IN the summer of 1969, I spent a lot of time, along with a friend, cycling to some gravel pits in South Ockendon in Essex. In fact, during the entire school holidays, scarcely a day went past when we didn’t pedal down the dirt track to a very remote site. We just used to sit and throw stones into the water, talk about football and about our forthcoming elevation to secondary school a year later.
My friend was an excellent footballer, I was a pretender – not bad, but lacking the strength to make a real impact. We played for the same school team – he was captain, I was top scorer.
In our village, and it was a village in those days, a burly lorry driver called – for the sake of this piece, Harry – set-up a children’s football team. He would walk over to the recreation ground and talk to boys playing football and invite them to join his team. We all signed up with enthusiasm.
On one afternoon at the gravel pits, Harry drove-up in a huge lorry and offered us a lift back to the village. It was getting late and dusky and we were tired. We threw our bikes in the back of the lorry and climbed in the cab. For the next 20 minutes, we were invited to sit on Harry’s lap and drive the lorry. When we reached the village, we jumped out and he gave us half a crown each and told us not to mention it to anyone. Seemingly, nothing untoward had happened. I recall he gave off a strong odour of cigarettes and sweat.
A few weeks later, the Police came to my house and asked to speak to me in connection with a series of sexual assaults that had taken place. They asked if I had noticed anything unusual as a number of my friends and school colleagues had been assaulted by Harry.
I had not been subjected to anything unpleasant, but quite a few young boys had been “tampered with” to quote my mother at the time. Shortly afterwards, I heard that Harry had been sent to prison and that he had actually killed his mother. Two or three boys had been sexually assaulted. Harry’s football team never materialised and we never spoke about the incident again.
Now this was all before the security checks that now take place in children’s football, but Harry was not the only person we heard of who had unhealthy attitudes about young boys. There were also other individuals dotted around who had “interfered” with children. There was a well-known and easily identifiable individual who would cycle around Ockendon and occasionally engage with youngsters. We were all very wary of him.
The sad thing is that it used to be almost accepted by people, something that was not talked about but swept under the carpet. Nobody felt comfortable discussing it, so it was ignored to some extent. Whenever my mother talked of such people it was always in hushed tones.
Times have changed, thankfully, but this problem has always been around and has existed in any environment where adults have control over young people. The innocence of youth will always be vulnerable to the cunning opportunist. Some people fall victim of it, others have close escapes. The fact that I willingly got into the driver’s cab of a 10-ton lorry with a man who was later convicted of appalling crimes against children underlines just how naïve and trusting young people can be. I count myself lucky that nothing happened.