CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
THE ORIGINAL ROTHERHAM GROOMING GANG
Decades ago, before the recent grooming gangs operating in towns around the country, there was an original grooming gang in Rotherham. Although some members were found guilty in court, the victim blaming and skewed perceptions about the young girls involved was the narrative used both in court and in the press. Sadly, we now know that in more recent cases, these perceptions remained and girls were stigmatised and blamed for abuse they were being subjected to. Why has it taken 30 years to reflect on the appalling lack of judgement afforded these girls that left them vulnerable to further abuse?
There is very little in the public domain about this case, so I have pieced together as much as I can find. If anyone has any further information or if I have missed anything, please contact me.
In January 1978, a young pupil at Wickersley comprehensive school – a large school in Rotherham – was called into the office of the Deputy Headmistress to account for her most recent absence. Nothing could have prepared Deputy Headmistress, Doreen Richards, for what the girl was about to tell her. According to the youngster, she had been abused by a number of local men and not only were many other girls at the school involved too, but it had been going on for possibly three years – maybe even longer.
Horrified by what she was told, Doreen Richards questioned a number of fifth year girls and then immediately telephoned South Yorkshire Police.
Headed by Chief Inspector Brian Moseley, the police were appalled to discover that around 30 girls had been abused by a number of men at a nearby farm and other addresses, as well as videoed and photographed by one of the gang members in return for payments. Police believed that around eight men were involved.
Manor Farm was situated less than 10 miles away from Wickersley school. It had been the Howe family home for many years, but by the mid-1970s was being run by Rufus Howe and his brother, James, who both resided there with their spouses.
Police discovered that much of the abuse occurred within a secluded loft area on the farm which was referred to as ‘the chamber’, and the press subsequently dubbed it ‘Sex Farm’. The abuse also occurred at a private home and a shop after school.
The girls, all aged between 12 and 15-years old, referred to being part of a ‘secret circle’ and were given gifts (including cigarettes) as well as paid fixed prices to undertake certain sexual acts. Prices ranged from 10p to £5. Once ensnared by the gang, girls were made to pose and perform for photographs and videos, as well as look at pornographic literature, but police were further appalled by the discovery that the men had sought to recruit further victims for their sordid abuse by sending messages to the girls asking them to bring other friends along for sex after school.
The Daily Mirror spoke with a number of families caught up in the abuse:
The parents of one girl involved said: “We couldn’t believe it when we saw the statements of our own daughter. She admitted she had been involved with four of the men police have been questioning. She even gave details like the money they got for doing a particular thing. As far as we know, all the men involved are old – very old, some of them. I believe one of the things that started off the police inquiries was questions being asked about girls flashing £10 notes at school.”
An aunt of a 13-year old girl who allegedly lost her virginity in the affair, said that the men responsible should be driven away.
And the father of another girl said: “When you realise that some of the men involved are people you’ve known for years, it’s difficult to control yourself and not go out and take the law into your own hands. Whatever these lassies did, they were young girls led into it and given money by men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.”
The headmaster of Wickerley School, Arthur Matthews, stated:
“This is a nasty business. It has come as a terrible shock to us – we care deeply for our pupils both at school and when they are not in our charge.”
The Education Deputy Director, Keith Snowdon, said:
“We are obviously concerned about the pupils but it does seem that most of this has occurred outside school hours. We will, however, be looking into the matter ourselves.”
And Rotherham Mayor, Councillor Roland Benton, demanded “a searching inquiry” into the scandal. He said:
“I understand that girls were subjected to degrading scenes at the farm. Six girls from this school are said to be involved, but there could be more from other areas.”
