CORBY GLEN does not immediately betray a sense of tragedy. The Lincolnshire village in which Beverly Allitt grew up is surrounded by woods and fields and approached along narrow, winding roads edged with cow parsley. The streets, some of them hundreds of years old, are silent. It would be hard to imagine danger being generated here.
Corby Glen is less than nine miles from Grantham, a town equally decorous (Baroness Thatcher was born there). But Grantham is not the haven it seems - Beverly Allitt murdered babies in its hospital. And for a visitor, the Corby Glen idyll soon fades too.
No children play among the swings at the village's grassy entrance. A surprising number of houses are for sale. When a journalist approaches, lips are pursed, eyes lowered, curtains drawn. It is two years since Beverly Allitt put Corby Glen on the crime map. On Friday she will be sentenced for 26 attacks, including four murders. Villagers have become fed up with the intrusion.
Nurse Allitt's parents still live in the village. Her father, Richard, works in an off-licence and her mother, Lillian, is a school cleaner. By all accounts, neither they nor their other children - two daughters and a son - saw anything particularly disturbing in Beverly's behaviour as a child or teenager. Neighbours have recalled the young Beverly volunteering for every baby-sitting job going. On the whole, they have spoken with affection of the girl who hugged babies, and with bewilderment of the woman who killed them.
As a child, Beverly often turned up at school with apparent injuries. Schoolfriends were impressed by her fortitude. She was her teacher's favourite. Yet at least one friend half-suspected a sham. 'She would never show what was under the bandage and got accused of inventing injuries.'
But whether the injuries were mythical, or real but self-inflicted, hindsight suggests Munchausen's syndrome. Identified in 1951 by Richard Asher (father of the actress, Jane), it is named after an 18th-century German baron who regaled dinner guests with fanciful tales of heroic deeds, many of which caused him injury. Dr Asher wrote in the Lancet: 'The most remarkable feature of the syndrome is the apparent senselessness of it . . . Many of their falsehoods seem to have little point. They lie for the sake of lying.'
The motivation might be 'a desire to be the centre of interest and attention' or 'a grudge against doctors and hospitals, which is satisfied by frustrating or deceiving them'.
The number of known Munchausen's syndrome sufferers is thought to be small - as is those with an allied condition, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy - in which the sufferer inflicts injuries, including terminal ones, on others (usually young and helpless), then appears to make heroic efforts on their behalf.
Nurse Allitt had both syndromes. Yet even after she began killing babies, deceiving some medical colleagues, arousing the suspicion of others, she went untreated. At home she behaved well, helping with chores and saving her baby-sitting money. But on entering her teens her 'illnesses' multiplied. According to Murder on Ward Four, by Nick Davies, every week she had something wrong with her: stomachache, headache, neckache, backache, cuts, bruises: 'Bev always had some story about her illnesses, how she'd fallen off a horse or been knocked off her bike by a passing car or she'd burned her leg or gashed her arm.'
In Corby Glen, her preoccupation with infants seemed natural enough. She never disclosed much of her inner self to her peers. Physically bulky and unstylish, she reached her 16th birthday without a real boyfriend.
When not explaining the reason for her arm being in a sling, Beverly gushed about her planned nursing career. Leaving school at 16 with an O-level in food and nutrition and CSEs in English, French, biology and maths, she went to Grantham College on a pre-nursing course, calling into the Fighting Cocks at night. She was there when she met Stephen Biggs in 1987.
A tall, nave road worker one year her junior, Stephen was unsure of Beverly until she more or less demanded that she become his girlfriend. He bought her a ring, but she declined to set a date for their marriage. They had sex once a month. Beverly refused to hold his hand in public. There were violent fights, in which Stephen was kneed in the groin. Among her lies was a claim that an earlier boyfriend had raped her.
Other things take on retrospective significance: in 1988, when she started training at Grantham, she developed a preference for the company of a female student, announcing that Stephen Biggs had Aids (another lie). The pattern of ill-explained injuries repeated itself.
There were odder things: talking to other nurses, Beverly claimed that a poltergeist had stuck a carving knife into a pillow, set the bathroom curtains on fire and fed tablets to her landlady's dog. At one stage, police were called in to investigate a kitchen fire and the appearance of human faeces in the refrigerator.
A few casualty nurses at Grantham Hospital thought she would benefit from psychiatric help, but kept their thoughts to themselves. At her first job interview, in 1990, she was turned down. She was the only nurse on her course to fail to get a job immediately on qualifying. Boston Hospital turned her down on the grounds of 'insufficient experience'.
But back at Grantham Hospital, there was a severe staff shortage on the children's ward. Allitt begged for a chance to do further training there. She was given a six-month contract. Her parents were pleased that their daughter's primary ambition was at last being realised. It would have meant nothing to them that, on Beverly's 14th birthday, a British physician was providing fresh outlines of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Roy Meadow referred to mothers deliberately causing their children to bleed or suffer seizures. The mothers invariably seemed to enjoy lingering in the hospital and 'often had had previous medical training'.
Within a week of Nurse Allitt moving into Ward Four, Liam Taylor, the first of her infant charges, died from a heart attack, aged seven weeks.
Tall stories, page 24
Lynn Barber, page 25
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies