Historical child sex abuse

Historic cases of the sex abuse of children have become a central focal point of political, social and legal concern. As yet, our knowledge of the broader history of sexual abuse across the twentieth century is partial, with some instances well-charted and others forgotten. This research project aims to provide a fuller understanding of past social, legal and political responses to child sex abuse in Britain in order to contextualise current public inquiries and contribute to future policy making.


The project is galvanised by interest from policy makers and shapers in how history can inform decision making today. The research team participated in an H&P seminar in 2013, which was commissioned by Kate Lampard QC, the independent overseer of the NHS and Department of Health investigations into matters relating to Jimmy Savile. Eight historians gave evidence about the culture and issues that formed the background to Savile's life and his offences on NHS premises.

After the seminar Ms Lampard said:

History & Policy provided invaluable insight into the parameters of acceptable behaviour, societal norms and the culture of the NHS in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s that was shared with investigators at Broadmoor, Leeds General Infirmary and Stoke Mandeville hospitals. This common understanding helped all three organisations avoid hindsight bias and added significantly to the rigour, thoroughness and fairness of their investigation reports.

Ms Lampard was asked by the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to provide independent oversight of the NHS and Department of Health investigations. Currently, she is preparing a report on the themes and lessons learnt from the NHS investigations. 

A key element of the ‘historical child sex abuse’ project is to engage with policy makers to enhance understanding of changes in social attitudes, media coverage, criminal justice and the work of practitioners since the end of the First World War.

Dr Louise Jackson, project lead, said:

Child sexual abuse has been considered one of the most serious of offences in Britain since the nineteenth century. Yet comparatively few cases came to court or were successfully convicted. Our project will explain this paradox. We also want to understand why, against all the odds, there were some successful prosecutions. How were practitioners able to make a difference and what might we learn from this? What were the missed opportunities and how might we avoid them in the future?  

The project is funded by the ESRC Urgency Grant Scheme from November 2014 to June 2015.

Research areas

The project will identify the factors that made it difficult to report sexual abuse over the last 100 years, as well as highlighting any previous shifts in policy or practice that made a difference. What procedures were developed for the reporting of allegations and why did cases fall through the net?

The team will examine how social workers, police, teachers, and other professionals responded to abuse, the likelihood of conviction in courts of law, and explain broader social attitudes. They will consider why past policy opportunities were lost in order to suggest how this might be best avoided in the future.

In 1925 an important Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People made key recommendations to tighten the law and protect children. The committee proposed that the defence of ‘reasonable belief’ that a girl was over 16 should be abolished, young witnesses should be provided with a separate waiting room in the court, and their evidence should be given in camera. Yet objections from the legal profession meant that it took many decades before young people’s rights were fully recognised. The culture of disbelief had a very long legacy, leading to many of the claims of sexual abuse that have arisen in recent years.

The project focuses on four under-researched areas. Between them, Dr Lucy Delap, Dr Adrian Bingham, Dr Louise Jackson and Dr Louise Settle are:

  1. Scrutinising published criminal justice statistics for England and Wales, 1918 to 1990, to see what they tell us about the reporting and convictions of sexual abuse.
  2. Extensively searching national and local newspapers for evidence of social attitudes, criminal justice responses and public debates relating to young people, sexuality and abuse.
  3. Examining the shifting viewpoints of relevant professions, including social workers, teachers, police and lawyers, by surveying publications associated with these occupational groups.
  4. Mapping the organisations and associations which have commented and/or campaigned on issues relating to children and sexuality across the period 1918-1990, to identify and examine the public records that they have left.

Why were the courts and police so slow to act on child sexual abuse? Dr Louise Jackson, of the University of Edinburgh, reviews the twentieth century criminal justice system in England and Wales.

Scandals and silences: the British press and child sexual abuse by Dr Adrian Bingham, of Sheffield University and Louise Settle, Research assistant, explore British press coverage of child sexual abuse in the 1970s and today.

Child welfare, child protection and sexual abuse, 1918-1990 by Dr Lucy Delap, examines the response to child sexual abuse in the twentieth century and asks if situation has changed today?

For more information, please contact Dr Lucy Delap:

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More