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Cyril Smith, Cambridge House and an 'abuse of power'

Paul Waugh | PoliticsHome

9 min read Partner content

From the very first day that Barry Fitton and Eddie Shorrock arrived at Cambridge House ‘hostel for working boys’ in Rochdale in 1962, they knew they couldn’t avoid Cyril Smith.

Only in his mid-thirties but already noted for his large frame and political ambition, Smith was a powerful figure in the Lancashire mill town. As chairman of the Establishment Committee, which appointed all senior staff such as the town clerk and treasurer, everyone knew Big Cyril.

He’d also shown a keen interest in youth issues, chairing the Youth Advisory Committee and Youth Employment Committee, and won support from local businessmen and a probation chief to set up a new venture.

Cambridge House on Castlemere Street, just north of the town’s impressive neo-Gothic Town Hall, was aimed at providing affordable lodgings for those in need. The Latin inscription on its frontage read ‘Labor ipse voluptas’: Work itself is a pleasure.

But both Barry, then 15, and Eddie, then 17, were given a strange introduction to their new home. Arriving on separate days, each recalls a similar story of how Smith took them into a little-used, front room for a ‘medical examination’.

Barry, who was placed in the home after Smith discovered he was having problems with his family, recalls: “It was a big room which was only used for meetings when the committee came.” He says that Smith told him to take down his trousers and underpants. The councillor then felt the teenager’s thighs and testicles from both front and behind. “He held my testicles and asked me to cough.”

Barry didn’t share the incident with the other boys at the hostel, about a dozen of whom were older apprentices down brought down from Scotland to work in the town’s Whipp & Bourne factory. “It was too embarrassing,” he said. But over time he got to hear how other youngsters had the same experience. “I remember a couple of people at some point saying ‘that’s weird, why does he have to give you medical examinations and not a doctor?’ He was more or less in charge.”

A live-in couple cleaned and cooked in the hostel, but Smith had keys to the building and came and went as he pleased.

However, it turned out that Barry was to receive more than a medical. One day, he and a fellow resident skipped work to see the sights of Manchester. Their absence was reported to the hostel and on their return Smith was quickly round to reprimand them.

Barry was taken to his room. He was again told to take his trousers and pants down. He says Smith hit him several times with his bare hand.

“He was big and he was heavy. You’ll have seen the size of his hands. Imagine how that would feel slapping you around,” he said. “I was crying and he said ‘oh, there there’ and he stroked my arse and fondled my buttocks. I was scared, Cyril Smith was God in Rochdale.”

His fellow miscreant was next. The boy, who will remain anonymous, had been living in the Salvation Army hostel in the town when Smith turned up one day to personally offer him a place at Cambridge House. Smith also arranged for him to get a job at Crawford Woolen Mills. After his unathorised day trip to Manchester, this boy was ‘interviewed’ by Smith. He was given a choice: accept punishment or leave the hostel. He accepted the punishment and was led to the ‘Quiet Room’ at the front of the house. He had to take his pants down, bend over Smith’s knee and was hit by the councillor four or five times on his bare buttocks. He left the hostel two years later.

Barry too left the hostel, but couldn’t keep out of trouble. Caught stealing cigarettes, he was put on probation. But a breach of his probation meant he spent three months in Buckley Hall Detention Centre in Rochdale and on his release he went back to Cambridge House. On readmission, he was given a fresh ‘medical’ by Smith.

Now suffering from cancer, Barry’s eyesight is impaired but he is determined to see his story made public for the first time.

Eddie Shorrock’s story is similar. Speaking in his terraced home, Eddie, now 68, lives off a modest work pension and disability living allowance. His route to Cambridge House was typical: arrested for stealing a bicycle, he was given a probation officer who soon discovered that his father was violent and aggressive.

Eddie remembers: “I moved from my parents home where I’d always lived to this hostel in Rochdale, which is a massive improvement. When I was at home there was always arguing. My dad had a pretty violent temper, my mum was pretty placid.”

He says that he was one of the first arrivals at Cambridge House. “I think I was one of the first there were probably only half a dozen people in there. It was quite cushy there. It wasn’t incredibly expensive. It included your breakfast and evening meal. It was quite comfortable.”

