Looking back at Richard Webster’s book The Secret of Bryn Estyn : the making of a Modern Witch Hunt

By John Molloy

Date Posted: December 15th, 2011

John Molloy is from Ireland. He trained as a teacher and has an MSc in Child Protection and Welfare. His teaching career began in 1977 in Special Education in a residential care setting in 1977. Following this he worked in the Voluntary Sector in Emergency and Mainstream Care. He spent 17 years working with Irish Travellers in both residential and aftercare areas. Currently he is Director of Home Again, a voluntary organisation working in partnership with the Health Service Executive to provide residential placements for young people in the Dublin area. He is currently Chairperson of the Resident Manager’s Association and is an Executive member of Social Care Ireland.


Looking back at Richard Webster’s book The Secret of Bryn Estyn the making of a Modern Witch Hunt (Orwell Press 2005) (Paperback 2000

The death of Richard Webster in July 2011 was marked by a number of obituaries in the British Media and on websites. They drew a picture of a very sincere, conscientious scholarly man who scrupulously attempted to expose one of the great injustices of our time an alleged witch hunt that resulted in the imprisonment of many innocent social care workers. Although I was familiar with some of the press coverage at the time of the North Wales investigations in the 1990s and with Ty Mawr in particular I was not aware of the publication of The Secret of Bryn Estyn until Richard’s death, earlier this year. The warmth expressed in the obituaries and the strength of support for his work left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. My understanding was that he had exposed a witch hunt, and that arising from The Secret of Bryn Estyn there was a “witch hunt” theory that all the upper echelons of society, (the press, police, courts, and government itself) were conspiring against social care workers, believing them to be paedophiles, child abusers, paedophile rings or whatever. With this in mind I set myself the task of finding out what the secret of Bryn Estyn was. I read the book.

Trawling through the obituaries I was struck by one comment in Mark Smith’s tribute* to Richard Webster that he “couldn’t help but think that there is something quintessentially English about his life.” I think this comment helped me understand some of where Richard Webster’s passion, zeal, and commitment came from in undertaking such a detailed comprehensive review of the facts. It also helped me understand where some of his arguments led him astray.

The Waterhouse Tribunal was set up in 1996 arising from a decision made by John Major, the British Prime Minister, following the outcry in the British media about the allegations coming out of North Wales and Gwent. It is important to place this in the context of the culture of the time. Richard Webster chose not to do this in his book. John Major had replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990. In her time as Prime Minister, Thatcher through her Chief Press Secretary Sir Bernard Ingham often used the media to influence the public through leaks and briefings, using misinformation as a tactic. This was designed to cause public outrage, demonising and defaming anyone who dared defy Thatcherism. This in turn influenced the courts and gave licence to the police to operate heavy handed tactics. Without this tactic we might not have seen the brutality of the police in dealing with the N.U.M. at the behest of John McGregor and the National Coal Board, the brutality of police in dealing with the press workers because of the move to Wapping, the vilification of Liverpool fans at the Hillsborough Tragedy, the operation of a “Shoot to Kill Policy” in Belfast and indeed Gibraltar, not to mention the wrongful convictions of Annie Maguire, the Guildford Four, and the Birmingham Six through the manufacturing of evidence. These stand out as some of the most extreme examples. I could easily add many more. By the time of the emergence of the scandal in North Wales, the press (especially the tabloid press) had almost assumed a role of being another arm of Government. While the circumstances of children’s homes in Wales was something new and unique in their own right, this trial by media, and resultant unsafe convictions through the courts, following corrupt police investigations, was not new.

It was in this context that a strong left wing anti-authoritarian, anti-police, atmosphere grew up particularly amongst some of the more extreme members of the Labour Party. These were branded in the media as “The Looney Left.” One of the more infamous areas where this thrived was in the Merseyside area, where Labour leader Derek Hatton stood out as an infamous example. By coincidence Merseyside and nearby Chesire experienced more police trawling investigations than any other area outside of London. This was the context in which the North Wales Children’s Homes scandals emerged. I think it is a mistake to look at The Secret of Bryn Estyn without looking at this wider context. With this in mind if we accepted Richard Webster’s assertion that there was a witch hunt, it would have to be in the context of saying that this was just one more witch hunt in an ocean of others.

