Friday, June 24, 2022

A false story about the death of Dennis O'Neill in 1945

There's a false story about the death of the foster child Dennis O'Neill, at the age of 12, at a farm under The Stiperstones in Shropshire in 1945.

It's been repeated in several articles on the case and I have had it added as a footnote to something I wrote about it too.

As far as I can tell the story originates from a piece by David Batty published in the Guardian in 2003.

Batty wrote:

The case shook a war weary Britain and there was a national outcry when [Reginald] Gough was jailed for six years for manslaughter. An appeal court ruling changed the verdict to murder and his sentence was extended to 10 years.

This is wrong for three reasons.

The first is that you can't try and convict a person for one crime and then, at a later date, decide you'd rather convict them of another, more serious, crime. You couldn't do it in 1945 and you can't do it now.

If you doubt this, you will find that there's not mention of a later murder conviction in the newspapers of the period. I've looked.

The second reason is that, though there was an outcry over Dennis O'Neill's death, it was not an outcry against Gough but against the authorities. This is no different from today, when we seem angrier with the social workers who fail to protect childred than we are with the people who abuse them.

When the report of Sir Walter Monkton's public inquiry into the case was published, the Daily Mirror (29 May 1945) printed the photographs of all 19 members of Newport Borough Council's education committee. This was the committee had sent the the boy to live far from home while doing next to nothing to ensure he was being properly treated.

And the third reason I'm sure that this story is false is that we know Reginald Gough was at liberty by 1951.

On 20 June 1951 the Daily Herald published this short report:

Offence against girl - fined

For an offence against a girl of l5, Reginald Gough, 37-year-old farm labourer, was fined £25 at Shropshire Assizes yesterday. The Judge said there were mitigating circumstances and it was not case for imprisonment. 

A police witness said that in 1945 Gough. then a farmer. was jailed for six years for the manslaughter of 13-year-old Dennis O'Neill.

That is more conclusive proof than I expected to find.

The illustration above is the cover of the Canadian edition of Terry O'Neill's book, which was published in the UK as Someone to Love Us in 2010.

Terry was fostered by Reginald Gough and his wife alongside Dennis. His book is a harrowing account of their treatment and it is shocking that the "discipline" Terry later received in children's homes echoed the abuse he and his brother had suffered.

There is also an award-winning BBC Wales radio documentary The Mousetrap and Me, which tells Terry's story.

A readers of this blog will know, Agatha Christie's record-breaking play The Mousetrap was inspired by Dennis O'Neill's case, as was the play and film No Room at the Inn.

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