But he felt far from comfortable after Cyril made his presence felt. “I think he might have been there on the first day. He was the physical embodiment of the hostel,” Eddie says. “He used to keep popping in. He had a committee and they had a meeting every month.”

The first time he knew of the ‘medical’ incidents was when it happened to him.”I had rung in sick. At the time I was working in local govt in Rochdale, in the town hall. When I first started I was working in the rates office. I just rang in. What’s the easiest excuse in the world? A gippy tummy…. Cyril was round in no time.

“I can’t remember whether it was the same day or following day but he came round pretty smartish. The people that were running the hostel must have been asked by Cyril to tell him if any of the boys are sick or having time off work or anything, so he could come round so he could give me his personal medical.”

Smith took him into the front room of the hostel, which was only used once a month for meetings of the committee which oversaw the home.

“We were in this private room, just the two of us in this room. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like ‘I want to check up to make sure you’re not pulling a fast one’.”

“I don’t think he physically touched. I can’t remember. I really can’t, but it was basically ‘drop your pants, drop your underpants and spin round, twirl round’. So he could have a good look all round. He told me to bend over. To me it was more of a voyeurism.”

How did he know that it was Cyril? “Everybody knew who Cyril was. I mean he was so big. I didn’t know Rochdale all that well. But I did know, because I was working in local government, that he was chairman of most important committee, the Establishment Committee, because they make all the appointments. He was responsible as chairman of the Establishment Committee for appointing the town clerk, borough surveyor, treasurer – they were all Cyril’s men.”

“It happened more than once though. It happened about 2 or 3 times over the course of about 18 months.”

Mr Shorrock also told how Smith threatened him the day he decided to leave the hostel. “The thing that I remember was this threat. It was something like “People don’t cross me…don’t try and cross me because I’ll get you”.

“I suppose in his own mind he thought if someone leaves here, and he hasn’t got this control over them, if they start blabbing, that’s going to concern him.”

Mr Shorrock said that he’d decided to speak out mainly because of Smith’s ‘abuse of power’ over the vulnerable.

“The main reason is for anyone to create a situation like that with captive young boys with your own little concubines, your own harem and then just going at every opportunity to take advantage of them is just such an absolute abuse of power.

“Any abuse of power is wrong and if it involves something as personal as that with young boys, that makes it even worse. It’s pretty low isn’t it?”

Eddie and Barry are just two of several former residents who were unhappy at their treatment at Cambridge House.

They all moved on to different jobs, homes and in some cases even different countries. The hostel closed in 1965 largely through lack of funds, after Rochdale Council children’s committee decided it did not want to pay for a grant.

But a few years later, one former resident was arrested for importuning outside the Regal cinema in Rochdale. He was arrested and sent to Risley remand centre, and while there complained that he had only been doing what Cyril Smith had done and there was one law for the powerful and one for the poor. Smith had risen even further up the political ladder and was then chairman of the education committee. The police decided to investigate. Several statements were taken from boys, the file was then apparently sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. But it remains unclear if the DPP received it and its whereabouts remain a mystery.

The allegations surfaced for the first time in 1979 when a local magazine called Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) conducted a detailed investigation into the claims. It gathered several affadavits from former residents, copies of which have been seen by Eddie Shorrock was however in Bristol in the late 1970s and was never traced at the time. Barry Fitton was one of those who signed an affidavit but has until today not been willing to be named. Some of their fellow residents are now dead, others difficult to contact.

Cyril Smith never married but jealously guarded his private life. He did, however, once tell the local paper, the Rochdale Observer: “I believe there is a place in law for corporal punishment….there is a place in law for a good hiding”.

At the end of his interview, Eddie Shorrock recalled a joke one former resident of Cambridge House once made about ‘Big Cyril’’s girth: “What we should do with Cyril is put him in a cage with bars that far apart [holding his hands up about three feet apart] and then make him do press-ups…. until he can get out.”

He and the other boys wish that Smith could have been put behind real bars in his lifetime. That’s no longer possible, but they hope that now they’ve gone public, some kind of justice can still be done.

By Paul Waugh, Editor,

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