those who attended such institutions:  whether schools, or, more usually, the residential homes. Some of these I do not publish, either because they are too personal, too distressing - or for legal reasons. 

'Annie', * a fragile, vulnerable survivor of one of these institutions contacted me last year, and spent many hours on the phone, and then in person, slowly disclosing the experiences of her life as a young teenager at Mill Hill: a tale of psychological abuse and physical punishment - the total absence of loving care. She had tried to report what had happened to her to the police, on her own, without support. They had dismissed her account. 

* All names in this post have been changed.

Last year 'Phil', another former victim of alleged abuse: physical, psychological and sexual, suffered while in the 'care' of the Daughters of Charity in the 1960s, wrote to me with details of the truly terrible experiences that he and his brothers suffered, at two different homes run by the Order, one of them Mill Hill.

His account was profoundly shocking, reporting years of appalling treatment, physical and emotional abuse - and predatory sexual behaviour, including rape. I urged him to consider submitting evidence to IICSA, the Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. He has now done so. As I understand it, police have also been informed.

I have read his submission, and it was detailed, graphic, and unsparing: impossible to read without feeling the intensity of pain created by such a perverse and sustained betrayal of childhood, innocence - and trust. 

One of his brothers took his own life, in later years. 

Such is the unbearable legacy of abuse for some victims: one that too often proves impossible to leave behind. Many others are unable to function as adults, burdened with depression, anxiety and intrusive memories of the past: unable to form lasting, healthy adult relationships, unsurprisingly, after grossly abusive, sexualised childhoods, with no safeguarding, no loving care, and no family support. 

That any child should be subjected to such treatment is insupportable. That this cruelty was perpetrated in the name of God, and the Church, is simply, and literally, beyond belief. 

The Daughters of Charity were founded in France, in the 1630s, by Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac when they began their work caring for the sick, and the poor, for those abandoned on the streets: observing their Christian faith in practical help for those in need. 

The first mission to England arrived in 1847, invited by a wealthy Catholic cotton merchant to work in the slum conditions in Manchester and Salford that had so appalled Engels in his time there, less than five years earlier. 

The order continued to expand across the world, and and in the UK began to devote itself to education, and the care of children. St Vincent's School for Boys (girls were admitted later) was opened at Mill Hill, in 1887, followed by a primary school. By the 1960s and 1970s, the work the Order undertook was increasingly becoming the statutory responsibility of the social care system, and the Order's residential homes, including the home in Mill Hill, were closed. Now their charitable work continues in social projects, for vulnerable and homeless people.

Somewhere, sometime, during the twentieth century, the vision of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac was entirely lost, and generations of children left in the care of the Daughters of Charity were subjected to a merciless regime that not only enabled abuse and neglect, but allowed the perpetrators to evade any sanction for their behaviour. 

That some of the victims of such failure in safeguarding have struggled for their voices to be heard, and their grievances to be addressed, is unforgivable: only now is there any formalised process of investigation by the government into this dark history - and the Church itself appears unable still to address the enormity of the scale of this problem. 

St Vincent de Paul

I have noted recently further visits by the 'Holy See, Vatican City' to the posts about the Daughters of Charity, and I imagine that there is some concern, at the highest level, about such reports continuing to appear.

It would be good to think that this was a mark of concern about the traumatised children who passed through these institutions: I suspect, however, that there is a concerted effort in hand to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church from the impact of such accounts - and perhaps defend the Order from compensation claims.

Earlier this week a damning report was published by IICSA, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, in regard to investigations into the abuse of children by those associated with the Church of England. 

Amongst its findings, the following observation is made:

Faith organisations such as the Anglican church are marked out by their explicit moral purpose, in teaching right from wrong. In the context of child sexual abuse, the church’s neglect of the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation was in conflict with its mission of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable.

This statement, in part, in its identification of the failure of religious bodies to live up to the aspirations of their own mission and core values, echoes the comment made by Lady Smith, in 2018, in findings  which identified abuse at Scottish institutions run by the Catholic Order of the Daughters of Charity, as part of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry

(In 2018, a number of people were arrested and charged by Police Scotland in relation to the alleged abuses at one of these institutions, Smyllum Park).

