Home Office (1945) Report by Sir William Monckton KCMG KCVO MC KC on the circumstances which led to the boarding out of Dennis and Terence O’Neill at Bank Farm, Minsterly and the steps taken to supervise their welfare, etc Cmd 6636 London: Home Office
The murder of Dennis O’Neill while in foster care in 1945 hit the English headlines as the Allied troops were advancing across Europe. The coroner’s verdict with the rider criticising the lack of supervision and the trial of the foster parents two months later, at which their barrister had tried to pin the blame on Dennis’ brother Terence (O’Neill, 2000), prompted the local authorities concerned to ask the Home Secretary to set up a public inquiry, which he did. Within six months of Dennis’ death, the inquiry had been completed and the report published.
The children had been in care under Fit Person Orders because their parents had been adjudged not be ‘fit persons’ and, as Tom O’Neill (2000) observed, the local authorities had hardly turned out to be ‘fit persons’ themselves. This terminology had arisen out of the 1891 Custody of Children Act, passed in the wake of the Barnardo-Manning controversy, permitting a court to determine whether or not a parent was a ‘fit person’ and, if not, to allow the child to be placed with someone who was. The Fit Person Order was subsumed into the Care Order by the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act.
Before the 1948 Children Act children on Fit Person Orders to a local authority were normally in the care of the Education Committee. From 1930 until the implementation of the 1948 Children Act, children in care under the Poor Law, for the most part children in voluntary care at their parents’ request, were the responsibility of the local authority Public Assistance Committee.
As a result of this report the Curtis Committee (Care of Children Committee, 1946) was set up to examine the situation of children in public care in England and Wales and SI2083 The Children and Young Persons (Boarding out) Rules 1946 were issued to take account of Sir William Monckton’s recommendations. A similar committee was also set up in Scotland (Committee on Homeless Children, etc., 1946).
- Dennis and Terence had had two out of area foster home placements, both of which had had to end for reasons unconnected with them or the suitability of the placements.
- When Mrs Pickering was approved to accept them at the last minute, she had accepted a girl from another authority and was unable to take them, so the escorting officer arranged a further out of area placement with Mr and Mrs Gough without checking the sleeping accommodation, making any enquiries or informing the relevant local authority.
- The references provided by Mr and Mrs Gough were not followed up for four months.
- Mr and Mrs Gough also fostered two children placed with them by their own local authority, in contravention of the 1933 Boarding Out Rules.
- The local authority did not receive a reply to their request for out of area supervision and for a variety of reasons did not follow this up.
- Mrs Gough had applied to become a local authority foster parent just before the request to accept the O’Neills and had been approved after one visit by a Poor Law officer and without enquiries being made.
- Concerns expressed by the local authority escorting officers were not recorded and not followed up in the face of the insistence of the Poor Law officer that the placement was satisfactory.
- Four months later the same Poor Law officer removed the children she had placed with the Goughs on her own initiative.
- The local Boarding Out Committee was made aware of the situation and arranged for a visit to be made; however the report of this visit was wrongly filed.
- During their placement, the O’Neills had never been seen by a Medical Officer and had had only one official visit, in contravention of the 1933 Boarding Out Rules.
- In the absence of replies to letters, no one thought to pick up a telephone.
- Most of the problems could have been avoided by obeying the 1933 Boarding Out Rules.
- Whatever the pressure, the ‘duty of care’ should remain paramount.
Sir Walter begins by summarising the situation he had been asked to report on. Dennis O’Neill had been born on 2 March 1932 and Terence on 13 December 1934 to Mabel Blonwyn O’Neill and Thomas John O’Neill, a labourer, of Newport. On 30 May 1940 Dennis and Terence O’Neill had been committed to the care of Newport County Borough Council under Fit Person Orders. Dennis had been boarded out at Bank Farm on the 28 June 1944 with Reginald and Esther Gough and Terence had joined him on 5 July 1944. Dennis had died on 9 January 1945 and Terence had been removed from the foster home on a Place of Safety Order on 10 January 1945.
