Dunblane School Massacre

Thomas Watt Hamilton
Thomas Watt Hamilton

The Dunblane school massacre was one of the deadliest mass murders in UK history, when gunman Thomas Hamilton killed sixteen children and one teacher at Dunblane Primary School near Stirling, Scotland on 13 March 1996, before killing himself.

Public debate about the killings centred on gun control laws, including public petitions calling for a ban on private ownership of handguns and an official enquiry, the Cullen Report. In response to this debate, two new Firearms Acts were passed, which effectively made private ownership of handguns illegal in Great Britain.

Shooting

At approximately 8:15 am on Wednesday 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, aged 43, was seen scraping ice off his van outside his home at Kent Road in Stirling. He left soon afterwards and drove about 5 miles (8.0 km) north to Dunblane in his white van. He arrived on the grounds of Dunblane Primary School at around 9:30 am and parked his van near to a telegraph pole in the car park of the school. Hamilton cut the cables at the bottom of the telegraph pole, which served nearby houses, with a set of pliers before making his way across the car park towards the school buildings.

Hamilton headed towards the north-west side of the school to a door near toilets and the school gymnasium. After entering, he made his way to the gymnasium armed with four legally held handguns; two 9mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolvers. He was also carrying 743 cartridges of ammunition. In the gym was a class of twenty-eight Primary 1 pupils preparing for a PE lesson in the presence of three adult members of staff. Before entering the gymnasium, it is believed Hamilton fired two shots into the stage of the assembly hall and the girls’ toilet. Upon entering the gymnasium, as he was about to be confronted by Eileen Harrild, the PE teacher in charge of the lesson, he started shooting rapidly and randomly. He shot Harrild, who was injured in her arms and chest as she attempted to protect herself, and continued shooting into the gymnasium. Harrild stumbled into the open-plan store cupboard at the side of the gym along with several injured children. Gwen Mayor, the teacher of the Primary 1 class, was shot and killed instantly. The other adult present, Mary Blake, a supervisory assistant, was shot in the head and both legs but also managed to make her way to the store cupboard with several of the children in front of her.

From entering the gymnasium and walking a few steps, Hamilton had fired 29 shots with one of the pistols, killed one child, and injured several others. Four injured children had taken shelter in the store cupboard along with the injured Harrild and Blake. Hamilton then moved up the east side of the gym, firing six shots as he walked, and then fired eight shots towards the opposite end of the gym. He then went towards the centre of the gym, firing 16 shots at point-blank range at a group of children who had been incapacitated by his earlier shots.

A Primary 7 pupil who was walking along the west side of the gym building at the time heard loud bangs and screams and looked inside the gym. Hamilton shot in his direction and the pupil was injured by flying glass before running away. From this position, Hamilton fired 24 shots in various directions. He fired shots towards a window next to the fire exit at the south-east end of the gym, possibly at an adult who was walking across the playground, and then fired four more shots in the same direction after opening the fire exit door. Hamilton then exited the gym briefly through the fire exit, firing another four shots towards the cloakroom of the library, striking and injuring Grace Tweddle, another member of staff at the school.

In the mobile classroom closest to the fire exit where Hamilton was standing, Catherine Gordon saw him firing shots and instructed her Primary 7 class to get down onto the floor before Hamilton fired nine bullets into the classroom, striking books and equipment. One bullet passed through a chair where a child had been sitting seconds before. Hamilton then reentered the gym, dropped the pistol he was using, and took out one of the two revolvers. He put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, pointed it upwards, and pulled the trigger, killing himself. A total of 32 people sustained gunshot wounds inflicted by Hamilton over a 3–4-minute period, 16 of whom were fatally wounded in the gymnasium, which included Gwen Mayor and 15 of her pupils. One other child died later en route to hospital.

– Emergency response

The first call to the police was made at 9:41 am. by the headmaster of the school, Ronald Taylor, who had been alerted by assistant headmistress Agnes Awlson to the possibility of a gunman on the school premises. Awlson had told Taylor that she had heard screaming inside the gymnasium and had seen what she thought to be cartridges on the ground, and Taylor had been aware of loud noises which he assumed to have been from builders on site that he had not been informed of. As he was on his way to the gym, the shooting ended and when he saw what had happened ran back to his office and told deputy headmistress Fiona Eadington to call for ambulances, a call which was made at 9:43 a.m.