When describing Peter Howarth’s shock at being convicted Richard Webster wrote:

One dimension of British Society which is not always understood by those who observe the workings of our judicial system is the intensity and depth of the faith which most ordinary people have in British justice (p 372).

Earlier he had described how Peter Howarth had chosen to rely on a duty solicitor to defend him because of his mistaken belief that because he was innocent he would not be convicted. The fact that Howarth, among others, had left themselves open to allegations being made against them by their professional practice, in particular by insisting on the wearing of a pyjamas with no underwear by residents while visiting his flat, did not help. The fact that three other adults who had worked for the same or related organisations were charged with and later convicted of similar offences did not help either. On the one hand the actions taken by Peter Howarth did not just express a deep faith in English justice. It was the action of an extremely naive man. The secret of Bryn Estyn goes some way towards attempting to correct the miscarriage of justice suffered by Peter Howarth. Unfortunately, Peter Howarth had died in Prison before Richard’s book was published.

The facts as Richard Webster presents them, that led up to Peter Howarth’s conviction and apparently subsequent death in prison are more frightening than any theory around witch hunts.

In summary, one disgruntled former manager who lost her job because of her record of poor performance, made a number of third party allegations. The police investigating them found her allegations to be untrue. She enlisted the help of a former resident from a children’s home, who, acting as her acolyte, sought to involve others. The former manager met with a journalist, who when facing a tight deadline, for whatever reason stated, did not do the correct research. This same woman met with two anti-police labour councillors. From the interactions of these five people, and their different individual motivations, ten years of trauma, trawling, interrogation, convictions, deaths, and suicides emerged.

Initially, that quintessential intensity and debt of faith in British justice seemed well justified. The police were very appropriate in how they investigated the early complaints. As the allegations changed, and the press began to talk of a police cover up, the reactions of the police became very defensive. It was this that changed the entire climate. Although Richard Webster presents the facts in great detail, I found it frustrating that his constant referring to a witch hunt, took him away from stating that at some point, the police acted as if Social Care Workers were just collateral damage. The goal of the police was to deal with the rumours that “had circulated that the force was riddled by freemasonry and that this, together with the participation of its own officers in an alleged paedophile ring, had been one of the principle motives for an alleged cover up.” (p 436) In order to clear their name, the police had to be seen to be investigating the allegations and had to get convictions. The Secret of Bryn Estyn is a very detailed account of how they went about this, deviating from all previous accepted practice, perverting the course of justice, regardless of the implications for others of their actions.

What Alison Taylor and her acolyte Ryan Tanner had begun, was now out of their hands. Thanks to the salacious journalism of Dean Nelson, and the interference of Labour counsellors Malcolm King and Dennis Parry, a police trawl began, taking on a life of its own.

Richard Webster stated when talking of the Waterhouse Tribunal that:

The North Wales police were acutely conscious that one of the main reasons the Tribunal had been called into being was that allegations had been made against them (p 436).

Having read his account of how the North West Police went about the trawling for allegations, in order to clear their own name, Richard Webster has made a very strong and compelling argument that the methods used were inappropriate, unjust, and corrupt. I don’t believe he used these words, but in every detail he recorded how allegations were sought, how they were edited, and in Chapters 66 and 67 how information was either withheld or disregarded if it damaged the case for prosecution.

Careful study of the ‘unused evidence’ made it quite clear that the case presented in the trial had been arrived at through careful editing. For obvious reasons the prosecution had discarded the more blatant fabrications (p 486).

The account given implies either that the defence legal teams were all inept or else there were major breaches of the appropriate disclosure protocols. What is described in the book must surely represent a major corruption of the justice system on the part of the investigating police.

