'One poor chap fell from the undercarriage of a plane… he still had his packed lunch': A fascinating interview with a coroner who used to be an air stewardess
On meeting Alison Thompson for the first time, it would be impossible to guess what she does for a living. Petite and vivacious with a ready chuckle and a mass of unruly red hair, it’s hard to believe she spends her days investigating a desolate flow of mysterious, violent and unnatural deaths.
Yet that is her job as Her Majesty’s Coroner for West London. One of the busiest jurisdictions in the country, her patch covers 150 square miles and includes Heathrow, six major hospitals, two detention centres and Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Unlike judges or pathologists, whose roles are regularly dramatised for television, few people understand what a coroner does. Now a three-part documentary series for BBC1, Death Unexplained, will show the nature of their work in all its fascinating, sometimes upsetting, detail.
Petite and vivacious with a ready chuckle, Alison Thompson deals with thousands of deaths a year
This is the first time a television crew has been allowed access to a coroner’s court. Although, by law, the inquests could not be filmed, there are interviews with mortuary technicians and coroner’s investigators as well as the families and friends of the deceased.
Cases range from a suspected poisoning and a commuter hit by an Underground train, to a man whose body lay undiscovered for months. In each instance, Alison and her team not only try to uncover the nature of their deaths but also something of their lives. Every year the team deals with 4,000 deaths, of which 600 merit a full inquest.
Sitting in her charming cottage in Richmond, West London, Alison says: ‘It’s an emotive subject and there was a lot of anxiety about it, for understandable reasons. I consulted the Ministry of Justice and The Coroners’ Society before deciding to go ahead. I’m pleased we did it. We’re isolated as coroners and yet what we do is so important.
‘If someone dies in unknown circumstances, if that death is suspicious, unexpected or simply unexplained, then it is our job to find out who died, when, where and how.
‘That is a safeguard for society – people can be reassured that we will always hold a full, frank, fearless investigation that wouldn’t otherwise take place. I don’t think it’s enough to have a trial system because that only answers whether or not there’s been an offence. We’ve got to take it further.
Alison as an air hostess in 1974
‘They say how we treat the dead is a mark of a civilised society and what we do in terms of investigating how we lost them is part of that.’
The coroner holds one of the oldest legal offices in England and Wales. Alison, 60, says: ‘It’s a distinctly British phenomenon. Europe, for instance, doesn’t have coroners’ courts. It has come through the English legal system and was introduced by Richard I in 1194. That’s when we used to gallop on horseback to see the bodies.’
Alison took over West London 12 years ago, succeeding Dr John Burton, who had held the post for 32 years.
Her route to the coroner’s court has been a colourful one. Coroners must have training as a barrister, solicitor or doctor. After graduating with a BSc in biochemistry, Alison, who was brought up in Bedfordshire, started her career as an air stewardess with BOAC.
She says: ‘I wanted to be an actress but my father, who was a chartered engineer, wasn’t too keen on the idea. I did the right thing and got a degree but then sort of flunked out and went for an interview as an air hostess. They made me cut my hair and insisted on slathering us in make-up.
‘I did it for a few years, saw lots of interesting places and then moved to Hong Kong, where I worked as a VIP receptionist for Jardine Matheson [one of the original Hong Kong trading houses].’
Alison returned to the UK and trained as a dietician, working at Hammersmith hospital and various clinics. But in her 30s she hankered after a new challenge, so studied law at night school. She qualified as a barrister when she was 35, specialising in criminal and family law, first in London and then Hong Kong, where she later became a district judge and coroner.
SHE says: ‘I was there during the 1997 handover, which was interesting. The day after the handover was a public holiday but we all had to be sworn in as officers of the new government in case there was an emergency. We had to recite this oath that said, “I owe allegiance to the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”
Alison is Her Majesty's Coroner for West London, one of the busiest jurisdictions in the country and it includes Heathrow
‘Half of us hadn’t been to bed from the party the night before and couldn’t pronounce the words. We were so awful they stopped us doing it individually and made us plead in groups of ten. We all wondered if we’d be hanging people instead of giving them community service orders but, in fact, not much changed.’
Her next stop was the Falkland Islands, where she served as Magistrate, Coroner and Acting Judge of the Supreme Court between 2007 and 2008. It was here that she met her partner, Ian, an RAF avionics engineer. She has never married or had children.
Alison says: ‘There was a population of only 2,000 plus 2,000 soldiers. If anything ever happened, at whatever time, the police would come and knock on my bedroom window. But you’d have to be careful because one day you could be having a drink with someone and the next you’d end up giving them a prison sentence. But I loved it. Every death mattered because you knew everybody.’
Alison is passionate about her work but it inevitably exacts a heavy personal toll. She says: ‘I used to be quite adventurous and hang-glide and such like, but after I started this job I became neurotic about doing anything remotely unsafe. I’ve developed a fear about most things now. You can’t help but see everything in terms of what could go wrong.