Criticising the regime at such 'homes', Lady Smith commented:

To children, ‘home’ should mean a safe place where they know they will find unconditional loving care provided by adults they can trust; a place they will find light whenever life outside has grown dark; a place which does not fill them with fear; a place where they will not suffer abuse.

"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 Order's motto is 'Caritas Christi Urget Nos'- which means 'The charity of Christ crucified urges us', or 'the love of Christ compels us'.

It is clear, however, that the vision of 'charity' envisaged in the seventeenth century by founders St Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac was betrayed, in the most profound way, in too many of the institutions run by their followers in more recent times.

Louise de Marillac

The terms of the Scottish Inquiry are broader than IICSA, in that they include allegations of all forms of abuse, not just of a sexual nature. In England and Wales, it seems, only sexual abuse is now, belatedly, being taken seriously and the impact of the full scope of damage caused by other failures in care is not measured by this Inquiry, which is regrettable. One might hope that the Catholic Church would itself instigate an Inquiry into the shameful history of many of the schools and care homes - but there is no evidence they have any interest in taking responsibility for this.

Last November, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster Diocese, and the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, gave evidence to IICSA for the second time, and declared himself to be 'shocked to the core' by child sexual abuse involving members of the clergy, but stated he was 'still learning' about the issue. It seems that the idea that he should see things from the perspective of the victim or survivor had only just occurred to him, after a meeting at the Vatican with other Bishops. Understanding, for Cardinals, it seems, must only arrive via official channels, or in a moment of belated clarity, like a sacrament of faith.

'Annie' had written last year to Cardinal Nichols to ask him to instigate some sort of investigation into homes run by the Daughters of Charity. He did not reply.

The Catholic Church would no doubt, in their defence, point to the good work that has been done by the Order, and others like it, without understanding that until the unspoken legacy of abuse is recognised, and some sort of restitution made, lack of trust in the Church, as it has in Ireland, will fatally compromise what is left of its claim to serve any community in the name of God, or in the spirit of Christian values.

'Giovanni', an elderly man formerly resident in the Mill Hill Orphanage, who has lived abroad for many years, and no longer speaks English fluently, has given permission for his story to be published here, translated by a friend who has encouraged him to talk to her about his childhood. Although he was happy to use his own name, I have changed this and some other details in order to protect his identity, and shortened his account. 

In its way, it represents an example of the culture of abuse, in its broadest sense,  that these children were encouraged to accept as their lot: even without the sexual element, which in itself was only one terrible symptom of a wider system of control: the use of continual punishment and deprivation, of cruelty and humiliation, in order to create total submission to the authority of the Church.

The former Orphanage at St Vincent's, Mill Hill, now a luxury housing development.

"I was born in Italy in 1938. My brother Carlo was a few years my senior. When I was two my dad worked on the ships in the dockyard. One day a workmate asked him whether they could exchange shifts. My dad obliged. An accident happened on that shift, something fell down from a mast. My dad was killed. At that point my mother was pregnant with my younger brother Antonio. Soon Antonio was born, and my mum now had three boys to look after, all on her own. She struggled to make ends meet, with three mouths to feed.

A couple of years passed. Our destitution was such that mum had no choice but to leave one of us at an orphanage. The lot fell on me, since Carlo was old enough to look after baby Antonio, but two brothers would be too much for him. I was left in an orphanage. At the end of the war my mother met an English soldier, and soon got pregnant. She had no choice but to marry him and move to England. She took me out of the orphanage in Italy, to go with her to England together with my brothers, and baby Peter soon on his way. When we arrived in London, I remember there was no one to receive us, which was quite disheartening, and my mum did not speak a word of English. We had to sleep in a cheerless, dismal place, a kind of an old people’s home, on the first night.

My stepfather had neither the wish nor the means to keep his wife’s three Italian boys in his flat. Carlo was old enough to soon find work and spread his wings, but Antonio and I had to be placed elsewhere. My mum left me and Antonio at St Vincent Residential School for boys in Mill Hill when I was in my ninth year and Antonio in his seventh. This was in 1947. Antonio was placed in a ward for younger children, whereas I went with the older kids. The outdoor playground of our separate wards was divided by a fence, so from now on we could only speak to each other when outside, and across the fence. We only knew Italian and I recall being beaten by the other boys in the beginning, because I was different.

