The life and death of Thomas Watt Hamilton

His resentment burned for a quarter of a century. Then something made him explode

Nick Cohen
Sunday 17 March 1996 01:00

Once he was dead, everyone knew how to sum up Thomas Hamilton. He was a lone mad-man in the Lee Harvey Oswald mould; an obsessive misfit who bottled up his paranoid resentment until he was ready to write himself into the national consciousness with other people's blood.

The boys whom he ordered to strip and run around in swimming trunks laughed at him behind his back and called him Mr. Creepy. The scores of adults he knew in Dunblane recognised his weirdness and nicknamed him Spock. His podgy face and insinuating voice had made their flesh crawl, they said.

Even if they had not heard the rumours about Hamilton and his boys' camps which had been going on for 25 years, people in Dunblane suspected that something was wrong. And to his neighbours in Kent Road, Stirling, he stood out in the poor but friendly street as a man with little to say. George Smart said he had not got a word out his neighbour in two years. He would see him walking by dressed in the classic nerd's anorak, head down, hands shoved into pockets.

Many other Kent Road residents, who occasionally looked through Hamilton's windows and saw the disturbing (but not blatantly pornographic) pictures of boys in swimming trunks covering his walls, painted similar portraits.

There was one exception: Cathleen Kerr, a pensioner who lives opposite the Hamilton home and was the nearest thing he had to a friend in the neighbourhood. He called round for coffee and always made kind inquiries about the health of her sick husband, Peter. Mrs Kerr knew a different Hamilton, a "quietly spoken, well dressed and placed" Hamilton. And as for the anorak the other neighbours mocked, well, she said, he "always wore a collar and tie underneath".

As the investigations into the life of Thomas Hamilton developed, it slowly became possible to recognise the man that Mrs Kerr knew. The Mr Creepy figure did not disappear, but he acquired an extra dimension. For the man who killed 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane Primary School- and who would have murdered two more teachers and 12 more children if his aim had been surer - was not simply a deranged loner. He had his collar-and-tie moments, his respectable moments, when he could be persuasive and deploy an unctuous charm.

He was only 22 when he was given the grievance that festered inside him for the rest of his life: his dismissal from the 4/6 Stirling District Scouts on the grounds that he was not suitable to be a troup leader. Convinced from that moment that people were seeing him as a pervert, Hamilton fought a running battle with officialdom for the next 21 years. And most of the time the misfit easily saw off all the police and bureaucrats.

Four Scottish police forces investigated Hamilton after parents made at least 12 complaints or accusations. Each time detectives failed to find a case that would stand up in court. Central Regional Council tried to stop him holding his boys' club meeting in Dunblane High School in the early 1980s. He forced it to back down.

Hamilton was not merely lucky, he was clever enough to organise support. The local government ombudsman for Scotland, gun-club managers, gun-shop owners, the police officers who approved gun certificates, councillors and parents all came to his aid. The rumours never went away, but Hamilton dared his accusers to come into the open. Convinced that "sinister" Scout officials were spreading rumours, he hand-delivered a letter to Dunblane parents last year proclaiming his innocence.

Hamilton may have been obsessed with real or imagined enemies but he was not frightened of them. The support he was able to raise should not be mistaken for affection. Many people in Stirling, Dunblane and the other towns and cities of Central Scotland where Hamilton ran clubs believed that he was the victim of unsubstantiated gossip.

Francis Saunders, a retired Stirling councillor who helped Hamilton when the local authority tried to kick his boys' club out of Dunblane schools in 1983, cast a bleak backward glance after the murders. "I saw him in the street about once a month for 10 years and he was always complaining," he said. "I never got the impression that he was concealing misconduct. He did have an ingratiating, almost oily manner but I put that down to the buffetings he received."

Mr Saunders took the view that Hamilton was innocent until proved guilty and so did dozens of others. When he was wearing his tie, Thomas Hamilton's enthusiasm for turning boys into athletes and his insistent denials of guilt could be very convincing indeed.

Hamilton's childhood was not the normal background of a white-collar man. Shame, deception and, possibly, hatred were the dominant emotions in his family. His grandparents pretended to be his parents and his mother pretended to be his sister. No one has yet said when Hamilton discovered the truth about the peculiar arrangements his family made to avoid embarrassment in a more censorious age.

