Sheila Bowler was a respectable middle-class piano teacher - until

she was wrongly

accused of murdering an elderly aunt. She tells Grania Langdon-Down how four years in prison shook her middle-class sensibilities to the core.

As Sheila Bowler stood in the dock at the Old Bailey yesterday awaiting the verdict of her retiral for murder, she shook in terror. "The jury looked very solemn. I glanced across the courtroom at my daughter and she was in tears. Then they said `Not Guilty' and all grinned at me. I was weak with relief."

When her confused and elderly aunt wandered into a Sussex river and died in 1992, Sheila Bowler's life became a nightmare. A 68-year-old widow whose life revolved around her family, her piano teaching and her home town of Rye, Sheila was found guilty in July 1993 of murdering 89-year- old Florence Jackson. She lost her first appeal in May 1995 and served four years of her minimum 12-year life sentence before judges at her second appeal last summer ordered the retrial and released her on bail.

The case hinged on whether Aunt Flo could have walked unaided to her death in the River Brede in East Sussex after Sheila had left her alone in the car while she went to get help with a flat tyre. Yesterday the jury decided it was possible and cleared Sheila of pushing her aunt into the river. Her motive for killing Aunt Flo, whom she had cared for without complaint for years, was said to have been greed - the pounds 252 weekly cost of Aunt Flo's nursing home was supposedly whittling away the value of the flat the aunt had left to Sheila in her will.

As Sheila resumes her life in the three bedroom house overlooking Rye, which she and her husband Bob bought 30 years ago, it is only the bag stamped HM PRISON SERVICE blocking a hole in the greenhouse roof that gives any hint of the 1,475 days that she spent as prisoner TV3389.

She is still bemused how she could have changed overnight from respectable widow to callous murderess. The Daily Mail's headline, "The aunt, the black widow and a murder most English", summed up the coverage when she was sentenced.

"I can't believe now how stupid I was to think prison was an impossibility. I felt the whole time during my arrest and first trial that what was happening was unreal and nothing to do with me. I knew I hadn't done anything and, in my blind faith in the legal system, I just thought it would soon be over."

She was so confident that when she went to see a barrister to discuss suing the hospital where her husband had died unexpectedly after routine surgery in 1992, she only mentioned in passing that she was facing "a bit of legal bother". The barrister was horrified when she told him she had been charged with murder.

It was that very detachment that helped confirm her as a cool, calculating killer in the eyes or the police and the jury. Too blunt and emotionally buttoned up for her own good, her case divided opinion even in her home town.

Prison shook her to the very core of her middle-class sensibilities. She remembers with painful clarity being driven to Holloway in a taxi, squashed between two prison officers. She was not allowed to say goodbye to her children - Simon, now 31, a customs officer, Jane, three years his junior and a talented cellist, and step-daughter Elizabeth, 51. On arrival, she was strip-searched, warned not to trust anyone, and sent to a dormitory on the psychiatric wing, automatically designated a suicide risk as a new "lifer". "The room was filthy, with cockroaches coming in the window." One of her room mates was yelling out of the window to a friend, another kept kicking the door and a third was throwing a chair around.

"They were like animals in a cage. I just wanted to escape from it all, so I made my bed, covered my head with a blanket and was so exhausted that I fell asleep straight away." Her ability to sleep through almost any trauma helped her survive, she believes.

Sheila threw herself into cleaning the chapel, organising the library or handing out refreshments during visits, railing against the administration and the slackness of the other inmates in her diary. Her personal officer wrote at one point, "Sheila regards her peers as naughty schoolchildren and she misses the stimulation of the intellectual conversation she is so used to. She states she finds it difficult to accept staff, some of whom are half her age, telling her when to get up, when to eat, etc."

Sheila quickly slipped into prison slang - talking of women "crutching" drugs (hiding them inside themselves) during visits, "squat searches" over a mirror during strip searches and "room spins" (searches). She was called "bloody murderer" when she first arrived at Bullwood Hall, a top security prison in Essex, to serve the first stage of her sentence. But the other inmates, most a third her age, soon nicknamed her Supergran after seeing her jog 21 times round the netball courts.

Her daughter, Jane, says: "Mum will hate me saying this but she did become quite institutionalised. We used to visit and she would be so busy telling us about what she had been doing. Simon used to come away really angry, saying `she doesn't care about us'. But it was just her way of coping."

