Chris Stokel-Walker revisits a planning dispute over a bungalow… that ended in murder
Every story has a history. No event happens in isolation – the path of a life constantly changes, swayed by circumstance and the warp and weft of everyday events, tiny little things that can have an enormous effect. Single actions reach far beyond their immediate surroundings, like a pebble thrown into the water, sending ripples across the surface until it comes crashing up against something solid. A life gets back on an even keel, then another pebble drops in the water, and the whole tumult starts again. Every story has a history, shaped and formed, pulled and prodded by circumstance, built up by a series of small changes. And the first thing you need to know about this story is that Albert Dryden had an obsession with guns.
And it all started with 10 shillings and a school toilet. A friend’s father owned a six-shooter, a .455 Webley revolver. Little Albert Dryden, an undersized 11-year-old, always seen as slightly odd with his obsessions, wanted to see it. So the friend brought it in, and in a toilet cubicle at Consett Secondary Modern School, Dryden offered him 10 shillings for it. The boy accepted. The ripples began to stir.
Eliza Lane is glorious in the summer sun that arrives in early June. The turn-off from the A68 onto this rickety road, lined with hedgerows that bloom out over the tarmac, is pockmarked with small yellow flowers in bud. “Broadmeadows”, reads the solitary sign pointing the way from the A-road as you head northbound, and it’s true: behind the trees leaning over Eliza Lane are acres and acres of green fields, broad meadows dotted with sheep. Yellow daffodils in full splendour reach up to the sun on your left about 250 metres along Eliza Lane, drawing your attention away from the tall brick arch on your right that’s half-shrouded by foliage. Memories lie unnoticed underneath our feet. They’re in the ground we tread, and the air we breathe, but more often than not few humans bear witness to most of life’s events. Not in Eliza Lane, though. In Eliza Lane there was an audience, and cameras to capture it all: the arguments; the stand-off; the warning; the sound, the screams and the chaos.
Eliza Lane is an innocuous place to lay claim to the location of the first killing caught on camera in the United Kingdom, and it was all over an innocuous quibble: a planning dispute that snowballed, gaining momentum until no one could stop it, one man lay dead in a ditch, and dozens other scrambling as gunshots dully thudded through the air. But if the first thing to know about this story is that Albert Dryden had an obsession with guns, the second thing to know is that he was stubborn and principled – and so was Harry Collinson.
Collinson was the youngest of four children, born as Britain emerged from the Second World War, imbued with a sense of fairness and a strong moral compass. He went to Newcastle University – the first in his family to do so – to study town planning. By June 20, 1991, the day that a permanent pall was cast over Eliza Lane’s glorious summer glow, Collinson had been a planning officer at Derwentside District Council for 17 years, and the thorn in Albert Dryden’s side.
“If you look at them out of context, although Harry was a lot brighter than Albert, they were very similar,” explains David Blackie, a former firearms instructor, now a teacher at Barnard Castle school, who was there at Eliza Lane and has subsequently written a book on the series of events that drew Albert Dryden and Harry Collinson together. “Harry was single-minded, and so was Albert. They got on, and although there was this thing about the bungalow, in the early days Harry used to go and have a cup of tea with Albert.” Collinson even brought Dryden saplings to plant on his land at Eliza Lane. “I thought he was a gentleman,” Dryden would later say on the stand at Newcastle Crown Court. “He seemed first class, like.”
The two bonded. “It’s like two magnets,” Blackie continues. “If you get them the right way around, they join up. But if you turn them around, they go away. And that’s what happened.”
Albert Dryden wanted to make himself a homestead on his land at Eliza Lane, and built a bungalow which he buried in a trench made by displacing 2,000 tonnes of soil. In Dryden’s mind, the nearly-underground construction did not need planning permission. According to the letter of the law – to which Harry Collinson carefully adhered – it did. The dispute wound its way through the planning process, with appeals lodged and responses led. The two men who once could share a cup of tea turned against each other. “Albert was naïve about the planning process, there’s no doubt about that,” says Blackie. “And Harry wasn’t the best communicator in the world. Once it got into the planning process, that’s where it went wrong. Nobody was going to stand down. It was almost brinksmanship. There was no alternative than to go with a bulldozer and knock it down.”