I was a quick learner. I was lucky because I had Sister R who seemed to take a liking to me and notice my efforts. I wanted so much to prove that I was worth being loved, so I tried very hard to excel at everything they asked us to do. Soon I became an altar boy. I was good at reciting Latin because of my Italian background. I was good at singing. I was given the responsibility of keeping the classroom neat and tidy. I polished the brass door handles and kept track of three dormitories. There were ten children in each of these. I was set to make sure it was quiet at the requested hour before going to sleep. I was responsible for keeping the rooms clean. I attached pieces of cloths to my knees and hands and pushed myself under the beds to sweep the floors. If any of the kids were stirring, they got a spanking from the nuns. Eventually I took that job myself. By and by I became quite popular, because I was good at football, good at cricket and good at school.

Miss Q kept night watch in the dormitories. She loathed us. She made sure it was all quiet during the night. "Who is that coughing?" "Stop coughing!" I remember I was sick and coughing, I had chronic trouble with my bronchi, and I was punished with a beating on my bare backside because I was coughing. Often, someone had done something wrong, and no one dared to come forward and admit it. We were punished collectively and told to stand on our knees with our arms raised behind our heads. This could last for 10-15 minutes, before we were released and allowed to eat.

I often sang during mass, and eager as I was, I also sang along with the priest when he was supposed to sing alone. I remember one such incident. After mass Mr P, the caretaker, came over and asked me to go and see Sister W in her office. A parcel had arrived for me, he said. Full of joy and astonishment I rushed to the office to collect it. "Come closer," Sister W demanded. "You don't sing when the priest sings". Then she handed me two mighty blows on each cheek for this serious offence. I was utterly baffled and deeply humiliated, since I had not the faintest idea I had done something wrong in the first place.

When it was Solemn Mass, some of the boys carried candles, and I was the thurifer, leading the procession, swinging a thurible with incense alongside another altar boy. When the priest was to turn wine into the blood of Christ, sometimes my role was to assist him. It happened once that I cheated a bit and made sure to spill a little on my hand so I could taste some too. After mass I was scolded by the priest and beaten about the ears: you don’t soak your fingers in wine!

We got up early in the morning and the mass was before breakfast. I remember during a morning rehearsal, Sister R was displeased because the altar boys’ responses to the priest had been faulty. If you can’t do better than this, you will not be allowed to serve at Solemn Mass. I was the best in Latin. I mumbled smugly among the other boys, "phhh I don't care”. Who said that?, A shouted. It wasn't that hard to see, because I was red as a beetroot. Forward with your hands, strike with the ruler. On your knees the rest of the rehearsal. Sister R was furious with me. You will not be allowed to be an altar boy at Easter Vigil until you apologise for your behaviour. I refused. From then on, Sister R gave me a cold shoulder and took no notice of me.

I was broken-hearted. During the breaks I stood there peeking at Sister R, pining for her attention, but she ignored me. This lasted for a long time. Closer to Easter I burst out in tears and apologised. Sister R accepted. She put me on her lap and I cried. No one else had taken over my role for Easter Mass, and I knew they needed me for this task since I performed it so well. She told me I could go on with it, now that I had apologised. Michael was a ginger haired Irish boy. When he saw me sitting on Sister R's  lap, he started to tease me. I leapt at him and wanted to kill him, and someone had to come and separate us.

I remember one more episode; there was a boy who was the biggest and strongest of all, and he was going to beat me up. But Antonio my brother was now on the same side of the playground. A boy was about to attack me, ready with his fist. But what happens? By surprise, Antonio runs up and gives him one on the nose. The boy was put out of play, and I had been rescued by my little brother.

Sundays when we played outside, the nuns would ring a big bell if they had a message for one of us. Johnny, your mum has come! Every time the bell rang, Antonio and I hoped that our mum was coming to see us. We hardly ever had visitors, though. Except for my elder brother Carlo. Once he came and brought me a belt, and I was overjoyed.

