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Book Review: The Pottery Cottage Murders

On a cold January day in 1977 dangerous convict Billy Hughes escaped from the police escort transferring him from Leicester prison to court in Chesterfield. Somehow the vicious thug had smuggled out a knife from the prison kitchen. Stabbing the two officers who sat either side of him in the taxi, Hughes made his bid for freedom. For an innocent family living in rural Derbyshire, it would signal the start of an unimaginable three-day nightmare.


Along with her elderly parents, Gill Moran lived with her husband Richard and 10-year-old daughter Sarah at Pottery Cottage on the edge of Derbyshire’s Chatsworth estate. Pottery cottage was an 18th century building converted into three dwellings. At one end lived the Morans, at the other end a teaching couple. The middle cottage was, at the time, unoccupied.

The 12th of January was a normal if exceptionally cold day. Richard had gone to work earlier and Gill had dropped off the couple’s daughter at school before herself going to work. As she waved Sarah off, she could never have guessed what lay in store for herself and her family.


‘The Peak District Killings that shocked Britain,’ so declares the front cover of Alan Hurndall’s book. True enough what unfolds is a story that the reader may need to remind his or herself actually happened. This is not fiction. Provided the rather odd typesetting does not offend (double spacing between paragraphs, left justified) to deploy an old cliché, Hurndall’s book is an archetypal page-turner. It’s almost as if you can’t quite believe what you are reading. Surely, this is fiction?


Having requisitioned the taxi, Hughes dumped the injured police guards in the snow. The terrified driver has no choice but to follow Hughes’ orders. Skidding off the road near the inhospitable Beeley Moors, the fugitive made a fateful decision: rather than heading to ‘safety’ he decided to trek across the treacherous moors in freezing temperatures. A man on a mission, he’d vowed to kill an ex-girlfriend whom he believed had betrayed him.


Exhausted and freezing cold, Hughes arrived at Pottery cottage. And so, the endgame had begun. Hughes was a violent man, and now he was a desperate one. He had decided he was never going back to prison. Extricating himself from the situation he himself had created would of course be impossible. However, like many of his ilk, thinking was not Hughes’ strongpoint. Here then was an animal acting purely on instinct, so Heaven help anyone who had the misfortune to cross his path.


Hughes soon subdued Gill’s parents, Arthur (72) and Amy (68). Armed with a knife and an axe it was just a case of waiting for the rest of the family to return home. Later that evening Hughes had the entire family under his control. It’s truly horrific to read what happened during those bleak hours. It seems that one-legged Arthur was a feisty old gentleman and rather than appeasing the lunatic like Gill and Richard were doing, he got in Hughes’ face. Little Sarah too proved herself a nuisance.


Sometime during that first night Hughes murdered both Arthur and Sarah. Thereafter he kept the bodies locked in an annexe while pretending grandfather and grand-daughter were alive, a farce he kept up for three days . . .


Hurndall’s book charts the hours as they go by inserting into the narrative the efforts of police to track down the escapee. It’s incredible to think that Gill and Richard Moran played along with Hughes, eating and drinking with a man they strongly suspected had murdered their daughter (and Arthur). Such was Hughes’ character; he kept the couple and the elderly Amy petrified. Hughes was capable of anything and the family clearly sensed it. Hence, Gill Moran accepted the inevitable sexual abuse that came her way with something like equanimity.


The book does raise an awkward question: the Morans had several chances to raise the alarm over those endless 72 hours. Why didn’t they? At one point Hughes trusted Gill and Richard to drive into town for provisions. Rather than getting help they drove back to the farm. It seems incredible yet something had happened in terms of their cognition – Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps. ‘Do something!’ The urge to scream at the trusting Gill and Richard while reading this book is overwhelming. Maybe so, but this poor couple were literally paralysed with fear.


Hurndall’s account is always pacey and speeds to its horrific conclusion. Not a word is wasted in this book. At the end of it you feel as if it’s all been a dream, one of those awful cliché-ridden movies where the horrors pile up and never end. Then you remind yourself these things actually happened. Extreme violence exploded into this family’s world. Why? Simply because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What thought could be any more chilling than that?