Hungerford is a small town in Berkshire, England. The population sits at 5,767 according to the 2011 census, it’s a world away from image of busy London that springs to mind when people think about England, this is a small town with community where everyone knows everyone else, but the small town would be remembered forever after 19th August 1987 when a resident of Hungerford, Michael Robert Ryan went on a spree with an assortment of firearms, an incident now known widely as “The Hungerford Massacre”.
Michael Robert Ryan was born on 18th May 1960 in Savernake Hospital in Marlborough, Wiltshire an only child for his parents Alfred Henry Ryan and Dorothy Ryan, Alfred worked as a building inspector and was 55-year-old when Ryan was born. Dorothy Ryan was 20 years younger than Alfred and had Ryan when she was 34, she was considered a popular and respected figure in the small community and worked at Hungerford Primary school as a dinner lady for a number of years until she took a job at Elcot Park Hotel, she worked here for 12 years until her death.
Ryan was described by relatives as quiet, sullen and self-centred while growing up, they also mentioned his interest in the Action Man toys, and how he enjoyed playing with the commando style dolls while they were in full military uniforms and kitted with semi-automatic weapons. When it came to socialising Ryan would avoid other children as he was often teased or bullied for being short for his age. At the age of 11 he moved up to John O’Gaunt Secondary School, while here he under achieved and played truant, it was said he had few friends as a teenager and would shy away from any social occasions and sports teams at school. He left school at 16 and attended The Newbury College of Further Education, there he studied to become a building contractor.
Despite the effort Ryan would put into College it became apparent that he just couldn’t cope with his course and soon dropped out. After college he did find work as a caretaker at a girls’ school, he continued to live with his parents, his mother was described as doting and indulgent when it came to Ryan and would pay for anything that he could not afford like cars, petrol, insurance and his first firearm, an air rifle.
When Ryan was old enough, he bought his first shotgun this starting his collection of weapons that went on display in a glass cabinet in his bedroom. As well as being known as a gun enthusiast, people who knew and interacted with Ryan mentioned that he would make up stories about himself in a bid to seem more experienced or capable than the was some of his lies include, his claim to have served in the Second Parachute Regiment of the British Army, that he was getting married, and that he owned his own gun shop. When people questioned or refused to believe his stories he would anger, leading his mother to back up his lies in a desperate attempt to make her son feel better.
Ryan was besotted with the military and survivalists, he subscribed to magazines on survival and guns and his favourite film was Rambo: First Blood (1982), to the point the British press mentioned the film numerous times after the shooting trying to mirror the content of Rambo with Hungerford, but there was no evidence that Ryan even owned a VHS player let alone saw the film, in response to this Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone stated “I carry the can for every lunatic in the world who goes crazy with a gun? but it wasn’t Rambo who sent Michael Ryan mad. In fact, murderers are always saying, ‘God told me to kill’ or ‘Jesus ordered me to kill’ so should the rest of us stop praying? There are always sick people out there who will hang their illness on to your hook.” He also started buying several army jackets, some survival gear, masks and he persuaded the police to grant him a license to own a much more powerful firearm than he already had, the law at the time did allow for the ownership of semi-automatic weapons and due to the fact Ryan had no recorded mental health issues and no criminal record he was granted his license with the stipulation that the weapons were kept in a Chubb steel cabinet so they could be safely locked away.
At age 25 Ryan lost his father, Alfred died of cancer in 1985 and the loss impacted him massively, reportedly he became withdrawn and would often disappear alone to the shooting range or to work on cars. Around this time, he also lost his job as a caretaker with speculation it was because his mental instability had become more apparent. A few months prior to the shooting he joined the Tunnel and Pistol Club in Wiltshire, the club manager later said Ryan spent a lot of time at the club and described him as “a very good shot” with consistent accuracy over large distances.
The shooting started 7 miles west of Hungerford in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, the forest was a place familiar to Ryan as he would spend time there pretending to be on army manoeuvres, he would think of himself as a skilled soldier and enjoy “running surveillance” without being seen, on several occasions he would sneak up on unsuspecting people out for picnics and watch them without their knowledge, before disappearing again.
