The secrets of the Shipman household were intact last night after Primrose – wife and occasional receptionist to serial killer Harold – told an inquiry into his crimes about little more than her belief in his innocence.
Mrs Shipman, 52, who has refused all police approaches in the three years since his arrest, was forced to make her first public account of herself when ordered before the inquiry at Manchester town hall – but her memory often failed her in two hours of questions.
There was the occasional domestic revelation – her son's tendency to borrow his father's car, leaving Mrs Shipman to give up hers and "take a bus". But the nearest she came to illuminating the inquiry was the faintly perceptible nod and accompanying "yes" to a solicitor's assertion that she remains "convinced" of her husband's innocence.
"And you are doing all you can to help solicitors to bring an appeal?" asked Andrew Spink, counsel to many families of Shipman patients. "Yes," said Mrs Shipman.
"And can you reassure the inquiry that this is not affecting your evidence?" asked Mr Spink.
Mrs Shipman stumbled. "Yes... I'm not sure," she said, before Dame Janet Smith, chairman to the inquiry, halted the line of inquiry. "It seems to me that Mrs Shipman is doing her best to tell the truth and I make no bones about the fact that this is my impression," she said.
Mrs Shipman, whose husband is serving life for 15 murders, was questioned on three cases which evidence to the inquiry had suggested she should have knowledge of. She was allegedly present in a room when 52-year-old Elaine Oswald, possibly the only patient to have survived a Shipman attempted murder, was resuscitated by him 27 years ago.
She was also called by her husband into the homes of Joyce Woodhead and Irene Chapman, to comfort relatives around the time of their deaths in 1997 and 1998.
Mrs Shipman, who wore a black floral blouse and skirt and carried a black shoulder bag, was helped into the seat where dozens of patients' bereaved relatives have testified since the inquiry opened in July. She appeared drawn, though composed.
The death of Mrs Chapman, a 74-year-old widow, at home in Hyde, Greater Manchester, on 7 March, 1998, had provided more evidence than the other two cases but Mrs Shipman could account for none of it.
During the morning of the death, she had been undertaking her usual Saturday morning receptionist's role at his Market Street surgery in Hyde and there was evidence of her presence there: the log she made of Mrs Chapman's telephone call with complaints of "chest pains" at 8.45am; her own scribbled shopping reminder – "cat food" – on the surgery diary for the day.
Shipman visited Mrs Chapman during the morning before returning with his wife following morning surgery. Mrs Shipman recalled waiting in the car until he asked her inside, to deal with Mrs Chapman's relatives while he went to the surgery to pick up medical records.
It was an exceptionally unusual request: Shipman hardly – if ever – invited her into patients' homes and she had not been present after the death of a patient. Yet she could remember nothing of her time in the house.
Though Shipman left her to greet Mrs Chapman's bereaved relative Roy Saxton, she was given no explanation of the death, as she recalled.
Mr Saxton's earlier evidence contradicted her. He insisted Mrs Shipman had told him coronary thrombosis was the cause and that they had spent half an hour near the body before Shipman returned.
Mrs Shipman said Mrs Chapman was dead before she had went into the house. She recalled only repairing to a "back room" with Mrs Saxton, but didn't remember what they had talked about, whether they had stood or sat, or what furniture might have been in the room. "I can't remember... I don't know, I think but I can't be sure," she said repeatedly.
Then she was confronted with the only tangible evidence that her story was contradicting her husband, who has refused to speak to the inquiry team about this and the other 400 cases. The cremation certificate Shipman signed clearly stated that she was present at the time of Mrs Chapman's death. "Does this not cause you doubt – that you were not there?" asked Mr Spink.
"I wasn't there when she died. I don't remember being there... she wasn't..." she said before her voice faltered, she apologised and looked to Dame Janet.
After taking a sip of water she continued. "As far as I can remember, Mrs Chapman was dead when I went into the house. I didn't know about [the form] it until recently," she said.
The inquiry continues on Monday.Reuse content