One of the saddest events that occurred during my time in the Brighton Police was the case of young Maria Colwell.
Maria was 7 years old in 1973 and at that time I was a G.P. Police patrol car driver covering the eastern part of the town including up to the Whitehawk area.
Maria lived in Maresfield Road with her mother and step-father and the case itself could have been just another one of a number of child cruelty cases that are heard every so often.
On this particular day we were driving along Maresfield Road when we were flagged down by Maria’s step-father. He made a complaint to us that he had been assaulted by a man who worked as a butcher in a shop in the Broadway.
We took some details and then went to the shop in the Broadway and interviewed the butcher concerned. He readily agreed to have assaulted him and I arrested him, although if truth be known, I didn’t want to.
He was taken to the police station and put into a cell. I took a statement and made out my report, writing it as such to minimise the offence. He later appeared in court, pleading guilty and was fined the absolute minimum for the offence.
That is, except for five factors; two of the most important were that for months the neighbours had alerted the authorities about the impending danger. It was also true that Maria had been returned against her wishes and made to live with her mother and step-father, after enjoying her very short life with her devoted foster parents.
There was a severe lack of information and understanding between the authorities and as a result Maria lost her life. She was often seen raiding neighbourly dustbins in an effort to find sufficient food to live on. There is no doubt that she should have been saved from the terrible death that she received when she was beaten over a long period and eventually to death by her stepfather.
He wheeled her dead body down to the Royal Sussex County Hospital in a pushchair from her home. The Whitehawk area residents were up in arms over the death of Maria, and the fury felt by these people quickly spread right across Brighton.
The story hit the headlines in the media and as a result the whole country was demanding that more be done to stop the cruelty against children that seems to continue to abound. Questions were asked but there were more questions than answers.
Her step-father was jailed for her manslaughter but instead of the fury abating it was really just starting. There was no other tragedy that inflamed the people more than this, mainly because her death could and should have been avoided.
Eventually, after enormous pressure, the government capitulated and set up an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding her death. The inquiry lasted 41 days and the local newspapers carried the story each day as it unfolded. The inquiry reported the following year and was highly critical of both the statuary and voluntary organisations which had allowed Maria to fall through the net. There was no shortage of individual concern and care in the case of Maria but her case cruelly exposed the limitations of the law and the way society watched children at risk.
The Argus, it has to be said, was in the forefront of everything to do with the Maria Colwell case and continued to register its concern well after the facts had died away. It explained the Children’s Bill, a direct consequence of the inquiry, in a week long series to the readers. The Argus was also responsible for organising a public meeting on a freezing cold January night in which more than 200 people attended, anxious to continue the fight against death and cruelty towards innocent children. The Children Act and changes in the way Social Services departments work have led to far reaching reforms.
It can be said that even now in the 21st Century cruelty and death still stalk innocent children and still more needs to be done. The majority of the people responsible for these evil acts are violent people themselves and it can be understood why Social Services and the Police at times are loathe to get too involved, but they must get involved and at an early stage.
More than 30 years have now passed since Maria met her death but have the authorities actually learned anything as we still read of children being tortured, injured and being killed? In many of these cases these children are on the ‘risk’ list but still pay with their lives.
Innocent children must be protected at all costs.
We must never allow Maria Colwell to have died in vain. No more Maria’s please.