‘Also, everywhere you go in your patch has an association. Every time I drive to work, I am reminded of various deaths: the chap who was knocked over on his bike, the girl who killed herself, the chap who smuggled himself in on the undercarriage of a plane. He got all the way to Heathrow and then fell into the grounds of Homebase in Richmond. I went and had a look. They’d taken the body away but you could see where he’d fallen in the vegetation. When they found him, he still had his sandwiches – the poor thing had taken a packed lunch.’
Yet, for all the job takes from her, it is the deceased and their families who remain uppermost in Alison’s mind. Her court gives dignity to the dead and provides answers for the living.
Alison was reluctant to comment on the case of Dr David Kelly
Alison says: ‘When there’s no family and nobody to ask the questions, you feel a duty to ask them yourself. Unlike other courts, you’re looking at the death from the perspective of the deceased and what happened to them. You can find that a person was unlawfully killed but you’re not attributing guilt.
‘We are also there for the families. One of the things that is quite hard is the nature of the information we deal with. We are happy to disclose information – and we do – but we also have to protect the families. Some people want to know every detail, some don’t. You have to give out only what they can manage. One of the most important things we do is getting the pace right for different families.’
Like criminal court judges, Alison sees all human life come before her, but she also has to confront death on a daily basis. ‘We still shun death,’ she says. ‘We put it away in a corner. People’s lives don’t prepare them for it.’
She says that during her 12 years working in West London, people’s expectations have risen markedly. ‘That’s partly because of the internet – there has been, quite naturally, an increase in expectations, but it’s more than that.
‘I think it’s also related to personal responsibility. I am very anti big state government. People who don’t have responsibility for themselves will always hold someone else responsible for the bad things that happen in life.
‘You have to be wary of the blame culture in court. You can get some very angry people and you have to keep things calm and explain that you will not be finding anything other than the facts and circumstances. You will not be apportioning blame.
Dr David Kelly's home in Oxfordshire. He is the only person in modern times who was found dead but whose death has not been investigated by a coroner
‘There is little understanding of how fragile our life is, that accidents happen. I am not particularly religious but it is an important part of our culture. Religion teaches us that death is a part of life. If people accepted that, they could come to terms with it more easily.’
Alison’s court is a good barometer of society’s changing mores. She says: ‘I don’t keep statistics but anecdotally we do see trends.
‘We’ve had quite a few immigrants who have committed suicide; who discovered this is not the land of milk and honey but don’t want to go back home and say they’ve failed. We have seen a big increase in drug-swallowers and an increase in asbestos exposure. We’re also seeing increasing problems in maternity wards.’
If a coroner hears evidence during the course of any case that might help prevent another death, they must report it to the relevant authority. Alison has helped bring about change in prisons, A&E departments and the supply of medicines over the internet. It is another vital but unseen part of the coroner’s role.
Yet it is a role that the Blair Government tried to subvert. In 2008, when the Oxford Coroner criticised the MoD while investigating the deaths of British troops in Iraq, the then Defence Secretary went to the High Court in an attempt to gag him. The bid failed, but a year later the Government tried to push through an insidious amendment to the Coroners And Justice Bill that would allow investigations into contentious deaths to be held in private. It was eventually thrown out after a national furore.
Alison acted as Magistrate, Coroner and Acting Judge of the Supreme Court between 2007 and 2008 in the Falklands
Alison, who became deputy coroner of Oxford coroner’s court last year, says: ‘The principle of absolute free inquiry is beyond doubt. It is paramount that a person never feels intimidated by the state or agents of the state or anybody, in fact.
‘We are there to find out the facts. We cannot offer opinion. That is the framework we work within and for good reason. We don’t want to turn the coroner’s court into an adversarial battleground. That can be good because it enables you to have more freedom. There’s a funnelling effect. You can have a very wide-ranging inquiry; it’s only the findings that are restricted by law.’
Alison is reluctant to comment on the death of Dr David Kelly, the weapons inspector who exposed the ‘sexed-up’ Iraq War dossier, as the case comes under her Oxford jurisdiction. Dr Kelly remains the only person in modern times who was found dead in suspicious circumstances but whose death has not been properly investigated by a coroner. Instead, the Government set up the controversial Hutton Inquiry, which found he had committed suicide.
Alison says: ‘I can’t comment on Kelly directly because of my role in Oxford. But when a public inquiry purports to be an inquest, then maybe we get into difficulties.
‘An inquest specifically concentrates, in great detail, on the cause of death, the medical evidence. A public inquiry does something much bigger and broader.
‘I don’t know how the evidence emerged in that case and I’m not suggesting Hutton didn’t look at it in exactly the amount of detail he should have done, but I can see there could be confusion in people’s minds because it had a different feel to it.
‘Again, when one looks at the 7/7 bombings in London, yes, it was an inquest but was it also an inquiry It went way beyond establishing how people died. It seemed more like a public inquiry than an inquest. There are distinctions between the two.’
Distinctions Alison will continue to uphold. She says: ‘That’s why I was so pleased when the BBC approached me a year ago. What we do is so important that the more people understand it, the better.’
lThe first episode of Death Unexplained is on BBC1 on February 7 at 10.35pm.