My mother now had two children with her English husband, so I don’t think she had time to see us as often as she wanted to. Sometimes we would go home for holidays. We had a dreadful time, because our stepfather, Mr G, was a tyrant. We Italian boys had to stay in a room upstairs when he was home, because he didn’t want to see us, nor hear us. I remember he put our little half-brother Peter in a drawer and closed it, so that the little boy had to be locked up there in the dark for a long time. He was savage to my mum too. She was too scared to oppose his cruel ways. My mum got ill and died when I was 15, and I was glad for her, because she had such a dreadful life with that tyrant. Their two children went into charge of the social services when mum died, I think they were put in foster homes.

At the orphanage we got little food and we were often hungry after meals. I complained to the caretaker Mr P and asked him why we couldn't get more to eat. He said it was how it was supposed to be. None of us were supposed to eat until we were full. Although he tried to say it in a joking way to make me feel better, I still could not understand it.

Mr B owned the farm next door. He kept cows. He delivered milk to the orphanage. Often the milk was off because it was kept in room temperature. I hated tapioca pudding and couldn't make myself eat it. Mr B and Mr P would hold me, while Miss Q forced my mouth open and spooned the pudding into my mouth. I threw up, and got punished for that, too. We were forced to eat everything they served us.

I believe my instinct drove me to defy all the ill treatment I received. I was toughened. I was going to show them that I would not let them break my spirit, I would show them I was the best, even if I was a foreigner. So I got up, brushed it off, and made every effort to do my best, no matter what."

It is interesting, in a grim way, to note from this account, and others, that some of the characteristic details of 'discipline' handed out in the Orphanage post war were still in place when I went to the primary school years later, just as they recur in the Scottish Inquiry's investigation into the homes like Smyllum: the use of rulers to hit children; the arms above the head punishment; the regular humiliation of frightened children who wet themselves; being physically forced to eat vile food - including tapioca - leave nothing at all, or be punished, and made to drink warm milk that had gone off. Any food that was left over in the school kitchen would be taken to feed the pigs on the farm, run by an Irish farmer, tenant of the nuns, whose brood of red headed sons attended the school. I used to feel a sense of comradeship with the pigs, forced to eat such inedible slop. 

But however awful the conditions for us at the school, we could go home at night. There was no one to see what happened in the Orphanage that lay behind us, but which was as separate and alien as a foreign country: a place of mystery, that no one mentioned, the children rarely seen. They were meant to be unseen.

The waxen effigy and relics of St Vincent de Paul. The chapel at St Vincent's had a similarly terrifying glass tomb, encasing the figure of a child, meant to be one of the 'Holy Innocents'. 

Giovanni's friend continued the story, after he left Mill Hill: sent to a home in Essex then run by the Christian Brothers, but which had for many years been one of the Daughters of Charity's institutions. He believed that one of the Brothers regularly abused one of the boys in his dormitory, who would spend time each night in the screened off area where he slept.

At Mill Hill, 'Giovanni' learned quickly that the way to survive a childhood in the care of the Daughters of Charity was to comply with the regulations, and seek to please the one nun who seemed to care about his welfare, albeit in a way that meant failure to obey led to the instant withdrawal of her favour. Like most of the other children, he knew no other sort of home or family life, and accepted as the norm conditions which to us seem only cruel, and uncaring. 

'Phil' and his brothers all left the UK, after their years in care. But they could not leave behind the years of trauma, or the damage that it had done. Time is not a great healer, in these circumstances: in later life such memories often resurface, as vivid and destructive as before. At least now, with their accounts accepted as evidence in the course of the IICSA inquiry, there is a chance of some belated justice for victims, and some sort of restitution. 

I hope so, anyway.

Caritas Christi Urget Nos

Anyone who wishes to contact the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, perhaps to make their own submission of evidence,  may do so here:

Link to support services here:

Monday 7 September 2020

Too Long at the Fair: Victoria Park, and Barnet Tories, all on board the Ghost Train

All the fun of the fair, in Broken Barnet, in the year of Covid.

Update no 2. - Thursday, please scroll down to the bottom.

Update no 1. with a response from Barnet's Chief Executive, below - and my reply to him.

Victoria Park, in Finchley, has often served as a useful metaphor for the wider state of things here in Broken Barnet.

