Town haunted by memory of young Harold Shipman

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"Dick Gardener," said the man at the bar of the Church Tavern in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, after a 10-minute struggle to call to mind the name of a long-dead acquaintance. "Went in for a routine operation in late '71, beginning of '72 and never came out. Big, strapping, fit miner he were. Working down Ackton Hall pit one minute; then dead at 50 the next. Seemed like a funny business."

Mr Gardener was being remembered by Paul Vause, whose father ran a market gardening business where he had sought casual work to top up his miner's income in the late 1960s. He died after surgery to an intestinal rupture.

Thoughts of his death belonged firmly in the past until it emerged this week that the public inquiry into the serial killer Harold Shipman has re-examined 137 deaths from the four-year period (1970-74) when he worked as a junior doctor at Pontefract General Infirmary.

Suddenly, the town is full of recollections about those whose deaths had just seemed a part of the natural scheme of things. People like Sarah Hough of nearby Methley, who died in June 1971, and William Turner of Featherstone, who died the following March. Both deaths have been re-investigated by the Shipman inquiry, along with many others, including the deaths of four babies.

Shipman was a houseman in the hospital in Pontefract from August 1970 to March 1974, acquiring diplomas in child health and gynaecology. But until now thoughts that he might have killed during that time were always dismissed.

Concerns about one Pontefract death surfaced in the early stages of the Shipman inquiry but proved unconnected to the GP. Attempts by the local Pontefract and Castleford Express to locate suspicious families have, in the words of one journalist, been "unusually frustrating".

But that began to change when, after Shipman hanged himself 12 months ago, a health worker alerted West Yorkshire Police to her suspicions about the young infirmary doctor who had lived in one of the hospital's red-brick houses with his wife and two young children. The young Shipman was known to her 30 years ago (as to all his associates then) as Fred, not Harold, and bore little resemblance to the shabby, bearded serial killer pictured in the newspapers. This contributed to her long delay in testifying, she said.

Detectives have found her to be a "very credible" witness, according to one police source, and her testimony has led to months of work for the Shipman inquiry's legal team, who have sought to track down relatives of 133 patients at Pontefract who had their death certificates signed by Shipman - and a further four at whose deaths he was also present.

The passage of time has erased much of the evidence that might establish whether Shipman killed before leaving town for general practice in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. The General Infirmary, which was much smaller than its present size when Shipman worked there, has operated under four management structures in the intervening years, during which many patient records have been destroyed.

But the first book to include an examination of Shipman's Pontefract career, which is published next week, suggests that he probably did kill during his time there. The book, Harold Shipman: Mind Set on Murder, by Carole Peters, whose work has spawned television documentaries on six serial killers, draws on interviews with two of Britain's leading criminal profilers: Professor Paul Britton and Dr Julian Boon, who has been employed by West Yorkshire Police to examine Shipman's prison correspondence.

Dr Boon concludes that it is unlikely Shipman would have started killing patients at Todmorden, since most serial killers "build up" to such acts when the opportunity first presents itself - for Shipman, in his first job and while working unmonitored at Pontefract. "There would be people coming in from road accidents or whatever," Dr Boon says. "If you are Shipman and you have proclivities, there is the temptation to push them over the edge and then come out and be the hero of the hour and say, 'I did all I could to save them'."

For its thesis that Shipman's fascination with death predates Todmorden, the book also draws on interviews with his colleagues at Leeds University Medical School, who suggest he seemed drawn to spend more time than any of them with bodies. Pontefract's disinclination to believe that a killer might have been working in its midst led the Shipman inquiry to appeal for evidence through the local Express, and in some quarters the inquiry still breeds cynicism. "Times are hard around here," said Jack Roberts, at the bar of the Fox Inn near the infirmary, as he recounted how three of the five factories that once produced the liquorice for which the town is famous have closed.

"People hear the TV news and decide they will make money - compensation - if they can. I think a lot of people have got Shipman wrong. He belongs to a time when, if the elderly were very ill, the doctor would help them on the way."

But Mr Roberts was in a fast-diminishing minority. The Express said yesterday that it had suddenly found itself with anecdotes to pursue, as names from the past came flooding back to mind. They may have included Sheila Skipson, remembered at the Fox Inn by John Dawes. "Early 1970s she went," he said. "She was not a young woman but it's difficult to rest easy about these people now. Who knows what was going on?"

The chances of such 30-year-old recollections establishing a likelihood of murder are slim. In Todmorden, the loss of medical records and death of potential witnesses resulted in only one death being firmly linked to Shipman by the inquiry. The task is even harder in Pontefract, where the inquiry's conclusions, to be revealed on Thursday, may be purely statistical - comparing the number Shipman's death certificates to those signed by other doctors.

"These [individuals] who died were hardly salsa dancing," said a source who has helped the inquiry. "They were chronically ill and guilt is difficult to determine. There is much that we can never know."