Rather than look at the witch hunt theory, it could be argued that if the Waterhouse Tribunal was not aware of the inappropriate investigation practices, then some of their rulings would be reasonable, rather than be part of a conspiracy or witch hunt.

For example in “note 516” it is stated by the Tribunal that:

Our approach has been that, in the absence of a successful appeal, the convictions are evidence that the offences were committed and that it has not been within our jurisdiction to question the correctness of those convictions, unless possibly fresh evidence were to be tendered going to the root of the convictions (p 668).

I believe this to be a sensible argument given that if the Tribunal was not to take on the role of an Appeal Court, which it was never designed to be, then it had no other choice than to accept the legitimacy of the convictions, given its implicit trust in the integrity of the police investigation. Whereas Richard Webster writes that the Tribunal Chairperson, Sir Ronald Waterhouse dismissed the undertaking of a detailed examination of each specific allegation as being “impracticable and wastefully expensive,” Richard goes on to say “that a fundamental principle of justice was ignored”(p423). The predisposition to accept the police investigation’s evidence without proper scrutiny is understandable if we look at Richard Webster’s comments quoted earlier on the deep faith British people had in the justice system. One of the most striking examples of this was seen earlier in an unrelated rejection of an appeal by the Birmingham Six in 1979. Lord Denning, in his ruling rejecting the appeal stated:

If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted into evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, “it cannot be right that these actions should go any further.”

Lord Alfred Denning, (from the Appeals Court Transcript 1979).

When we look at the comments made in 1999 in You told me you loved mea booklet published by three police forces in the Merseyside, Cheshire and Liverpool areas explaining the process and guidelines for Police Trawling in cases of institutional child abuse it is stated that:

Critics have pointed out that these operational methods represent a departure from normal police practice. This may be true but the methods have been scrutinised by the judiciary in trials without criticism to date(p 492).

If Richard Webster’s assertion that evidence had been altered, edited, or omitted in order to secure convictions then any scrutiny “by the judiciary in trials” was bound to end “without criticism to date.” The fact that this document recognised criticism of their techniques may well have reflected a growing unease within the police forces involved. However, it was not until 2000 with the collapse of the prosecution of David Jones, a well known football manager that a serious discrediting of the process took place.

It is difficult to fathom how the trawling experience took on a life of its own. What started out as a normal investigation became contaminated by allegations of a police cover-up and then in their desperation to accumulate quantities of allegations, it was further contaminated by police forces and local authorities talking of compensation.

Be it greed, revenge, selling newspapers, or making political gain; none of this seemed to matter anymore. The corrupt trawling process became a monster that could not be stopped. That deep faith that people had in the justice system was ill-founded.

I believe that in trying to make the argument that there was a witch hunt, Richard Webster does not join the dots up. Instead by using emotive words like”witch hunt”, he distracts the reader from the much more real worry about the power of the police to corrupt the justice system to meet their own ends.

This was one aspect of the book that I found frustrating to read. The Secret of Bryn Estyn is a very significant review of how the investigations were mishandled, and gives a real explanation as to how so many allegations were made against social care workers, not just across Britain but in many other countries as well. We owe Richard Webster a dept of gratitude for the immensity of the task he achieved in completing this review. My frustration with the book is that from time to time, he slips into a type of pamphleteering with highly emotive or unfounded comments. By extrapolating his findings from his British experiences he seems to assume that all other police trawls were as equally unreliable. I was astonished at his claim that:

In the English speaking world alone, the number of false allegations of sexual abuse made in all contexts in the last thirty years must certainly be numbered in hundreds of thousands and has already reached millions (p550).

It is difficult to see how he could have reached such figures other than by just guessing. Such a comment takes from the credibility of his research and leaves him open to a counter charge, to the one he makes of the police in their publication You told me you loved me(1999) that “at no point is the problem of false allegations even discussed”. It would be easy to criticise The Secret of Bryn Estyn for the scant and at times patronising acceptance that some allegations were true. One comment he makes in the chapter “Fragments of a Witch Hunt” stands out:

Once again it must immediately be acknowledged that some of the allegations which have been made against Roman Catholic Priests “possibly the majority of the early ones” are genuine. Others, including a number based on bizarre recovered memories are quite evidently false”(p542).