His mother, Agnes, was born in 1931, the illegitimate daughter of a widow, Rachel Hamilton. To prevent a scandal, the baby was given away to a childless couple who were relatives. James and Catherine Hamilton looked after Agnes until she was 19 when she fell in love with Thomas Watt, a bus driver. They married in Bridge Church, Glasgow in 1950. On 10 May 1952, their son Thomas was born. Eighteen months later, the father ran off with another woman and a second "scandal" was hushed up. Agnes went back to her adoptive parents.

James and Catherine adopted Thomas as their child. His mother became his "older sister". Agnes Hamilton is still alive. She has made only one comment since the shooting. "He seemed to get on with everyone I know of,” she said. “I know he had pictures of boys when they went out camping and things like that but I never thought he was capable of anything like this."

Thomas Watt, the father, is 65 and last week was anxious to deny responsibility for the child he abandoned. He said that he had had no idea whether his son was dead or alive until the killings. "I didn't want to know, I had my new family to think about. People who know me know I'm a good man. I don't want to be associated with Thomas Hamilton in any way. I need counselling."

James, the "grandfather", is now 88. He lived in the Bridge Road flat with Thomas Hamilton until he walked out in 1992. Neighbours say Thomas regularly humiliated the old man; he urinated in his drinks, they claim, and pushed him around. All Mr Hamilton would say was that Thomas "wanted everything his own way and I got fed up and left him to it". The two men had not spoken in four years.

Some Crimes are so pitiless they appear beyond comprehension. Last week, nobody could help asking "why?” Yet Thomas Watt Hamilton made sure that everyone would know his reasons for massacring the children. The complexities and misfortunes of his family were not among them.

Last Wednesday, with a calculation that suggest he carefully planned the slaughter, he posted copies of letters explaining his grievances to BBC Scotland, The Scotsman and the enemies whom he thought had branded him a pervert. Only then did he pick out four of the six guns that British law allowed him to own and set off for Dunblane Primary.

The 14 A4 pages of letters and circulars date from March 1992 to a few days before the killing. They were addressed to Dunblane parents, the Queen, council officials and Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland. They are well written and, in the words of David Vass, Assistant Scout Commissioner for Stirling, "utterly bewildering". Dr Vass was on the murderer's mailing list because of Hamilton's dismissal from the scouts, the letters' main theme. Scout leaders in Dunblane were "jealous" of the success of his boys' clubs, Hamilton told the Queen. They were spreading rumours that he was a pervert; the whispers had "over the past 20 years of youth work caused me untold damage". Their lies, Hamilton alleged, had been passed to councillors, social workers and the police. One letter he copied just before the killings had originally been sent to Mr Forsyth in March 1993. In it, he told the minister that "the horrific murder of James Bulger" by two boys made the work his Boys' Sports Club Committee did to instil "good discipline" all the more important. It was outrageous, he said, that he was a victim of a "sinister witch-hunt" which was alarming parents and destroying his youth group.

Dr Vass is bewildered because the reason why the young Hamilton was expelled from the Scouts in 1974 was so trivial that 99 people in 100 would make a joke about it in their middle age if it had happened to them.

The Scottish Scout Association is adamant that there was no hint at the time that the Scouts believed Hamilton was molesting boys. Nothing was said which could somehow infuriate a repressed homosexual. Nor, the Scouts added, was there any public disgrace. Hamilton was asked to resign quietly and without fuss simply because he was an incompetent leader.

He had led two camping trips to Aviemore in the Highlands. On the first he told the parents of eight boys that there was a hostel for their sons. No hostel had been booked and the boys ended up spending a cold night in the back of a van. ON the second expedition, boys got tired and cold when they were told to dig snow holes. Parents complained to Comrie Deuchars, the then scout organiser in Stirling, and the young Hamilton was asked to go.

In his letters, Hamilton is not consistent about the identity of the imagined villain. He told Buckingham Palace that it was Mr Deuchars who had made up the story that "I was a pervert, which was passed to the public in an underhand manner". Yet Dr Vass received mail identifying him as the villain and Mr Deuchars as a friend of Hamilton's.

