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Hungerford massacre: Reluctant remembrance 25 years on

By Adam Williams
BBC News

image captionHungerford's memorial to the 16 people who died on 19 August, 1987

"People just want to forget about it, but they can't," says Bryan Geater, whose daughter was nearly killed by gunman Michael Ryan 25 years ago.

Say the name Hungerford and most people will associate the town with the events of Wednesday, 19 August, 1987.

That summer afternoon Ryan, a 27-year-old unemployed labourer, killed 16 people, injured 15 more and then turned the gun on himself to end a six-hour shooting spree.

He changed the lives of residents in the west Berkshire town forever and society's attitudes towards possessing firearms.

With the anniversary this weekend, visit Hungerford today and you will find a town which remembers the tragedy, but respectfully consigns the horrific events to the history books.

'Callously murdered'

Mr Geater's daughter Myra was seriously injured by one of Ryan's bullets, which hit her in the leg after flying through the front window of their family home.

The 74-year-old still lives in the same house with his wife Diana and every year the family leaves town on 19 August to escape mention of the events.

But Mr Geater admits a turning point came three years ago when the detached house opposite was demolished and replaced by four new properties.

Jack and Myrtle Gibbs were among Ryan's last victims as he entered their Priory Road detached home and shot them.

From his porch bench across the road, Mr Geater looks forlornly at the new builds as he ponders the question of what the massacre means a quarter of a century later.

He said: "To see that house opposite come down was a God-send.

"Jack and Myrtle were great friends of ours, who were callously murdered inside their home.

"To step out the front door everyday and see that was a terrible reminder."

He added: "He (Ryan) just flipped that day and the more the media highlights these things, the more it becomes an eye-opener for people who want to try and make a name for themselves, like we keep seeing in these terrible shootings in America."

Hungerford will not be marking the 25th anniversary with a memorial service either at the town's St Lawrence Church or by the memorial plaque and gates at the entrance to the football and recreation ground.

Raw memories

The decision to take a low-key approach was made in 2007, as the then town mayor Peter Harries decided 20 years was a better time to remember the events.

And that's how many people in Hungerford want it to be conducted.

image captionMichael Ryan set his former home in South View, Hungerford, alight during the shootings

The Reverend Andrew Sawyer moved to Hungerford in 1990, while memories were still raw.

He said: "There'll be prayers during the Sunday service and we'll mark it in the same way we do every year. There's a small memorial by the vestry inside the church and fresh flowers will be placed in a vase beneath it.

"The town has moved on dramatically in terms of population and character in 25 years. What Michael Ryan did that day is only a small part of Hungerford's history, it doesn't define it.

"It's understandable when people don't want to talk about it. Within the town, there's a reticence, we don't want to be labelled forever because of what Michael Ryan did.

"But of course, it was the first place where one of these terrible tragedies happened."

No warning signs

Ron Tarry was the town's mayor in 1987. In the months and years which followed, he helped play a part in setting up a memorial fund for the victims' relatives which raised in excess of £1m.

image captionRon Tarry: "Nobody had any idea it would happen"

Years later, he would also be contacted by families affected by similar shooting sprees, by Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane in 1996 and Derek Bird in Whitehaven, Cumbria, in 2010.

He said: "People from both towns would call me and say 'how did you deal with it all?'

"In Dunblane, it was hard to compare, as Thomas Hamilton went out and deliberately shot at children in a school.

"There were warning signs about him in the run-up to that tragic day, he was known to authorities and was being watched. If all that information had been put together then something or someone could have stopped it.

"With Michael Ryan, nothing like that was feasible. Nobody had any idea it would happen and I think there's absolutely no way anyone could have avoided it."

Following the massacre, the government came under pressure to tighten the law on gun ownership.

The resulting Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 banned a variety of weapons and controls were tightened further after the Dunblane killings.

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