Harold Frederick Shipman (14 January 1946 – 13 January 2004) was a British GP and one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history. On 31 January 2000, a jury found Shipman guilty of 15 murders, but an inquiry after his conviction confirmed he was responsible for at least 218. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and the judge recommended that he never be released.
The Shipman Inquiry, chaired by Dame Janet Smith, began on 1 September 2000. Lasting almost two years, it was an investigation into all deaths certified by Shipman. About 80% of his victims were women. His youngest victim was a 41-year-old man. Much of Britain’s legal structure concerning health care and medicine was reviewed and modified as a result of Shipman’s crimes. He is the only British doctor to have been found guilty of murdering his patients, although various other doctors have been acquitted of similar crimes in the country.
Shipman died on 13 January 2004, the day before his 58th birthday, after hanging himself in his cell at Wakefield Prison.
Early life and career
Harold Frederick Shipman was born on the Bestwood council estate in Nottingham, England, the second of the four children of Harold Frederick Shipman (12 May 1914 – 5 January 1985), a lorry driver, and Vera Brittan (23 December 1919 – 21 June 1963). His working-class parents were devout Methodists. Shipman was particularly close to his mother, who died of lung cancer when he was 17. Her death came in a manner similar to what later became Shipman’s own modus operandi: in the later stages of her disease, she had morphine administered at home by a doctor. Shipman witnessed his mother’s pain subside despite her terminal condition, up until her death on 21 June 1963.
On 5 November 1966, Shipman married Primrose May Oxtoby. They had four children.
Shipman studied medicine at Leeds School of Medicine and graduated in 1970. He started working at Pontefract General Infirmary in Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire, and in 1974 took his first position as a general practitioner (GP) at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. In 1975, he was caught forging prescriptions of pethidine (Demerol) for his own use. He was fined £600 and briefly attended a drug rehabilitation clinic in York. He became a GP at the Donneybrook Medical Centre in Hyde near Manchester, in 1977.
Shipman continued working as a GP in Hyde throughout the 1980s and began his own surgery at 21 Market Street in 1993, becoming a respected member of the community. In 1983, he was interviewed on the Granada Television documentary World in Action on how the mentally ill should be treated in the community. A year after his conviction, the interview was rebroadcast on Tonight with Trevor McDonald.
In March 1998, Dr Linda Reynolds of the Brooke Surgery in Hyde, prompted by Deborah Massey from Frank Massey and Son’s funeral parlour, expressed concerns to John Pollard, the coroner for the South Manchester District, about the high death rate among Shipman’s patients. In particular, she was concerned about the large number of cremation forms for elderly women that he had needed countersigned. The matter was brought to the attention of the police, who were unable to find sufficient evidence to bring charges; the Shipman Inquiry later blamed the police for assigning inexperienced officers to the case. Between 17 April 1998, when the police abandoned the investigation, and Shipman’s eventual arrest, he killed three more people. His last victim was Kathleen Grundy, who was found dead at her home on 24 June 1998. Shipman was the last person to see her alive, and later signed her death certificate, recording “old age” as the cause of death.
In August 1998 taxi driver John Shaw, from Hyde, contacted the police, informing them that he suspected Shipman of murdering 21 of his patients. Grundy’s daughter, lawyer Angela Woodruff, became concerned when solicitor Brian Burgess informed her that a will had been made, apparently by her mother. There were doubts about its authenticity. The will excluded her and her children, but left £386,000 (equivalent to £612,500 in 2015) to Shipman. Burgess told Woodruff to report it, and went to the police, who began an investigation. Grundy’s body was exhumed, and when examined was found to contain traces of diamorphine, often used for pain control in terminal cancer patients. Shipman was arrested on 7 September 1998, and was found to own a typewriter of the kind used to make the forged will.
The police then investigated other deaths Shipman had certified, and created a list of 15 specimen cases to investigate. They discovered a pattern of his administering lethal doses of diamorphine, signing patients’ death certificates, and then falsifying medical records to indicate that they had been in poor health.
Prescription For Murder, a 2000 book by journalists Brian Whittle and Jean Ritchie, advanced two theories on Shipman’s motive for forging the will: that he wanted to be caught because his life was out of control, or that he planned to retire at age 55 and leave the UK.
In 2003, David Spiegelhalter et al. suggested that “statistical monitoring could have led to an alarm being raised at the end of 1996, when there were 67 excess deaths in females aged over 65 years, compared with 119 by 1998.”