Oddly, when Hamilton and his grandfather moved to Kent Road in 1983, they went into a flat directly underneath Mr Deuchars' family home. "I must admit that when I saw him get out of the removal van my heart sank," said Mr Deuchars. "I thought 'Oh My God, what have I done to deserve this?' But he was always very civil to me. When I was cutting the lawn he'd bring me cups of coffee. I wonder now that if he somehow saw me as the cause of all of this, why didn't he take me out on Wednesday morning instead of the kiddies in Dunblane?"

But Hamilton did not "take him out". Last Wednesday, like a good neighbour, he collected a morning paper for the former scout leader and posted it through the Deuchars' letter box before the travelled the seven miles to Dunblane Primary School.

In one twisted sense, Hamilton was right to worry about the Scouts. As he set up his independent boys' athletics clubs in school gyms, he used to cite his former position in the Scouts as evidence that he was a responsible organiser. He did not reveal, of course, that he had been thrown out for thoughtlessness and muddle.

In the prosperous and pretty town of Dunblane, opinions are formed and characters are judged on the golf course and at private parties, not in formal meetings. Dr Vass said he was always being asked to "wine and cheese social occasions" about why Hamilton had left the Scouts. He could never give a full answer because he did not know it- he only moved to the town and started helping the Scouts in 1978, but that did not stop people asking and did not stop Hamilton making him out as a rumour-monger.

One evening in December 1984 he arrived at Dr Vass's house to confront him, carrying a brown bag. "He was very intense, he accused me of maligning him. After 10 minutes I asked him to leave; what he was saying was just wrong. He reached into his bag and turned off a tape recorder.

"All this week I've been asking myself if there was something more I could have done to warn people. But there was nothing. We did not know anything concrete until it was too late. All people here knew were rumours at the mutter level."

Many in Dunblane and Stirling did not like that mutterings. Between 1981 and 1984 the council made a sustained and serious attempt to get Hamilton and his club out of Dunblane schools. Yet it was defeated by parents and by Eric Gillett, the then local government ombudsmen for Scotland.

Formally, the club for 70 nine-to 16-year-old boys was ordered out of the High School because the council education department claimed that it had been misled into thinking that Hamilton was still connected with the Scouts. But the real reason, the ombudsmen found, was that council officers had heard "assertions" about Hamilton's character. No one was prepared to go on the record and make a concrete accusation.

Mr Gillett was contemptuous of the council's decision to close a youth club on the strength of rumours which were so "vague" they should "have been heavily discounted". Hamilton's treatment was unfair and unjust and the council was told to drop its ban.

Parents were just as angry on Hamilton's behalf. Seventy of them signed a petition in 1983 claiming that he was the "victim of malicious back-stabbing". Even the elected councillors were uneasy about their officers' behaviour. One told the Scotsman in 1983 that the affair "left a nasty taste in the mouth. At the end of the day all we had was a rumour."

Faced with this coalition, the council surrendered and let the club back into the school. Hamilton was still unhappy. He claimed that his kitchen-fitting business, which relied on orders from the Dunblane area, had been destroyed by the hint of scandal.

In Dunblane last week, there were many parents who understood why so many people could trust Hamilton. Penny King's son Michael went to the club when he was six. The English woman who had moved to Dunblane to escape the stresses of city life was quickly told about "Spock". She went to the club to confront Hamilton, but was instead reassured. "He told me that people had been talking behind his back for years," she said. "He left me feeling ashamed for believing tosh. My son was happy playing with his friends and in the end I did not see why I should stop him."

It is natural to assume that a mass child murderer with a long record of suspicious behaviour and pictures of half-naked boys on his wall is also a paedophile. But it is possible that Hamilton was not a systematic child abuser; certainly he was never convicted.

Dave Norris, who knew Hamilton for 10 years, said he struck him as harmless. "It just seemed to me he wanted to give boys the childhood he never had. I couldn't believe it when I heard what this articulate, educated man had done."

To date there has been one accusation of serious abuse of a boy from a mother in Aberdeen. All other parents and former members of the boys' club told merely of strange behaviour.

