Veronica Bird entered the Prison Service the same day as Myra Hindley. Having just released her memoir she talks to Sarah Freeman.
Veronica Bird admits that having spent her childhood dreaming of escaping the Barnsley house she shared with nine brothers and sisters, it was something of an irony that she only found true freedom behind the high walls of some of Britain’s most notorious prisons.
It was a journey which would feature chapters on Moors Murdere Myra Hindley and Charles Bronson, and one which was all the more remarkable given her start in life.
At home, the Birds barely had enough money for food and during Veronica’s early years the only thing which was certain was her father’s violent temper. A miner at Carlton Main Colliery, he had never been the same since suffering a massive head injury during a rock fall at the pit.
“That was in 1933,” she says. “It was 10 years before I was born and who knows what he would have been like had it not happened, but I only remember him as a brooding menace.”
While her childhood was hard - she still remembers the humiliation and disappointment at not been able to take part in the school sports day because she didn’t have any pumps to wear - it was also what made her perfect material for the Prison Service.
“I knew from an early age that if I was going to have a better life than the one my parents had lived then I needed to get an education,” says Veronica, who became the first in her family to secure a scholarship at Ackworth Boarding School. “In the end my time at school was cut short because my family decided I was needed at home, but it had given me a glimpse of another world, and it was one I wanted to get back to.”
Initially acting as an unpaid babysitter for her elder sister’s children, in 1968 Veronica, who has just published her memoir, decided to cut her family ties for good and at the age of 21 joined Doncaster police before soon moving onto the Prison Service.
“There weren’t many women working in prisons back then, but it never struck me that it wasn’t a job for me. When I told my boss that I was leaving the force to train as a prison officer, his first reaction was, ‘you’ll be back’.
“I could see why. After four years in the police I thought I had seen and experienced life in the raw, but when I was sent to Holloway Prison early on in my training, inside those four walls opened my eyes to a much darker world. Every day was lived on a knife edge and even the most peaceful of afternoons could be shattered in the blink of an eye by a vicious fight.
“Every prison is a furnace that you have to keep a lid on, but even though I was only a trainee I looked at how the prison was run and thought there had to be a better way.”
It was also at Holloway that Veronica came face to face with Hindley, who was serving life for having murded five children with Ian Brady.
“There is plenty of evidence to suggest she enjoyed her notoriety, but when I first saw her I didn’t recognise her and I always thought it was wrong that we allowed her to gain a cult status. She was manipulative certainly, but she wasn’t a celebrity.”
Veronica quickly climbed the ranks, ending up as governor at both Wakefield Prison and Armley Jail in Leeds and her life was lived to a fairly strict routine. By 6.50am the day staff would have checked -in, by 8am the inmates would have been given their breakfast and be back in their cells. Before lunch there would be an hour in the exercise yard and visiting time and tea, the cell doors would be locked by 8.30pm.
“When I arrived as governor at Armley it was one of the biggest prisons in Europe,” she says. “There were more than 1,000 male prisoners confined there, many of them lifers and it was a place where the likes of the Yorkshire Ripper and IRA bombers had passed through.
“I had been told it was in a mess and as well as making it run like clockwork, I was also charged with reducing the number of suicides. Looking in, people don’t understand how much mental health issues there are in a prison. It was such a serious problem at Armley that we had several Samaritans training prisoners to be what we called ‘listeners’.”
One inmate who needed no introduction was Charles Bronson. Originally sentenced for armed robbed, he was dubbed ‘the most violent prisoner in Britain’ after taking a succession of prison officers hostage.
“I had to visit him daily,” says Veronica, who is a petite 5ft 5ins tall. “He could never be allowed out of his cell for fear of him taking another hostage, so while I never got close to him physically I did get to know him quite well.
“He was ever the gentleman with and a man of extraordinary contrasts. In fact to me, Charlie represented all that was wrong with the Prison Service. As he said himself, ‘I’m a nice guy. Sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil just confused’.”
Throughout her years behind bars, Veronica, who was awarded an OBE in 2000, was guided by one philosophy.
“I always told my staff, ‘treat the prisoners with respect then they will treat you with respect’,” she says. “Sometimes they looked a little surprised, but it always proved to be true and that’s what I am most proud of.
“I joined the service to help those less fortunate than myself. I hope that I helped give them a better life one where hopelessness could be replaced by hope and where despair could be traded for confidence. It was a privilege to be given a chance to make a difference.”
Veronica’s Bird by Veronica Bird and Richard Newman is published by Clink Street Publishing priced £8.99.