Heath led Britain between 1970 and 1974, taking it into the European Economic Community in 1973, and was known as a curmudgeonly bachelor who loved sailing and classical music. He died in 2005 at the age of 89.
Now he has become the most senior figure to join the ranks of prominent Westminster politicians accused, many of them posthumously, of sexually abusing children.
The story comes as Britain enters a crucial stage in its efforts to investigate claims that people in social elites repeatedly carried out and concealed child sex abuse in the second half of the 20th century.
“I’m in absolutely no doubt that there were a significant number of politicians and many others in high society… who were committing child sexual abuse and probably continue to do so,” Simon Danczuk, an opposition Labour MP and a leading campaigner on the issue, told Sky News television.
Others urged caution, noting that Heath was not around to defend himself.
“There are many unanswered questions here,” former Conservative lawmaker Brian Binley, who once worked in Heath’s office, told BBC radio.
“We must be very careful. It’s easy to smear people not around.”
– Other politicians under suspicion –
A string of police forces confirmed they were investigating allegations about Heath after a police watchdog announced it was investigating a retired policeman’s claim that a prosecution was dropped in the 1990s when the accused threatened to expose the ex-premier.
Police on the Channel Island of Jersey confirmed Heath features in Operation Whistle, their probe into alleged historic abuse, while police in the county of Hampshire said they were “investigating allegations”.
Tuesday’s Daily Mirror newspaper carried an allegation from a man who said he was raped by Heath in 1961, aged 12, before it emerged as many as five police forces were investigating allegations.
In Wiltshire, where Heath lived in his later years, the police force said officers had received “a number of calls” following appeals for information.
Heath is being directly investigated by Scotland Yard over child sex abuse claims, the BBC reported Tuesday.
Police in Kent, the county southeast of London, said they had received a report on Tuesday of a sexual assault in the 1960s.
“The victim has named Sir Edward Heath in connection with the allegation. Detectives are making initial inquiries and will obtain a full account from the victim,” a spokesman said.
Heath, who led the Conservative party now headed by Prime Minister David Cameron, is not the first politician accused of abuse.
Others include the late Leon Brittan, interior minister under prime minister Margaret Thatcher and then a European commissioner; Cyril Smith, a Liberal MP who died in 2010; and Greville Janner, an ex-Labour MP and member of the House of Lords.
Last month, it emerged that in 1986, the MI5 intelligence service had urged a cover-up of claims that an unidentified MP “has a penchant for small boys”.
There are suggestions that children were abused at London’s exclusive Dolphin Square apartment complex near parliament, popular with MPs.
– Ex-PM had police minder –
Politicians make up just one element of the overall picture.
The number of abuse allegations being made has surged since one of the BBC’s top presenters, Jimmy Savile, was exposed as a paedophile after his 2011 death.
A vast judge-led inquiry was opened last month into child sexual abuse at a whole range of British institutions from parliament to the BBC, children’s homes to churches.
It cited estimates that around one British child in every 20 has been sexually abused.
Heath rarely spoke about his private life despite years of media insinuations that he was gay, at a time when any public declaration of homosexuality would have impeded a top-flight political career.
Friends of the former prime minister said they found the allegations difficult to believe.
“It never crossed my mind that anything like this could have occurred,” Robert Vaudry, Heath’s former private secretary, told The Times newspaper.
From 1988 to 1992, Heath had a constant police accompaniment, as do all former premiers, Vaudry added.
“It feels like a cheap shot and the fact is that he cannot defend himself because he is deceased,” he said.