Michael McCarthy: Echoes of the day horror was visited on Hungerford

The parallels with Michael Ryan's rampage in 1987 are striking

Related Topics

A gunman going on a murderous shooting spree in and around a small English town is hardly an everyday occurrence but unfortunately we have been here before. Twenty-three years ago Britain woke up to the largely-American phenomenon of the firearms rampage when Michael Ryan, an unemployed labourer and gun fanatic, perpetrated a massacre in the quiet Berkshire market town of Hungerford.

The similarities with yesterday's bloodbath in Cumbria are striking, with in each case the gunman picking out more than 30 random targets over several hours and blasting them, before shooting himself dead. The only difference is in the percentage of fatalities: Derrick Bird shot 12 dead yesterday and wounded 25, but on 19 August 1987 Michael Ryan wounded 15 yet killed 16 people outright before turning one of his several guns on himself.

He was able to do that because among his collection of six legally-held weapons, he had two high-velocity semi-automatic rifles capable of rapid fire, a US M1 carbine and a Chinese version of the Russian AK-47 assault rifle, and it was these he used, with deadly effect, to carry out his merciless Market Day assault on Hungerford's residents.

As a direct result of his actions, the Firearms Act was amended in 1988 to ban the private ownership of semi-automatic rifles and restrict the use of shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than two rounds.

That will be cold comfort for the people of Cumbria this morning, just as it was cold comfort for the people of Hungerford, who, it transpired in the subsequent inquiry, had been let down in several ways, with extensive criticism being made of the speed of response to the incident by Thames Valley Police.

The local police station was being renovated and had only two telephone lines working on the day and, furthermore, the local telephone exchange could not handle the amount of 999 calls being dialled; the police helicopter was being repaired; the force firearms unit was training 40 miles away.

But in truth, it would have been difficult for any police force to grasp immediately the scale and nature of what began to unfold that day, which was something entirely outside the experience of British police, other than in Northern Ireland.

Ryan, who was 27 and lived with his mother, a school dinner lady, began his massacre for reasons no one will ever know when he encountered a young mother, Susan Godfrey, picnicking with her two small children in Savernake forest. He shot her 13 times in the back. He then drove back to Hungerford, set fire to his own home and began to move through the streets of the town shooting anyone he encountered: people mowing their lawns, walking their dogs, driving their cars, including his own mother, Dorothy, and the first policeman to arrive at the scene, PC Roger Brereton.

He finally retreated to the empty John O'Gaunt Secondary School, which he had himself attended, where he was surrounded by armed police and where, eventually, he shot himself.

As a reporter covering the incident that day for another newspaper, I was struck by two things above all. The first was how difficult it was to make sense initially of what was actually happening, to grasp the unthinkable nightmare unfolding in the quiet market town. The second was the eventual shock of realising what had taken place; I still remember the Chief Constable of Thames Valley, Colin Smith, walking up to the press briefing in the street at 8.10pm on that warm August evening and beginning to say: "It now appears that 16 people have been shot dead..." and the gasp which followed from the assembled reporters.

It was unthinkable then. Not any more of course. In Dunblane, nine years later, it was 17, and yesterday it was nearly as many.

But that evening in Hungerford, in our relatively quiet and relatively civilised country, some sort of awful psychic boundary was definitely crossed.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26  

General Election 2015: It's time we forgot what school we all went to

Stefano Hatfield

In Sickness and in Health: A night out to show I’m still Rebecca as well as a carer

Rebecca Armstrong
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions