Alex Wheatle MBE writes of how he was sexually assaulted by a doctor at Shirley Oaks in Surrey, run by Lambeth council
In a moving account, Alex Wheatle, 51, writes of how he was sexually assaulted by a doctor at Shirley Oaks in Surrey, run by Lambeth council, South London.
The father-of-three, awarded an MBE in 2008, broke his silence after an investigation by the Daily Mirror claimed systematic abuse in the borough was covered up after the Labour MP was named as a suspect.
It is thought Alex was targeted by a network of abusers who operated in the same care homes that the rising Labour star is suspected of visiting in the early 80s.
We revealed how a Lambeth social services boss told police in 1998 that the Blair minister would make lone evening visits to a children’s home run by a convicted paedophile, Michael John Carroll.
The witness said Carroll later admitted that the politician was a friend and that he also took boys out of South Vale children’s home in West Norwood during the 80s.
This is a unit which is believed to have been infiltrated by paedophiles from outside the care system.
In his powerful account, Alex speaks of the sickening abuse suffered by youngsters at Shirley Oaks children’s home village.
Alex, who arrived at Shirley Oaks aged three, reveals how “strange nameless men” had access to the home and believes abusers were allowed access with the full knowledge of staff and council chiefs.
He writes: “I’m convinced there was a paedophile ring operating in both South Vale and Shirley Oaks and that the authorities knew about it at the time but did nothing.”
Alex, born in South London, goes on to call for justice for the victims who have been ignored for decades.
He also implores Home Secretary Theresa May that child abuse inquiries recently announced are “thorough”.
Read Alex's chilling first-hand account of his abuse HERESitting on the well-heeled Kent- Surrey border, Shirley Oaks children’s home village – administered by Lambeth council – was surrounded by lush, swerving hills, rushing streams and towering oaks.
At first glance it was the perfect place to raise children, but in 1995, it was shut down.
Fixed into the encircling wall which still stands near the front gate and lodge building is a plaque that reminds passers-by of the thousands of children who once resided there.
Just two minutes’ walk from this symbolic memorial, one of my good friends took her own life – she had left Shirley Oaks but she could never leave behind the tormenting memories and trauma.
Another close friend of mine hanged himself from a toilet chain in one of the cottages. I know he suffered, but I don’t know how.
I arrived in Shirley Oaks in 1966. My first memories were filling in coal buckets and getting beaten up with wooden hair brushes, belts and hard-soled shoes. Suffering violence was as part of my day as eating toast.
As I grew a little older I heard tales of appalling abuses from friends who had been processed at the South Vale assessment centre in West Norwood before arriving at Shirley Oaks for so-called long-term care.
Phrases like “bummed” filled their vocabulary.
Sometimes we would see strange nameless men within the Shirley Oaks grounds. One of them manipulated himself into our cottage, sleeping overnight in the sofa bed within the office. We were told to call him Mark and he said he was a swimming instructor.
He targeted the boys in our cottage but also facilitated swimming lessons for other lads in the pool within the grounds as well as private clients. At these sessions he was the only adult present. There were no CRB checks in those days.
It was only decades later that he was jailed for his disgusting crimes following the Operation Middleton investigation. I’m still unsure if all of his victims came forward.
While all this happened, I did my best to survive. Before I left the primary school that was situated within the complex, I was labelled “maladjusted”. I didn’t even know what the word meant.
I was referred to a doctor. The first thing he told me to do was to strip naked. I stood there traumatised, unable to utter a sound as he sexually assaulted me. I wanted to ask my friends if they had suffered something similar but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
As I began my secondary education there were still odd, nameless men walking the grounds at night. Sometimes you would see them during the day. One drove through the village in an orange mini with blacked-out windows. He claimed he was a football coach but the only skill he possessed was managing to fit inside his tight shorts.
He would arrive at a game and take younger boys away to a secluded part of Shirley Oaks where it was assumed he was giving them extra training. Nobody that I knew wanted to discuss these issues with any social worker for fear of being moved away to somewhere even worse.
Indeed, one of my house-mates was taken away for objecting to what was taking place within our household. She came back months later traumatised. She wouldn’t talk of it. Also, we all heard that a member of Shirley Oaks staff had raped a defenceless girl. Fear was a constant companion. At least in Shirley Oaks we had our friends – if that was taken away, we would have nothing.
If you were fortunate enough to have a family member come and see you, social workers or officers in charge would sometimes apply for a Section 2, which would deny even close relatives from visiting you. It meant the children’s home gained complete control over your life and who you saw. Many of my friends were completely isolated and vulnerable.
Years later, Operation Middleton secured three convicted jail terms. Lambeth council and the police declared the investigation a success. I and many others deem it as a failure. Nineteen paedophiles were never charged or even identified. If any of them are alive they are still walking, smiling and wearing their medals amongst us.
Who were they? How did they gain such willful access to South Vale and Shirley Oaks? At any time during Shirley Oaks’ existence there were hundreds of children in residence and social workers visited their charges every day.
They must have been aware of at least the “swimming instructor” and the “football coach” because they were so visible. They and others somehow gained unchallenged access inside cottages and ultimately to defenceless children.
In my case, this Mark character even sat in on my case meetings. I’m convinced there was a paedophile ring operating in both South Vale and Shirley Oaks and that the authorities knew about it at the time but did nothing.
I urge Theresa May that the inquiries she has initiated include the thorough investigation of social services practices, safeguards for children and protection policies and how such men were allowed to get so close to vulnerable children.
Also, I ask her that these investigations should examine all aspects of child abuse including violent, neglect and emotional abuse. Victims have their lives ruined by sexual assault. Some even take their own lives because of it.
Following the closure of Shirley Oaks, someone set fire to the old primary school. I wonder if it was a victim, exacting some form of his or her justice, who for years went ignored and unheard. I really hope my testimony here will prompt others who have suffered to come forward and bear witness to the horrific crimes inflicted against them.
Those nameless men must be unveiled and brought to justice, alive or dead.
- If you are an adult who suffered child abuse and want professional help, call NAPAC on 0808 801 0331. If you have any information that you think might help our investigation, please telephone the Mirror on 0800 282 591 or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.