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Slaughter on a warm summer's day: The Hungerford massacre

A man holds a handgun
Image: Shutterstock

It was a warm summer afternoon in August of 1987 when a lone gunman committed a series of shootings in the historic market town of Hungerford, United Kingdom, before ending his own life. The murder spree became known as the Hungerford Massacre and would lead to sweeping changes in gun control.

It was the 19th of August, 1987, when 35-year-old Susan Godfrey, a nurse at Dunedin Hospital in Reading, left her home in Burghfield Common to take her two young children for a picnic in Savernake Forest. As Godfrey was strapping her two children into their car seats, 27-year-old Michael Robert Ryan approached her from behind and pointed a gun at her. He led Godfrey away from her children and deeper into the forest to an area where he lay down a groundsheet, possibly an indication that he had intended on sexually assaulting her. It isn’t known exactly what transpired between Godfrey and Ryan but Godfrey’s body would be found 75 yards from her car and 10 yards away from the groundsheet. She had been shot 13 times in the back and there was no evidence of a sexual assault. Godfrey’s two young children would be found wandering alone in the forest, terrified but otherwise unharmed. They informed police of the 'nasty man who shot mummy.'

From here, Ryan drove to the Golden Arrow petrol station in Foxfield where Kakaub Dean had been working behind the till. Dean would recognise Ryan immediately as a regular customer. However, this time, instead of filling up his car with petrol, he filled up a can with petrol. Dean would later say to The Guardian: 'I lifted my eyes and I saw him pointing a gun straight at me. He fired a shot.' Dean had managed to duck behind the counter but she then heard Ryan enter the store. She pleaded for her life as he lifted the gun up and pointed it towards her face, ready to shoot her at point-blank range. Miraculously, Ryan’s gun jammed and he left the store. Dean immediately called 999.

Shortly after leaving the petrol station, Ryan arrived back at his family home on South View, Hungerford, which is a small road with four groups of former council houses on the left-hand side as well as a detached home and two bungalows. Inside the home, Ryan shot and killed his Labrador dog, Blackie, before retrieving the can of petrol and setting the living room on fire.

When Ryan came back outside, he was wearing a flax jacket and was carrying a plethora of ammunition. He began to shoot indiscriminately at members of the community. As one neighbour, Margery Jackson, said: 'He was shooting at anything.' Another neighbour, 77-year-old Dorothy Smith, came outside and shouted at Ryan to stop making so much noise. She later said: 'He turned his head to the right and looked at me. He had a terribly vacant look in his eyes. He had sort of a grin on his face.' Jackson grabbed Smith and as she was pushing her inside to safety, Ryan shot her once in the back, injuring her.

From the neighbourhood, Ryan headed east towards the school playing fields and continued to shoot. He came across 70-year-olds Roland and Sheila Mason who were taking advantage of the good weather by tending to their garden. He shot the elderly couple dead. Upon hearing the commotion in the neighbourhood, 14-year-old Lisa Mildenhall, came outside to try and detect where the noise was coming from. She was shot four times in the legs by Ryan but survived: 'He looked straight at me and he smiled,' she would chillingly recall.

Ryan continued on route, walking past the school playing fields and towards the town’s common. He came across 51-year-old Kenneth Clements who had been walking his dog, Cindy, with his family. Ryan shot Clements once, killing him instantly. His family were able to jump over a fence and escape unscathed. From the town’s common, Ryan turned back and headed towards his own neighbourhood, South View. By this point, numerous calls had been placed to 999 and it was evident that there was an active shooter situation in their close-knit community. One of the first responding officers was Constable Roger Brereton. Ryan fired 23 rounds into Constable Brereton’s car; he managed to radio for help before succumbing to his wounds.

Continuing on his rampage, Ryan would shoot at various other people before shooting and killing George White, who had been bringing Ivor Jackson home from work. As White turned his car onto South View, he was shot in the head and died instantly behind the wheel of his car. Jackson was shot in the arm, chest and head but would survive after playing dead. From here, Ryan headed in the direction of Fairview Road which was just off South View. He shot and killed 84-year-old Abdur Khan who had been gardening. It was theorised that the partially-deaf man had not been aware of the horrors that had been unfolding just around the corner.