A park created by local Victorian philanthropists, named for the elderly Queen, in the last years of her reign, and opened by her daughter, Princess Christian, as a place meant for the recreation of the people of Finchley. 

These days, however, the local Tory councillors, treacherous heirs to the corporate trusteeship left to them by Inky Stephens, have little interest in protecting the rights of residents to enjoy any open space, let alone this one.

In blatant breach of the covenant that was placed in protection of the park, Tory members sold off part of the land, which included the beautiful, Arts and Crafts style Park Keeper's Lodge, and high hedged garden, in a cash purchase to a property developer.

The Lodge was demolished, despite all protests by local residents: and now, thanks to your local Tory councillors, including the current Leader Dan Thomas, and former council leader, now local MP Mike Freer, who both approved the sale of the site, in its place you can now watch the slow construction of a block of flats. 

That in itself is the perfect metaphor for the state of this borough, where not even a public park is safe from the land grabbing activity of rampant development: a monster now eating up every last inch of Barnet, creating thousands of non affordable slums of the future, increasing the population regardless of the burden on an already inadequate infrastructure of local resources: schools, healthcare, shops - and even parks and open spaces. 

This rapacious level of development is being facilitated by the council's own privatised planning service, and privatised 'regeneration' service: both of them run by Capita, which is of course in its own right also a developer. 

And Capita runs many other services for Barnet: including the management of parks and open spaces. 

A couple of summers ago, a group of Gypsy Travellers dared to come and halt for a few days, very neatly, in a corner of the park. They were obliged to do this because in Barnet there are not, and never have been, any legal stopping places for gypsies, even during the many years when it was a statutory requirement.

The Travellers and their caravans were frankly indistinguishable from the fairground people who now park up here, with their own tatty looking vehicles, several times a year, in order to feed the council's income generating machine, run by Capita. The only difference is that the council provides them with facilities, and rubbish bins. But the racist rebellion from a vocal minority of outraged local residents ensured that they were soon turned out of the park: on the day of the eviction some local women stood and literally shrieked at police officers, until this was done.

I stood and watched as this eviction took place. The council officer who was in charge noticed me looking and said, assuming I was one of them: 'Don't worry, they're being moved out'. I replied that I wasn't worried, except that the occupation would not have happened, if there had been an alternative stopping place. He looked back at me blankly, unable to comprehend why anyone would care. I wondered what he would say if I told him that some of my own family used to travel about in this way, once upon a time.

Two years on, and we find ourselves in the year of Covid, and our local park has never been more vital to those of us who live in the area: the only place we can go to, to walk in the fresh air, in safety, socially distanced, and escape from the otherwise full time house arrest many of us are still under.

The last thing we expected to see in the park this summer, at a point when local infection rates are shooting up again, was another occupation - by a fun fair.

The occupation of a park by Gypsy Travellers is a threat to public safety, but the occupation of a park by a fun fair, in the midst of a pandemic, sanctioned by the same officers who organised the eviction of the former, is ok, apparently. Probably because, you might reasonably assume, quite apart from the pandering to racism, the only events allowed in the park are those which generate income for the council  - and more importantly, for Capita. 

Capita manages parks and greenspaces, and receives, for all budget 'savings' it identifies as such, financial rewards, called 'gainshare payments'. This is one of the ways the company extracts profit from our local services - all as part of the massive contracts, thousands of pages long, which our empty headed Tory councillors obediently signed, in 2013, without properly reading the small print. Or even the large print. They relied on the same people who wrote the contract to scrutinise the contract for them: that is how lazy and incompetent they were.

Labour councillor Ross Houston at Victoria Park: he and local members were not consulted about the fair, and are questioning why this event is continuing.

Complaints about the fun fair were made to the relevant officers, and local councillors. It became clear that the local councillors had not been consulted. An officer claimed that they had been 'informed'. This turned out to be after residents' complaints were made to said officers. The approval of such events, said the officers, was made on a basis of 'business as usual'. Despite the fact that we are clearly not living in 'usual' times, and that Covid infection rates are now increasing.

