THE MAIL’S GREATEST BOOKS: Confessions of the ‘Canoe wife’: Anne Darwin reveals her

Anne Darwin shocked the nation when she helped her husband fake his death so they could cash in on his life insurance. 

She told all in her book published in 2016. Here, in the final part of our fascinating series, she describes the trauma of facing her deceived sons in court — and how grateful she is that they slowly built bridges to mend their relationship…

Spending a night in a police cell is a frightening experience. When you have no idea what the future holds, wondering just how many more similar nights lie ahead consumes your mind.

Would anyone ever forgive me? My sons had put out a statement through Cleveland Police saying that if the claims were true, they wanted nothing further to do with either John or me.

I had always warned my husband that we’d both end up behind bars, but I never really thought it would actually come to this. I was about to pay the harshest possible price for my utter stupidity and blind loyalty to a man who didn’t deserve it.

After a second night in a police cell and a day of intense questioning by two detectives, I received the news I’d been dreading. When the day’s interviews were over, I would be going to prison.

Anne attends her son Anthony's (left) wedding in Basingstoke, Hampshire, in September 2003

Anne attends her son Anthony’s (left) wedding in Basingstoke, Hampshire, in September 2003

Brothers Mark (front) and Anthony leave Teeside Crown Court in Middlesbrough during their parents' court case

Brothers Mark (front) and Anthony leave Teeside Crown Court in Middlesbrough during their parents’ court case

That afternoon, Tuesday, December 11, 2007, my shame was complete as I was led out of Hartlepool police station in handcuffs, locked in an individual cell in the back of a prison van and driven the 45 minutes to HMP Low Newton, a few miles outside Durham city centre.

My new home was to be a maximum security all-female ‘Category A’ prison, housing notorious murderers and violent offenders — among them Rosemary West and the mother of Baby P, Tracey Connelly. Before all this I’d never been in trouble with the police. In fact, I’d only ever had one parking ticket in my whole life.

But John had worked as a prison officer and I’d heard stories of the sort of awful things that went on inside. Would I be attacked? How could I keep myself safe?

As the prison gates and the outside world closed behind us, I was led into the jail’s reception area and strip searched. I was no longer Anne Darwin: mother, friendly neighbour, pillar of the community, doctors’ receptionist. I was Prisoner KP4801.

That evening a huge cheer went up when I walked into the main dining room. Only days later did I discover that it was the prisoners’ way of welcoming a notorious or high-profile inmate. All the women there had read about me and my story in the newspapers, and were desperate to quiz me on every last detail.

I remember nothing about that meal, nor even if I ate anything. Shortly before 7pm we made our way back to our cells for lock-up, where we’d remain until eight o’clock the following morning. And thus my prison life began.

Given the vast amount of evidence the police had, I had assumed that pleading guilty and taking whatever punishment came my way was the only option.

So I was taken aback when my lawyers told me there was one possible defence to the charges I was facing, and that was ‘marital coercion’. It was so rarely used that there had only been about five reported cases in the last 100 years, they said.

Basically, it involved proving that my wishes had been overridden to such an extent by my husband that he had had total control over my actions. It was far from certain to succeed, they warned, but if it did I would walk free.

John and Anne Darwin with agent Mario in Panama in July 2006, when everyone thought he was dead

John and Anne Darwin with agent Mario in Panama in July 2006, when everyone thought he was dead

The downside — which was considerable — was that there would be a very public trial, played out in front of my family and the world.

So my choice was this: plead guilty and face a certain prison sentence of up to three years; or plead not guilty, using marital coercion as a defence, and have a glimmer of hope of being freed.

If, however, I was found guilty, the sentence was likely to be much longer: possibly up to four and a half years.

It was a horrible decision to have to make, and for weeks my mind was all over the place as I went over and over the pros and cons.

At that stage, I hadn’t even considered that my children would be called by the prosecution to give evidence against me.

That this later happened would turn out to be one of the most truly horrendous experiences of my life. I will never, ever forgive myself for making my sons give evidence against their own mother in court. It is a decision I bitterly regret.

Towards the end of February, a prison officer came to my cell and handed me a page from a newspaper. I knew it could only be bad news, as indeed it was. There, in front of me, was a huge picture of John, and a photograph of a letter he’d written on prison paper to another woman — presumably some sort of pen pal.

She shocked the world by helping her husband fake his death in order to cash in his life insurance. Now, Anne Darwin (pictured on a plane back to the UK) is revealing all

Anne arriving at Manchester Airport, where she was arrested by Cleveland Police after their cover was blown

What really shocked me was the sexual content of the letter. It was disgusting, to say the least. I knew how important sex was to John and how frustrated he must be by now, but there was absolutely no excuse for the filth he came out with.

I went back to my cell and quietly sobbed. I felt absolutely devastated, and wondered what the poor boys would make of their own father, whom they had always adored and admired, writing such obscene material.

And I worried about whether the letter would appear on TV and have an effect on my trial. Would this nightmare ever end?