At 12:30pm on 19th August 35-year-old mother of two Susan Godfrey was in the forest with her children, 4-year-old Hannah and 2-year-old James. They had travelled from Reading for a family picnic, Ryan watched them as they ate their lunch and played for a while, they were getting ready to leave with Godfrey packing up when Ryan approached them dressed in black and pointing a 9mm Beretta pistol at her. Ryan ordered Godfrey to put her children in the car, which she immediately did for their safety, she strapped them into the car and told them to wait there for her she would be back soon. Ryan then picked up the picnic groundsheet and ordered Godfrey to follow him into the woods, he then shot her 13 times, dropped the groundsheet and went back to his car. Godfrey’s children watched as he got in his car and drove away without acknowledging them, they had heard the shots come from the trees and were terrified. The police became aware of Susan Godfrey’s murder when Hannah and George approached a pensioner Myra Rose while wandering around, they told her “a man in black shot our mummy”. Initially Rose did not believe the children, but agreed to help them find her, while the children were wandering a passing police officer found Godfrey’s empty car with open doors and investigated. He found Godfrey’s body 250 feet from her car, she was fully clothed but riddled with bullets, he also found to groups of German-made 9mm spent cartridges. It was via ballistics run on the cartridges that Godfrey’s murder was connected to Ryan and the events that unfolded soon after, she was Ryan’s first victim.
Ryan then took his silver Vauxhall Astra GTE and drove along the A4 towards Hungerford, he stopped at the Golden Arrow petrol station just outside the village of Froxfield, he stood on the forecourt and filled his car and a five-litre canister with petrol, the wife of the owner Kakoub Dean was working the tills, she recognised Ryan as a regular customer but not a chatty one, she also noted that he had never bought that much petrol at one time making her slightly suspicious so she kept an eye on him. Dean began to serve another customer Ian George, as she did Ryan went to the boot of his car and pulled out a semi-automatic rifle, as Dean looked up from serving he had taken position to shoot and aimed directly at her, she ducked below the counter just as a bullet pierced the safety glass above the counter and ricocheted through the shop behind her. The customer in the store that Dean was serving, Ian George sped off on his motorbike to place a call to emergency services from Foxfield. Ryan was still at the garage at the time and stormed into the shop and aimed his rifle at Dean once again, she was huddled against the wall crying as he stood over her, listening to her beg for her life, this had no effect on Ryan and he pulled the trigger, but no shots were fired, he tried to pull the trigger twice more with both attempts being failures due to the magazine falling out because he may have accidently hit the release mechanism. Dean recalled looking Ryan in the face as he pointed the gun at her and said it seemed as if he wasn’t even aware of her and looking right through her. With the failed attempt to kill Dean, Ryan quickly jumped in his car and headed for Hungerford. Dean called the police immediately after Ryan left, they were already en route as they had received the call from Ian George minutes earlier.
By 12.45pm Ryan had arrived in Hungerford at his address that he shared with his mother, 4 South View. He was seen by neighbours entering his house and muffled shots were heard, he had shot and killed the family dog/dogs (reports differ on whether he had one or two dogs). He started loading his car with weapons and a bag that looked like it was filled with food and supplies, Ryan had also dressed in a headband and sleeveless flak jacket, he tried to start the car, but it would not start. Ryan was angered by the car not starting so he climbed out of the car and shot five bullets into the side. Ryan then went back into his house and used the five litres of petrol he bought earlier to douse the house and set it alight, the blaze went on to destroy three adjoining houses. In his car Ryan had packed a large amount of ammunition and weapons including a Beretta 9mm semi-automatic pistol, an M1 carbine semi-automatic assault rifle and a Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle loaded with armour-piercing bullets, and some military clothing, once he was ready Ryan took the firearms, packed the pockets of his flak jacket with ammunition and left on foot.