The first ambulance arrived on the scene at 9:57 a.m. in response to the call made at 9:43 am. Another medical team from Dunblane Health Centre arrived at 10:04 a.m. which included doctors and a nurse, who were involved in the initial resuscitation of the injured. Medical teams from the health centres in Doune and Callander arrived shortly after. The accident and emergency department at Stirling Royal Infirmary had also been informed of a major incident involving multiple casualties at 9:48 a.m. and the first of several medical teams from the hospital arrived at 10:15 am. Another medical team from the Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary arrived at 10:35 a.m.

By approximately 11:10 am, all of the injured had been taken to Stirling Royal Infirmary for medical treatment; one child died en route to the hospital. Upon examination, several of the patients were transferred to Falkirk and District Royal Infirmary in Falkirk and some to the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Glasgow.

Along with the 1987 Hungerford massacre, and the 2010 Cumbria shootings, it remains one of the deadliest criminal acts involving firearms in the history of the United Kingdom.

Perpetrator

There had been several complaints to police regarding Hamilton’s behaviour towards the young boys who attended the youth clubs he directed. Claims had been made of his having taken photographs of semi-naked boys without parental consent.

Hamilton had briefly been a Scout leader – initially, in July 1973, he was appointed assistant leader with the 4th/6th Stirling of the Scout Association. Later that year, he was seconded as leader to the 24th Stirlingshire troop, which was being revived. Several complaints were made about his leadership, including two occasions when Scouts were forced to sleep with Hamilton in his van during hill-walking expeditions. Within months, on 13 May 1974, Hamilton’s Scout Warrant was withdrawn, with the County Commissioner stating that he was “suspicious of his moral intentions towards boys”. He was blacklisted by the Association and thwarted in a later attempt he made to become a Scout leader in Clackmannanshire.

He claimed in letters that rumours about him led to the failure of his shop business in 1993, and in the last months of his life he complained again that his attempts to organise a boys’ club were subject to persecution by local police and the scout movement. Among those he complained to were the Queen and the local Member of Parliament, Michael Forsyth. In the 1980s, another MP, George Robertson, who lived in Dunblane, had complained to Forsyth about Hamilton’s local boys’ club, which his son had attended. On the day following the massacre, Robertson spoke of having argued with Hamilton “in my own home”.

On 19 March 1996, six days after the massacre, the body of Thomas Hamilton was cremated “far away from Dunblane”, according to the police spokesman.

Political impact

– Gun Control

The Cullen Inquiry into the massacre recommended that the government introduce tighter controls on handgun ownership and consider whether an outright ban on private ownership would be in the public interest in the alternative (though club ownership would be maintained). The report also recommended changes in school security and vetting of people working with children under 18. The Home Affairs Select Committee agreed with the need for restrictions on gun ownership but stated that a handgun ban was not appropriate.

A small group, known as the Gun Control Network, was founded in the aftermath of the shootings and was supported by some parents of victims at Dunblane and of the Hungerford massacre. Bereaved families and their friends also initiated a campaign to ban private gun ownership, named the Snowdrop Petition (because March is snowdrop time in Scotland), which gained 705,000 signatures in support and was supported by some newspapers, including the Sunday Mail, a Scottish tabloid newspaper whose petition to ban handguns had raised 428,279 signatures within five weeks of the massacre.

In response to this public debate, the then-current Conservative government of John Major introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned all cartridge ammunition handguns with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons in England, Scotland and Wales. Following the 1997 General Election, the Labour government of Tony Blair introduced the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning the remaining .22 cartridge handguns in England, Scotland and Wales, and leaving only muzzle-loading and historic handguns legal, as well as certain sporting handguns (e.g. “Long-Arms”) that fall outside the Home Office Definition of a “handgun” because of their dimensions. The ban does not affect Northern Ireland.

Security in schools, particularly primary schools, was improved in response to the Dunblane massacre and two other violent incidents in England around the same time: the murder of Philip Lawrence, a head teacher in London, and the wounding of six children and Lisa Potts, a nursery teacher, at a Wolverhampton nursery school. Many schools put up high perimeter fences and door entry systems which exist to this day.

– Criticism of the judiciary

Evidence of previous police interaction with Hamilton was presented to the Cullen Inquiry but later sealed under a closure order to prevent publication for 100 years. The official reason for sealing the documents was to protect the identities of children, but this led to accusations of a coverup intended to protect the reputations of officials. Following a review of the closure order by the Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, edited versions of some of the documents were released to the public in October 2005. Four files containing post mortems, medical records and profiles on the victims, as well as Thomas Hamilton’s autopsy, remained sealed under the 100-year order to avoid distressing the relatives and survivors.