Which is how Harry Collinson and Albert Dryden came to face on either side of the tall brick arch on Eliza Lane, surrounded by a pack of press, sporadic supporters on either side, and a handful of JCBs hired for the day. Blackie speaks with the benefit of hindsight – and admits as much – but still thinks that the events of that day should have been lower key. “Having the press there is the last thing you want,” he exclaims. “It might be part of his psyche that he played up to the cameras – I don’t know. But the media shouldn’t have been there.”
Collinson, Blackie thinks, wanted the press there because of his belief that what he was doing was right. “The press could bear witness to what was happening,” he reckons. “But yeah, it was all avoidable. That’s the thing that niggles me.” It was the press, though, that helped record events on Eliza Lane in a way that wasn’t muddled by the fug of emotion or memory. Cameras caught the whole exchange: Collinson and his colleague coming up to the fence, explaining to Dryden that they would be demolishing the bungalow, who simply replied, “Well, you do so at your own risk”, and warned that “You might not be around to see the outcome of this disaster.” They watched as Collinson reasoned with John Graham, a friend of Dryden, who begged them to spare the bungalow for the day as Dryden disappeared for a moment. They were even directed by Collinson, who asked the BBC cameraman: “Can you get a shot of this gun?”
And then it happened.
David Blackie keeps his memories in two tattered cardboard boxes that are splitting their seams from the weight of what they contain. “I’m going to get some new boxes,” he explains, his gaze lingering on the papers peeking out from under the lid. “Plastic ones. They don’t come out very often, but I’m not going to get rid of them.”
The boxes contain hundreds of pages of documents, signed interviews Blackie conducted with those involved in the events on Eliza Lane, court papers and photographs, proofs of the book he wrote on the events of June 20, 1991 and video tapes of news broadcasts at the time. But they also contain his memories of the day, as the man responsible for the armed response to Dryden’s shooting spree – the man who wriggled over to Harry Collinson’s bullet-pocked body in the minutes after the melee to try and establish what kind of gun Dryden had. “That’s what I’ve done with my memories, largely,” he admits. “Put them in a box.”
With grey hair, thick-rimmed black glasses and a gold wedding band on his ring finger, Blackie sips from a coffee cup that on occasion he has to keep in two hands to stop from shaking as he remembers what happened on Eliza Lane. “This, I think, is one of the things that is odd,” he says. “People in Consett knew about him. They knew he was eccentric; knew he had this interest in rearms; and so did the local policemen. But their experience was never called upon before this event. Everybody in the area knew that Albert was into guns.”
One of the police officers who attended Eliza Lane in the chaos after the shooting walked the streets of Consett on his patrols and knew Dryden well. He took Blackie to one side and told him “I know Albert, and he could literally have anything on him.” The cartridges that Dryden fired from his .455 Webley revolver on that day into Harry Collinson, killing him, and BBC reporter Tony Belmont and PC Stephen Campbell, injuring them both as they fled, were made by his own hands, using material his sister bought from Newcastle for him.
“Manstopper,” says Blackie, looking up from the ripples in the coffee cup he cradles between his hands. “That’s what he called his cartridges.” He filled them with less than a full charge, designing them specifically to dump their energy into the body of whoever they hit.
The killing of Harry Collinson and the events in Eliza Lane have had a lasting effect on a small group of individuals who congregated around the tall brick arch now nearly subsumed by trees. When I call the Durham offices of the Northern Echo in an attempt to find contact details for a retired reporter who was s at the scene of the shooting, I’m put through to Bruce Unwin, who was sent by the newspaper to Butsfield. He proceeds to talk for 12 minutes, without pause, about his recollections of the day, as brightly as if it happened the day before. And yet some people don’t want to talk: Unwin gives me the number for Mark Summers, who had followed the planning dispute to its bloody denouement. When I text him asking if he’d be able to talk about what happened that day, his reply is polite but firm: “Sorry to disappoint, but I would rather not take part.” Others are curt. Keith Murray- Hetherington, then chairman of Derwentside District Council, and still a young man when called out to view the body of Harry Collinson on the afternoon of June 20, 1991, replied with four words: “Not interested, thank you.”
