In America, it is called a ‘spree killing’. In the UK, nothing like it had ever happened before, so it was known simply as ‘the biggest mass murder in British history’ – which was not technically true, but represented the magnitude of the nation’s trauma. Nothing was the same afterwards.
A major factor in the shock felt as the story emerged was its location. Hungerford is a little market town in the county of Berkshire.
It’s a quiet, ancient place set in gentle green countryside on the edge of Savemake Forest, for centuries a hunting preserve of Royalty and a renowned beauty spot.
Late one summer’s morning, a 27-year-old unemployed labourer called Michael Ryan went to Savemake, as he often did: he had boasted of ‘creeping up on picnic parties without them knowing’. This time he took a 9mm Beretta pistol, a Chinese assault rifle and a Kalashnikov semi-automatic, and shot a nurse as she picnicked with her two small children. Then he returned to Hungerford, stalking the streets and firing arbitrarily into cars, at bystanders, and anyone who caught his eye.
There are no explanations. Presumably Ryan was playing out some dark, internal fantasy. It cost 16 innocent people their lives, and 15 more suffered serious injuries. He even shot his own mother, at her hearth, before setting fire to the family house and that of their neighbor.
Hungerford resembled a war zone, with bodies lying unattended and dozens of folk hiding behind hedges and ducking down back lanes. Long before Ryan barricaded himself in his old school, the sky was full of media and police helicopters. Reporters were trying to make their reputations and getting in the way of the police response – part of the horror of Hungerford is that there wasn’t one; Ryan shot himself at 18.52 at the school.
When: August 19 1987
Where: Hungerford, Berkshire, UK
Death toll: 16 dead; 15 wounded
You should know: Though dozens of people tried to alert the police from the beginning, the local telephone system was so antiquated that it jammed. Nobody had mobiles then, at least not there. The two local policemen did their best – but one was among the first to be killed, in his car. More senior officers simply had no communications system, either to block minor roads into the area or to co-ordinate any kind of strategy (if they’d had one). The situation was truly beyond anyone’s experience.