Finding Jimmy Savile: the Shaw report haunts England’s Archives

English: Storage hallway at the National Archi...

English: Storage hallway at the National Archives I building. This was taken with permission at the Wikipedia 10 Washington D.C. event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finding Jimmy Savile: the Shaw report haunts England’s Archives

The name of the title is instantly familiar to readers in the United Kingdom.  Jimmy Savile has been in the news because he has been accused of molesting young girls.  The women, now in their 50s, have come forward with their claims that Savile had molested them. The public will not know the second name. However, Shaw is a name well known to archivists because he looked at the record keeping in Scottish Children’s homes.  For most people, the surface connection is the theme of exploited children.  The deeper connection, though, is the role of archives and its power to shape our collective memory. Like the Hillsborough report, the Savile case will likely lead to recommended changes in archival practices. Before we consider the future of archives, though, we need to consider the evidence.


Follow the evidence

Amateurs will speculate about Savile’s behaviour, but experts will be looking for the evidence. We can see this already with the BBC looking through its archives for any allegations of wrongdoing.  What is still, unmentioned, and unexplored are the County Record Offices.  They hold public records such as the records from the Children’s homes that Savile visited.  Because they act as a collective or institutional memory, archives contain a great amount of potential power.  They may contain the answers to the questions around the case.  If the archives contain any evidence, it will have been recorded at the time of the visits.  As such, the archives are not based on recollection or tainted by a possible ulterior motive. The archives can be our collective memory by their power to shape our understanding of events.  Evidence in the archives will shape our understanding of Jimmy Savile as much as the images of Jimmy Savile groping a 14yr old Coleen Nolan on the Top of the Pops, has shaped our view of him.

Genealogists and archivists are forensic detectives? 

The police and investigators will have to explore the County Record Offices that hold the archives for the various care homes.  The work will be required to turn the claims and allegations into charges.  Chasing down the archival leads is daunting but an achievable task. Each children’s home that Savile visited is a potential archive trail.  In that sense, archivists and genealogists can become forensic detectives.  Someone will have to explore the archives to compare the evidence from each home visited.  At the time of the alleged crimes, no one would have connected the homes. Who would have thought that someone would be targeting children’s homes in that way? The archives may allow us to connect the homes in ways unimagined and unavailable at the time. More importantly, though, the archives may hold deeper, darker, secrets.  If Savile was part of a sex ring, as some are claiming, and they visited the same homes, then there should be evidence in the archives.  Alongside Savile may be the records of other visitors.  The archives may contain visitor logs and the associated contemporaneous documents, such as diaries or case notes about visitors.  The archives can be a way to corroborate a hypothesis about possible sex rings or other illegal activity. If there were common visitors to those homes at those times, then there is stronger circumstantial evidence of other illegal activity.

The past as the present: Savile and Rochdale?

Jimmy Savile appeared to target looked after children because they would be the most vulnerable, least likely to speak up, and the least likely to be believed. Savile knew where to look for his victims. His alleged visits raise sobering questions about children’s homes. We see a similarity with the Rochdale case, where a group of men targeted vulnerable looked after young girls.  The men were targeting children’s homes to groom and exploit the girls. The men had an approach not that dissimilar to what Jimmy Savile used 40 years ago. The question that is hidden away in the archives, in a sense, is why could we not protect them then? We need to ask who was visiting children’s homes. Who had access to the children’s homes? What records have been kept about these looked after children and their visitors?

The promise and weakness of archives

Archives may be a powerful tool in shaping our collective memory, but they also betray a critical, institutional, weakness. On the surface, most people would see the archive search as an easy task.  You go to the archives, you find the children’s homes records, and you check to see if Jimmy Savile visited. However, we face a problem.  Here is where the name Shaw becomes important. Tom Shaw is the author of Historical Abuse Systemic Review: Residential Schools and Children’s Homes in Scotland 1950 to 1995.  In 2004, the Scottish Parliament commissioned the report. Although the topic was past institutional child abuse in Scotland, the 2007 report was focused on the regulatory framework that covered the residential schools and how they complied with the record keeping regulations.

What the Shaw review found is sobering when we consider it against the Savile case. The report found poor record keeping and weak regulatory oversight within the institutions.  The findings are disturbing and deeply saddening. Most of the looked after children in Scotland have been robbed of their childhood memories. As adults, seeking their childhood information, they have found the institutional memory had disappeared. What we take for granted, our family photographs, memories, and stories, the children in care never had.  For those who had suffered abuse, they had no way to make sense of their childhood, find closure, or seek restitution.  Scotland’s historically flawed archives show us a fundamental challenge in dealing with the Savile case. For the case to move forward, the police will need evidence to corroborate the allegations.  What we need are records that link Savile to the children’s homes outside of official visits at the time when the alleged victims were present. The archives could contain contemporaneous diaries or recorded information that describes the alleged abuse.

Are England’s historical archives better than Scotland’s?

Given the historically poor state of the Scottish archives around children’s records, will the English ones be better?  If the records exist and can be found, then a possible charge can be pieced together. However, the evidence search will be wider than County Record Offices. The BBC is involved. Initially, the BBC said that it had found nothing in its files on misconduct or allegations of misconduct. Yet, after the documentary aired, the BBC has begun a “deep analysis” of its archives to see if anything exists. Archives are now the crime scene.  The problem with our archives though is larger than the Savile case or records management in children’s homes.