Some would talk, though. On a bright day less than two weeks before the ignominious anniversary, Garry Willey picks up the phone at his desk at the Press Association, training the next generation of journalists. Willey was there at Eliza Lane, and though the memories remain – “it was such an incredible event that you carry it with you,” he explains – they have been buried under the layers of 25 years of subsequent life. “It was such a long time ago now,” he says, a sense of deflation pervading his words. Willey made a career covering stories, becoming a court reporter five months after Dryden shot dead Harry Collinson, and now teaching others everything he knows. But there’s one type of journalism he never wanted to do, thanks to being thrust into the middle of a murder 25 years ago. “I’ve got a huge admiration for war correspondents, who face this kind of incident on a daily basis,” he admits. “But I found nothing exciting about it. It was a horrific experience.”
“It’s a curious one,” Willey concludes. “Deeply sad – I think that’s what is forgotten in all the drama. You’ve got a guy who’s been in prison 25 years and doesn’t seem to have any sign of being paroled. You’ve got a guy who lost his life, and everything that flows from that. It’s incredibly sad, and avoidable.”
One of the lasting impacts can still be felt walking along the steep streets of Consett today. For some people in the community, Albert Dryden has become a folk hero – hailed for his actions in lashing out against an unfair system. Davey Common was a 23-year-old working in the same planning department in which Harry Collinson worked. Speaking today, at the age of 48, he still can’t understand why. “It felt as though they managed to dissociate Harry as a person and someone we knew, and made him a figure of authority,” he says. “He represented something they were kicking against – for some reason. People who you would talk to, normal law-abiding people, held opinions like that. I found it quite unusual, quite upsetting.” According to Blackie, who spoke to some of those involved in the Save Albert Dryden campaign for his book, “they weren’t interested in the planning argument”.
In their eyes, “this was just a guy who was oppressed”, the man they saw down the pub in Tow Law telling exuberant stories. “They were looking at him in another context.”
For those who worked with Harry Collinson, though, and for most other right-thinking, rational individuals, there was only one way to look at this: murder, a view supported by a judge who jailed Dryden for life for his crime. Davey Common found out about the news within a few hours of the shooting. “People were walking around dumb; ashen-faced,” he recalls. “Even the older hands were just in total disbelief.” Some, nearing pension age, took the chance to retire. “They thought: ‘Stuff this’,” Common says. “I don’t want to get involved in anything like this.”
In the 25 years since, Eliza Lane has changed. The caravan, the outhouses, and the construction that caused so much trouble are gone, and have been for years. A small group of sympathisers with Albert Dryden’s quarrels with the council dismantled the structure, one brick at a time, starting in the spring of 1992.
All those in attendance at Eliza Lane on that sunny June day in 1991 were changed, too, in some way. They gained baggage; were toppled, some more temporarily than others, by the horrific car crash of circumstance. Ugly memories were etched into the minds of those who saw Harry Collinson killed in cold blood. A community in Consett divided on tribal lines still defended as strongly today as they were 25 years ago. A council officer had to clear out Harry Collinson’s desk, including the sandwiches stowed away for when he returned from Eliza Lane. David Blackie gained two cardboard boxes bursting at the seams that sit in his loft and a strange feeling in his stomach when an envelope etched with particular handwriting and a prison seal drops through his letterbox twice a year. BBC journalist Tony Belmont, shot by a stray bullet red from Dryden’s .455 Webley, gained a paperweight made from the metal extracted from his arm.
A mother lost her son, a family its father, brother and husband. Albert Dryden, sentenced as a 51-year- old man, now languishes in prison as a 76-year-old pensioner. Multiple appeals for release from prison have been refused by the parole board.
“He’s never accepted responsibility for what happened, says Blackie mournfully. “He says it shouldn’t have happened, but has never accepted responsibility for his actions. And I think that’s why he’s never got out.”
As hail stotts down on the roof of David Blackie’s conservatory and the air turns chill, he tries to rationalise how it all happened; how the pebble in the water became a wave that swept up him and so many others. “Albert had little forethought and that’s the trouble,” he suggests. “He didn’t think things through. But no, he wasn’t an evil man.”
Only one man knows all the history of this particular story. At the end of January, I wrote to the Prisoner Location Service, asking for Albert Dryden’s location, to ask him myself. In late April an email came back. “The National O ender Management Service is unable to assist you as we are required to seek the consent of the offender before disclosing their location to you. I can confirm that consent has not been received on this occasion.”
As published in The Northern Correspondent #8