The coroner had reported that Dennis had died of acute cardiac failure caused by violence to his chest and back while in a state of under-nourishment due to neglect and had added a rider about the lack of supervision by the local authority.
On 19 March 1945 at Stafford Assizes Reginald Gough had been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years penal servitude; his wife Esther Gough had been found guilty of neglect and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Newport County Borough Council and Shropshire County Council had asked the Home Secretary to set up a public inquiry which had been held on 10-13 April 1945 at Newport Civic Centre, Newport. Sir William Monckton had also visited Minsterly and inspected Bank Farm.
In The Newport authority and the O’Neill children up to 20-12-1944, he tells the story from the Newport perspective. In December 1923 Mr O’Neill had been convicted of neglect and given one month’s imprisonment while his wife had been cautioned. In November 1939 Richard Jones, an NSPCC Inspector, had obtained a warrant from magistrates to remove four children from their home under a Place of Safety Order: Dennis and Terence, their younger brother, Freddie, and their sister, Rosina, then aged 11.
On 6 December 1939 the parents had been convicted of neglect and ordered to pay a £3 fine or go to prison for one month; they went to prison. On 12 December 1939 Newport Juvenile Court had made an Interim Fit Person Order which had been renewed monthly until, on 30 May 1940, Rosina had been committed to the care of her maternal grandmother and the three boys to Newport County Borough Council with an undertaking to bring them up as Roman Catholics.
The local authority Education Committee was responsible for Fit Person Orders and the Newport Director of Education normally had twenty-two staff but by 1944 he only had eight plus temporary staff. Administrative responsibility for Fit Person Orders was handled by Miss Edwards, a clerk, while Mr Birt, Senior School Attendance Officer, normally made the visits. In fact, only twenty children had been made subjects of a Fit Person Order in the period 1936-44, of which thirteen had been boarded out, mostly outside the borough.
The authority had advertised for foster parents and received eleven applications. The brothers were placed with Mrs Surrell, of Credenhill, Herefordshire from November 1940 to 5 January 1941. She had been the only Roman Catholic of the eleven applicants and had been given a satisfactory report by the Director of Education, Herefordshire. However, she fell ill and the brothers were placed instead with Mrs Connop, of Yarpole, Leominster, one of the other applicants who had also received a favourable report from Herefordshire and who, O’Neill (2000) tells us, had agreed to bring them up as Roman Catholics.
On 28 April 1944 Herefordshire recommended the boys’ removal from Mrs Connop for reasons which did not reﬂect on Mrs Connop’s care of the boys and in May 1944 Mrs Pickering of Pentervin, Nr Minsterly, applied to take the boys; she received favourable reports from Shropshire County Council. However, she decided to take a little girl and wrote on 25 June 1945 to Newport County Borough Council to let them know. The letter arrived on 27 June 1944, the day before it had been decided that Mr Easterby, a School Attendance Officer, would take the boys from Mrs Connop’s to Mrs Pickering’s.
However, the staff at Newport decided do go ahead in the hope that she would still take the boys; Mrs Pickering did agree to take the two younger boys even though this breached Rule 5 of the 1933 Boarding Out Rules and recommended either Bank Farm or Ivy House Farm for Dennis. The latter was unable to help but at Bank Farm Mr Easterby spent one and quarter hours; the Goughs agree to take Dennis and signed the necessary forms. On his return, Mr Easterby made a favourable report.
Sir William Monckton notes that:
- Mr Easterby had no experience of the Boarding Out Rules.
- He made no enquiry about the suitability of Goughs; in fact, Mr Gough had been convicted of assault when 17½ years old and was fined £1, and in 1942 Mrs Gough had asked for a Separation Order on grounds of persistent cruelty though she had later decided to return to him.
- He never checked the bedroom.
- Newport County Borough Council never took up the references given by the Goughs.
- The placement had not been made through Shropshire County Council or with their knowledge.
