Michael Ryan and The Hungerford Massacre

Hungerford is a market town in Berkshire, South East England, with a population of around 6,000, surrounded by woodlands and near the river Dun. The tranquillity of this peaceful town was shattered on 19 August 1987 when a lone gunman, Michael Ryan, 27, went on a killing spree that resulted in the murder of 16 people.

An only child, Michael Robert Ryan was born on 18 May 1960 in the Savernake hospital, Hungerford. His father, Alfred Henry Ryan, a government building inspector, was known for being a perfectionist and was 55 when Ryan was born.

His mother, Dorothy Ryan, was over 20 years younger than her husband and was 34 when she had her only son. She was a respected and popular member of the community and used to work as a dinner lady at the Hungerford Primary School before becoming a part-time waitress at the Elcot Park Hotel, where she worked for 12 years, until her death.

Ryan grew up in South View, Hungerford and relatives remembered him as a quiet, mostly sullen and quite self-centred boy. His favourite toy was Action Man, the commando-type plastic doll, kitted out with uniforms and weapons. Short for his age, Ryan was often teased and bullied but never retaliated and consequently avoided other children. At age 11, he moved from the local primary school opposite his home, to the John O’Gaunt Secondary School, where he underachieved academically and would often play truant. He had a few friends but always shied away from any sporting or social events at school.

At age 16, he left John O’Gaunt School to attend a technical college, the Newbury College of Further Education, intending to learn to become a building contractor. Although he tried hard, it soon became apparent that Ryan showed no flair for this trade and soon dropped out of college. He found low-paid work as a caretaker at a girls’ school. Continuing to live with his parents, his doting and indulgent mother would pay for anything he could not afford, including cars, petrol, insurance, and even his first gun, an air rifle.

When Ryan was old enough, he purchased a shotgun and began to collect other weapons, which he proudly displayed in a glass cabinet in his bedroom. It seemed that the guns gave Ryan the feeling of power and control that he had always lacked. He would also brag to people about things he had not done, in a string of lies that made him seem far more capable and experienced than he actually was. He told people he had served in the Second Parachute Regiment of the British armed forces, that he was getting married, and that he owned a gun shop. He would become extremely angry if people did not believe him and his mother would often confirm these lies to people, in a desperate effort to help her son feel better.

Besotted with the military, Ryan bought army jackets, survival gear and masks. He even persuaded the police to grant him a licence to own more powerful firearms. They were unable to refuse him as he had no record of mental instability and no criminal record. However, they stipulated that Ryan install a suitable Chubb steel cabinet in which to safely lock his weapons. He subscribed to magazines on survival skills and guns, including ‘Soldiers of Fortune’, and was a fan of violent films such as ‘Rambo: First Blood’ (1982).

Ryan was 25 when his father died of cancer in 1985. The loss affected him profoundly and he became increasingly withdrawn, often going off alone to the shooting range, or working on cars. It was during this time that he lost his caretaker job. People later commented that his mental instability became increasingly apparent following the death of his father.

A few moths before the massacre, Ryan joined the Tunnel Rifle and Pistol Club, in Wiltshire. The manager later reported that Ryan spent a lot of time at the club and that he was “a very good shot”, showing consistent accuracy over large distances.