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Dr Harold Shipman: What Primrose knew

Dr Harold Shipman rivals Jack the Ripper as Britain's most notorious serial killer. But his wife remains an enigma. Did she know anything? Suspect anything? Since her husband was jailed, nearly two years ago, Primrose Shipman has made no public comment. Today, however, her side of the story may finally be heard by Paul Vallely

Friday 16 November 2001 01:00 GMT

She told no one her name, and she politely declined invitations to pop in to meet her new neighbours over a cup of tea. Nor did she invite anyone in to assuage local curiosity about what changes she might have made to the decor of the two-bedroom bungalow she was renting. Those who lived nearby assumed that the overweight, middle-aged woman who had moved in next door was simply shy.

Even when, some weeks later, she let slip that her name was Primrose, few people cottoned on. It was only when the tabloid and television journalists arrived, with their hand-delivered letters requesting that she choose them to "break her silence" – and their endless questions around the village when their requests were met with her customary refusal – that the good folk of Huttons Ambo, near York, realised that the newcomer was Primrose Shipman, the wife of Dr Harold Shipman, the worst serial killer in British criminal history.

Not long afterwards, she moved house. Again. Since her husband was convicted of killing 15 of his elderly patients – and the inquiry began into accusations that over the years he may, in fact, have murdered as many as 400 more – Primrose Shipman has been forced to move no fewer than three times.

She first left the home she had shared with the deadly doctor for more than three decades. It was a modest semi in the quiet village of Mottram, just outside the town of Hyde in Greater Manchester, where the general practitioner had preyed on those who turned to him for medical help. That was not long after Shipman was convicted at Preston Crown Court in January 2000. People had begun to hurl abuse at her in the street and refused to serve her in shops.

So she moved as far east as she could, to Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, a holiday place of childhood security. Yet she felt intimidated there too. Then came Huttons Ambo, where her father was once a farm worker. Most recently she moved to a hamlet near her home town of Wetherby, further north, where her elderly mother still lives. But it is an odd kind of pilgrimage into the past; her mother has not spoken to her for 30 years, and her father died some years ago unreconciled to his estranged daughter.

Today, however, the hiding must stop. From the first time that detectives called at Shipman's surgery one September morning in 1998 as they began to investigate the scarcely credible allegations against her husband, Primrose Shipman has refused to say a word. She stayed silent in the face of the police's inquiries; they could not compel her to talk unless they arrested her. She refused to speak to the press. She slammed the door in the face of television crews. In two years she has uttered only two words publicly: "No comment."

But now she has been subpoenaed to appear before the Shipman inquiry, the two-year investigation into the way the medico-legal system allowed Shipman, unchecked, to carry out the systematic murder of patients from his GP's practice in numbers that the local coroner has suggested could reach 1,000. Today she will enter a witness box for the first time.

She had hoped to be able to give her evidence over a video link. Her lawyers had told the inquiry that she was "uniquely terrified" of appearing in front of the public and press. Only dictators such as Slobodan Milosevic were more hated throughout the world than her husband, her lawyer had said. Mrs Shipman's fear would mean that her evidence would come across badly and she would not be believed.

Dame Janet Smith, who is chairing the inquiry, had no truck with this. "There is no good reason why Mrs Shipman should not come to this room and give her evidence in the same way as other witnesses do. She will be treated with courtesy and consideration," she said. "Mrs Shipman is not suspected of any criminal activities or any conduct for which she might be criticised. This inquiry is looking at the activities of her husband and not her."

Yet that is not how the British public regard Primrose Shipman. There is something intangible that attaches to her, for the wives of serial killers have pariah status. It is a peculiar punishment. Harold Shipman may have to spend the rest of his life among other murderers in prison, yet his wife is sentenced to a life of freedom circumscribed by whispers and pointed fingers. "She must have known," is the unspoken accusation.

The irony is that Mrs Shipman has always carried a considerable burden on behalf of her husband. She fell out with her family not long after meeting Shipman. Primrose Oxtoby was just 17 when she met the first-year medical student from Nottingham on the top deck of the 38 bus from Wetherby to Leeds, where she had taken a job as a window-dresser after leaving school at 16. She was, even then, on the plumpish side, but pretty in a country-girl way. Within a few months of meeting she was pregnant, opening a rift with her strict Methodist parents that was never to heal. It was a shotgun wedding, with no best man or bridesmaids, and only the couple's fathers as witnesses. The event, in 1966, was not recorded in the local paper.