Ryan then turned his attentions onto his neighbours he saw Roland and Sheila Mason in their back garden and shot Roland six times and Sheila once in the head, both died instantly. Another neighbour Marjorie Jackson was peering out of her window when Ryan shot her, she was wounded but did manage to call the police and her husband Ivor Jackson who was working close-by, Jackson and his colleague George White drove to Marjorie immediately. Ryan continued along the street and was said to have been “shooting anything that moved”, but another neighbour did hear Ryan tell some children to get off the street and go inside. 77-year-old Dorothy Smith, heard Ryan shooting and went to berate him, she said “is that you making all that noise? You’re frightening everybody to death. Stop it, you stupid bugger” Ryan was said to have looked at Smith with a vacant stare and grinned before moving off along a footpath leading to Hungerford Common, Marjorie Jackson pulled Smith into her home to safety before Ryan could take a shot
14-year-old Lisa Mildenhall was shot next, Ryan had smiled at her while she crouched down by her front door to hide from him, she was shot four times in the legs and stomach, she managed to scramble into her house where her mother called an ambulance immediately, Mildenhall managed to survive her encounter Ryan.
When he got to the footpath Ryan saw 51-year-old Kenneth Clements and his family walking their dog, Clements saw Ryan and raised his arms in a gesture of surrender, as he did this Ryan was distracted enough for Clements’ family to escape by jumping over a fence into a neighbouring school and running for their lives, the surrender meant nothing to Ryan and he shot Clements at close range in the chest, killing him instantly, he fell to the floor still clutching at the dog’s lead.
Hungerford police were now aware of the situation and a manhunt was launched, helicopters were used to circle the area and track Ryan’s movements, the air team warned the ground police to set up roadblocks around South View, with the small town now in chaos and Ryan’s movements being unpredictable some motorist were sent directly into Ryan’s path. Ryan looped back onto South View and saw a responding officer PC Roger Brereton in his Vauxhall Senator police car, he fired 23 rounds at the vehicle causing it to veer and crash into a telephone pole, he died while he called for back-up on his walkie-talkie. Ryan started to shoot at passing cars on the street, he smiled as he took out his semi-automatic and fired 11 rounds into Linda Chapman’s Volvo 360 who was travelling with her daughter Alison Chapman, the bullets travelled through the bonnet and critically hit Alison in her right thigh, but he continued to shoot at the car and hit the windscreen causing it to shatter, hitting Linda with both glass and a bullet in the left shoulder, as he reloaded Chapman managed to reverse her car out of South View and seek treatment at the local doctors. Both survived the ordeal, but a bullet was found lodged in Alison’s spine, during the surgery to remove the bullet the surgeons found that the risk of paralysis was too high and left it in place.
George White and Ivor Jackson encountered Ryan on their way to Marjorie Jackson, George’s Toyota Crown drove toward Ryan, he opened fire with his Type 56 raining 11 bullets into the car, he killed George with one shot to the head and left Ivor, who had been in the passenger seat severely injured in his head and chest, George’s car swerved and collided with the back of PC Brereton’s car, Ivor recalled how he feigned death and hoped that Ryan wouldn’t come and take a closer look at the car.
Ryan moved along Fairview Road on and took his next victim 84-year-old Abdul Rahman Khan, a retired restauranteur as he mowed his lawn, Ryan approached and shot him three times, Kahn later died of his wounds. Immediately Ryan turned to Alan Lepetit, a coalman who had also helped Ryan build his Chubb steel cabinet for his firearms, Lepetit had heard about the shooting and rushed home to check on his family, Ryan shot at him and hit him in the arm and once in back as he managed to flee, Lepetit survived the shots. An ambulance arrived on Fairview Road and Ryan shot at it, he shattered the window and injured a paramedic Hazel Haslett, she sped the ambulance away before he was able to fire at her or her colleague again, the entire area was now considered a danger zone meaning fire engines or ambulances could no longer enter, as they were being targeted too.
Dorothy Ryan, Ryan’s other came home from shopping and parked behind White’s car, when she looked into the car and saw the two men, she said “oh Ivor” and headed up the road to be confronted to her house and three others ablaze, people lying dead in their gardens and cars smashed up along the street, she saw Ryan stood there with a gun in his hand and tried to reason with him saying “Stop Michael. Why are you doing this?” without a reply Ryan shot his mother twice in the stomach and once in the leg, he walked closer to his mother as she lay on the ground and shot her twice more in the back from a distance of four inches, killing her.
