As soon as news started to break of a large house fire in Victory Road, Derby, it was only ever likely to be at one address. The street had become synonymous with ‘Shameless’ Mick Philpott ever since stories in the local press, highlighting his call for a larger council house to accommodate his brood, had been seized upon gleefully by everyone from the broadsheets to Jeremy Kyle. Philpott was journalistic gold dust whichever bit of the market you were in; the loudmouth baby machine, an unrepentant shirker, sharing alternate nights with two women. All a bit of good clean fun, wasn’t it? Even the family dog was pregnant! The dark side of the story remained undisturbed – there was no need to go digging into this one, everything you needed for a red-top splash was there on a plate.
On one night in May 2012, it all suddenly became a lot more serious. Six young lives burned up, killed by their own parents, their protectors, two people whose last words to those six children would have urged them to ‘sleep tight’.
The reality was that Mick Philpott was loathed by many long before he, wife Mairead and their sex-and-drugs buddy Paul Mosley hatched the disastrous dope-addled plan to set fire to the family house, rescue the kids, paint Mick as the hero and put his ex-mistress Lisa Willis squarely in the frame. It wasn’t long before the suspicions had set in. Within days, people in the community, and indeed the family, were pointing the finger with little doubt. Stories circulated … Philpott waving around a wedge of cash on a trip to a karaoke night at his local pub days after the fire; his drunken wife showing off new clothes and trainers; ever-more outlandish and expensive demands for how the funeral should be conducted. Even in the run-up to the fire, Philpott’s Facebook postings had betrayed a mind running wild, professing his love alternately for Mairead and Lisa, firing off threats and regrets, even brushing off excoriating criticism from one of his older children, for all to see.
Philpott was quick with his mouth, fast with his fists - not just in the marital home, but at work (yes, he did do some occasionally) and on the street. Not a big man physically, he nevertheless swaggers with a full belief in his own authority. His battered sofa was his throne – king of his castle, no doubt, but what Philpott was categorically not, was typical of the area in which he lived. And that was another reason why he was so widely unloved.
It’s easy to pigeonhole areas like Victory Road. The sort of place where the full array of Christmas lights goes up on the front of houses in late October. Where, when a new baby’s born, they ring the tattooist before the midwife. That’s what the Daily Mail (proving it can be just as shameless) has done in its cruel, unthinking depiction of Philpott as a ‘product of the welfare state’.
But in reality, it’s the sort of place where community still means something. Look at the £15,000 that was raised quickly to help take care of funeral costs. Look at the neighbours who tried time and again to get into the burning property, as the Philpotts stood watching. Look at the enormous outpouring of emotion on the day those six little coffins were carried into church. And it’s that strength of community that will pull the suburb of Allenton, and the wider city, through. At least the six children – all of whom were genuinely loved by their schoolfriends and teachers – can have proper headstones now. Usually, those headstones and graves would be tended by a grieving parent. In the case of Jade and her brothers John, Jack, Jesse, Jayden and Duwayne, wider family, friends and the community will take on that role. Flowers and tributes will appear on the graves, their names will not be forgotten.
Mick Philpott lived among us in Derby, but he was not from us. His behaviour was not born out of the fact that he exploited the benefits system. He is no more a product of the welfare state than he is a product of the British Army (Philpott was a serving soldier when, aged 21, he went AWOL and tried to knife to death his then-girlfriend). Equally, it was not the media which created his God complex –the signs were there long before he sauntered into the headlines in his ubiquitous football shirt and trackies.There are many who will be anguishing over whether they could have done anything to prevent what happened. Family, friends and neighbours, anyone who came into contact with Mick and Mairead, will wonder. They should take consolation in the simple truth that no-one can predict the unstable actions of a sociopath. The only lesson the tragedy can teach us, as the people of Derby have come to appreciate even more deeply over the past 10 months, is to pull those we love more closely, take care of those around us, and strain every sinew to protect our children from the monsters under the bed.
John Atkin grew up in Derby and worked for almost 20 years as a local newspaper and radio journalist there.