Of all the scandals covered by the child abuse inquiry, the story of Shirley Oaks care home is among the most shocking. Now one former resident is helping others to tell their stories
The people who live there now call it Shirley Oaks Village; it’s an unusually large estate, with lots of new homes, woodland and flat, open fields.
At first glance, nobody would guess it had a past.
There are hints of it on the plaques outside some of the bigger, older properties. Now divided into flats, they were once the heart of a community – and the names of these houses (Birch, Aster, Ivy, The Lodge) may yet become synonymous with cruelty, child abuse, incompetence and cover-up.
Of all the scandals being investigated by the inquiry chaired by Prof Alexis Jay, this has the potential to be the most disturbing of all. The secrets of Shirley Oaks appear to be slowly emerging from some of the thousands of children who grew up in what used to be Britain’s biggest care home.
Raymond Stevenson was one of them. His parents split up when he was two years old. He and his older brother stayed with his father, but it was too much for a working dad. And so the two of them were put into Shirley Oaks, just outside Croydon. It would be Stevenson’s home until he was 18.
The 80-acre site, with its cottages, swimming pool and school, should have given him the start in life his parents could not. But like many of his friends, he wanted to forget the place when he left, and bury the things he had experienced there. Those memories remained out of reach until two years ago.
Stevenson was at his flat in Brixton one evening when he received a phone call. “A boy I had kept in touch with rang me out of the blue,” he says. “He told me he had something to say.”
The caller explained that he had been sexually abused at Shirley Oaks, and that his brother and sister had, too. At first, Stevenson was shocked – and then enraged. He smashed up his flat. He knew this story was just the tip of the iceberg: that the history he had forgotten would grow to take over his entire life.
“He’d lived with it all these years and he was at the end of his tether,” Stevenson says. “He had come to me for help … and he knew I couldn’t turn him down.”
He was right. In his peer group, and around south London, Stevenson has a reputation. He made his name as a music manager – he discovered and nurtured Jessie J. He’d earned respect for standing up to criminals who once tried to strong-arm him out of a nightclub he ran, and he had worked with the Home Office on an anti-gun crime campaign video. Those who have crossed Stevenson know him to be stubborn and street-smart.
Jessica Cornish, AKA Jessie J, in 2003 when Raymond Stevenson was her mentor.
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Jessica Cornish, AKA Jessie J, in 2003, when Raymond Stevenson was her mentor. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock
In the work that would become his calling, Stevenson, now 53, would have to prove it. Within days of that first call, he and his long-term business partner, Lucia Hinton, put their business to one side and set about finding out as much as possible about Shirley Oaks, the people who ran it and the children who went through it.
And because it was “Raymond from Shirley Oaks” making inquiries, people who hadn’t dared to come forward before, or felt they had been let down by the authorities and the police in the past, have told him their stories.
So far almost 700 former residents of Shirley Oaks have approached him – and the support group he set up – Shirley Oaks Survivors Association (SOSA) – has taken testimony about abuse from 400. They include two army officers, and two others awarded MBEs. And more emerge every day.
What they believe they can prove – from witness testimony, from hundreds of pages of official documents that have been leaked to them, and from former staff and “house parents” who now support them – is that Shirley Oaks was infiltrated by paedophiles from the mid-1950s until its closure in 1983. They have identified 60 suspected paedophiles; there may be more. One of the abusers is said to be a former member of Scotland Yard’s vice squad. And the abuse didn’t stop at Shirley Oaks. It wormed its way into all of Lambeth’s children’s homes, and continued until the early 1990s.
Are all the claims true? Stevenson has no reason to doubt them. And neither, it seems, does Lambeth council, which ran Shirley Oaks for 20 years, or the police, who are desperate to speak to the survivors who have come to him.
In fact, SOSA compiled a report that so horrified the council that it has agreed in principle to pay compensation to potentially hundreds of victims. The material uncovered by the group, now compiled into six lengthy reports, is one reason why Lambeth is among Jay’s core investigations.
Stevenson has no doubt about what they show. “This was about the industrial sexual abuse of children in a home,” he says. “And it didn’t need high-profile names to be one of the worst, one of the most disgusting things that has happened … it was another world, horrible.”
Stevenson had a partial view of this when he was growing up. He recalls being beaten and knowing “from the age of six that there was something wrong” with the way children were treated. “I was not aware that people were being sexually abused, but as I got older, we were aware that there were places you shouldn’t go because of the potential for sexual abuse. There were houses – the lodge house, the boiler house – there were those places that we knew had the potential for that.
“These were dark houses, dark cottages that we would never go to. Some of my friends lived in those cottages, so I’d wait round by a tree until they came out. It’s only in hindsight that you know that everyone who left their cottage left all the evil inside.”
‘It was a failed system, and with failed systems people can take advantage’ … Shirley Oaks children’s home
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‘It was a failed system, and with failed systems people can take advantage’ … Shirley Oaks children’s home. Photograph: shirleyoaks.com
He says the children didn’t talk about what was happening. “There was nothing to talk about. It was like going to the shops. The beatings were part of the system – you couldn’t question it because there was nothing to compare it with. So you accepted it.” Instead, he says, “we tried to live proud”.
