For a monthly newspaper published from a cellar by two idealistic young college lecturers, the scoop on the front page of the tiny Rochdale Alternative Press in May 1979 was truly sensational.
Known as RAP, the newspaper, which cost nine pence and was distributed by volunteers in pubs, devoted its entire cover to a story headlined: Strange Case of Smith the Man. Inside, across two pages, the report detailed — in harrowing, graphic terms — the systematic sexual abuse of young boys at a children’s home set up by local dignitaries and funded by the Lancashire town’s Rotary Club.
But what really created a stir was the man identified as the chief paedophile: Cyril Smith.
Elected as the local Liberal MP in 1972, a position he held for the next 20 years, the 29-stone 50-year-old was as famous for his weight as his political views.
A regular on the chat-show circuit of the time, he even appeared with Jimmy Savile, the now disgraced BBC disc jockey, on a celebrity edition of the DJ’s TV programme Clunk Click.
Smith died from cancer two years ago but remains, officially, the fattest man ever to be an MP.
Known nationally as ‘Big Cyril’, the unmarried politician had first come to prominence when he bizarrely named his mum as First Lady of Rochdale after he became mayor in 1966, saying he wanted to ‘thank her’ for everything.
He later explained that he was a lifelong bachelor because politics meant ‘he hadn’t had a lot of time for courting women’.
The politician’s predilection for young boys, however, was already the stuff of gossip and jokes in pubs around Rochdale, a close-knit community where secrets did not remain secret for long.
The investigation published in the Rochdale Alternative Press grew out of saloon-bar chat at the Golden Ball, the local pub used for meetings by David Bartlett and John Walker, joint editors of the alternative newspaper, which was printed from a cellar in Bartlett’s home.
With rumours circulating about Smith and young boys for years, and the MP standing for election under the strange banner ‘I am the Man’, the pair had decided to see whether there was credible evidence to back up such allegations. There was.
After interviews with staff and former residents of the children’s home, and senior police officers aware of the allegations, at the end of a six-month investigation the newspaper had discovered nine victims willing to talk, and had four signed affidavits.
With the backing of a prominent lawyer in London, who studied the evidence, the tiny newspaper published its damning conclusions, revealing how the local MP liked to carry out perverted ‘medical examinations’ of young boys in the care home and fondle them inappropriately.
So what was the reaction to this extraordinary allegation? At first, there was mayhem.
Other newspapers and television crews descended on Rochdale, buying up copies of the newspaper. Bartlett and Walker were interviewed. Photographs were taken.
But then Smith, a famous, powerful figure, swiftly announced that he was taking out an injunction against RAP and backed up the threat by claiming he was also suing for libel. Private Eye published a follow-up story repeating the allegations — but that was it.
‘It was a gagging action [on Smith’s part] — to prevent anyone else writing about this,’ David Bartlett, now 74 and living in retirement on the Isle of Wight, told me this week.
‘Smith never did sue. He increased his majority at the next election. The whole thing died down and just faded away.’
Now, more than three decades later, the same claims about Big Cyril are finally being made at the highest level. With fresh impetus to uncover sexual abuse following the Savile scandal, police this week revealed that they have launched an investigation into the allegations.
This development came after Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, raised the matter in the House of Commons after victims contacted him to tell their stories. He described Smith as a ‘29st bully who imposed himself on his victims, leaving them humiliated, terrified and reduced to quivering wrecks’.
If what the MP says is true, why were Smith’s victims ignored for so long? Did someone cover up for Smith, and if so, could he have been protected by figures in the government of the day?
The question we must now consider is this: was Smith’s depravity indeed known about at the very highest levels of the Establishment, including the security services — and the plight of his victims ignored on the grounds of ‘political expediency’ at a time when he was key to a weak Labour government’s relationship with the Liberals?
Raised by his mother, along with a brother and sister, in a two-room house, Cyril Smith had, apart from a brief spell working for the tax office, been involved in local politics for much of his life.
In 1962, aged 34, he began taking a keen interest in youth matters in Rochdale — sitting on committees in charge of the Rochdale Youth Theatre, the Rochdale Youth Orchestra, the Youth Employment Committee, as well as the governorship of 29 local schools.
As well as these duties, Smith also directed his energies into setting up a hostel for boys from deprived families in Rochdale, approaching poor parents and explaining that their child would be better off in care.
Funded with council cash, as well as donations from prominent businessmen and the local Rotary club, Cambridge House opened in 1962. Crucially, Smith kept his own set of keys for the hostel, meaning that he could come and go as he pleased.
Barry Fitton was a 15-year-old resident when he first had the misfortune to encounter Smith. Fitton was placed in the home because he was from a disadvantaged background — the son of a single mother — and had problems at school.
‘Everybody knew Cyril Smith,’ he told me. ‘He was very famous in Rochdale — he was very involved in things concerning young kids, boys’ clubs and things like that.’
Fitton says he was sexually abused a number of times by Smith. ‘I was embarrassed, of course,’ he says. ‘I felt this was not right, but what could I do? He was an authority figure and I had to do what he said. He was such an important guy, and I was 15 and scared to death.’
Once, he was told he was to have a medical examination at Cambridge House. ‘I thought it would be a doctor, but it was Cyril Smith.
He told me to take my pants down and he started to fondle me. I thought it was odd and not right, but as far as I was concerned, he was completely powerful.’
