On Saturday 14th August 2010, a mild-mannered, privately educated mother of two picked up a hammer and smashed it repeatedly over the head of the man she had been married to for 31 years.
Georgina Challen, known as Sally, launched the frenzied attack on retired car salesman Richard Challen as he ate his lunch in the house they once shared in Claygate, Surrey.
The next day, Sally, an office manager for the Police Federation, drove to Beachy Head, the notorious suicide spot. Sally had given her youngest son David a lift to work, and as he was getting out of the car she looked him in the eyes and asked, “You do know I love you, don’t you?”
On the way to Beachy Head, Sally phoned her cousin Noel and asked her to look after her two sons, confessing that she had killed Richard. Whilst a chaplain tried to talk Sally out of throwing herself over the cliff, police discovered the bloodstained body of her husband in their former marital home, wrapped in a pair of old curtains. Sally was talked down, and was subsequently tried for Richard’s murder in June 2011. When the judge handed down a 22 year sentence, family members wept.
How did a woman like Sally, born into a respectable, upper middle class family, end up committing such a terrible crime? What pushed her to the point where she took the life of the only man she had ever loved, and effectively making her two beloved sons into orphans?
I am a lifelong campaigner against violence towards women, and as far as I am concerned, Sally meets the classic criteria of a victim of domestic abuse. But, as feminist campaigners are arguing, Sally was tortured mentally and psychologically by her husband throughout their relationship. The absence of broken bones and black eyes meant that, in the eyes of the world, she was in a happy marriage.
Sally’s parents were born in India, and lived a typical expat lifestyle with lots of servants and a high social standing. Her father rose to the rank of Brigadier in the Royal Engineers. Sally was born in Walton on Thames, Surrey in 1954, after her parents returned to England, by which time they had three sons ages 19,17, and 14.
“My mother was very much older than everyone else’s mother, from a very different generation from my friends’ parents,” said Sally. “I had a very old fashioned upbringing.”
When Sally was six years old, tragedy struck the family. Aged only 54, her father died of a sudden heart attack.
Sally was sent to Lady Eleanor School, an independent school in Hampton, Middlesex, where she stayed until her O Levels.
“I always felt I was a bit on the outside,” said Sally in her statement to her current legal team. “My mother did not think it was the thing for girls to go on to study and so I didn’t go on to do A Levels or university. There were no expectations that I should get a career.” Sally was expected to learn secretarial skills, then marry and devote herself to her husband.
Just before her 16th birthday, Sally met the handsome, charming Richard Challen while out with a group of friends, and was “immediately besotted.” Richard, who was 22 at the time, lavished attention on Sally and made her feel “adored.”
But Sally’s family did not approve of the relationship, and she was sent to stay with her eldest brother Terence in Brussels where she attended Finishing School and learned cooking, dressmaking, and flower arranging.
“If I’m honest, it was class prejudice,” says Terence, when I ask him why the family disapproved. “Richard didn’t have our background, and he didn’t speak like us. Sally was mad to turn down this captain in the army who wanted to marry her.”
As a founding member of feminist law reform campaign group Justice for Women, I have campaigned on behalf of scores of women who have killed their abusive husbands. Of the hundreds of domestic violence victims I have seen over the years, very few meet the stereotypical view of the cowering woman with a bloody face and broken bones. Many physical injuries are invisible, as the perpetrators know where to hit, and the victims to cover up.
Rape and sexual assault within abusive relationships are also largely invisible. When Richard anally raped Sally as punishment for being kissed by another man whilst on holiday, she told no one.
Despite her unhappiness at the way Richard treated her, at the time that Sally killed her husband, she had been hoping to get back together with him following a brief separation.
The couple had split up in November 2009, and Sally moved out of the marital home. Six months later Sally decided to halt the divorce proceedings. According to the couple’s son, David, his father manipulated the situation by emailing Sally telling her that their beloved cat had died. “He told us that the cat had been ill, so he decided to get it put down. It will have all been a ploy to get attention.”
Sally, without telling her family, emailed Richard asking if he would agree to take her back.
Richard replied with incredible arrogance:
“I will consider your return only on these terms. You will continue and complete the divorce only with a £200,000 settlement [far less than the amount she was legally entitled to]. That when we go out together, it means together. This constant talking to strangers is rude and inconsiderate. We will agree to items in the home together. To give up smoking. To give up your constant interruptions when I am speaking.”
According to Davina James-Hanman, an expert in “coercive control,” instructed by Sally’s legal team, the effect of the control over the years was corrosive in the sense that “[Sally’s] entrapment within the relationship was so absolute that even when she managed to break free, she was unable to cope alone and establish an identity for herself that was separate from that which she had been taught.”