Sheila had too strong a faith to have taken her own life but she was convinced she would not survive. She had suffered a slight stroke, endured terrible migraines and eczema, while the humiliations, loneliness and frustration took their own toll. Even when she was released on bail , she was too frightened to plan anything until she heard the words "Not Guilty". "If I had been sent back to prison, I would have died there."

Despite her horror of prison, she went back to Holloway to visit friends. "I know how much visitors mean. Some women had no one. My experience has certainly made me more understanding about what can happen to people."

When she was released last summer, Jane immediately asked for her clothes to wash - "they smelt of prison," Jane remembers with a shudder. All Sheila wanted was to sleep in her own bed, have a bath in peace, and walk beside the sea.

Once released on bail, her pension was restored. But the conviction cost her about pounds 52,000 in lost income. She will now seek advice on whether she can claim compensation. It is ironic that, while Sheila did not need Aunt Flo's legacy, having been left comfortably off by her husband, she does now. Most of her savings went on her case. But the pounds 18,000 from the sale of Aunt Flo's flat last year went to relatives because of her conviction. "And some of them had never even bothered to send Flo a Christmas card," she says pointedly.

Those lost years behind bars continue to exact a price. While very close to her mother, Jane is moving to Scotland to rebuild her life after putting her career on hold to fight for Sheila's freedom. "I wish I had her strength," says Jane sadly. "I had such a happy childhood in Rye but I can't bear it now - the gossip was really malicious."

Her mother, on the other hand, strides round Rye, unconcerned by the sideways glances. "It won't be long before they have someone else to gossip about," she says wryly.

A prison diary

Holloway, Monday, 12 July 1993: when the word "Guilty" was pronounced in court, my only feeling was disbelief ... Charles Byers and Emma Kerr [her lawyers] came down to the cell to see me. The best Byers could think of [to say] was "At least you won't die in there."

Monday, 6 September 1993: I could weep at the sad spectacle they [the other prisoners] presented yesterday in chapel. Most of them are between 17 and 23 - most on drugs and many with several children. I have never seen such a dejected group of human beings. They are here for minor offences (apart from drug-dealing) such as non-payment of poll tax or TV licence. No way should they be locked up ... it only magnifies their deep sense of guilt and inadequacy.

Tuesday, 7 September 1993: Can always find things to do but nothing takes away the immense feeling of solitude and rage I feel. Do wish I didn't feel so miserable when I wake in the morning. It's not so bad once the day gets going. Motivation is so difficult to keep going and it is only nine weeks since I came here. It might as well be 9,000 weeks.

Wednesday, 22 September 1993: A really nice officer let me have a bath at 4.30 today. Then she said I could sit and watch TV. What a treat to see a bit of news uninterrupted. She didn't lock me in until 8pm. It was so peaceful - I felt almost human again.

In November 1993 Sheila was moved to Bullwood Hall in Essex, one of two high security women's prisons.

Tuesday, November 9 1993: [The wing] is ghastly - 12 mini-rooms each about 12ft high and only 9ft by 8ft. It is cold - the walls are cream- painted brick - and there is constant piped music ... horrible feeling of claustrophobia. Window in my room is 6ft from the ground and that is the only daylight.

Wednesday, 15 December 1993: Wing being decorated. Can't understand how people can be so jolly. Maybe if I wasn't here for life I would feel differently ... 7pm: just heard my tariff is 12 years. What a Christmas present!

Tuesday, 22 February 1994: "`Really looking forward to darling Jane's visit this afternoon and she was so miserable and unhappy - perhaps because she was alone and didn't have to keep up appearances. How does God expect me to bear this pain and anguish?

Sheila returned briefly to Holloway for her first unsuccessful appeal in April 1995.

Monday, 10 April 10 1995: The journey to the Court of Appeal took only 20 minutes though I felt lucky to get there at all because the hassle of getting out of this place was incredible. Nobody remembered to wake me, though of course I was up. Two pieces of white bread were pushed through the hatch with marge, two sausages and a tea bag, sugar and no water. At 7.30am I was taken to reception down four flights of stairs and subjected to another strip search - bra up and pants down - talk about, humiliating.

Sheila was transferred to Holloway in May 1996.

Saturday, 3 August 1996: I am writing this at 10am. We have been locked in since 12.15 yesterday and we discovered this morning that the cause is a missing pair of scissors ... you can imagine the racket being produced from all the rooms - screaming, shouting, banging of windows, sheets and clothes of all sorts being sent out of the windows alight. We were told at breakfast that the last time something was missing all inmates were locked in for four days.

Soon after this, despair set in and the diary stopped.