Other victims have also come forward, describing almost identical abuse, as well as ‘spanking’ sessions when the gargantuan Smith would arrive to discipline boys accused of breaking rules — and then ‘comfort’ them after physically abusing them. When he discovered that Barry Fitton had gone one day to hang around in Manchester, Smith summoned him to his office at the home for punishment, ordering the teenager to take his trousers down and bend over his knee. He then hit the boy.
‘He was big and heavy. You’ll have seen the size of his hands in pictures. Imagine how that would feel slapping you around,’ added Mr Fitton, now in his mid-60s and living in Amsterdam.
‘I was crying and he said “oh, there, there” and he stroked my bottom and fondled my buttocks.
‘There are still people in Rochdale who don’t believe that Cyril Smith was capable of doing these things. I think it should be brought out into the open, not just for my peace of mind but for other people’s peace of mind.’
So why did this not come out at the time? Our investigation has established that there were at least three separate police investigations into Smith — he became Sir Cyril after being knighted by the Queen in 1988 for public services — during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
We can also reveal that the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions also sought outside opinion from a prominent barrister over whether charges should be brought in the 1970s. The barrister advised that there were sufficient grounds for prosecution. But the DPP still refused to act. Could the Home Office have blocked the charges?
But the biggest issue of all is this: If there was a conspiracy that allowed Smith to evade justice, was it founded on the cynical political calculations of the day?
For the fact is that throughout the years that his perversions were investigated by police, from 1974 until 1979, first the Conservatives and then Labour wooed Smith’s Liberal Party.
The first General Election of 1974, in February, saw Labour win the most seats, but no overall majority. The Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, opened negotiations with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe about forming a coalition government. Thorpe was himself the subject of squalid rumours that would culminate in his trial for the attempted murder of his homosexual lover (he was later acquitted).
When the Heath-Thorpe talks broke down, Labour’s Harold Wilson formed a minority government.
Although Wilson was returned with a slender majority in an election eight months later, that soon collapsed and in 1977 his successor, Jim Callaghan, and Thorpe’s replacement, David Steel, forged a Lib-Lab pact.
Wilson was aware of the scandal around Thorpe long before his trial shortly in 1979, and had asked Special Branch to keep him informed.
Any decision to prosecute Cyril Smith over allegations of homosexual child abuse could have proved just as devastating to Labour as to the Liberals.
The question of who ran the country — so finely balanced because of the lack of a large majority — was at stake.
Throughout these years, Smith, popular throughout the land on account of his bluff Northern manner, was even touted as a government minister, and had served as his party’s chief whip.
According to police and legal sources with knowledge of these historic investigations, there was little appetite in Westminster for a high-profile trial.
The source says: ‘With the Jeremy Thorpe scandal hanging over the political scene, it may have been politically expedient to sit on the matter. It appears Sir Cyril’s influence politically was just too great, and the issue was quashed.’
This would explain one of the murkiest episodes of all in the Smith scandal: the removal by MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence wing, of police files containing reams of documents and sworn statements from victims of the MP.
In what serving officers of the time believed was part of a sinister cover-up, these police files — ‘thick’ with allegations from boys abused by Smith — were seized by MI5 and have never been seen since.
According to Tony Robinson, an officer with Lancashire Police in the 1970s, the files disappeared after an MI5 agent told him they needed to be sent to intelligence officials in London. After being taken out of the safe at Special Branch headquarters in Preston for despatch to the capital, the files vanished.
‘I looked through Sir Cyril’s file, which was kept in a safe in our office,’ he told a newspaper last week. ‘It was full of statements from young boys alleging abuse. It had been prepared for prosecution. Written across the top of it were the words: “No further action, not in the public interest. DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions].”’
To add to the stench of a cover-up, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), having initially claimed to have ‘no knowledge’ of any police investigation, admitted this week that it had now ‘unearthed’ its own file about allegations against Smith from as long ago as the 1960s.
Simon Danczuk MP told the Mail yesterday: ‘I am absolutely convinced there was a cover-up of Smith’s abuse. The question now is why, and why are ministers refusing to answer questions about police files full of allegations of abuse that were seized by Special Branch and buried?
‘Smith set a tone in Rochdale that made people like him think they could get away with this stuff, and I’ve no doubt that he was emboldened to carry on abusing children, all the time thinking that he was above the law.
‘The daughter of a victim who’s now passed away has told us her father went to his grave angry and ashamed about Smith having abused him.’
Despite persistent inquiries by the Mail over the past fortnight, the CPS has repeatedly refused to say who took the decision not to prosecute the MP, and why. Officials have also refused to answer any questions about specific allegations against the MP, or whether they will be made public.
The truth is that, as in the Savile case, the authorities seem to have been woefully reluctant to prosecute a high-profile figure, despite investigating the steady swirl of allegations against him.
And many of those involved in the case — police, victims, lawyers — believe the orders not to press charges came from the top, with Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Ministers during different parts of the police probe, being involved in signing off decisions not to press ahead with charges so as not to upset their Liberal allies.
Recent events prove that such allegations must be treated with all due caution — which is why the contents of those police files take on such great significance.
So where are the police documents now? Nobody knows — yet.
But what is certain is that, if there was an Establishment cover-up on behalf of Big Cyril, it is slowly but surely starting to unravel.
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