A police helicopter hovered over Ryan, telling him to lay down his weapons, which he ignored and simply walked away, the officers on scene on the ground were unarmed, so they could not apprehend him at the time. The officers that observed Ryan warned that the firearms locker that Hungerford police had was no match for Ryan’s weapons and at 1:30pm the Tactical Firearms Unit was brought in while officers on the ground assembled closer to town. A man who recently moved into my area from Newbury remembered cycling home on 19th August 1987 and saw the Tactical Firearms Unit speeding toward Hungerford unaware of what was fully unfolding in Hungerford that afternoon.
Ryan walked across the school playing field while firing randomly, Betty Tolladay heard the shots and thought it was local children playing with firecrackers in the playing field, she stepped into her back garden and shouted at them to keep the noise down. Ryan spotted her and shot her once, the bullet entered her groin and smashed the top of her hip, part of her pelvis and the sciatic nerve then exiting through her back. Tolladay dragged herself into her house and survived her injuries.
Ryan arrived on Hungerford Common and shot and killed father-of-two Francis Butler as he walked his dog in the Hungerford Memorial Gardens, he was shot three times in the groin and the leg with the AK-47, Butler died instantly. Ryan walked past a young boy in the Common, Dean Lavisher, but didn’t seem to notice him, but then attempted to shoot teenager Andrew Cadle as he rode past on his bicycle, but he missed as Andrew sped away. Ryan then abandoned his M1 Carbine in the Memorial Gardens.
A taxi driver, 30-year-old Marcus Barnard was on his way to visit his wife and new-born son when Ryan crossed in front of his Peugeot 309, he was shot in the head with Ryan’s AK-47 and killed instantly, Marcus Bernard was now Ryan’s 10th victim. It emerged later that Bernard had been re-directed to the Common by a police diversion, all the officers had sporadic contact with the helicopter making the information given by the officers at the diversion out-of-date. Witnesses reported that at this point Ryan seemed disgusted with the rifle and threw it onto the ground but changed his mind and picked it up and carried on walking away from town.
While still at the Common Ryan shot at Ann Honeybone as she drove down Priory Avenue, she was hit, but only slightly injured by the bullet, he then moved his attention to a parked van on Priory Avenue, inside was local washing machine repair man John Storms, he shot and hit Storms in the face, Storms then crouched below the dashboard of his Renault Express, he heard Ryan fire another two shots at the van and felt the van shake, but he was not hit by either shot. Bob Barclay, a local builder saw Storms in his van and dragged him out of the van and took him to his house nearby for safety.
The police had started to evacuate the public from the town centre of Hungerford when Ryan headed there to continue shooting, he killed 67-year-old Douglas Wainwright and injured his wife Kathleen while in their car, Kathleen Wainwright recalls that her husband hit the break as soon as the windscreen of their vehicle smashed at the first shot, and that Ryan fired 8 rounds into their Datsun Bluebird. Douglas was shot in the head in a fatal shot while Kathleen was shot in the chest and shoulder. Once the vehicle had stopped Kathleen saw Ryan approach the car while reloading, so she unbuckled her seatbelt and ran. The Wainwrights were in the area visiting their son, a policeman on the Hungerford force, in a cruel coincidence, the officer Constable Wainwright had signed a request from Ryan just weeks earlier to extend his firearm certificate.
The press had heard about the massacre and they flocked to Hungerford adding to the destruction by bringing their helicopters, this hindered the police in the air. They took photos of the dead and wounded, and unethically gained access to some houses of the victims by saying they were crime scene personnel. It was predicted that during the rampage Ryan killed an average of one person per minute, the prime minister at the time Margaret Thatcher was informed during her holiday in Cornwall, she was notified and kept informed via a special phone line from Downing Street.
Ryan shot at a Ford Transit, inside was Kevin Lance who had been hit in the upper arm. Further up Priory Avenue another vehicle crossed Ryan’s path, Eric Vardy a 51-year-old handyman and his passenger Steven Ball were driving to a job. Ball recalled that he saw Lance clutching his arm and running into a side street, as he was distracted by Lance, Ryan fired a burst of bullets that shattered the windscreen, he hit Vardy twice in the head and upper torso, he crashed his van into a wall when he hit. Vardy later died of shock and a haemorrhage from his wounds, Ball suffered no serious injury.
