Belfast Telegraph

After 30 years held as 'slave' by Maoist cult in London, a Belfast girl made a call for help from behind this door

She is one of three women allegedly reduced to decades of captive servitude in an innocuous London flat. Ivan Little unravels the Northern Ireland connections in the astonishing story of Josephine Herivel


If it hadn't been for a chance encounter in a cafe in Portrush, the mystery of rescued 'slave' Josephine Herivel – who grew from a child musical prodigy at festivals in Belfast into a Maoist cult member in England – would not currently be gripping millions of people across the world.

For it was in tearooms in the popular north coast seaside resort that the first sparks were ignited of a romance between a couple, one of them from Belfast, the other from Ballycastle, whose love affair resulted 57 years ago in the birth of Josephine who, it's alleged, has been held for three decades against her will in London.

Ms Herivel was one of three women freed from a house in Brixton after she raised the alarm with the Freedom Charity in a telephone call. She was the one who lifted the phone inside the innocuous-looking home to alert the authorities.

The leader of the Maoist commune, Aravindan Balakrishnan, and his wife Chanda were arrested on suspicion of slavery-related offences.

And several days later TV pictures of the couple which had been shot for a documentary about the death of a commune member in 1997 were uncovered and broadcast by ITV.

They also showed Josephine Herivel shouting abuse at the television crew who filmed her as part of the investigation into the death of fellow sect member, Sian Davies.

Ms Herivel told the crew: "You are part of the fascist state. We don't want to talk to you."

Her accent gave nothing away about her roots in Northern Ireland.

But it has since emerged that she was born and educated here before leaving the province to study in England, where she was soon in trouble with the law after cutting herself off from her family.

Her father was a British wartime hero, even though he never lifted a gun against the Nazis. John Herivel was a brilliant mathematician who helped crack the code for the Luftwaffe's Enigma machine cipher at the famous Bletchley Park centre in Buckinghamshire during the Second World War.

From 1924 to 1937 Herivel had attended Methodist College in Belfast – his daughter was to follow in his footsteps into the senior school – and he went to Cambridge on a scholarship to study mathematics.

During his student days he spent a summer holiday youth hostelling and cycling around Germany. He later confided in friends that the experience had convinced him that the rise of Adolf Hitler posed a huge threat to the world.

And that probably readied him for his move to Bletchley Park where he was briefed by Alan Turing, the man often hailed as the founding father of modern computer science.

Herivel cracked the Luftwaffe's Enigma code in February 1940 – a crucial breakthrough in the war against the Germans. His idea was later dubbed the 'Herivel Tip', and his genius was acknowledged by Winston Churchill who sought him out to thank him.

Herivel's distinctive name came from the Channel Islands. His father, a civil servant, was from Alderney and he settled in Northern Ireland after meeting and marrying a Belfast woman.

After the war John Herivel decided that he, too, should make his home again in Northern Ireland.

He taught for a year at Campbell College but he later admitted that he couldn't cope with what he called "the rumbustious boys" there.

And so after getting glowing references from his old bosses at Bletchley Park, Herivel joined the staff of Queen's University in Belfast and on April 18, 1947 he married Elizabeth Jones, the woman he'd met in Portrush.

She had actually worked at Bletchley Park, but strict security rules stopped them seeing each other socially.

However, after the war she recognised him in the Portrush tearooms and approached him. He later admitted he'd admired her from afar as she cycled around Buckinghamshire.

On April 18, 1947 they were wed in the quaint church of St James at Ramoan, outside Ballycastle, the bride's hometown.

A marriage notice in a newspaper said they had married "very quietly".

They were to have three daughters – Mary, Susan and Josephine.

The Herivel family home was at 101 Malone Avenue – described in a number of newspaper articles about the scientist as "millionaires' row", which was somewhat wide off the mark even back in the days when the street was home to more university lecturers than students, as is the case today.

Josephine's grandparents had moved to Malone Avenue in 1937 and the Herivels continued to occupy the imposing three-storey terraced house until the 1970s.

The house is now divided into three self-contained flats and its neighbours include several businesses who've turned the properties into offices.

Across the road is the former home of the late classical musician Derek Bell, who played harp with renowned traditional group The Chieftains.

Just up the avenue is a house which was used by the IRA in their preparation for the murder of magistrate's daughter Mary Travers outside the nearby St Brigid's church in April 1984.

Given the passage of time, it was hardly surprising that no one in the area remembered the Herivels yesterday.

But Josephine Herivel was a pupil at Methodist College, less than a mile away.

On a Methody website her father is listed among the most illustrious Old Collegians of all-time, behind scientist Ernest Walton and poet John Hewitt, and ahead of Sammy Wilson and Julian Simmons.

Yesterday a spokesman at the school confirmed that Ms Herivel had attended the college from 1968. But the spokesman said that the only other record of her was on a list of prize-winners in 1973.

Josephine, who was named after her grandmother, was a talented musician.

At the Belfast Music Festival in April 1969 at the Presbyterian Assembly Hall in Fisherwick Place she won the under-15 violin category in a year which also saw now-acclaimed musician Fionnuala Hunt picking up the prize for under-16s.

In March 1970, by which time she was calling herself Josie, she won the Winifred Burnett scholarship for piano.

She is featured in an Irish Times report on an under-15 violin competition.