“We all wanted to project that survival instinct,” he says. “You suffered in silence together, and you protected each other as much as you could. My best friends didn’t know about the nights I spent locked in the coalshed. They didn’t know about the nights I wandered around in the dark. Why would I tell them? They had their own nightmares to deal with.
“Remember, many of the kids at Shirley Oaks had been abused already. That’s why they were there. They didn’t know any different. It was supposedly normal, because we were children who didn’t deserve anything more than what we got. I had no concept of cruelty. It was normal to me. It was all I knew, the walls of Shirley Oaks.”
This was not the vision that Shirley Oaks’s founders had had in the early 20th century. Opened in 1904 by the Bermondsey Board of Guardians, it was designed as beacon of progressiveness that would allow children to “be brought up in a home environment rather than a large, regimented institution … living in small groups with house parents, on a site including school, workshops, administration block, infirmary etc, in a self-contained community.” With up to 400 children on site at any time, the home was a new way to deal with vulnerable and troubled children from boroughs all over London.
Alexis Jay, head of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation, which will investigate the history of Shirley Oaks.
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Alexis Jay, head of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation, which will investigate the history of Shirley Oaks. Photograph: Martin Hunter for the Guardian
Many thousands of them will have gone into and come out of Shirley Oaks unscathed – most of the “house parents” likely did their best, with the best of intentions. Stevenson recalls two who had a profound effect on him – Aunty Charmaine and Uncle Bob – and prevented him from self-destructing.
But during the 1960s and 70s in particular, the home appears to have been infected by what Stevenson calls “the virus of child abuse”.
“Their (paedophile) network before the internet was perfect,” he says. “They were in touch with each other, they knew each other, they were advertising for like-minded people. We know the word spread. People were directed to Shirley Oaks. We knew it had to be orchestrated. But we needed to know how. Once we got it, we could predict which children would be abused, which children were targeted.”
Stevenson says he has been able to map which abusers went where and for how long – work, he says, that could have been done by the police or the council if they had ever had the appetite to do it. He insists they didn’t.
Hinton says talking to so many people about such personal matters has been “fucking harrowing”.
“The enormity of it … you have grown men who have never met me who are willing to share with me in graphic detail the horrific ordeals they have been put through,” she says. “It is heart-wrenching for people to have to relive this. People don’t understand that they don’t just come in and say: ‘This is what happened to me.’ For some people it has taken months for them to pluck up courage. The first thing we did was get counselling in place and we take our time with them.
“We understand they are damaged souls in their general life, aside from the abuse. I am a mum, I have two children. And the thought of children going through what these people have gone through … I am not sure grateful is the right word … but we are very grateful that they have felt able to trust us, to believe in what we are doing.”
Stevenson adds: “I know I couldn’t have survived what some of the people have gone through, I know it. End of story. So I am not looking at someone who is a victim, I am looking at someone and thinking: ‘My God, you have gone through all that, the least I can do is give you everything that I have.’ Our mandate is unquestionable, we cannot fail. What happened to them is indisputable. The facts are there. We have to deliver them truth and justice. Because they handed us truth on a plate.”
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Stevenson is coy about his endgame, and how he intends to secure it. For him, getting compensation for the abused is a first step. What is less clear is where and how the anger of the people he represents will be directed next. It might be channelled through the national inquiry; some of his members may decide to talk to the police, though so far they have been reluctant. “They [the police] have been part of the problem, not the solution,” he says.
At the moment, Stevenson says he is sitting on information that has the potential to shame authorities – and individuals – charged with protecting children in care. “From very early on we knew the abuse could not be random. There were too many recurring themes that enabled it to go on, and it couldn’t happen on such a scale and be random because these people kept bumping into each other.
“Lambeth council was inept and corrupt. It was a perfect storm. We understood that Shirley Oaks was a failed system, and with failed systems people can take advantage. We learned that the problem was widespread and that we couldn’t trust the police.”
He is mistrustful of the media, too: “They have gone for the wrong people at the wrong time, without enough evidence, which has really damaged everything.” So Stevenson is doing things his way – toughened by all the things he has been through, and driven on by the survivors behind him. The combination is unsettling for the police, the council, the inquiry and the establishment he intends to rock.
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“I can honestly say that the scars I carry from Shirley Oaks will be with me for the rest of my life,” Stevenson says. “But they are nothing compared with the stories we have read and heard. I have a creative mind, but I could not create the barbarism, I could not create the horror.”
He says some positive things have come out of the experiences and revelations of the past two years – for one, he has been able to reclaim some of the childhood he wanted to forget. “I have learned something about human nature in adversity. We have bonded, and together we can rise. I’ll tell you something … I am not ashamed to say anymore that I was from Shirley Oaks, and I was ashamed to say it before.”
• Anyone who would like to contact the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association can do so through its website: shirleyoakssurvivorsassociation.co.uk