The latest BBC Two documentary takes a look at Harold Shipman – one of the UK’s most prolific serial killers in recent times.
The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story examines the former GP, who was found guilty of killing 15 patients in 2000 but suspected of murdering a total of 250.
The three-part series interviews friends and family of Shipman’s victims as well as those who suspected the doctor of killing his patients – but who is Harold Shipman? And how did he go undetected for so many years as a murderer?
Here’s everything you need to know about Harold Shipman ahead of BBC Two’s upcoming docuseries.
Who is Harold Shipman?
Harold Shipman is a former GP and prolific serial killer who murdered approximately 250 victims, most of whom were elderly women.
In 2000, he was found guilty of murdering fifteen patients under his care and one count of forgery, resulting in his imprisonment for life with the recommendation that he never be released.
Born in Nottingham in 1946, Shipman studied medicine at Leeds School of Medicine and began working as a general practitioner (GP) in 1974 at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden.
A year later, he was fined £600 for forging prescriptions of painkiller pethidine, which he had become addicted to. He was not struck off by the General Medical Council but fired by his practice, and three years later, he began working as a GP in Greater Manchester.
In 1993, Shipman set up his own practice in Hyde, Greater Manchester and registered approximately 3,000 patients. Five years later, in September 1998, he was arrested for the murder of Kathleen Grundy.
What did Harold Shipman do?
Shipman was accused of killing 15 elderly patients in 1999, although he’s believed to have killed approximately 250, making him one of the most prolific serial killers Britain has ever seen.
According to the Shipman Inquiry, which took place in 2002, Deborah Massey, who worked at Frank Massey and Sons funeral parlour, raised the alarm in March 1998 after noticing a high death rate among Shipman’s patients and a large number of cremation forms that he had countersigned, while another GP also informed the Medical Defence Union. However, police were unable to find sufficient evidence and closed the investigation.
In August 1998, taxi driver John Shaw informed police that he suspected Shipman had killed 21 patients, after noticing that many elderly women he was taking to the medical centre died in Shipman’s care despite arriving in what seemed to be good health.
The police, who were later blamed by the Shipman Inquiry for assigning inexperienced officers to the case in March, took notice after the killer’s last victim, Kathleen Grundy, was found dead at her home in June 1998 with Shipman being the last person to see her alive and recording cause of death as old age.
Grundy’s daughter Angela Woodruff, who was a lawyer, was informed by a solicitor that an inauthentic-looking will had been made seemingly by her mother, excluding Woodruff and her children but leaving £386,000 to Shipman. Woodruff reported Shipman to the police, who opened up an investigation and found traces of heroin (diamorphine), often used to treat terminal cancer patients, in her body. In fact, the forensic scientist said that her death was “consistent with the use or administration of a significant quantity of morphine or diamorphine and similar values have been seen in fatalities attributed to morphine overdoses”.
Shipman asserted that Grundy was addicted to a drug like codeine, morphine or heroin and pointed to his GP notes as evidence, however, police found that the comments had been written on his computer after her death, as well as a typewriter that could be used to make the forged will. He was arrested on 7th September 1998.
Police managed to investigate and certify 15 other cases, where Shipman had administered lethal doses of diamorphine, falsely registered the patients’ deaths and edited their medical history to show that they were deathly ill.
Where is Harold Shipman now? Is he still alive?
In 2000, Shipman was sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he never be released and struck off by the General Medical Council.
He was originally incarcerated in a Manchester prison, but moved to HMP Frankland in Durham and eventually to Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire. He took his own life in January 2004, the day before his 58th birthday. According to BBC News, he reportedly told his probation officer that he was contemplating suicide so that his widow would receive his pension and lump sum.
Timeline of Harold Shipman events
1946: Harold Shipman is born in Nottingham.
1970: Shipman graduates from Leeds University and starts working at Pontefract General Infirmary.
1974: He begins working as a general practitioner (GP) in Todmorden, Lancashire however, colleagues discover that he was addicted to painkiller pethidine and was forging prescriptions of the drug. He’s fined £600 and fired from the practice.
1977: Shipman starts working as a GP in Hyde, Great Manchester.
1993: He sets up his own practice in Hyde, and amasses over 3,000 patients
March 1998: Shipman is reported to the police after a funeral home and another GP suspect him of killing his patients. However, police close the investigation after finding insufficient evidence.
June 1998: Kathleen Grundy is found dead and her daughter, Angela Woodruff, reports Shipman to the police after suspecting him of forging her mother’s will to cut off her family and instead give £386,000 to Shipman.
7 September 1998: Shipman is arrested for the murder of Kathleen Grundy.
5th October 1999: Shipman’s murder trial begins in Preston Crown Court, where he’s on trial for killing 15 elderly patients.
31 January 2000: A jury convicts Shipman on all 15 counts of murder and he’s sentenced to life in prison.
1 February 2000: Health Secretary Alan Milburn opens an inquiry into Shipman’s murders and how they happened. Relatives of the victims campaign for the private inquiry to be held in public.
February 2000: Police announced that they are investigating Shipman’s role in 175 deaths, but reveal there will be no more murder charges.
April 2000: South Manchester coroner John Pollard says he will hold inquests into 23 deaths not covered by the original police investigation.
July 2000: A judge rules that the inquiry must be held in public, after the relatives of Shipman’s suspected victims take the government to court.
January 2001: Government report suggests approximately 236 of Shipman’s former patients may have been killed.
June 2001: The Shipman Inquiry begins in Manchester, with the first phase dedicated to examining over 466 cases where Shipman’s foul play is suspected.
July 2002: First phase of inquiry report is published, concluding that the GP killed at least 215 of his patients and possible more. 171 were women, 44 were men, the oldest was a 93-year-old woman and the youngest was a 47-year-old man.
July 2003: The second and third Shipman Inquiry reports are published, where Dame Janet Smith criticises the police’s investigation. She calls for “radical reform” of the way coroners work in England and Wales.
13 January 2004: Shipman is found dead in his cell in Wakefield prison.