Her violin achievements also featured in the Belfast Telegraph. A report, headlined 'Schoolgirl takes a top mark bow', appeared in the Tele's March 17, 1970 edition.

It states: "Fourteen-year-old schoolgirl violinist Josie Herivel can consider herself a professional. At yesterday's Belfast Music Festival she was awarded the maximum 100 marks for her performance in the under-16 violin solo class.

"The adjudicator, Mr Douglas Cameron, told the audience: 'I can only remember awarding 100 marks once or twice in my whole career as an adjudicator.

"This young lady gave a completely professional performance. She could play anywhere.'"

Another report states how Mr Cameron described Josie's performance as "quite amazing".

The report states: "He was so overwhelmed by the quality of her playing that he simply sat back and awarded her the full total of 100 marks. There was just nothing in the class to come anywhere near this, and he did not award either a second or third place."

In April 1970 Josephine won a scholarship for her piano playing.

The Troubles were, of course, just starting in Belfast and even in the normally quiet thoroughfares on the Lisburn and Malone Roads, there were few families who were not affected by the daily bombings, shootings and chaos across the city.

At Queen's, John Herivel first lectured in mathematics but later became a reader of history and the philosophy of science.

One of his fellow lecturers for a time was the late poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who was in the English department.

Award-winning English actor Simon Callow, who was at Queen's in 1968, was tutored by John Herivel but knew nothing about his World War Two code-breaking, and only discovered his activities after his death in January 2011 when he read a book about him.

He said: "I was absolutely astonished. He was a wonderful teacher in the old-fashioned way. During his tutorials he used to make tea and toast crumpets by the fire. He was a profound thinker but there was no sense that he had done anything extraordinary with life. That was his generation, they didn't kiss and tell."

Herivel said he didn't believe in blowing his own trumpet – something he'd had instilled in him by his father – and it's believed he tried to encourage his own children to follow suit.

Herivel, who wrote a series of books about his code-breaking and about scientists like Isaac Newton, retired to Oxford and became a Fellow of All Souls, and was honoured by being made a member of the International Academy of History of Science in 1978.

That was the same year that his daughter Josephine somehow went from being an unremarkable middle-class girl from Belfast to a radical left-wing activist in England.

It's not clear how she fell under the influence of Balakrishnan or why she would have stayed with him for so long if she had been unhappy with her life in his collective, which she's said to have joined soon after moving to England.

She was in court along with five other members of her sect in 1978 after police raided a bookshop in south London which was also the base for Balakrishnan's commune.

Echoing the words that she would have heard a hundred times in news reports back home, Ms Herivel said she was refusing to recognise the court.

Just for good measure, she called the judge "a fascist lackey".

Family friends say communications between Ms Herivel and her family broke down completely, even though her relations tried repeatedly to find out where she was and what she was doing. But friends said the attempts proved fruitless.

It's probably not without significance that after her father died from a heart attack in 2011 – six years after his wife had passed away – obituaries said that he was survived by his daughters Susan and Mary. There was no mention of Josephine. The estranged daughter was missing from his funeral. Susan and Mary live separately in London but have not commented on the plight of their sister. An obituary reprinted on Methodist College's own website has no reference to their old girl, either.

Police investigating Ms Herivel's kidnap claims are trying to piece together the complicated jigsaw of her life. They sought the advice of trauma specialists before interviewing her or the other two women held in the house in Brixton with her – a 69-year-old Malaysian and a 30-year-old Briton, who is thought to have spent her entire life in servitude.

Police sources have said all three women were highly traumatised by their ordeals.

However, officials from the Freedom Charity said they were doing well considering what they had been through.

Their alleged captors were arrested earlier this week on suspicion of being involved in forced labour and domestic servitude, plus immigration offences. They were freed on bail pending further inquiries.

It's believed that the Balakrishnans came to the UK in the sixties from India and Tanzania.

Reports said that delicate negotiations were carried out between two of the three women in the house after Josephine Herivel's phone call on October 18, when she said she made her cry for help after watching a TV documentary on forced marriage.

During days of secret talks she and the English woman agreed to leave the house when the Balakrishnans were not at home, and the Malaysian woman was subsequently rescued by the Metropolitan Police.

Ever since, the three women have been cared for in what the Met have called a safe place, where a team of experts have been advising police officers about the need for them to gain the trust and confidence of the victims at a pace that focuses on not only their physical safety, but also their emotional and mental wellbeing.

"It will be a long, slow process to rehabilitate these women and to encourage them to talk to police, who will want to build up a case for prosecutions," said a social worker.

Police sources have said that, as yet, none of the women has alleged sexual abuse by their captors, but they have claimed that they were beaten.

Few neighbours in Brixton reported anything unusual to police about what was happening in the house. One resident said one of the women sometimes held notes against an upstairs window but she was unable to read them or appreciate that anything was wrong.

It's believed that most people in the vicinity who saw the women regarded them as part of a normal family living, an ordinary family life.

One social worker in Belfast said: "It may seem incredible to a lot of people that if these women had any degree of what police in England are calling 'controlled freedom' they didn't take advantage of their periods at liberty to break free and stay out of that environment.

"But it could take a long time before the full story comes out. Sometimes victims in a situation like that become so used to it and so dependent on the people around them they don't feel that they can exist on their own.

"It's like opening the cage of a pet bird in a house. They don't always fly away."

*Additional reporting by Adrian Rutherford

Belfast Telegraph


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