On 5 July 1944 Terence moved to Bank Farm in part because of the breach of Rule 5 and in part because Mrs Pickering could not cope with a girl and both boys.
The forms, posted to the Goughs on 13 July 1944, were signed and returned on the 18 July 1944. On 24 July 1944 the Director of Education for Newport County Borough Council wrote to Shropshire County Council to ask about the placement and to ask them to undertake supervision but received no reply. On 24 November 1944 he sent a reminder but received no reply. On 5 December 1944 Shropshire County Council wrote, declining to undertake supervision because Newport paid the maximum fostering rates and Shropshire less.
On 25 November 1944 Newport County Borough Council received a letter from Mrs Connop who had met Mrs Pickering in Shrewsbury; she had said the Goughs were “very funny people’” and she did not like them. However, Mrs Connop had written lots of letters to the Council over the years.
On 20 December 1944 Miss Edwards was sent to Shropshire to discuss the difficulties over fostering rates. She had been absent on leave and to have an operation from the middle of September to the middle of November and her replacement had not been familiar with the boarding out procedures. In addition, though she had set up a system of cards to alert people about missing reports, this had been misunderstood by the Assistant Director who had postponed action until her return.
In The Shropshire authority and Bank Farm up to 20th December 1944, Sir Walter tells the story from the Shropshire perspective. In Shropshire all supervision, whether of children in Poor Law care or under Fit Person Orders under the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act, was carried out by Public Assistance Committee and all outside referrals were delegated to the PAC. At the time they had 92 children in Poor Law care and 13 on Fit Person Orders. There were Boarding Out Committees for different parts of the county and Bank Farm came under the Clun Boarding Out Committee.
On 22 May 1944 Mrs Gough had written to the matron of a local Poor Law institution offering to take two children; she had sent her the application form which Mrs Gough had returned the next day. On 1 June 1944 Mrs Browne had visited; she had made no enquiries locally about the Goughs but wrote a favourable report based on what she had seen.
On 12 July 1944 two children named Mullinder had been boarded out with them; at this time the Public Assistance Committee did not know about the O’Neills and Newport County Borough Council did not know about the Mullinders. The staff who took the children formed unfavourable opinions of the Goughs and of the accommodation though the formal report dated 13 July 1944 made no mention of the conditions; one commented to a colleague that he would not have left his own children there. As a result of these comments Mrs Browne was questioned about her report but stood by it. However, neither of the staff who visited Bank Farm realised that the O’Neills were foster children.
On 24 July 1944 the letter from Newport arrived and was passed by the Public Assistance Officer responsible to the Secretary of the Clun Boarding Out Committee with a note that two children would need to be removed or permission obtained from the Home Secretary under Rule 27. On 3 August 1944 he asked Mrs Evans to visit, which she did on 22 August 1944. Her report makes no reference to the O’Neills but in her covering letter of 23 August 1944 she says that the O’Neills looked happy and respectable. She did not see the sleeping accommodation and, since the Goughs had only been at Bank Farm since 1942, knew nothing to discredit them. When the Public Assistance Officer received the report, he wrote back to the Secretary on 29 August 1944 saying that the report did not suggest it was a good home. Meanwhile Mrs Browne had made a routine visit to the home. Nearly two months later, on 17 October 1944, she was to remove the Mullinder children, saying the home was not as clean and tidy as before.
On 8 September 1944, the secretary of the Public Assistance Committee had send Mrs Evans’s report to the secretary of the Education Committee together with a note referring to the report written on the day the Mullinders had been placed in order to provide a report for Newport County Borough Council but this had been wrongly filed and was never sent.
On 24 November 1944 Shropshire Public Assistance Committee had withdrawn from supervising the placement after they had become aware of the differences in the fostering rates and therefore the Clun Boarding Out Committee had also ceased supervision.
Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Evans had maintained contact with the O’Neills via their own son; up to the end of November he had reported that the boys seemed happy; thereafter he had only seen one of the boys. They had in fact attended Hope School regularly until November but only intermittently thereafter. The school doctor had visited the school in July before the boys had been on the school register and so neither boy had ever been examined by a doctor.
In 20 December 1944 - 10 January 1945, he describes the final days of the placement. At the meeting with Shropshire County Council staff, Miss Edwards had agreed that they would pay the Shropshire rate and also move all three boys to a Catholic home; she had no experience of visiting foster parents and had notified the foster parents in advance. She did not see the sleeping accommodation and she saw the children in the presence of the Goughs. Dennis was ill and frightened and didn’t answer questions; she detected no affection from the Goughs but she insisted they call a doctor for Dennis’s bed-wetting. However, she said that Terence seemed well and happy.
On 22 December 1944 she made an oral report and a written report which was seen by the Director of Education on 29 December 1944. Sir William Monckton notes that there were some inaccuracies in this report and that she did not seek to take urgent action, for example, by seeing Shropshire PAC before she returned. On 30 December 1944 the letter from Newport County Borough Council was put aside to be dealt with by the Administrative Assistant when he returned from leave on 10 January 1945, by which time Dennis was dead.
Summarising his conclusions, Sir William Monckton says:
- Local authorities were not complying with the rules and were treating maxima as averages.
- There had been insufficient enquiry into the Goughs.
- There had been no medical examinations.
- The boys had not been visited in the first month.
- The only official visit had been that by Mrs Evans.
- Newport County Borough Council was primarily responsible but there were weaknesses in Shropshire County Council’s arrangements.
- There had been too few letters and no telephone calls and an assumption that all was well.
- There had been no suggestion that the foster parents had failed in their obligations to bring the boys up as Roman Catholics.
- The boys’ parents had never asked to be involved.
- The different fostering rates obviously presented problems but he did not intend to make a recommendation about this.
- There were differences between the Boarding Out Rules for Poor Law and for non-Poor Law children.
He recommends that local authority administrators:
- obey the rules and regard limits as maxima;
- pay greater attention to foster parent selection;
- insist on all the medical requirements;
- ensure supervision by competent persons;
- ensure that the duty of care is not “put aside, however great may be the pressure of other burdens” (p. 18).
In the Appendix, he reproduces the Children and Young Persons (Boarding Out) Rules 1933
This is a well written and informative report, particularly given the time he had to complete it and the sensitivity of the issues for those involved. He combines precision where it clarifies the story with sensitivity to individual situations where it is not relevant to include certain details, such as the reason why Mrs Connop had to give up caring for the boys.
He does not explain the reason why action had been taken by the NSPCC at this point given their long involvement - Tom O’Neill (2000) was also unable to find any reason - nor why there had been such a long delay between the taking of the Place of Safety Order and the making of the Fit Person Order but at the time a local authority could decline to accept a Fit Person Order and it is possible that the delay had been caused by negotiations about who was to accept the orders for the children.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this report is that Sir William Monckton makes clear that the situation could have been avoided simply by following the administrative rules set out in the 1933 Boarding Out Rules. Though many of those directly involved were unqualified, most of the things that should have been done involved following administrative rules rather than making professional judgements.
Yet, even after most of those dealing with children in care had become qualified, they routinely failed to follow the administrative rules that were supposed to guide their work (Social Work Service, 1981; Berridge and Cleaver, 1987).
Berridge, D and Cleaver, H (1987) Foster home breakdown The practice of social work 16 Oxford: Blackwell See also Children Webmag April 2010.
Care of Children Committee (1946) Report of the Care of Children Committee Cmd 6922 London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office Chairman: Myra Curtis
Committee on Homeless Children, etc. (1946) Report of the Committee on Homeless Children, etc. (Chairman, James L. Clyde) Cmd 6911 Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
O’Neill, T (2000) A place called Hope (Second ed.) Blackburn: Educational Printing Services
Social Work Service (1981) A study of the boarding out of children London: Department of Health and Social Security