Any chance that her parents had ever been likely to come round to the match disappeared eight years later when Shipman was fined £600 for forging prescriptions in order to feed the pethidine habit he had developed to fight his emerging depression during his first post as a GP in the Pennine valley town of Todmorden. From that point on Primrose and her parents were not on speaking terms and the two youngest of the Shipmans' four children, David, 20, and Sam, 17, have apparently never seen their maternal grandmother.

The years that followed saw the Shipmans work hard to rebuild their respectability. After two years out of general practice Shipman finally got a post as a GP, this time in Hyde. On the face of it they were a normal family. The children attended local state schools, driven there each day by their mother in her battered Renault. Shipman became a parent governor of one school, and Primrose earned extra cash as a childminder and running a sandwich shop. The family lived quietly and modestly, gardening, brewing their own beer and staying in to watch television.

In all of this Primrose always played the subordinate role. She had put her husband before her parents. She had backed him through seven years at medical school, struggling to bring up their first child on a meagre student grant as he devoted himself to study. When he developed blackouts, through his drug abuse, she had helped cover for him, saying he was epileptic, and had driven him from his surgery to home visits in the countryside. When they settled into a domestic routine in Mottram he spent his evenings at the Rochdale Canal Restoration Society, as a volunteer for St John Ambulance or reading thrillers while she cooked the supper and put the children to bed. And she stayed diligently loyal through his arrest and trial for murder, visiting him in jail every day on remand and turning up at the court – always the first to arrive and the last to leave – to offer support from the public benches to the man in the dock, even though he rarely turned to acknowledge her.

It was a devotion she enjoyed. She had never sought to challenge the intellectual superiority on which Shipman prided himself. By comparison with his medical peers his was a pretty mediocre ability, but Primrose had failed her 11-plus after a poor education left her barely literate. But there was an emotional domination too. Shipman was something of a bully. The irrational mood swings – almost like childish temper tantrums – that he took out on staff at work were in evidence with Primrose and the children too. Surgery staff remember Shipman being very hard on his youngest sons, who sometimes called at the surgery for a lift home from school, and left in tears. They were also told by his eldest daughter Sarah, now 32, that she couldn't tolerate his bullying and left home as soon as she could. "Nobody eats until I get home," he once barked down the telephone at Primrose when she rang to say the children were sitting at the table awaiting his arrival.

It was, in everyday form, the urge that Dr Richard Badcock, the only pyschiatrist ever to interview Shipman, saw manifested in the GP's murderous streak; a search for the core experience of "complete powerfulness – complete ability to make the world go the way you want it to". In all this Primrose's instincts fed Shipman's fantasies of control by doing exactly what she was told. And yet she also went on to mirror some of Shipman's traits.

Like her husband, she learnt to deal with the world by being arrogant and bossy. Shipman's former colleagues recall her as aggressively defensive about him. Neighbours told stories of her brandishing a knife to admonish parents for their children's actions. Some even described Shipman as henpecked and put-upon.

Other people's marriages are often a mystery, but there was clearly something deeper here. It was at the height of Shipman's killing that Primrose began to balloon in weight. In 1984 she was still relatively shapely; by 1990 she was a size 20; today she is fatter than ever. But the cruel and revealing asides from most of those who speak or write about her were not restricted to her size.

Adverse comment is regularly made about the state of her home. The routine domestic chaos of a happy-go-lucky family home – littered inside with newspapers, magazines and piles of washing and ironing, and outside with bikes and toys scattered on the lawn – gave way over the years to something more unsavoury. Primrose Shipman's home was dirty, the grill pan thick with bacon fat, dirty dishes piled in the sink, the carpets so thick with grime that visitors' shoes stuck to it. "Her home was a mess and so was she," said one of her husband's former colleagues. "She looked more like a bag lady than a doctor's wife."

It was as if, in her own way, Primrose did rebel – against the gleaming God-fearing parental home that had rejected her, against the supercilious domineering of her husband's world, and, by her silence, against the demands of the outside world that she attempt to reconcile all this by some public confession.

So far she has chosen not to. She stays silent and remains at home. Apart from shopping she ventures out only to visit her disabled sister and her imprisoned husband. She drives an hour to the north to see him once a week at the Frankland high-security prison in County Durham, where he has – bizarrely – been giving medical advice to the inmates and translating the Harry Potter books into Braille.

There, say those who have seen them, Harold and Primrose kiss and hold hands and laugh at each other's jokes as if the terrible events had never taken place. Perhaps in Primrose Shipman's head they never have. We shall find out today.

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