It was at this moment that Ryan’s 63-year-old mother, Dorothy, returned home from her trip to the local market. It was hoped that she would be able to talk some sense into her son and call a stop to the bloodshed. Her pleas, however, fell onto deaf ears and her own son shot her dead at point blank range. He then shot her again twice in the back. After killing his own mother, Ryan head back towards the town’s common and on to the War Memorial Grounds where he shot and killed 26-year-old Francis Butler who had been walking his dog. Leslie Bean attempted to render first aid to Butler but to no avail.

From the War Memorial Grounds, Ryan walked in the direction of Bulpit Lane. At the time, local taxi driver and new father, Marcus Barnard, had been driving home to see his wife and new-born baby in between his fares. Ryan shot Barnard dead through the window of his taxi. As Douglas and Kathleen Wainwright were driving on Priory Avenue, located near Bulpit Lane, they were ambushed by Ryan, who opened fire on their vehicle. Douglas was shot in the head and died in the couple’s vehicle while Kathleen was shot in the chest and hand but survived. At the time, the couple had been driving to the home of their son, Trevor Wainwright who was an off-duty police officer. As Kathleen lay alongside her deceased husband, Ryan shot at Eric Vardy and Stephen Ball, who had just turned their vehicle onto Priory Avenue. Vardy was killed but Ball would survive. Moments later, he shot and killed Sandra Hill in her vehicle.

After the shootings on Bulpit Lane and Priory Avenue, Ryan continued south-west onto Priory Road. He shot his way into the home of Victor and Myrtle Gibbs, where he shot Victor five times in the chest and abdomen, killing him instantly, before shooting Myrtle four times. Victor had attempted to shield his wife from the gunfire but she was pronounced dead at the hospital two days later. Ryan then continued southbound on Priory Road where he opened fire on a car containing a young family. Ian Playle, who had been driving, was shot once in the neck and died two days later at hospital but his family, including his two children, were able to escape from the car uninjured.

After shooting at the Playle family, Ryan barricaded himself in a second-floor classroom of John O’Gaunt, a local high school where he had been a former student. Police negotiators were sent to the scene to try and coax Ryan out and talk him into surrendering. One of them would later reveal that Ryan had commented 'It was strange he could shoot other people and couldn’t shoot himself'. Shortly afterwards, however, Ryan shot himself in the head, finally bringing an end to the massacre.

In total, Ryan had killed 16 people including himself and had seriously injured countless more. He had shot and injured paramedics, police officers and passersby who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had used an arsenal of weapons including a Kalashnikov semiautomatic rifle, a Beretta pistole and an M1 carbine.

As the grisly massacre unfolded in the media, many scrambled to uncover more about the lone gunman. According to neighbours, there was nothing remarkable about Ryan; he was unemployed and lived at home with his widowed mother. However, Ryan had kept a cache of weapons in the shed at the bottom of the garden and was a proud member of the local gun club. Just the day before the bloodshed, he had spent an hour at the gun club practicing his aim. He had licenses for three hand guns and two rifles; this included the weapons he had used during the shooting spree.

Some would say that Ryan was a 'mummy’s boy' who was idolised by his mother, who he would ultimately go on to murder. 'He had the best clothes, the fastest cars, and the latest records,' said one childhood friend of Ryan.

In the aftermath of the shootings, a wide-ranging inquiry into Britain’s firearms laws would be ordered. It was to be carried out by the all-party House of Commons select committee. At the time, residents in Britain could obtain a pistol and rifle after a background check by police and membership in a gun club for six months. If one wanted to obtain an automatic weapon, certificates had to be obtained directly from the office of the British Cabinet secretary responsible for law and order. The following year, The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was signed into law, banning the ownership of semi-automatic firearms and pump-action weapons. It also made registration mandatory for all shotgun owners in Britain.

While the physical injuries from that fateful day have long since healed, the emotional scars in Hungerford still run deep. In addition to the infamous Dunblane school massacre and the Cumbria shootings which occurred in 2010, the Hungerford massacre remains one of the most infamous shootings within the United Kingdom. What makes the case all the more chilling is the fact that the true motivation behind the massacre still remains an enigma today.