The following day was Mother’s Day. How lovely it would have been to receive a card from Mark and Anthony, from whom I had heard not a word since the story of our lies and double life had broken. But of course there was nothing. I could only hope that I would briefly enter their thoughts. They were in mine every day.

Three weeks or so later, John and I appeared at Leeds Crown Court to enter our pleas.

We stood side by side as the charges were read out, and we were asked in turn for our response.

Anne arriving at Manchester Airport, where she was arrested

Anne arriving at Manchester Airport, where she was arrested 

John said ‘Guilty’ while I, having had a last long talk with my lawyers, pleaded ‘Not Guilty’. If John was surprised, he didn’t say anything, and we were driven back to our respective prisons.

On July 14, 2008, at Teesside Crown Court in Middlesbrough, using the defence of marital coercion, I denied nine charges of money laundering and nine of deception. John, for once in his life having taken the sensible option, had already admitted seven charges of obtaining cash by deception and a separate passport offence. Nine charges of using criminal property were allowed to lie on file.

As the trial started and the whole sorry saga of our greed, deception and lies was outlined in graphic detail, what little faith I had in my case quickly dissipated.

In truth, I don’t think my defence ever stood a chance. There was plenty of evidence to prove that John had not even been in the same country as me when some aspects of the crime were committed, so there was no way he could have been at my side coercing me.

And the prosecution also produced a string of loving emails between us, undermining any possibility that he was being overbearing or bullying. There was no way of proving that I wasn’t totally committed to John and the fraud.

Day after day the judge and jury listened as I wriggled and squirmed and the prosecution described how I was prepared to ‘lie, lie, then lie again’ in a bid to evade justice — which, painful as it is to admit it, had been entirely true.

I hadn’t seen the boys since I had moved to Panama the previous October and, despite the appalling circumstances, I was desperate for a sight of them. After all, they were my sons and I loved them both dearly.

John and Anne Darwin with their sons Mark and Anthony

John and Anne Darwin with their sons Mark and Anthony

Mark, dressed in a dark blue suit, was first into the witness box but not once did he look in my direction.

‘I couldn’t believe the fact she knew he was alive all this time, and that I had been lied to for God knows how long,’ he said, as I hung my head in shame. ‘It crushed my world.’

It was only as he was leaving the box that, for a fleeting second, our eyes met, and I was totally shocked at how dark and full of anger they were. I’m not quite sure why I thought it would possibly be otherwise, but it jolted me dreadfully.

Then came Anthony, who said that after the picture of John and me with the estate agent in Panama came to light, he thought it was faked and must have been doctored by an internet prankster. It was only after he read my newspaper confession that he realised he had been so cruelly duped. With Anthony, there was no eye contact at all. I didn’t know which was worse: angry eyes, or no eyes at all.

Nine days after the start of my trial, I was led back into the courtroom to hear the jury foreman pronounce the verdict: that I was guilty on each and every count.

Anne Darwin feared her sons would never forgive her

Anne Darwin feared her sons would never forgive her

I knew the sentences would be tough, but I could never have expected for a moment quite how severe they would be. John would serve six years and three months, while I, who had tried to shift all the blame onto him, would be in prison for six years and six months.

I felt numb as I listened to the judge’s comments. ‘The duration of the offending, and in particular the grief inflicted over the years to those who, in truth, were the real victims, your own sons, whose lives you crushed, make this a case which merits a particularly severe sentence,’ he said.

My sons probably thought we got what we deserved, and I couldn’t blame them. I was sure now that they would never speak to me again.

On the advice of our lawyers, we both appealed against the length of our sentences. What we did not know, until much later, was that Mark had already written to the Court of Appeal on our behalf, asking for leniency.

I was astonished when my legal team told me. After everything we had put him through, it was such an incredibly generous thing to do.

I wrote immediately to thank him and, although I heard nothing back, it did at least give me some hope. Maybe everything wasn’t quite lost.

Mark Darwin (red top) and Anthony Darwin on the beach where their father went 'missing'

Mark Darwin (red top) and Anthony Darwin on the beach where their father went ‘missing’

And then, thank God, Mark wrote to me. His letter arrived on August 14 and I had to keep re-reading his words to make sure I wasn’t imagining them. My many tearful prayers had been answered.

It was only a short letter, but he asked if he could visit the following month. I lay awake at night wondering whether he would come alone or bring his girlfriend Flick with him — and whether or not he would show any forgiveness.

As soon as I saw my son and Flick walk into the visiting room, I burst into tears. They both had tears in their eyes, too, as Mark, perhaps a little frostily, said: ‘Hello, Mum.’

After about ten minutes, and after a lot more crying, he said: ‘We’ve got something to tell you,’ and he broke the wonderful news that they were getting married. I was thrilled for them, although of course I would not, through my own utter stupidity, be able to be a part of it.

When it was time to go, we all hugged, which we hadn’t done when they arrived, and Mark promised to stay in touch. To have him talking to me again was more than I could ever have wished for.