Ryan walked into Orchard Park Close on Priory Road, he saw 22-year-old Sandra Hill as she drove her Renault 5, she was driving with her window down and listening to music, this made her an easier target for Ryan as he could hear her coming, he took aim and fatally shot her with a single bullet to the chest. A passing soldier Carl Harries went to administer first-aid but was unable to save Hill as she died in his arms.
Ryan crossed the street, randomly shooting as he walked. He entered 60 Priory Road, the home of Victor and Myrtle Gibbs, he shot at the front door with his semi-automatic in a blast of bullets, Myrtle Gibbs was wheelchair bound and vulnerable to Ryan, Victor Gibbs threw himself across Myrtle to shield her from the bullets, Victor died instantly while Myrtle died from her injuries in hospital. Ryan set up a “fort” for himself in the Gibbs’ home and fired at houses from there, he managed to injure a man at number 62 and a woman at number 67.
34-year-old Ian Playle, a clerk to the Justices at Newbury Magistrates Court, brought his wife and their two young children to Hungerford for some shopping, he drove through Priory Road and Ryan fired at their car with the Beretta and killed Playle with a single shot to the neck. His family were unhurt. Ryan shot at other houses and hit 67-year-old George Noon while he stood in the garden of his son’s house, 109 Priory Road. Noon was hit in the shoulder and the eye and survived his injuries.
Ryan was seen shortly before 2pm by a resident of Priory Road, Bert Whatley walking slowly with his head down toward John O’Gaunt Secondary School before breaking in. The school was closed for the summer holidays, so no students or staff were present. Chief Inspector Lambert sent Sergeant Paul Brightwell and a team of eight officers to investigate the school grounds, they were unaware that that was Ryan’s location at the time, the officers were armed with .38 Smith and Wessnos, which were no match for the weapons that Ryan still had.
Ryan hid in the school for over four hours before police finally confirmed a sighting of him in a third floor classroom window, at 5:26pm he threw his Kalashnikov out of the window, he now only had his .9mm Beretta and some ammunition, Brightwell immediately informed his superior officers and Hungerford was declared safe for waiting ambulances and fire engines to move into the area. The police then surrounded the school to establish communication with Ryan in an effort to gain his surrender.
The police established communication with Ryan and Brightwell spoke with him for 90 minutes, Ryan was lucid, calm and could hold a long and detailed conversation. Ryan claimed at one point that he had an Israeli fragmentation type hand grenade, this concerned police. He spoke about his mother and asked about her condition numerous times, the police were unable to tell him anything at the time as emergency vehicles had just began helping the injured, they assured him that they would find out while trying to talk him into dropping his weapons, Ryan said he would not leave the building until he had news of his mother.
Ryan also shouted things out the window to Brightwell including “Hungerford must be a bit of a mess” “If only the police hadn’t turned up. If only my car had started” he also asked about his dog, and whether they had found his M1 Carbine and magazine as he did not want any local children to pick it up and injure themselves. One of the last things he said was “I wish I had stayed in bed”.
Ryan said to police at 6:45pm “It’s funny I killed all those people, but I haven’t got the guts to blow my own brains out”, he then asked for the time before falling completely silent. At 6:52pm a single muffled shot was heard from the classroom they were not certain at the time whether Ryan had killed himself or if he had just fired a round. The police helicopter flew past the window, but they couldn’t see into the classroom to confirm anything, so one of the Tactical Firearms Unit climbed onto the roof of the school and managed to see into the classroom using a mirror on a long pole, he saw Ryan slumped in the corner, supposedly dead.
The unit stormed the classroom and checked that Ryan was not wired with explosives, they found that he had tied the Beretta pistol to his right hand with a bootlace. It was then confirmed that at 6:52pm on 19th August 1987, Michael Robert Ryan had killed himself with a single shot to the head, bringing an end to “The Hungerford Massacre”, including himself and his mother Ryan had killed 16 people, and wounded 15 others.
The British Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd travelled to Hungerford on 23rd August 1987, he announced to the citizens of Hungerford that he had commissioned a report on the massacre from the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, Colin Smith. The Hungerford report confirmed that the weapons used by Ryan had been legally licenced, and the full extent of the encumbrances that affected the response of police and other emergency services was revealed. At the time Hungerford police station was undergoing renovations and only had two working telephone lines that day, the local telephone exchange could not handle the level of 999 calls received and to make it all worse the Hungerford police helicopter was in for repairs when the calls came in about Ryan, it was not ready to fly until around the time that Ryan shot his mother.
