true crime

TV host Jimmy Savile died in 2011. One year later, 450 abuse victims came forward.

Content Warning: This post deals with the sexual assault and rape of minors. For support, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

When Sir Jimmy Savile died in 2011, aged 84, glowing tributes filled the British media. The Guardian described the former TV host as a “professional good Samaritan”, declaring, “It is as a raiser of cash for charity that he will be remembered.” Prince Charles released a statement saying he was “saddened” to hear of Savile’s death. Savile was buried in a gold coffin, with the inscription on his headstone reading, “It was good while it lasted.”

And then his victims started to speak up. By the end of the following year, 450 people had come forward to report that Savile had assaulted them. Most of the victims had been under the age of 18 at the time, with the youngest aged just eight.

pupils at the William Gladstone High School in Brent, London, 20th October 1977
Savile with pupils at the William Gladstone High School in London in 1997. Image: Getty.

It is now accepted that Savile was one of Britain’s worst-ever sex offenders. He preyed on the vulnerable – the young, the sick, the emotionally disturbed, even the dead – over six decades.

Yet his public reputation remained virtually untarnished until after his death. He was never charged with any sexual assaults. So how did he get away with it?

Savile, who grew up as the youngest of seven children in a poor family in Leeds, started out working in the coal mines in WWII. He suffered a serious spinal injury in a mining accident, then once he recovered, launched a new career as a dance-hall DJ. That led to a job in radio and then TV, with the massively popular music show Top Of The Pops. His other long-running TV hit was Jim’ll Fix It, where he made people’s wishes come true. When he wasn’t filming his shows, he spent a lot of time visiting hospitals or doing charity work.

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who was jimmy savile
Savile with his secretaries in Scarborough, Yorkshire, September 1966. Image: Getty.

There’s no denying that Savile raised a huge amount of money for charity: a total of £40 million (more than AU$70 million) in his lifetime. He was friendly with the Royals, describing himself as a “court jester”. He was also close to ex-PM Margaret Thatcher, regularly visiting her at her country residence.

It’s because he was so famous and highly respected that he got away with doing what he did for so long.

who was jimmy savile
Savile joins a group of under-privileged and disabled children on a day out to Southend, organized by London taxi drivers in 1973. Image: Getty.
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Savile preyed on many of his victims at hospitals, including Stoke Mandeville. Savile raised millions to build a state-of-the-art spinal injuries unit at the hospital, and was free to roam around wherever he liked. He ended up with his own private room, complete with a leather sofa and a flip-down bed.

It’s believed that Saville sexually abused at least 60 people at the hospital over two decades, from 1968 onwards. A 12-year-old boy waiting for an x-ray was groped under his hospital gown. An eight-year-old girl who was visiting relatives was raped 10 times. An 11-year-old girl was sexually abused in a treatment room, and when she became hysterical and told a nurse, the nurse said Savile raised a lot of money for the hospital and would not do such a dreadful thing.

Who was Jimmy Savile
Prince Charles with Jimmy Savile. Image: Getty.

Ten victims reported assaults at the time, but nothing was done. A clinical supervisor who reported that Savile had been behaving inappropriately towards her students was reprimanded for “interfering”.

Meanwhile, in Savile’s home town of Leeds, he was allowed access to the mortuary’s bodies from the 1970s through to the 1990s. It’s believed he was close friends with the chief mortician. One former nurse said Savile boasted to her of posing the bodies in sexual positions.

“He was saying that they used to put the bodies together, male and female, and he also said that they took photographs and also that he got involved in some of the photographs,” she said.

who was jimmy savile
Savile with seven-year-old Carley Reed at Guy's Nuffield House. The opening of the private hospital was his first public engagement since his knighthood. Image: Getty.
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In the 1970s, Savile was also a regular visitor to Duncroft Approved School in Surrey, an institution for “emotionally disturbed” girls. He would turn up in his Rolls Royce or his campervan, and take girls for rides. He was even allowed to stay overnight at the school.

Former Duncroft student Toni Townsend told the Mirror that Savile treated the school like a “paedophile sweet shop”.

“He used to take his pick of the mix,” she said. “The girls at Duncroft had been sent there by the courts for prostitution, drugs and because they tried to kill themselves. Who would have believed us against Saint Jimmy?”

Meanwhile, at the BBC, where Savile was a star for decades, he’s reported to have raped or sexually assaulted people in dressing rooms and studios.

who was Jimmy Savile
Image: Getty.
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Savile could be unbelievably brazen. Footage has emerged of him assaulting a teenager on live TV, while presenting Top Of The Pops in 1976. Sylvia Edwards was 18 when she stood next to Jimmy in the crowd of fans, and she can be seen trying to wriggle away from him, as he puts his hand up her skirt.

“Of course the BBC knew what Savile was doing,” Edwards told The Sun. “In my case it’s even on video, for God’s sake.”

Edwards reported the assault to a floor manager afterwards, but was told, “Get lost. It’s just Jimmy messing about.”

who was jimmy savile
Savile with twelve-year-old Rebecca Heap. Image: Getty.

Complaints about Savile’s behaviour at the BBC date back to the 1960s. At one point, in the 1970s, he was asked by his bosses whether he’d been taking 14-year-old girls back to his flat after Top Of The Pops. He admitted he had been, but claimed it was just because they didn’t have a place to stay for the night. His explanation was accepted as him being “kind-hearted”.

Certainly there were rumours about Savile for decades. There were plenty of complaints, and there were several police inquiries while he was alive. But the inquiries never led to charges being laid.

Louis Theroux, in a documentary he made about Savile in 2000, asked him about the paedophile rumours. Savile’s answer was a convoluted one, where he challenged, “How does anybody know whether I am?”

who was jimmy savile
Savile in London with the children who invented the slogan 'Clear Up and Cheer Up', in 1979. Image: Getty.
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Even after Savile’s death, the truth didn’t come out immediately. A BBC program, Newsnight, began investigating the rumours of Savile being a sex offender. But before the investigation could go to air, two months after Savile’s death, it was pulled. Instead, specials honouring Savile were aired on the BBC that Christmas.

It was an ITV show Exposure, The Other Side Of Jimmy Savile that broke the story nearly a year later. Five women detailed their claims of being raped or molested by Savile when they were underage. That opened the floodgates, with other victims relieved to know that they would finally be believed.

Police launched an investigation into Savile, as did the Department of Health and the BBC. Dame Janet Smith, who headed the BBC review, said the organisation had missed opportunities to stop “monstrous” abuse. She said celebrities were “virtually untouchable”, and staff were reluctant to speak up because they thought it “wasn’t their place to do so”.

The BBC has since done its best to erase all reminders of Savile. No reruns of Top Of The Pops that feature him are allowed to air.

Reminders of Savile have been erased everywhere. His name has been removed from street signs, a statue of him has been taken down, and charitable institutions carrying his name have been closed.

Savile is now lying in an unmarked grave. His family had his headstone removed, “out of respect to public opinion”. It has been sent to landfill.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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