A week later I received a short letter from Anthony. It didn’t say a great deal, just that he and his wife Louise were fine, and that he hoped I was coping. But it was the breakthrough I had been praying for, and I clutched it close to my heart. Words could not describe how happy I was to be included, in some small way, in both my sons’ lives again.

But Christmas came and went, and as the weeks passed I grew upset at not hearing any more from Mark or Anthony. They had both given me a ray of hope but now that seemed to have disappeared. I knew they were busy trying to rebuild their lives and wondered if they’d changed their minds about being in contact with me.

If only I knew that for sure, I thought, I wouldn’t have to spend every day praying for letters that would never arrive. It was agony not knowing and it was eating away at me.

Many days, I felt like crying all the time. When I woke up, my pillow was often damp from my tears.

The beach in Seaton Carew where John Darwin went missing, feared dead by authorities

The beach in Seaton Carew where John Darwin went missing, feared dead by authorities

Then Shrove Tuesday arrived with some wonderful news: a letter from Mark saying he was coming to visit the following month.

He arrived smiling and relaxed. He proudly showed me his wedding ring, and said getting married was the best thing he and Flick had done. They were buying a new house, and Anthony and Louise were moving too.

He also said that John and I had both been good parents — obviously not taking the last few years into account. I told him I took enormous comfort from that.

Less than a fortnight later, Flick wrote me a lovely letter, and said that if I wanted to correspond with Anthony and Louise I would have to send my letters via her and Mark, at least for the time being.

I knew I had to be patient, and at least he hadn’t completely cut me out of his life.

In May 2010, Anthony made his first visit to see me. It was the first time I’d seen him and Louise in more than two years — since the horror and humiliation of my trial.

It was a very emotional visit. They were both clearly still very angry and wanted to know why we had caused so much pain. All I could do was to say how sorry I was. I didn’t have a suitable explanation.

It was then I learned that they’d had a baby, my first grandchild.

I will never forget the question asked by Louise: ‘How could you do this to your sons? As a mother, surely, you want to do everything you can to protect your children?’

I was so overcome with shame and emotion, I couldn’t speak.

A few months later, after I’d been transferred to an open prison, I got some wonderful news. Anthony wrote saying he’d like to visit me again and take me out for the day.

I was thrilled. As I walked out to meet him, my heart suddenly missed a beat. There, standing by the car, was Louise … and she was holding my grandson.

It was such an overwhelming moment I burst into tears. Louise came over and passed the baby to me, and I cradled my first grandchild in my arms. It was the most wonderful moment imaginable.

It was having tasted this new-found freedom that I finally plucked up the courage, in November 2010, to tell John what I should have told him years earlier: that our 37-year marriage was over.

I’d served two-and-a-half years in prison and I now knew that I’d be detained until 9 March 2011. That would mark the end of my custodial sentence. The remaining 1,186 days would be served on the outside, on licence, but under close supervision from the Probation Service.

My husband was angry and belligerent, telling me not to be daft and that we could ‘work things out’.

‘No, John, you’re not listening,’ I told him. ‘I don’t want to be with you when I get out of here. It’s over.’

I’d known him since I was 11 years old, but now, after years of doing his bidding, I had to make a fresh start on my own.

John Darwin, the back-from-the-dead canoeist, leaving Hartlepool Magistrates court after police were given another 36 hours for further questioning

John Darwin, the back-from-the-dead canoeist, leaving Hartlepool Magistrates court after police were given another 36 hours for further questioning

Through my lawyers, I continued to co-operate with Cleveland Police’s asset-recovery team. All the money from the Panama bank accounts was in the process of, or had been returned to, the UK.

The flat in Panama City was in the process of being sold; and the land, really nothing more than nearly 500 acres of uninhabitable jungle, was up for sale, although there wasn’t exactly a rush of get-rich-quick investors queuing to buy it. I suppose the likes of the pipe-dreaming Darwins didn’t come along every day of the week.

My marriage to John was ended on January 11, 2012, the day the decree absolute was declared. I have never heard from him again. He is now married to a Filipina girl and living in the Philippines.

Home for me now is a small but comfortable flat in a pretty village just a few miles from York. If my neighbours know about my past, they are kind enough not to say.

I work five days a week for the RSPCA, having first started as a volunteer while in open prison. The people at work know about my background, obviously, but they have accepted me for who I am now and not who I was.

I’m sure many people will wonder whether I really deserve a second chance. My sons decided I did, and to me that’s the only thing that matters. It means everything to me to be part of their lives once more, and to be able to know and love my four grandchildren.

Over the past decade, I have learned so much: above all, that while I need my family, I don’t need a husband. I know how obvious it will sound to some, but it took me 37 years of marriage and a six-and-a-half-year jail sentence to discover this.

It was only after I hit rock bottom that I managed to turn my life around. But if I can do it, I believe anyone can.

Anne Darwin will donate proceeds from the book to the RNLI and the RSPCA.

Adapted from OUT OF MY DEPTH, by Anne Darwin with David Leigh, published by Mirror Books. To order a copy for £8.09, call 020 3308 9193 or visit the Mail Bookshop. P&P free on orders over £25. 


Read More

Leave a comment

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More