Dunblane massacre: ‘My brave mum died protecting her class’

This week marks 25 years since gunman Thomas Hamilton broke into Dunblane Primary School, murdering 16 children and their teacher. Closer speaks to Debbie Mayor, whose mum tragically died in the shooting

dunblane teacher daughter

by Alexandra Meyer |
Updated on

On 13 March 1996, Debbie Mayor’s mum, Gwen, headed off to work as a teacher at Dunblane Primary School. At 9.30am, she was with her class of 31 five-year-olds in the gym, when evil gunman Thomas Hamilton burst in, peppering the children and their teacher with bullets, in the worst mass shooting in UK history.

Brave Gwen, then 45, had spent her final moments desperately trying to protect the children in her care. She’d been found with defensive injuries, and poignantly with a little girl – who was also killed – in her arms.

Debbie, an auxiliary nurse, who is mum to Robbie, 13, and Millie, 12, says, “It still hurts as if it were yesterday. I have just turned 44 and my mum was 45 when she died. She had so much left to do.

dunblane kids
gwen and her pupils were having a gym class when she and 16 children were murdered ©Getty Images

“But I’m immensely proud that my brave mum put the children’s lives before her own, fighting with the gunman to protect them. For a long time, I felt resentment and anger, but I know that if she were here, she would want me to carry on.

“People tell me they remember exactly where they were when they heard about the shooting. It’s comforting to know she’ll never be forgotten.”

At the time of the shooting, Debbie was at university in London, but her mum would make regular trips to see her.

Debbie says, “I have such happy memories. She was such a vivacious, creative person, who loved making people happy. She and my dad, Rodney, would hold dinner parties for their friends, and she loved writing poems for people. She always knew how to make someone feel special.

“Mum would come and visit me regularly in London. We’d go shopping and eat out. She used to write to me all the time, too, saying how much she missed me. I still have the letters.”

Dunblane mum died
Debbie has opened up to Closer ©MIRRORPIX

Debbie first heard that something had happened at Dunblane Primary School on the radio. She says, “To begin with, they described it as ‘an incident’, and then it was revealed that there’d been a shooting.

“I was in constant contact with my dad and my older sister, Esther, then 20, who were both up in Scotland.

“I paced back and forth as I rang the special phonelines that had been set up, desperate for information, but no one could tell us anything. Despite the fact that both my dad and Esther were waiting at the school, the media knew more than the families did, and it wasn’t until 3.30pm that my dad phoned me. He said my name and I knew straight away Mum was dead. I was absolutely distraught, but it wasn’t until I got home to Scotland that I started to cry.”

Dunblane mum died
Debbie had a close bond with her mum ©MIRRORPIX

Killer Thomas Hamilton, later described as a “loner”, legally owned four handguns and brought 743 rounds of ammunition to the school. To this day his motive for attacking the school is unclear, but he’d written letters before the massacre suggesting he felt persecuted by authorities and the local community for being under suspicion of inappropriate behaviour with boys in the past, and as a result had been blacklisted by the Scout Association.

Within five minutes he’d shot 32 people, murdering 16 of them. All the dead, except Gwen, were aged six or under. He then killed himself.

When surviving pupils spoke about the shooting afterwards, two recalled seeing Gwen struggling with the gunman. A punch mark was found on her face and she held a small girl in her arms, who she had clearly tried to protect.

It was the worst mass shooting in UK history ©Getty Images

After the phone call with her dad, Debbie, then aged 19, flew home immediately. She says, “A colleague who Mum taught with for a long time was one of the first into the gym after the shooting – I can’t imagine the scene she was faced with.

“When she found Mum, she held her hand and said goodbye to her for everybody. Although we couldn’t be there in Mum’s last moments, I’m so glad her friend was. But she never taught again after that.”

As the family tried to come to terms with their loss, just a week later, it was Mother’s Day.

Debbie says, “It was so hard. The whole area was grieving for these mums who had lost their young children, but my sister and I had lost our mum. It was a difficult day and always will be.

“There was a huge ripple effect. It wasn’t just the bereaved families who were affected. It was very surreal opening newspapers and seeing the class photo with Mum. There was worldwide sympathy, but at times I found it difficult when people just remembered the children. I understood that the loss of such young, innocent lives stirred up a public outpouring of grief, but I didn’t want my mum to be forgotten in the midst of it all.”

Dunblane mum died
After the massacre, hamilton killed himself ©MIRRORPIX

Sadly, the shooting fractured the once-close family. Debbie’s father moved abroad and she is no longer in touch with Esther.

And understandably, Debbie was nervous when she sent her own children to school. She says, “Even though security has increased hugely since what happened, I was nervous. Thankfully staff at my children’s school were very supportive.”

Both Robbie and Millie know what happened to their grandmother and, as a result, they don’t play with toy guns or violent video games. In the aftermath of Dunblane, laws were passed banning the private ownership of all handguns in Britain.

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Read more real life interviews in Closer magazine each week ©closer magazine

And Debbie – who lives in Stirling in a house decorated with hedgehog ornaments as a reminder of her mother, who loved the animal – says, “Mum devoted her whole life to teaching and the children she taught adored her. Now Millie wants to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps by becoming a teacher herself.”

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And each Mother’s Day, Debbie feels very grateful to have her own children around her. She says, “I don’t need Mother’s Day to remember Mum – I miss her every single day. But now that I have children of my own, I try to see it as a day I can enjoy with them. They love bringing me breakfast in bed.”

On the anniversary of the shooting, Debbie visits the school to lay flowers, and she goes to the cemetery where her mum and many of her pupils are buried. A fund was set up in her name to benefit local primary schools.

Debbie says, “All these years later, people still talk about what Mum did. She was selfless to the end and we’ll always be so proud.”

ead more real life interviews in Closer magazine each week.Read more real life interviews in Closer magazine each week.

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