Further enquiries revealed that officers were complacently relying on assurances made by the fun fair organisers: assurances that clearly, on my visits, were not being observed. But this is anyway irrelevant - there is no way in which a public gathering of this sort, with these numbers attending, in their hundreds every day, for ten days, could be safe from risk, in the current circumstances.

At the end of the week, as the fair arrived and started up its ten day booking, the council's own Covid data demonstrated that the infection rate in the borough, and in this part of the borough, were increasing. Their twitter account continued to urge people to #stayalert, and take precautions to avoid risk of infection. Local GPs, for the first time during the epidemic, issued text messages to patients warning them of the rise. 

Still the fair continued, and over the weekend when it was always going to be busiest: hundreds of people attending every day. I visited twice, at a safe distance, and in a mask, watching in horror the lack of social distancing, monitoring of numbers, cleansing: people shrieking on the rides, all unmasked - only one or two ride attendants sporting one, in one case under the chin. At one stall, food was being prepared and handed over by a person wearing no gloves, no mask, to a queue of non socially distanced customers. Business as usual, if the definition of usual is borrowed from the era of Typhoid Mary, perhaps.

One might have sympathy with the people who work on the fair - ironically, originally many fair people were Gypsies too, once upon a time: but many of us are hugely financially impacted by the continuing Covid nightmare - one which will be ending even further in the future if we do not get a grip of it now, in the wake of fatal delays and gross incompetence in the handling of the crisis by Johnson's government, rotten to the core with contracts to private companies that fail to deliver vital PPE, and all the other companies favoured on the basis of croneyism.

Back in Finchley: one resident at the weekend contacted our Tory MP Freer, who lives near to the park. She was reportedly informed that he could do nothing about the fair.

Absurdly, by Monday, the situation in regard to the Covid rate was so critical that the council tweeted that people must not meet up outside in groups of more than six. There have been reports, over the last week, of police fining or closing down large gatherings: yet this one is still going on. Why?

Here is the nub of the matter. 

The local authority's responsibility for public health is clearly being put at risk by by the actions of its own contractual providers, in allowing this fair to take place at all, at this time - of course all responsible boroughs have had control of their own decision making, and cancelled such large scale events. 

This local authority's functions and duties to the public, as with central government, in many respects, are being compromised by the activities of its own privatised services - on a huge scale, most obviously in planning and development. 

Last week the professionally lobbied plans of a developer to build a set of monstrous blocks of flats on the site of the former gas works in East Barnet were rejected by 'outraged' Tory councillors, the same councillors who have approved development of monstrous blocks of flats in areas where their own vote base was not at threat. The interesting thing about this was, as fellow blogger John Dix pointed out, the extent to which the arguments put by Capita planning officers appeared to be in ignorance of so many council planning policies. He posed the question: 'When you outsource critical council functions like planning & make them highly dependent on fees, is this one of the consequences?"

Here in Barnet Tory councillors have outsourced their public services, and outsourced their responsibilities. 

They are no longer running this borough: it is being run by a private company which knows that no matter how poor their performance in service delivery, their clients in Barnet will not withdraw from the contracts, or seek any effective sanction for their losses. It is caught in a relationship of coercive control, from which, or so they maintain, there is no escape.

There is just one problem, from the point of view of the local Tory party. Their own voters are now falling under the wheels of the vehicle they created, by allowing a private company to run the borough. Residents of formerly loyal Tory areas are now being confronted by rampant development right next door to them, and are furious that there is nothing to stop it. They see their pavements and roads left unrepaired, and are furious about that too. They find a fun fair in their local park, during a global pandemic. The Tory councillors and MPs they write to, about all such matters, expecting instant action, are unable to help, because they cannot compel contracted out services to do the work they are paid to do, to an adequate standard. Why would they, when nothing happens when they don't? 

So: come along to Victoria Park. Steer clear of the building site, on your way in. Wander into the fun fair, why don't you, and test out the old herd immunity thing? It's what Dominic Cummings would want, after all. 

This is Broken Barnet, the ultimate wet dream of any slaphead government adviser, hiding in the bunker on his dad's farm: a testing ground of market forces, spaffed up all over the place, unregulated. A former democracy taken over by covert consultants and faceless managers: all the fun of the fair, and all of the risk on us, the poor sods who pay our council taxes, and are left looking forlornly through the park railings for the lost figure of Inky Stephens, hiding in the shadows of the Ghost Train.

