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The early life of Myra Hindley: 'the most hated woman in Britain'

Wide angle view of Saddleworth Moors taken on the A640
Four of Hindley and Brady's victims are buried on Saddleworth Moor | Editorial credit: Mark D Bailey /

In the second episode of Once Upon A True Crime, best-selling author Mark Billingham revisits the shocking, so-called Moors Murders that took place in Greater Manchester between 1963 and 1965.

Myra Hindley has the legacy of being 'the most hated woman in Britain' for her role in the gruesome moors murders. Between July 1963 and October 1965, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady abducted and murdered five children and teenagers and then buried their bodies on the bleak Saddleworth Moor in North West England.

Myra Hindley was born on 23 July, 1942, in Crumpsall, a suburb in Manchester. She was the first child of Bob Hindley and his wife, Hettie. Bob served in a parachute regiment during World War II so was absent for the majority of the first three years of Hindley’s life. When he returned home to work as a machinist, the Hindley family lived in a two-up, two-down house on Eaton Street, Gorton, which was an area dominated by the sounds emanating from the local foundry. When Hindley was four-years-old, her parents had another daughter, Maureen. At this time, Hindley was sent to live with her grandmother to give her parents some more space with the new baby. However, Hindley never really returned home. While the family situation was not considered conventional, Jean Ritchie, Hindley’s biographer, said:

'Much has been made of the fact that Myra supposedly came from a broken home, but the family hadn’t broken down, and she was not unloved. You could see from her mother’s back bedroom into her grandmother’s. It was an ordinary Manchester working-class family, and if her father was undemonstrative and enjoyed a drink, well that was common enough.'

Hindley’s father was a Roman Catholic and Hindley and her sister were baptised in the Church of England. This decision was a compromise between Bob and Nellie; Bob agreed that if Myra and Maureen were baptised, they would not have to attend a Catholic school. While Hindley had struggled in primary school and failed her 11-plus exams, she then attended Ryder Brow secondary modern school where she was known to be one of the most intelligent in the class, with an above average IQ. Hindley always earned good grades but her record of attendance was poor. Her grandmother was very lenient and often let her bunk off school to keep her company at home.

As she developed into a young woman, Hindley was known to be tough and aggressive. Some even considered her to be masculine. She had a low and husky voice and she was mocked for the shape of her nose. She was even given the cruel nickname 'Square Arse' by her peers because of her broad hips. As a teenager, Hindley took a number of children and younger teenagers under her wing and was a responsible babysitter. She befriended a 13-year-old boy named Michael Higgins when she was 15-years-old and was devastated when he drowned in a reservoir. Hindley felt tremendous guilt over his death because she was not there when he drowned. 'She felt that if she’d been there, it wouldn’t have happened. She was a very strong swimmer, and would have been able to save him,' said a prison guard.

When Hindley was 18-years-old, she started working as a secretary at Millwards Merchandising, which was a manufacturer of various oil and soap products located on Levenshulme Road, Manchester. On her first day, she met 23-year-old Ian Brady, who had been working at Millwards Merchandising as a store clerk for the past two years. This meeting would prove to be deadly and would lead to Hindley becoming an iconic symbol of pure evil. Even five decades later Hindley’s eerie mugshot is often emblazoned on tabloid newspapers and her crimes evoke national disgust.

Hindley would later say that when she first met Brady on that fateful day, she was enamoured with his dark hair, deep blue eyes and fresh complexion and that he was the first man she had ever met that kept his fingernails manicured and clean. He was well-dressed, aloof and drove a motorbike; everything about him fascinated her. Brady enjoyed reading Marquis de Sade and had a disturbing obsession with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Oftentimes, he spent his lunch break in the office canteen reading Mein Kampf. Hindley became smitten with the slightly older man until eventually, he invited her to see Judgement at Nuremberg while at the Christmas office party.

'I hope Ian and I love each other all our lives

Hindley became infatuated quickly and what Brady said was law. Like a giddy schoolgirl, she wrote in her diary: 'I hope Ian and I love each other all our lives and get married and are happy ever after.' Wanting to impress Brady, she took to wanting to become more 'Germanic' by wearing short skirts, waistcoats and high-heeled boots. She got rid of her 'dish water brown' hair and bleached it platinum blonde and she wore crimson lipstick in an attempt to look more Aryan to please Brady. She swallowed his anti-society philosophy and became just as anti-social as he was. She kept a photograph of Irma Grese (a female SS guard at Auschwitz and Ravensbrück concentration camps) in her handbag while Brady started to call her 'Hessie' as homage to Rudolph Hess.

There were indications early on that while Hindley was obsessed with Brady, she was also terrified of him. She had sent a letter to a friend in which she said that if she were ever found dead, to go to police and tell them that Brady was somehow involved. She would later write a letter from behind bars which read: 'Within months, he had convinced me that there was no God at all: he could have told me that the earth was flat, the moon was made of green cheese and the sun rose in the west, I would have believed him, such was his power of persuasion.'

Over time, Brady started to reveal his twisted fantasies to Hindley who in turn agreed to pose in sexually explicit photographs; there is one photograph of Hindley kneeling on the floor with marks from a whip visible across her body. The couple started to fantasize about committing bank robberies together but soon enough, the fantasies of robbery soon turned to child sex abuse and murder. In July of 1963, the couple started to talk about committing what they described as 'the perfect murder.' In the evenings, they would drink cheap wine, experiment with sexual sadism and ramble through the countryside in their mini-van.

On the 12th of July, Brady and Hindley targeted their first victim: 16-year-old Pauline Reade. Pauline vanished while on her way to a local disco in Gorton, Manchester. Four months later, they abducted 12-year-old John Kilbride and strangled him on Saddleworth Moor. The following year, they took 12-year-old Keith Bennett as their third victim. Lesley Ann Downey, 10-years-old, then disappeared from a fairground just 200 yards from her home on Boxing Day of 1964. The final victim was 17-year-old Edward Evans, who had bludgeoned to death in the flat Brady and Hindley shared.

The macabre folie à deux was finally exposed when Hindley’s brother-in-law, David Smith, went to the police after Brady tried to enlist him as an accomplice in the grisly murders. Hindley and Brady went to trial in April of 1966. By this time, capital punishment had been abolished in Britain and so the sadistic couple were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Hindley’s obsession with Brady was evident. 'I loved him… I still love him,' she said.

Years later, Hindley would make a full confession to the slayings and she would highlight her main role in the murders: she said that at the time, children were more likely to trust a woman than a man so she had the duty of abducting the victims. While both Brady and Hindley exposed a human capacity for brutality that Britain couldn’t comprehend after the horrors of World War II, it remains the face of Hindley that epitomises all of the evil that encompassed the murders. The idea of a woman abducting and killing children went against the very notion of womanhood.

At one point in time, many people erroneously believed that sexually motivated murders were only committed by disturbed men but Hindley redefined how society viewed women. As criminologist Colin Wilson said: 'Before the moors murders, we had little or no concept of women as evil…'

On the 15th of November, 2002, 60-year-old Myra Hindley died from bronchial pneumonia at West Suffolk Hospital, completing her life sentence.

Read more:

Myra Hindley: Crime File