The released documents revealed that in 1991, following Hamilton’s Loch Lomond summer camp, complaints were made to Central Scotland Police and were investigated by the Child Protection Unit. Hamilton was reported to the Procurator Fiscal for consideration of ten charges, including assault, obstructing police and contravention of the Children and Young Persons Act 1937. No action was taken.

Media coverage

– Books

Two books – Dunblane: Our Year of Tears by Peter Samson and Alan Crow (Mainstream, 1996) and Dunblane: Never Forget by Mick North (Mainstream, 2000) – both give accounts of the massacre from the perspective of those most directly affected. Another book, Dunblane Unburied by Sandra Uttley (Book Publishing World 2006), whose publication was funded by a shooters’ organisation, the Sportsman’s Association, examines Hamilton’s relationship with members of Central Scotland Police. Uttley alleges a cover-up and calls for a new Public Inquiry. Uttley questions how Thomas Hamilton managed to tyrannise and intimidate so many boys at his clubs and summer camps for years without being stopped even though many parents complained to the police and councils and why Central Scotland Police were allowed to carry out the investigation when they were implicated. On 1 March 2006 Creation Books released Predicate: The Dunblane Massacre — Ten Years After by Peter Sotos.

– Television

On the Sunday following the shootings the morning service from Dunblane Cathedral, conducted by Rev. Colin MacIntosh, was broadcast live by the BBC. The BBC also had live transmission of the Memorial Service on 9 October 1996, also held at Dunblane Cathedral.

A documentary “Crimes That Shook Britain” featured the massacre.

A documentary Dunblane: Remembering our Children (produced by Chameleon Television), which featured many of the parents of the children who had been killed, was broadcast by STV and ITV at the time of the first anniversary.

At the time of the tenth anniversary in March 2006 two documentaries were broadcast. Channel 5 screened Dunblane — a decade on (made by Hanrahan Media) and BBC Scotland showed Remembering Dunblane.

BBC commissioned a documentary in 2016 from STV called Dunblane: Our Story.

– Newspapers

In 2009, the Sunday Express came under some criticism for its coverage of the survivors of the massacre (see Sunday Express Dunblane controversy).

Memorials

Two days after the shooting, a vigil and prayer session was held at Dunblane Cathedral which was attended by people of all faiths. On Mothering Sunday, on 17 March, Queen Elizabeth II and her daughter Anne, Princess Royal attended a memorial service at Dunblane Cathedral.

Seven months after the massacre in October 1996, the families of the victims organised their own memorial service at Dunblane Cathedral, which more than 600 people attended, including Prince Charles who was representing the Royal Family. The service was broadcast live on BBC1 and conducted by James Whyte, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Television presenter Lorraine Kelly, who had befriended some of the victims’ families whilst reporting on the massacre for GMTV, was a guest speaker at the service.

In August 1997, two varieties of rose were unveiled and planted as the centrepiece for a roundabout in Dunblane. The two roses were developed by Cockers Roses of Aberdeen; the ‘Gwen Mayor’ rose and ‘Innocence’ rose, in memory of the children killed. A snowdrop originally found in a Dunblane garden in the 1970s was renamed ‘Sophie North’ in memory of one of the victims of the massacre.

The gymnasium at the school was demolished on 11 April 1996 and replaced by a memorial garden. Two years after the massacre on 14 March 1998, a memorial garden was opened at Dunblane Cemetery, where Gwen Mayor and twelve of the children who were killed are buried. The garden features a fountain with a plaque of the names of those killed. Stained glass windows in memory of the victims were placed in three local churches, St Blane’s and the Church of the Holy Family in Dunblane and the nearby Lecropt Kirk as well as at the Dunblane Youth and Community Centre.

The National Association of Primary Education commissioned a sculpture, “Flame for Dunblane”, created by Walter Bailey from a single yew tree, which was placed in the National Forest, near Moira, Leicestershire.

Commemoration stone

Commemoration stone
Commemoration stone

In the nave of Dunblane Cathedral is a standing stone by the monumental sculptor Richard Kindersley. It was commissioned by the Kirk Session as the Cathedral’s commemoration and dedicated at a service on 12 March 2000. It is a Clashach stone two metres high on a Caithness flagstone base. The quotations on the stone are by E. V. Rieu (“He called a little child to him…”), Richard Henry Stoddard (“…the spirit of a little child”), Bayard Taylor (“But still I dream that somewhere there must be The spirit of a child that waits for me”) and W. H. Auden (“We are linked as children in a circle dancing”).

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