The six members who were charged and brought before the court were:
- RUFUS HOWE: 68, farmer at Manor Farm
- JAMES HOWE: 67, farmer at Manor Farm
- NEIL FOX: 29, amateur photographer, lived with his wife (Brenda) in Flanderwell Lane, Sunnyside
- FREDERICK TURNER: 57, partially-blind former miner, East Square, Sunnyside
- RONALD MOUNSEY: 54, disabled former miner, Central Avenue, Sunnyside
- JAMES ABBISS: 55, butcher, lived with his wife (Joan) in Blackthorn Avenue, Bramley, Sheffield
The trial began in March 1978 at Sheffield Crown Court, before Mr Justice Jupp. The six men pleaded guilty to 32 charges of unlawful intercourse and indecent assault. The court heard how a relative of one of the men initially telephoned the school to alert them to his concerns about schoolgirls playing truant in order to visit the school, This, along with the flashing of large amounts of money in school and persistent truancy led to the eventual investigation.
Despite the police’s horror at what they unearthed in their investigation and the simple fact of law that children cannot consent to sex, the narrative was set once the case was sent to trial and the victim-blaming language was used by the prosecution throughout.
- The court was told how the ‘going rate‘ was 50p for masturbation, up to £5 for other acts, but some girls ‘had charged as little as 10p or even a cigarette.’
- The court was told that there was no conspiracy between the men, but that they had each separately taken advantage of ‘the pack of girls’.
- Girls were shown ‘mucky books’ before taking it in turns to ‘make love’ to Rufus Howe.
- Girls participated in ‘kinky sex sessions’ in front of an unloaded camera at the home of Neil Fox.
- The men on trial were referred to as ‘customers‘.
- Frederick Turner – in an attempt to make him seem like a half-decent human – was said to have rejected some of the girls because he didn’t like their swearing.
- Ronald Mounsey claimed that he was first approached by girls outside a pub, and ‘sex games followed in a wood and at his home.’
- Butcher, James Abbiss, also claimed he was approached by girls and blatantly asked if he would pay for sex. He then adopted a habit of dropping notes outside his shop fixing times to meet the girls after school.
The prosecutor – Arthur Hutchinson – told the court that the men had separately taken advantage of the ‘pack of girls’, adding:
“Each by their willingness to pay these girls for their services confirmed them in their somewhat promiscuous way of life – and promiscuous they certainly were.”
Mr Justice Jupp reinforced this, saying about the girls:
“They seemed to have no bashfulness about sex in any way. And they really had no shame.”
SENTENCING AND MEDIA REPORTS
Upon sentencing, Mr Judge Jupp he told the men:
“I am not surprised you have been shunned and reviled by the local people. All right-minded people must be horrified to hear what has been going on. One’s first reaction would be ‘send them to prison’, and I expect that is where most of you expect to go. But in every case the girls did what they did for money. I think it’s a fair assessment of the evidence to say that none of these girls were corrupted by any of you. I am led to say, much as I regret it, that these girls were little different from prostitutes.”
Sentences imposed were:
- RUFUS HOWE: 6 month suspended sentence, £445 fine
- JAMES HOWE: 6 month suspended sentence, £225 fine
- NEIL FOX: 6 month suspended sentence, £150 fine
- RONALD MOUNSEY: 6 month suspended sentence, £125 fine
- JAMES ABBISS: £100 fine
- FREDERICK TURNER: £90 fine
The media immediately reflected the court’s skewed narrative, and the case ended with the girls – referred to as ‘schoolgirl Lolitas’ and prostitutes, and having ‘indulged in orgies’ – effectively blamed for their own abuse despite the fact the men pleaded guilty for their crimes.
BIRMINGHAM DAILY POST, 23 MARCH 1978
This has to be one of the worst cases of blatant victim-blaming I think I’ve ever come across in all my time of researching crimes. Not only was the trial led by the prosecution and judge, but the press echoed the narrative.
I don’t know what subsequently happened to the girls involved, nor whether they were offered any counselling or help. It must have been traumatic for them and their families, and frustrating at the obvious lack of proper justice and demonised by the system set up to afford them justice. The only solace that can be taken from this is that I believe Mother Nature has seen fit to intervene as most of the defendants in this case are now dead.
The headteacher left a year after the trial.
- Daily Mirror archive
- The Guardian archive
- Birmingham Daily Post