The Hungerford Report led to a change in gun laws in the UK, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 banned the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and it restricted the use of shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than two rounds. The law did change again in 1997 in response to another British mass shooting, the Dunblane school massacre, where Thomas Hamilton entered a primary school with weapons and opened fire killing 18 people (including himself). The second amendment in the Firearms Act banned the possession of all handguns other than those chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, making them subject to Section 5 (Prohibited Weapons) of Firearms Acts, the Labour Government followed a year later with the Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act 1997 which also banned .22 handguns.
Ryan killed himself and his mother during the shooting so no real motive has been established, Dr John Hamilton of Broadmoor Hospital and Dr Jim Higgins a consultant for Mersey Regional Health Authority suspect that Ryan was schizophrenic and psychotic, Hamilton stated “Ryan was most likely to be suffering from acute schizophrenia. He might have had a reason for doing what he did, but it was likely to be bizarre and peculiar to him”. After his death Ryan was cremated at Reading Crematorium on 3rd September 1987, 15 days after the shooting.
British newspaper The Daily Mirror ran a story on 21st August 1987 focusing on Ryan’s relationship with his mother the headline read “Maniac in the making, he was a mummy’s boy, much more like Bambi than Rambo” the article suggested their relationship was unhealthy and that Ryan was spoiled by his mother leading him to commit his crimes, it seemed Ryan did rely on his mother somewhat in his adult life and she was more than happy to help her son and give him what he wanted whether it was financial help or to reassure him emotionally, but Ryan would have hated relying on her and would have felt inferior when asking for the help, because of this it built into a resentment for his mother and the life he had generally, because he relied on his mother for things. That resentment is clear when he returned to his home, by killing his dog(s), burning down his house, and then killing his mother in a much more thorough way than the other victims he wiped out everything that was associated with him and his life prior to the shooting. Just before he killed himself he asked about his mother’s condition specifically without mention of any other victims, it’s unclear whether it was genuine concern for her condition, regret for what he did to her or whether he wanted confirmation that she was dead and he had achieved what he what he wanted do from the massacre, but it is clear that his mental state had declined to the point of extreme self-hatred and a compulsive need to gain control that he felt he did not have mentally.
Ryan’s mental illness whether it’s schizophrenia or psychosis as suspected by doctors would have left him feeling vulnerable because of the way his brain was imbalanced. As he got older and his mental state declined he began to see the army, survivalists, and weapons as symbols of control and strength, a control and strength that he did not have in his own life, but would fantasise about, his behaviour in the years leading up to the shooting people mentioned how he would make up various stories or exaggerations like being in the army, being married or owning a gun shop show him trying to perceive himself to other people as being like his fantasy. He would feel better about himself when he made these things up as he could hide behind the stories and feel safe but would then anger if he was caught in or questioned on his lies because that would make him feel vulnerable.
As well as the already present mental illness that Ryan was living with the death of his father seemed to be a factor in what triggered the massacre, although Alfred Ryan died two years before the shooting, Ryan would have been processing the grief while already mentally ill, making him even more mentally ill with more of a struggle to keep it under control. This was around the time he lost his job as a caretaker due to his mental health, and it was the final loss Ryan could handle before snapping, when he was employed he had a routine and a purpose as well as some income to supplement his hobbies and keep him from relying on his mother as much, when he lost that routine and security of income he decided that he couldn’t cope anymore, he said himself that he did not initially have “the guts” as he put it to kill himself, but that fear would have made him angry, angry that he couldn’t kill himself, angry that his life had changed so drastically in the last two years and angry that he had couldn’t be what people perceive as normal and successful and angry that he had lost complete control of his life at this point. This mental break is possibly what made him massacre a town in cold blood.
Although we will never really know Ryan’s motives or specifically what drove him to do it The Hungerford Massacre remains one of the worst firearms incident in the UK along with The Dunblane School massacre and The Cumbria Shootings.