Investigation into child sex offender Robert Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy and other railway bodies

25 Jun 2018

Robert Kingsley Whitehead was convicted of 24 counts of child sexual offences in 2015, dying in prison later that year. Whitehead – who had been convicted of offences against children in 1959 – was involved for decades with the railways, including Puffing Billy, where he gained access to countless innocent volunteers. We do not know, and will never know, how many he abused.

Whitehead’s conviction and death left many questions unanswered. A core question of his victims was: how did he get away with his offending for so long? This investigation seeks to answer those questions. It is the result of the tenacity of some survivors, whose complaints to Ministers and government agencies ultimately led the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources to refer the matter to me in 2017. I commend the courage and persistence of the survivors.

The investigation ranged over more than five decades, from records in dusty archives in Belgrave and Emerald to the Public Records Office, police evidence and criminal trial briefs, as well as witness interviews. Inevitably, there are gaps in the evidence. The passage of time is damaging to investigations, although some gaps raised further questions. Eighteen people contacted my office in response to a media statement in July 2017, and I thank everyone who assisted the investigation, many of whom told us deeply personal and distressing stories. One went as far back as 1947. Another told us he just wanted the truth to come out. These stories were essential to the investigation, often filling another gap in the broken public narrative.

The story that unfolds from this narrative is deeply shocking. Whitehead was a life-long offender whose abuse was facilitated by the wilful blindness, indifference or ineptitude of a succession of organisations.

One of them was Puffing Billy – a Victorian icon – the steam train featured in so many Victorian childhoods, usually remembered with nostalgic delight. But for a group of boys abused by trusted adult volunteers, the Railway shaped their lives in a very different way.

Whitehead’s involvement with Puffing Billy goes back to at least 1961, the year after he was released from Pentridge Prison. He had been re-employed by the Victorian Railways, for whom his conviction was not a barrier, and quickly became one of Puffing Billy’s most active – and valued – volunteers. Although Puffing Billy’s management denied any knowledge of his past conviction there is ample evidence that rumour abounded. One former Board member had even warned his own son to keep away from him.

Yet despite the persistent rumour, and a police investigation in 1985, Whitehead remained an active volunteer until 1991. He had access to children in many of his roles, including supervising overnight working parties, and he had leases on railway property where some of his offending occurred. In the 1980s Whitehead and another offender were even responsible for Puffing Billy’s lax volunteer screening procedures.

While this investigation focused on Whitehead, he was not the only active sexual offender exploiting and abusing young Railway volunteers. Some of those offenders are the subject of current police investigations.

When Whitehead resigned in 1985 – not coincidentally when he was the subject of a police investigation into child sexual abuse – Puffing Billy’s Board expressed its effusive thanks. Months after his resignation, he returned to Puffing Billy as its archivist – with unencumbered access to its records, including any records of complaints, even drafting a policy that complaints were not to be stored in the archives.

One record that survived Whitehead’s archival activity was a letter from a 17-yearold abuse survivor, banned from volunteering and desperate to return. He was told no; his perpetrators remained. The victims’ voices emerging from the historic material paint a heartbreaking picture.

Records of boys telling senior management directly about the sexual abuse they suffered, but management not reporting these allegations to police. A mother trying to warn an organisation about offending committed against her son, whose integrity was called into question because the organisation said it had no evidence of her contact. Their stories are finally validated.

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