Friday, November 23, 2007

The death of Dennis O'Neill and The Mousetrap

I have discovered another of those connections that mean so much to me, though possibly not so much to my readers.

In 2004 I gave a paper on the history of child abuse to a meeting at the Tavistock Institute. It provided the basis for my chapter in the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives, which was published the following year.

My argument was that child abuse was not a recent discovery, as theorists often claim. One of the arguments I used in support of my position was to point out that the country had been scandalised by the death of a child in 1945.

I wrote in the original paper:

How then to account for the opening words of the book A Place Called Hope, by Tom O'Neill ... who, when it was published in 1981, had just retired from his career as a residential social worker with Kent County Council?

The book begins:

On 9 January 1945 my brother, Dennis O'Neill was beaten to death by his foster-father in a lonely farmhouse in Shropshire. Twenty-eight years later, on 6 January 1973, Maria Colwell was beaten to death by her step-father in a council house in Brighton, Both deaths resulted in a public outcry about the standards of official supervision of the children.

Studying The Times from 1945 one finds that the trial of Dennis O'Neill's foster-father for manslaughter received prominent coverage – so prominent that it took precedence over reports of the progress of the War. Not only that: on a strangely contemporary note, there was an outcry about lenient sentencing when Dennis O'Neill's foster-father was convicted. And, following the trial there was an inquiry, presided over by Sir Walter Monckton who was a senior figure in official circles and must have been taken away from important war work to conduct it.

In short, there is nothing in these two cases to say that people were any less concerned about child abuse in 1945 than they were in 1973. The evidence for a step-change in awareness some time in the 1960s is simply not there.

One person who was certainly affected by the death of Dennis O'Neill was Agatha Christie. She was invited by the BBC to contribute to an evening of radio programmes to mark the 80th birthday of Queen Mary. In response she produced a play called Three Blind Mice.

Wikipedia reports that, according to Christie's official biographer Janet Morgan, the play was inspired by the O'Neill case. The encyclopedia goes on to say that Christie went on to rework the material from Three Blind Mice into, first, a short story and then a full-length play for the theatre.

There had recently been another play in the West End called Three Blind Mice, so Christie had to choose a new title. It was her son-in-law, Anthony Hicks, who suggested... The Mousetrap.

So the longest running play in the history of theatre had its origins in this sad case.

There is another haunting literary parallel with the O'Neill case.

Dennis O'Neill died at Bank Farm, Minsterley, in the shadow of the Stiperstones - a range of hills in Shropshire that I often write about. It was because of this geographical connection that I first came across the story of his death.

I also write about the children's books of Malcolm Saville from time to time. It was through these that I discovered the Shropshire hills before I ever visited the county.

As Tom O'Neill records, Dennis died on 9 January 1945.

In September 1944, when the boy was already boarded out at the farm where he was to die, Saville had published Seven White Gates, the second of his Lone Pine series.

Its plot?

It tells the story of a girl who goes to stay at a lonely farm in the shadow of the Stiperstones.


Tom Barney said...

If you go to you will find a pdf file of The Scouter's Job by J. Dudley Pank, a north London district commissioner, published in 1953. It has quite a lot to say about how to weed out unsuitable volunteers.

Anonymous said...

I know Tom O'Neill, he's my uncle . My grandfather, Terence was with Dennis when he died. I know this because my grandfather is trying to publish a book and i have written it out for him to help him.

Jonathan Calder said...

Many thanks for the comment. Please let me know if there is any news of the book.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jonathan for your interest. We have recently found some information to add to the book. Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Tom O'Neill is my Grandfather. I have started researching about this tragic story and have interview my 'Papa Tom' to make a documentary about the story...

What is your book called? How is it going? It would be wonderful to discuss and exchange ideas...

Anonymous said...

Dear Jonathan,
You asked to know the progess of my grandfather's story, telling about his life in care in Shropshire. He has now almost completed his work and has put the book on 'Authonomy'. Its title is Never Again by Terence O'Neill in Biography
Many Thanks

Jonathan Calder said...

Many thanks. I have registered with Authonomy and am reading the book.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonathan... Thank You for registering with Authonomy. Every authonomy user can help publish a book! Hope you are well
Best Wishes M

Bernard O'Neill said...

Hi there,
Tom O'Neill is my father and Terry (his brother) is my uncle. My father's book has been used in social work courses for a number of years now, and, indeed he also has visited a number of Educational Establishments and other organisations giving lectures.
Terry's book, now titled 'Someone to love us' was released on March 4th this year. It is the full story of the events leading up to the death of Dennis (which is a harrowing read), and issues around Terry's life after the death. Indeed, only yesterday, I met up with Terry on his annual reunion with fellow ex-boys of Blaisdon Hall, near Gloucester, as I live nearby. He owes a great deal to that establishment. The book is well worth a read, but is very upsetting. Bernard O'Neill

wendy said...

Hello Bernard, I dont know if you will catch this comment but I just want to say that I have been reading about the story of Dennis and Terence and I am heartbroken about it. I have two little boys aged the same as the brothers when Dennis died and the thought of it...I cannot get young Dennis out of my mind. I am going to buy Terence's book and read it, if he had the strength to write his story then people should find it within themselves to hear his voice and know what Dennis endured. Please give Terence my love and best wishes and thanks for giving Dennis a voice after so long. As for Dennis, I pray for his dear little soul and carry him always in my heart. My thanks. X

Pab81 said...

I am currently reading the book 'putting families first' by Bob Holman in which he mentions the heartbreaking story of Dennis and his brother Tom. It piqued my interest and I felt compelled to put the book down for a minute and use the internet to learn more about their story. Having been led to this blog by way of my research I was very surprised to find comments from the actual family of the 2 boys I have just been reading about. Thank you Bernard for citing the reference to Terrys book about Dennis story - I will source that next as I feel very drawn to it. I am fairly certain I will need to have a box of Kleenex nearby. Although this is a story of trauma, abuse and cruelty; paradoxically it is also a story of hope, justice and social reform as Dennis tragic death has served to highlight the horrific treatment of children in care from the late nineteenth century onwards and even now in 2017 with so many cases coming to light of horrific, systematic, historic abuse within institutions charged with the care of vulnerable children, continues to have an impact.