As the alleged abuse occurred with looked after children from Children’s homes, their records will also be government records, they will be public records. Some of the records exist. For example, the National Archives show what is held for the Duncroft Approved School for Girls where one of Savile’s accusers lived. However, the holdings seem meagre. In some cases, the records may be closed to the public so only the Police may be able to investigate.  The children’s home records raises the fundamental issue. If Savile is an indicator of historical exploitation of looked after children, then the record keeping at English children’s homes and schools needs to be reviewed. England needs its own Shaw review. Moreover,  was Savile able to exploit looked after children because of a historic institutional disregard for children as explored in the Shaw report regarding the Scottish system.  As the lead of the Rochdale Council said about the Rochdale case, child safety could not be guaranteed, which suggests that institutional problems appear to exist, albeit in a different form. We need to review of the archives so they can be improved for history’s children and the next generation.

Our archives, our collective memory, their crimes

The Savile case and others show us how important archives are for our collective memory and the public good.  In these cases, Rochdale, Hillsborough, and the Mau Mau torture case, archives are central to holding institutions or people to account.  The Savile case, like the Rochdale case after it, shows us the historical institutional problems around looked after children.  As such, it shows us a historical problem like the Hillsborough and Kenyan case where there is a fight for history, our collective memory. They are government records, which express the public interest by being able to hold the state to account. The cases show that we need archives (our collective memory) for accountability. If we weaken or remove our collective memory, how can we hold the state or those in authority to account for their decisions?  Without accountability beyond the ballot box, which is what the archives allow, then our democratic rights are in jeopardy.

The deeper institutional issue, beyond the headlines, in the Hillsborough case and the Mau Mau Torture case, is how archives and records make sure historical accountability is possible. We may have transparency through Freedom of Information Act, but that will remain superficial if we forget our archives.  They hold the institutional or collective memory for a community as expressed in council decisions. In that way, the archives can show how the way current decisions reflect past decisions. If our archives are not sustained and expanded, we can lose an institutional conscience.  Without such a historical memory or conscience, our perspective is shaped by yesterday’s headlines instead of history’s judgement. Our opportunity for justice, as an individual and as a community, relies upon public records providing evidence.  By ignoring our past, our archives, in pursuit of headlines and current events, we cede our collective memory to the tabloid press. In effect, journalism becomes our history and democracy loses its historical roots. If we are to reinvigorate our democracy, we need to take control of our past. We need to know our past to understand how it shapes our present, and our future.  To do that, we need our archives. For it is in the archives that we can find the evidence to hold power to account, and to exercise our democratic right to information. As democratic citizens, we need to hold onto our archives.

Without archives, our collective memory will become captive to the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable.


What needs to be done?

  1. We need an English version of the Shaw Review so that we can check the archives for the potential of historic institutional abuse as seen in Scotland.
  2. The government needs to fund the archive services so that they can remain the country’s collective memory to guard democracy.
  3. Archivists, genealogists, and historical researchers need to be considered as forensic detectives for solving historical crimes.
  4. Visit your local archives to exercise your democratic right to information and support the country’s collective memory.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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9 Responses to Finding Jimmy Savile: the Shaw report haunts England’s Archives

  1. Teresa Maley says:

    Operation Rose involved similar trawl of archives in the North East of England c 2000 – and it pointed up the some of the limitations of using extant records in such cases. The articles in this link summarize quite well:
    Shaw led to the passing of the new Public Records (Scotland) Act – surprisingly unenthusiastically received by some of the organisations who had failed to keep proper records. Implementing the terms of the act was perceived as unnecessary bureaucracy that would vie with actual support for chidren and families for limited resources.
    There are good reasons for retaining these records – as Shaw highlighted – if only to give people brought up in care and their descendants a memory of their upbringing (good or bad). They may have nothing else. As for their use as evidence in criminal prosecutions they pose a number of questions – not least of which is that they were created for a specific purpose (they are records not facts) and in a context that is not always clear from what remains. Shaw revealed the highly inconsist practice in retaining such records. The power of records lies in them having credibility in supporting other evidence – demonstrating consistent record keeping across the board is one way of doing this. But for me, this is most effective when defined specifically within the legislation that governs the actions (i.e. a statutory intention to make a permanent record at the outset and a penalty for failing) – not as a retrospective clean up when gaps are found.

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  4. msarahwickham says:

    A really important post Lawrence – thanks – only just got to it in my reading pile 😦 – but timely in light of this afternoon’s announcement about Bryn Estyn & the Waterhouse inquiry
    I agree with Teresa – there are cases where legislation must specify recordkeeping requirements and penalties for failure, and the recent outrages in Rochdale (2008-2012) suggests that the “care system” and protection of children and young people is one of those cases. The recommendations of the Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board report include a number relating to the governance and management of information as well as practice at a strategic and operational level (link via at 5/11/12)

    • Sarah,
      Thanks for the positive comment, I am glad you found it interesting and important.

      I hope that the new governance arrangements will create some records systems that will allow us to identify these patterns, if only after the fact, so that historical justice can be attempted.

      I think it will also help going forward, in the way that FOIA requests help to create accountability, by forcing organisations to record information and retain it in ways that they would not have considered previously.

      We shall see whether a full scale review of the archiaval practices is possible in England or Wales, but the Shaw report sets an important precedent concerning the potential to create a historical record of how society treated its most vulnerable and how the state, which had final responsibility as delegated by the public, took care of its responsibility to look after society’s most vulnerable.

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