Tickets please!

From John Hooton:

Firstly just to be very clear that we all remain very concerned about the prevention of spread of Covid-19 in Barnet, and we are working closely with Public Health England colleagues, looking at cases in the borough, where these are arising, making sure that any links are identified and that our community messaging is targeted in the right way.

There is a system nationally and indeed across London that we work within, which includes escalation points where additional measures are considered in local areas, depending on the intelligence coming through the public health system. This is based on coronavirus infection rate per 100, 000 population.

Barnet has seen a relatively low number of cases over June, July and first part of August, and has been well below the threshold of 20 to 25 per 100,000 cases. At this point, we make sure that we target our communications in areas where there have been more cases or clusters of cases, and work closely with the test and trace system on the intelligence to see if there are any links between cases and any potential risks of increased infection. At this level of cases, events and activities will take place across Barnet and indeed in boroughs across the country provided that they are adhering to national guidelines and that Covid risk assessments are completed if necessary. Many other boroughs in London have had similar events over recent weeks, and this operator was previously in another London borough.

When the threshold of 20 to 25 per 100,000 cases is reached, this is the point at which additional preventative measures are considered. This would include enhanced enforcement in areas of higher infection, more community messaging and reviewing whether things like events or large gatherings should still take place.

As of today, Barnet has seen the rate per 100,000 increase to over 20. That means that our public health team are working with regional colleagues to understand the epidemiological picture and agree the appropriate actions.

The intelligence suggests that the increase in cases is predominantly in 16-24 age group and also particularly in the south and the west of the borough. Transmission is mainly through household members, through visiting friends and private parties and gatherings. Whatever we do in terms of next steps will need to be informed by the evidence that is coming through from the public health system.

Finally, I just want to be very clear that any fee that is paid by the operator has absolutely no bearing on whether the funfair will continue to operate in the borough. On this, a decision will be taken in the next 24 hours on the basis of the information we have on compliance with the risk assessment and the context that I have set out above.

Kind regards

My response: 

Yes, thank you for this but if you will forgive my bluntness, this is just a load of flannel. 

The facts are reducible to one thing. There is an increase locally, amongst largely young people. Yet you have allowed a fun fair to take place, and to continue even as cases are rising, an event which young people of this age group attend, whilst sending out messages telling people not to gather in groups of more than six outdoors. This is absurd. That is all there is to it. 

There was never any argument for holding an event like this during a pandemic. There is enough risk from activities which are unavoidable, and such events as this set a dangerous example to the community, encouraging them to think there is no longer any need for caution - as evidenced by the behaviour of the majority of people at the fair.

 At this precise point it is reckless, and will cause the spread of the virus utterly unnecessarily. Let us hope no lives are lost or serious long term health problems caused as a consequence.

Theresa Musgrove

Update No 2:

Yesterday (Wednesday) it became apparent that national rates of Covid infection have risen to the extent that a drastic revision of measures has had to be adopted by the Government. It was also revealed locally that infection rates in Barnet, specifically in wards adjacent to Victoria Park, have been rising to an alarming level: see the chart below.

After writing to the Chief Executive to ask him to confirm that now, at least, the fair would be stopped, he replied to say that this would only happen on Friday. 

This means that nine out of the ten days the fair was due to run have been allowed, in the face of all common sense - and rising rates of Covid transmission. 

Stopping it only one day short does nothing except allow the council to demonstrate a purely nominal intervention. 

If there is a risk, there has been one right from the beginning - and it has increased as the event has been running. It will not magically change tomorrow: it is already increasing beyond any point that such events could possibly be justified - if there ever was justification, at the time of a pandemic. 

This sorry tale is the perfect demonstration of everything that is wrong with the administration of this local authority, and in its way a reflection of the sickness in our current government: an impotent Tory leadership, policy and decision making being driven by outsourced contractors, and a process of governance unable to put the well being of the community, and its responsibilities for the protection of public health, before the demands of income generation - 'business as usual'. Too many conflicts of interests, too much compromise. Our democratic system is broken.