Trial and imprisonment
Shipman’s trial, presided over by Mr. Justice Forbes, began on 5 October 1999. Shipman was charged with the murders of Marie West, Irene Turner, Lizzie Adams, Jean Lilley, Ivy Lomas, Muriel Grimshaw, Marie Quinn, Kathleen Wagstaff, Bianka Pomfret, Norah Nuttall, Pamela Hillier, Maureen Ward, Winifred Mellor, Joan Melia and Kathleen Grundy, all of whom had died between 1995 and 1998.
On 31 January 2000, after six days of deliberation, the jury found Shipman guilty of killing 15 patients by lethal injections of diamorphine, and forging the will of Kathleen Grundy. The trial judge sentenced him to 15 concurrent life sentences and recommended that he never be released. Shipman also received four years for forging the will. Two years later, Home Secretary David Blunkett confirmed the judge’s whole life tariff, just months before British government ministers lost their power to set minimum terms for prisoners.
On 11 February 2000, ten days after his conviction, the General Medical Council formally struck Shipman off its register.
Shipman consistently denied his guilt, disputing the scientific evidence against him. He never made any statements about his actions. His defence tried, but failed, to have the count of murder of Mrs Grundy, where a clear motive was alleged, tried separately from the others, where no obvious motive was apparent. His wife, Primrose, was apparently in denial about his crimes.
Although many other cases could have been brought to court, the authorities concluded it would be hard to have a fair trial, in view of the enormous publicity surrounding the original trial. Also, given the sentences from the first trial, a further trial was unnecessary. The Shipman Inquiry concluded Shipman was probably responsible for about 250 deaths. The Shipman Inquiry also suggested that he liked to use drugs recreationally.
Shipman is the only doctor in the history of British medicine found guilty of murdering his patients. Dr. John Bodkin Adams was charged in 1957 with killing 160 of his patients over a ten-year period, and “possibly provided the role model for Shipman”, but was acquitted. Historian Pamela Cullen has argued that because of Adams’ acquittal, there was no impetus to examine the flaws in the British system until the Shipman case.
Other doctors —most notably Leonard Arthur, Howard Martin, David Moor, Thomas Lodwig, and Nigel Cox—have been charged with hastening the deaths of severely disabled or terminally ill patients. Cox was convicted of attempted murder and received a suspended sentence; the others, all charged with murder, were acquitted.
Shipman committed suicide by hanging in his cell at Wakefield Prison at 06:20 on 13 January 2004, on the eve of his 58th birthday, and was pronounced dead at 08:10. A Prison Service statement indicated that Shipman had hanged himself from the window bars of his cell using bed sheets. Some British tabloids expressed joy at his suicide and encouraged other serial killers to follow his example; The Sun ran a celebratory front page headline, “Ship Ship hooray!”
Some of the victims’ families said they felt cheated, as his suicide meant they would never have the satisfaction of Shipman’s confession, and answers as to why he committed his crimes. The Home Secretary David Blunkett noted that celebration was tempting, saying: “You wake up and you receive a call telling you Shipman has topped himself and you think, is it too early to open a bottle? And then you discover that everybody’s very upset that he’s done it.”
Despite The Sun’s celebration of Shipman’s suicide, his death divided national newspapers, with the Daily Mirror branding him a “cold coward” and condemning the Prison Service for allowing his suicide to happen. The Independent, on the other hand, called for the inquiry into Shipman’s suicide to look more widely at the state of Britain’s prisons as well as the welfare of inmates. In The Guardian, an article by Sir David Ramsbotham (former Chief Inspector of Prisons) suggested that whole life sentencing be replaced by indefinite sentencing as these would at least give prisoners the hope of eventual release and reduce the risk of their committing suicide as well as making their management easier for prison officials.
Shipman’s motive for suicide was never established, although he had reportedly told his probation officer that he was considering suicide to assure his wife’s financial security after he was stripped of his National Health Service (NHS) pension. Primrose Shipman received a full NHS pension, to which she would not have been entitled had Shipman lived past age 60. Additionally, there was evidence that his wife, who had consistently protested Shipman’s innocence despite the overwhelming evidence, had begun to suspect his guilt. Shipman had refused to take part in courses leading toward a full confession of his crimes, leading to temporary removal of privileges, including the opportunity to telephone his wife. During this period, according to Shipman’s ex-cellmate, Shipman received a letter from Primrose exhorting him to “tell me everything, no matter what”.