George Robertson, the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, who lives in Dunblane, sent his eldest son to Hamilton's club. He heard the rumours and went to the High School. "I didn't like what I saw," he said. "There were lots of little boys there all stripped to the waist and Tom Hamilton and his cohorts all swaggering around. It was like something out of the Hitler Youth. I took Malcolm away".

Typically, instead of just accepting Mr Robertson's decision, Hamilton came round to the MP's home and demanded to know if he was making accusations against him. Mr Robertson also received angry visits from supporters of Hamilton. Looking back, the MP used the word on everyone's lips in Dunblane. He had no proof against Hamilton; he was just "uneasy".

Colin Louden, now 30, remembers going to the club as a child and playing snooker and pool and learning how to fire pistols. Again, he had no direct experience of abuse. "There were some boys he was very familiar with; his favourites if you like who we would call teacher's pet. They would go off on camps with him and seemed to be sworn to secrecy they got back."

The camps were held on an island in Loch Lomond. Parents have told how boys had to hand in their clothes and were dressed in baggy swimming trunks. One claimed that Hamilton made boys rub him with sun lotion.

It is clear that Hamilton convinced himself that he was behaving properly. Nothing in his behaviour suggests that he believed he had guilty secrets which must be hidden from the world.

The pictures of bare-chested boys on his walls could be seen by anyone looking in his window; a woman neighbour was shown his collection of videos of boys running around his Loch Lomond camp as if they were the most natural thing in the world for a youth leader to film.

Hamilton explained to anyone who questioned him that he had a mission. It was his job to instil old-fashioned discipline. Children had to be stopped from turning into "thugs, scum and vandals" like the boys who killed James Bulger.

He had an absolute confidence in his own position. Time and again he confronted people he thought were calling him a pervert. He sent his remarkable circular letter to the parents of Dunblane, denouncing scout officials he said were spreading rumours about him.

When the police investigated him, he complained to Mr Forsyth about a witch-hunt. He demanded an apology from the Central Regional Council after he heard or convinced himself that teachers near Stirling were warning pupils to have nothing to do with him.

Both Mr Robertson and Dr Vass got the impression that Hamilton wanted the opportunity to sue them for slander. Both had no evidence to defend themselves in court. As Mr Saunders the councillor who helped Hamilton beat off the attempt to bar him from Dunblane schools, said, he did not behave like a man with something to hide.

Yet for all his aggressive certainty, Hamilton may have had the feeling that his enemies were closing in. The police refuse to comment about their investigations into Hamilton until the inquiry is over - which allows them to avoid for now awkward questions about their decision to repeatedly renew his gun licence. Others, however, are speaking out.

One mother said she handed the police a dossier in 1988 and they followed it up by raiding the Loch Lomond camp. No prosecution followed. By the early 1990s, photography shops in Stirling were refusing to develop Hamilton's pictures of boys at Loch Lomond. They said they were obscene, but the police said they were not obscene enough for a prosecution.

In 1992 Fife Council, which borders Dunblane, banned Hamilton from its schools after concern about the films he was making of boys. Two more police inquiries were made in 1993. Central Regional Council warned teachers to contact its legal department before dealing with Hamilton. IN 1994, he was cautioned by police after being caught behaving indecently with a young man in Edinburgh. In the months before the murders, a gun club refused to let Hamilton join. Two members knew him and said the club should have nothing to do with him.

Was it the mounting pressure that caused Hamilton to snap? We do not really know. Mr Norris, who knew him as well as anyone, said he had recently undergone a transformation. "He became a changed man, someone I did not recognise."

In the coming months there will be many attempts to explain the change that came over Hamilton, that drove him to an unprecedented act of savagery. Last week, though information was still scarce, theories abounded. Yet even the best-informed explanations can only go so far.

Canon Kenyon Wright, who was a minister in Dunblane for many years, turned to Matthew II after the shootings and read: "A sound is heard in Ramah/the sound of bitter crying and weeping/Rachel weeps for her children/she weeps and will not be comforted/Because they are no more."

The Canon substituted Dunblane for Ramah and asked "why me? why us?" There is no one who can answer him.

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