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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Mr Rochdale and civic pride

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a Waugh as in Rochdale*, rather than a Waugh as in Brideshead. Born and bred in the town, I’ve always been proud of a birthplace that has both a rich history and a markedly defiant streak to its nature.

Rochdale is also the birthplace of John Bright, the great Liberal statesman known for his iron determination to champion his cause. Bright’s statue still casts a knowing Victorian eye over the populace from a hill above the Esplanade. The town boasts a fine neo-Gothic town hall - so fine that, legend has it, Hitler decided to spare it from his bombs – and its eponymous canal powered trade across the North West even before the railways arrived.

Like many northern towns that boomed in the industrial revolution, Rochdale’s cotton and engineering factories were decimated by economic change after the war. Times have been tough for many, but Rochdalians have often fought back to defy their stereotype of a depressed mill town. From Cargo Studios (which saw tracks recorded by Joy Division, the Fall and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) to the success of Rochdale lass Anna Friel (of Brookside and now London stage fame), we weren’t all flat caps and whippets.

Yet despite this variety, it’s undeniable that for many people outside the town, Rochdale was famous for just three of its offspring: Gracie Fields, a 'struggling' football club and Cyril Smith.

In Cyril Smith’s case, it wasn’t really an exaggeration to describe him as Mr Rochdale. He served as MP for the town for 20 years, from 1972 to 1992. But before that he was a councillor for just as long, having won his first council seat at the tender age of 23, a record for the time.

Born into poverty, his was an impressive story of a working class boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, setting up his own springs factory and rising through the political ranks to become Mayor, Alderman and ultimately a Member of Parliament. Like the town itself, he was stubbornly independent.

As chairman of the Estates Committee, Big Cyril had a very direct impact on the fabric of the town, playing a key role in slum clearance and replacing older buildings with new 1960s blocks.

But he always had a keen interest in youth development, chairing the Education Committee, the Youth Advisory Committee and Youth Employment Committee. He was the driving force behind the creation of a new ‘Hostel for Working Boys’ at Cambridge House in 1962, an affordable place for youngsters from troubled homes.

Allegations about Smith’s conduct at Cambridge House were first aired in 1979 by the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP). Only Private Eye printed their substance, but a writ served by Smith seemed to deter any other national interest. As a boy I remember the fuss caused by the RAP story but the controversy seemed to melt away after he was re-elected as Liberal MP in the ’79 election. Smith and his family strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

Today, two of the former residents at Cambridge House have gone on the record for the first time (see my extended piece HERE).  In Barry Fitton’s case, he is going public with allegations that he previously made anonymously. But even in 1979, this appeared not to be idle gossip: he along with other boys, signed an affidavit to back up his claims that Smith subjected him to punishments. Like the others, he had also been interviewed by police in the late 1960s but nothing came of the case. Far from jumping on a bandwagon of the Savile affair, as some cynics may allege, Mr Fitton would argue he has tried and failed to get justice more than 30 years ago for abuse that happened nearly 50 years ago. 

In Eddie Shorrock’s case, he has never before aired the allegations either publicly or anonymously. There are other witnesses who I have not been able to track down yet, but who may also come forward.

Simon Danczuk told the House of Commons today of “young boys who were humiliated, terrified and reduced to quivering wrecks by 29 stone bully imposing himself on them”.

“What happened to them? How can they ever forget what happened to them? Why was this allowed to happen? We need to be sure that this type of investigation takes place now, that those victims get a chance to have their voices heard.”

As it happens, when he was a prominent councillor, Cyril Smith once said this:

"I want a Rochdale of which we can be proud and a Rochdale of which future generations will be proud - a Rochdale at which future generations will look and say of us, as we can say of our ancestors, 'They did not let us down.'”

The Rochdale child sex grooming case is completely separate from the Cyril Smith allegations. Yet Rochdalians can be forgiven for being depressed that the name of their town seems to be linked to one piece of bad news after another. Mr Danczuk today said he had received fresh testimony from another man who is "ashamed of what happened to him" at the hands of Smith.

There will be friends, family and loyal supporters of Cyril who feel that today's developments smear his good name. But there will be others who feel that this day is long overdue. Either way, a new investigation by Lancashire Police, and possibly the DPP, may be the only way forward.

Let’s see if the boys of Cambridge House – now pensioners - will get any sense of closure. And let’s see too if that civic pride to which Cyril Smith once referred can be somehow be restored.

 

 

*FOOTNOTE: Edwin Waugh was a Rochdale born dialect poet. Eveyln Waugh was someone else entirely. Both fine writers in their own way, but a tad different.

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