Such a comment leaves me gasping in wonder at how anyone would have the resources to be able to carry out the research that could lead to such a conclusion! Surely the older convictions, because of the length of time elapsed would be the least convincing? The Cloyne Report 2011, which included a review of previously withheld records of abuse by Catholic Priests in the Diocese of Cloyne (Ireland) included many recent cases of abuse that the Diocese had tried to cover up. These were generally not the subject of police trawling or promises of compensation.

I am very mindful of the fact that The Secret of Bryn Estynis a colossal work that goes some way to explaining what emerged from North Wales and damaged the image of Social Care Workers throughout Britain. I would argue that despite the great detail and comprehensive research, trying to prove the existence of a witch hunt takes from the real strength of this story. It is a very clear depiction of Social Care Workers being used as collateral to clear the reputation of the police. It is also a clear depiction of the discovery that the faith that ordinary people had in their justice system was ill founded.

In saying this I am reminded of the old sit-com character in Till death do us part, Alf Garnett, and his great sense of national pride and loyalty to the Royal family. I always found it ironic that some of those who are so praising of the institutions of state are often those most excluded by them.

While it is really important that Social Care Workers should not see themselves as victims of witch hunts, I was moved by one section in particular when Richard summarised what might well be the real “Secret of Bryn Estyn” or even Social Care in general when he talks of this episode as constituting “one of the most terrible instances of collective ingratitude in our recent history.” He goes on to explain:

For decade after decade, we expected that one of the most poorly regarded and poorly paid groups of workers in our society would look after some of the most difficult and disruptive children with conscientiousness and care. To an astonishing extent this is what tens of thousands of dedicated workers actually did. They worked in obscurity, often with immense patience and generosity, to give such children a second chance (p574).

It was their altruism, idealism and “the sense of service they owed to society” that made them so vulnerable. They were easy prey for a police force wanting to save their reputation. They were not the victims of a witch hunt. Five people with their own individual agenda started the process. It then took on a life of its own. Ten years of trauma ensued. Aspects of it still go on today. No one gets over wrongful convictions. Families grieve those who died. Those who lied still have to face their Maker.

Finally, let me finish with an often used quote attributed to Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s Chief Press Secretary, when talking of the media. He said:

Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of Government. I assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.

Richard Webster’s Secret of Bryn Estyn is a very important book. Social Care Managers, in particular, should read it carefully. It is hard to understand how the dismissal of one person could have such devastating consequences. There are lessons to be learned from almost every chapter. We owe Richard Webster a debt of gratitude for the time, the dedication, and the passion he brought to this work. His death brought his work back into the limelight again. May he rest in peace.

* Mark Smith’s tribute to Richard Webster along with others can be found at the goodenoughcaring blog and his article “Two book reviews : Kathy’s Real Story by Hermann Kelly and The Secret of Bryn Estyn by Richard Webster can be found in the goodenoughcaring Journal.



Rory Connor writes

I refer to John Molloy’s article on the late Richard Webster’s “The Secret of Bryn Estyn” and in particular his comment regarding Richard’s statement that

Once again it must immediately be acknowledged that some of the allegations which have been made against Roman Catholic Priests “possibly the majority of the early ones” are genuine. Others, including a number based on bizarre recovered memories are quite evidently false (p 542).

John Molloy replies:

“Such a comment leaves me gasping in wonder at how anyone would have the resources to be able to carry out the research that could lead to such a conclusion! Surely the older convictions, because of the length of time elapsed would be the least convincing? The Cloyne Report 2011, which included a review of previously withheld records of abuse by Catholic Priests in the Diocese of Cloyne (Ireland) included many recent cases of abuse that the Diocese had tried to cover up. These were generally not the subject of police trawling or promises of compensation.”