A schoolboy at the heart of a notorious Wigan tragedy was today remembered 50 years on from his death.
Steven Shepherd’s disappearance in the winter of 1967 sparked a huge search which went on for days.
It was at first feared that the 11-year-old from Higher Ince had been murdered, but even when foul play was discounted after the discovery of the youngster’s body miles from home, the public conscience was still gripped by the claims surrounding his demise.
And that was that his death was the end result of the terrible bullying he suffered at school and eventually fled.
It even led local reporter Neil Marr, who later wrote a book about Steven, to coin a new word that entered the vernacular: bullycide.
Stephen went missing on Wednesday, January 25, 1967. He was reported missing at 11.30pm when he did not return to his Brook Street home from his weekly visit to the cinema.
Steven didn’t shout or cry out. He never stood up for himself. Never complained to teachers or his family. So it was like the others thought he had no feelings
He left home at 5.15pm with three shillings in his pocket to see The Agony and the Ecstacy at the Court Cinema, King Street.
Two days later a two-mile stretch of the canal at Higher Ince was drained and the mud searched for clues.
Extra police from Widnes, Bolton, Leigh and Chorley Divisions were called in. Sixty officers with 10 tracker dogs searched wasteland on the boundary of Ince and Aspull.
An officer sat through a performance of the film in the hope it would give clues as to his disappearance.
On the Saturday police frogmen were called in from Warrington and two searched the Walmesley Park lake in Higher Ince.
On the Sunday, 200 volunteers combed wasteland in Ince, Hindley, Abram, Aspull and Platt Bridge.
Regional Crime Squad officers visited schools on the Monday to learn of Steven’s habits and hideaways.
They spoke to classmates in J4 at Rose Bridge Secondary Modern. That afternoon Haigh Hall Plantations were searched.
After an appeal, 40 of the cinema-goers came forward.
Steven had been seen talking to a man in his early 20s – the last time he was seen.
A week later the search was extended and a reconstruction was held.
Stanley Holland, 12, of Langdale Avenue, Higher Ince, played Steven’s double.
At the cinema, 12 witnesses sat in the same seats they had occupied a week earlier.
Later that year Steven’s remains were found in a ditch next to strawberry fields in Newburgh.
It was surmised that the boy had walked all the way from Ince to the West Lancashire village 10 miles away and simply lain down in the fields and “willed himself to death.”
The inquest heard that Steven was tormented by three other boys of the same age, often taunting him about his parents’ living separately, his limp caused by a road accident and his appearance which included spectacles and rather protruding teeth. He was often physically attacked and on one occasion he suffered a broken arm, which he claimed to be a sport injury but was suspected to have been caused by one of his bullies.
In an interview for the late Mr Marr’s book years later Stanley, who had been one of Steven’s few friends, said: “Steven didn’t shout or cry out. He never stood up for himself. Never complained to teachers or his family. So it was like the others thought he had no feelings.
“He was fair game for a ragging. Maybe if he had just bawled or hit out occasionally?
“We talked about it sometimes, all the insults and the thumpings, kickings and things.
“He said he wasn’t bothered, that it had always been like that for him. And I used to leave it at that. You aren’t a psychologist as a kid. I know now that Steven was bothered.
“He needed help. Ince was a tough old place in those days. You didn’t go whingeing about bullies. Anyway even if you did you’d be told to stand up for yourself.”
The report written by Allan Rimmer, former Wigan Observer reporter, was quoted extensively by Chief Supt Harold Prescott, Lancashire County senior officer, at the inquest where his death was ruled as misadventure. The pathologist had said there had been no obvious signs of violence and his probable cause of death was exposure.
Elim Four Square Church in Wigan was packed for Steven’s funeral and his few remains were buried at Gidlow Cemetery, although family poverty at the time precluded a gravestone although years later loved ones were able to give him a headstone.
Mr Marr, who has since died, co-wrote a book on the events: Bullycide: Death at Playtime – an expose of child suicide caused by bullying.