In the weeks prior to the killing, Sally began to check Richard’s emails and texts. Sally had even asked a neighbour, Mrs Betts, to spy on him.
On the day Richard died, he demanded that Sally to go out in the rain to buy bacon and eggs for his lunch. While she was out, Richard called Susan Wilce, one of the women he had met through an introductions agency called Dinner Dates, to cancel an arrangement to meet the following day. On her return from the shops, Sally, suspecting that her husband had got her out of the house to call one of his girlfriends, called the phone company and confirmed her suspicions. Although Sally does not recall her actions, this is when she picked up the hammer and struck Richard over the head.
Sally had first began to suspect her husband might be seeing other women as far back as 2004, after he began salsa classes. Later, her fears were proven true when she followed him to Pandora’s Box, a brothel near her place of work in Surbiton, south London.
Both of Sally and Richard’s sons, James and David, supported their mother at trial.
David Challen, the youngest son, readily agreed to meet with me to speak about his mother’s plight. Gentle spoken, sensitive, and deeply loving of his mother, David fought back tears as he told me about the vile treatment she had endured during her marriage to Richard, the father that David describes as a “bad apple.”
“Our dad was hands off with me and my brother from the age of about 13. If I ever didn’t hold my knife and fork properly or something he would say to mum, ‘Why don’t you teach these kids properly?’ He was always very detached.
She was devoted to both him and us as children and wanted everyone to be happy. I knew something was always wrong, from a young age. There were no visible put downs it was the way he handled himself, he was very morally wrong.”
David tells me that his mother was treated, ‘like she didn’t matter,’ and cited one example of his behaviour that humiliated and devastated Sally.
“He had bought a new Ferrari, because he acted like some sort of a Playboy,” says David. “He had a photograph taken of him by the car, in the middle of two topless women with his arms around them, this card which he sent to some of their mutual friends and even some relatives.”
It wasn’t just family that testified how domineering and callous Richard was towards Sally. As one witness testified in court, “Richard pulled Sally’s strings and she danced.”
In her own evidence during the trial Sally stated:
“I tried to tell the police the truth in my interview and I felt numb and very, very tired because I had not slept. I had met him before my sixteenth birthday and he was about six years older, and I have not known another man. I looked up to him and he led and I followed, and I did not mind that when I was younger, but then I later found out I was not allowed to make decisions for myself or about friends.”
Sally’s nephew Hugo, who sat in on the murder trial, tells me that the defence team did not bring up any of Richard’s abusive behaviour in order to provide an explanation as to why Sally did something so out of character and commit such a heinous crime. “They said to us when we asked, ‘We’re not trying Richard, we’re trying Sally.’
Hugo’s wife Dalla, who has supported Sally throughout her ordeal, and regularly speaks to her from prison, says that when she asked the defence team why nothing about Richard’s behaviour aside from the infidelity had been introduced, she was told, “We are not going to speak ill of the dead, it doesn’t go down well with the jury.”
Following her conviction, family members contacted Justice for Women, and a new legal team took over the case. In January 2017 new grounds were submitted to the Court of Appeal, claiming that at the time of the killing Sally was suffering subject “coercive control,” a form of abuse prevalent in domestic violence relationships which has only recently been enshrined in the criminal law. They also provided further psychiatric evidence which, in combination with the new framework for understanding the scope of coercive control, supports the partial defences to murder of both diminished responsibility and provocation.
Unfortunately, permission to appeal was refused by the judge in late June 2017. But this is not the end of the case. The lawyers will renew the appeal in early 2018, and will be submitting further evidence regarding Sally’s state of mind at the time of the offense. There can be no doubt that the hell Sally endured throughout her relationship with Richard had a devastating effect on her mental health.
Debbie Giles met Sally when they attended the same antenatal class more than 20 years ago, and is clear that, from her point of view, the marriage was bad for Sally.
“Richard was in control of the relationship. [He was] very firm and would just say her name sternly and give her a look and she would know that she had to do something. I felt she was very manipulated. I remember her living on a knife edge.”
Everyone I have spoken to in Sally and Richard’s family agree with Debbie Giles, that Richard was abusive, controlling, and psychologically damaging to Sally.
Perhaps Sally’s old friend Debbie Giles, who knew the fated couple almost for the duration of their marriage, summed up what was missing in the relationship best of all. “I don’t believe Richard loved Sally very much. Richard loved Richard.”
Julie Bindel is a journalist, a feminist campaigner against male violence, and the author of The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth.
To support Sally Challen and other similar cases please contact Justice for Women.