In January 2001, Chris Gregg, a senior West Yorkshire detective, was selected to lead an investigation into 22 of the West Yorkshire deaths. Following this, The Shipman Inquiry into Shipman’s activities submitted in July 2002 concluded that he had killed at least 215 of his patients between 1975 and 1998, during which time he practised in Todmorden, West Yorkshire (1974–1975), and Hyde, Greater Manchester (1977–1998). Dame Janet Smith, the judge who submitted the report, admitted that many more suspicious deaths could not be definitively ascribed to him. Most of his victims were elderly women in good health.
In her sixth and final report, issued on 24 January 2005, Smith reported that she believed that Shipman had killed three patients, and she had serious suspicions about four further deaths, including that of a four-year-old girl, during the early stage of his medical career at Pontefract General Infirmary in Pontefract, West Riding of Yorkshire. Smith concluded the probable number of Shipman’s victims between 1971 and 1998 was 250. In total, 459 people died while under his care, but it is uncertain how many of those were Shipman’s victims, as he was often the only doctor to certify a death.
The Shipman Inquiry also recommended changes to the structure of the General Medical Council.
The General Medical Council charged six doctors, who signed cremation forms for Shipman’s victims, with misconduct, claiming they should have noticed the pattern between Shipman’s home visits and his patients’ deaths. All these doctors were found not guilty. Shipman’s widow, Primrose Shipman, was called to give evidence about two of the deaths during the inquiry. She maintained her husband’s innocence both before and after the prosecution.
In October 2005, a similar hearing was held against two doctors who worked at Tameside General Hospital in 1994, who failed to detect that Shipman had deliberately administered a “grossly excessive” dose of morphine.
A 2005 inquiry into Shipman’s suicide found that it “could not have been predicted or prevented,” but that procedures should nonetheless be re-examined.
In 2005, it came to light that Shipman might have stolen jewellery from his victims. Over £10,000 worth of jewellery had been found stashed in his garage in 1998, and in March 2005, with Primrose Shipman pressing for it to be returned to them, police wrote to the families of Shipman’s victims asking them to identify the jewellery.
Unidentified items were handed to the Assets Recovery Agency in May. In August the investigation ended: 66 pieces were returned to Primrose Shipman and 33 pieces, which she confirmed were not hers, were auctioned. The proceeds of the auction went to Tameside Victim Support. The only piece returned to a murdered patient’s family was a platinum-diamond ring, for which the family were able to provide a photograph as proof of ownership.
A memorial garden to Shipman’s victims, called the Garden of Tranquillity, opened in Hyde Park (Hyde) on 30 July 2005.
As of early 2009, families of the victims of Shipman were still seeking compensation for the loss of their relatives. In September 2009, it was announced that letters written by Shipman during his prison sentence were to be sold at auction, but following complaints from victims’ relatives and the media, the letters were removed from sale.
– ‘The Shipman effect’
Following the prominent coverage and conviction of Harold Shipman there followed the Shipman Inquiry, which gave a number of formal recommendations, paired with a cultural change within medicine, which can be referred to as ‘the Shipman effect’. Some doctors stated that they changed their dispensing practices, others stated that they would not risk over prescribing pain relief and may under prescribe, and death certification practices were altered. Perhaps the largest change was the movement from single-doctor general practices to multiple-doctor general practices. This was not a direct recommendation but rather because the report stated that there was not enough safeguarding and monitoring of doctors’ decisions.
Harold and Fred (They Make Ladies Dead) was a 2001 strip cartoon in Viz, also featuring serial killer Fred West. Some relatives of Shipman’s victims voiced anger at the cartoon.
Shipman, a television dramatisation of the case, was made in 2002 and starred James Bolam in the title role. The case was referenced in an episode of the 2003 CBS television medical drama series Diagnosis: Unknown called “Deadly Medicine” (Season 2, Episode 17). In his role as Jack Halford in the 2010 “Where There’s Smoke” episode of the BBC One television series New Tricks, James Bolam mentions Shipman in a lecture on serial killers.
In the television comedy series Gavin & Stacey the Shipman family is named after Harold Shipman. Emphasising the script’s joke, in the third episode Smithy runs a pub quiz and asks the question “the town of Leicester was home to which mass murderer?”. The ploy led to criticism from the son of one of Shipman’s victims.
Shipman is also referenced in the song “What About Us” by The Fall, on their 2005 album Fall Heads Roll: “There was a doctor, he was going around, he was dishing out drugs, to old ladies… What about us, Shipman?”