Have you ever dreamed you were in prison for a crime you never committed? Every morning for four years Sheila Bowler woke up to this recurrent nightmare – except that it was really true. She was Prisoner Number TV3389, sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. It was a nightmare that could happen to anyone. One fine May evening, Mrs Bowler, a respectable middle-class Rye piano teacher in her sixties, took her frail old aunt Florence Jackson out from a residential home in Winchelsea for a pleasant drive through the Sussex countryside. On the way home her tyre went flat and she hurried off for help, leaving Aunt Flo in the car in the dark. When she came back the old lady who – everyone believed – was immobile, had disappeared. Her body was found next morning in the River Brede, about 500 yards away down a remote country lane.
Using police reports and witness statements, Anybody’s Nightmare pieces together how Mrs Bowlers stiff upper lip attitude and refusal to weep or panic immediately aroused suspicion. The historic Cinque Port towns of Rye and Winchelsea were split. Some genuinely believed this brusque, sometimes tactless widow was a callous murderer who could see her small inheritance draining away in the Home’s fees. Others, led by her daughter Jane, a beautiful and talented ‘cellist, knew Mrs Bowler was a devoted, dutiful niece with a heart of gold. Extracts from Sheila’s prison diaries and officers’ reports describe her struggle to survive the indignity and horror of prison life, while outside hundreds of campaigners fought to free her. The Old Bailey retrial, a cliffhanger to the very end, has every element of a courtroom drama, all the more exciting because it really happened. The Sheila Bowler affair touched the heart of the nation. It became the people’s case, brought to public attention by Channel Four’s Trial and Error programme and extensive newspaper coverage. Anybody’s Nightmare will be of interest to Sheila’s friends and critics alike, to police and prison service professionals, to those who care for the elderly, to lawyers and law reformers – and especially to those who campaign for justice.
About the authors:
Angela and Tim Devlin lived in Rye and knew Sheila Bowler well. Angela is an ex-teacher and Tim a former journalist. They were co-ordinators of ‘The Friends of Sheila Bowler’ the campaigning group of friends and supporters to whom this book is dedicated.