30 years on from Hungerford - the wounds Michael Ryan left on the town and its people are still raw

Eleanor Steafel
Trevor Wainwright was the local PC in Hungerford at the time of the shootings - TMG John Lawrence

Trevor Wainwright was off duty the day that a loner brought tragedy to his sleepy Berkshire town. As the local PC, he knew everyone on his beat; but who could have had any inkling that 27-year-old Michael Ryan - an unemployed handyman, who lived with his mother - would commit mass murder on such a scale that it is still synonymous with the name Hungerford, three decades on. 

Saturday will mark the 30th anniversary of Ryan’s nihilistic killing spree, in which he fatally shot 16 people and wounded 15 more, in one afternoon.  

Some in Hungerford may wish the town could move on, but for Trevor - whose father, Douglas, was among the fatalities and whose mother, Kathleen, was shot in the breast but survived - the events of 19 August 1987 will be forever etched on his brain. 

“I was in another village, Inkpen, cutting the grass for an old lady. I did it to earn a bit of extra money because police money wasn’t great in those days,” he tells me.

There was the smell of cordite in the air from the guns. Someone said there’s a bloke gone mad with a gun and he’s shot a policeman

“I had a phone call from my wife saying there were guns going off and bullets going across our garden. I told her to stay inside and lock the doors and raced home, determined that as I was the local officer I should put myself on duty.

“I can recall driving up to Hungerford Common and there was a group of people hiding under the trees. You could see the smoke because [Ryan] had set his house on fire. There was the smell of cordite in the air from the guns. 

“I called to them and one said there’s a bloke gone mad with a gun and he’s shot a policeman.”

Shortly after midday, Michael Ryan had approached Susan Godfrey, who was picnicking in nearby Savernake Forest. Marching her away from her two young children, he shot her 13 times in the back before getting into his silver Vauxhall Astra and driving towards Hungerford. 

Stopping at a petrol station, he shot at the female cashier through the glass, then drove to his home at South View, a dead-end lane by Hungerford Common, where he shot his dog, doused his house in petrol and set it alight. 

Michael Ryan Credit: White And Reed

Setting off on foot with two semi-automatic assault rifles and a handgun, he meandered on to Hungerford’s common and through residential streets, calmly picking off people at random.

Eventually returning to South View, Ryan fired 23 rounds at Trevor’s colleague PC Roger Brereton, who was first on the scene. His widowed mother, Dorothy returned home to find her house blazing and her son’s victims strewn across their sunny street. He shot her dead as she pleaded with him to come to his senses.

On he went: back to the common, executing a dog-walker who had raised his hands in surrender, before heading into town to continue his spree, as police scrambled armed officers. Eventually cornered in John O’Gaunt secondary school, where he had previously been a pupil, Ryan took his last life - his own.

Trevor recounts all this while driving me slowly around those very streets; his home for 45 years. “That’s the swimming pool where he shot Marcus Barnard,” he says, pointing to what would otherwise be invisible landmarks. “Then he went in there and shot Mr and Mrs Gibbs in their kitchen.

Trevor as a young PC in Hungerford in the 80s Credit: Telegraph/John Lawrence

“The Masons lived there and they got shot, and there was a nurse who lived in one of the houses up here, she came out and gave first aid to a couple of people.”

It is inescapable. Reminders of that summer’s afternoon are on every corner, behind every hedge, in every home. 

“Every day I walk into people who were involved in some way,” Trevor tells me. “You have a quiet word with them but you don’t need to go into detail, you don’t need to.”

We round a bend and Trevor slows, pointing to a spot on the road ahead. “That’s where my dad was shot,” he says. “My mum and dad had come up this road and Ryan was there. He shot right into the car and killed my dad straight away. 

“Mum was wounded. She knew my dad was dead. Ryan was reloading his weapon so she crouched behind the engine compartment thinking he was going to shoot her again but another car came past and Ryan shot that car instead.”

Every day I walk into people who were involved in some way. You have a quiet word with them but you don’t need to go into detail, you don’t need to

Even now, there are few clues as to what prompted mass murder that day. A loner to the end, Trevor suspects Ryan was frustrated by the way his life was turning out, and wanted to go down in a blaze. “30 years later, I’ve never met anyone that’s told me they were best friends with Michael Ryan, and I know everyone in this town,” he says. “Even in the school photo he was on the end, yards from everybody. 

“He was a local kid. He wasn’t a villain. If you went ‘boo’ to him he’d probably have jumped a mile. But when he had the guns he was a different person.”

Trevor, now 65 and recently retired, still lives in the same house and continued to work for the police for 15 years, before finishing his career as a tax inspector. Between them, he and his wife Ruby have three sons and a beloved 12-year-old granddaughter. He has had, he says, a very happy, fulfilled life in many ways.

But to this day, he runs over and over the twist of fate which meant it was his colleague PC Brereton who was on duty and killed, not him. And the tragic irony that his parents - who lived in Kent - had been due to visit him the day before. “I said ‘Dad, don’t come up then, I’m going to football, come up on the Wednesday.’ When this all kicked off it didn’t even enter my head that they might be caught up in it.”

Police in Hungerford searching the garden of the burnt out house of Dorothy Ryan, the 60 year old mother of Michael Ryan Credit: PA

Has he struggled with guilt? “All I know is that if a Wainwright was going to be killed that day, my dad would have rather it was him than me.”

Something else died in the UK that day, as a mass shooting - previously thought of as a US phenomenon - was seared on the nation’s consciousness; followed within a decade by Dunblane. 

In the immediate  aftermath, as shock gave way to grief and anger, Trevor suffered a further trauma, as he realised he had dealt with Ryan’s firearms licence for his membership of a local gun club a few months before. 

In a rural area, this was standard practice for the local policeman, and the law at the time (which was changed by the Firearms Amendment Act in 1988) allowed people to own military-level assault rifles for sport. Two days after the massacre, a headline across the frontpage of the <Today> newspaper read: “PC signs father’s own death warrant”.

“If I’d signed my father’s death warrant then I’d signed the death warrants of all those other people,” says Trevor, fighting to talk through the lump in his throat. “That day I was going to see my mum in hospital and I didn’t want to go. All the wounded from Hungerford were in the same ward. There was no way I could go in and face people with that headline. She called me and said ‘Don’t be so stupid, get your arse in here, we love you’. 

“When I arrived, they all put their arms around me and said, ‘Trevor, we love you’.”

The community this gentle giant devoted most of his life to safeguarding is perhaps even more tight-knit today than it was before. Many of those touched by the tragedy have since moved out of town, or passed away. But those who are left, some still living with their injuries, don’t dwell on what happened. Destroyed homes have been rebuilt. The school where Ryan turned his guns on himself was repainted and reopened for the start of the school year as usual, that autumn. The simple plaque to remember the victims is tucked away in the memorial gardens, and there is no special service held every year. Instead, on Saturday, the names of the dead will be read out in St Lawrence’s Church, while the flag on the town hall flies at half mast. 

The people of Hungerford have laid their ghosts to rest in different ways. Trevor’s mum - who moved to the town four months after the shootings to be near her son - died ten years ago, and her funeral service was packed with the locals who had taken her in after she was widowed. 

“It meant an awful lot to me. I think that’s one reason why I never moved away, because there was that bond,” says Trevor. “There still is. It lives with you forever.”