Men Tell Court of Children’s Home Abuse

The trial into allegations of historical sexual abuse at the former Knottfield Children’s Home has heard that the abuse largely happened in a downstairs office.

Joseph Henry Marshall, 85, who was managing the home during a period in the 1970s and 80s, stands accused of six counts of indecent assault, two of gross indecency and one of buggery, all against boys under the age of 16. He denies all charges.

Yesterday the trial heard from two witnesses, a former resident and an occasional visitor whose mother worked at the home. 

The man first to give evidence, a former resident of the home, described Knottfield as ‘very big’, ‘very strict’ and said it lacked any warmth as a home. He said Marshall was ‘horrible’ and ‘not a nice person’.

He told the court that having first lived in a dormitory, he was later moved into a single room that had previously been used for staff.  Mr Marshall is said to have entered his room one night, removed his bed covers, looked at the boy, who was in his early teens at the time naked in his bed, before covering him up again. 

‘Nothing was said, he pulled back the sheets, looked at me, put them back and left the room,’ he said.

On a separate occasion, he said Mr Marshall took him into his office, located on the ground floor, locked the door and put his hand on his leg and began to move it. He said being taken into the office was ‘normal’ when children were being told off. The man said on a later date that Mr Marshall repeated the same process but then began ‘unbuttoning my trousers’.

Mr Marshall is said to have then touched the boy’s genitals before guiding the boy’s hand onto his own. He said Mr Marshall told the boy it was their ‘little secret’.

The man told the court he later received special treatment from Mr Marshall and said: ‘We were ignored, so it was nice to get somebody to give us attention.’ He didn’t tell anybody about what had happened and he said it happened again on up to 12 occasions until shortly before he left Knottfield. 

Defence advocate Collingwood Thompson QC queried why the man had not told anyone about the allegations before, including on at least two occasions when he was asked by the police. He explained that he had felt ‘embarrassed’ about what had happened and had ‘not wanted to talk about it’.

The defence also highlighted correspondence between the witness and a friend as well as health records which mention childhood abuse. Mr Thompson also highlighted differences between what was in these letters and what was being said in court. However, the man said he did not recall the conversations which these letters referred to and noted himself several factual errors in the documents presented to the court such as the accepted dates of when he lived at the home.


The second man to give evidence was not a resident of Knottfield but said one of his parents had worked there for a period in the late 1970s when he was about 7-years-old. 

He told the court that he would go to Knottfield on an ‘adhoc basis’ during school holidays and weekends. However, he never stayed at the home and as such he was ‘different’ to the other children and therefore failed to form any relationships with them during his time visiting there. 

During his mother’s time working at the home, he said when he was in trouble for being involved in incidents where toys or other items were broken, he would be asked into Mr Marshall’s office. He said that Mr Marshall only did this when he had misbehaved and said he ‘felt like I was being punished for doing something wrong’ and that a telling off by an adult in this manner was ‘not unusual for the 1970s’. 

However, he told the court that the more time he spent at the home, this progressed beginning with Mr Marshall taking his trousers and underwear down before smacking him. He said Mr Marshall later told him not to tell anyone and ‘made it clear’ about his mother’s situation in working at the home and what that could mean for her employment.

He said that after that he ‘knew that a line had been crossed’ from what was normal punishment of a child. He added that after Mr Marshall had lowered his (the boy’s) trousers and underwear, he felt ‘terrified’ and that he would ‘focus on a spot on the wall’ or close his eyes. He said: ‘I remember his heavy breathing and clothes shuffling.’

On a later occasion, Mr Marshall is said to have repeated this action and then ‘reached around’ and ‘fondled’ him. He said he kept his eyes closed during this and ‘just wanted it to end’. Afterwards, he said Mr Marshall did not say anything other than repeating his previous words about his mother and their job. He said this happened between five and 10 times.

He said he then did not speak about this until the mid-1990s when he told his mother but chose not to inform the police. Later, when Tynwald issued a call for evidence relating to Knottfield, he then decided to speak out. He explained that he didn’t come forward because of himself, but because he feared another person could be left as the only one to come forward. 

The man recalled incidents when other children would be taken out of the room by Mr Marshall and later return upset but when he asked them what was wrong, they wouldn’t respond. He said many of the children were ‘uncommunicative’. 

During his cross-examination, Mr Thompson noted disparities in the drawing of the home done by the man and the layout as remembered by Mr Marshall and the other man who gave evidence. He also noted that the man does not appear on any records for the home and that he could not name any of the children who had lived there.

However, the man repeated that he was never a resident and never spent a night in the home as he was only there during the day on school holidays and weekends. He also confirmed that he had explained this to the police when he first spoke to them.

The trial continues today at Douglas Courthouse.

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