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13 years? You don't get that for murder!

Court corr confesses to cartoon caper

Retired reporter Judy Cullimore (pictured left, with Judge John Hopkin) has revealed a comic secret involving a funeral, two cartoon characters, a pub, and a man who was to become one of Britain’s top journalists.

It was back in the early 60s that Judy and Adam Raphael – now a reporter with The Economist – were humble staffers on the Swindon Advertiser.

Both had been sent to cover a funeral. It was a bitterly cold day and they huddled together in the church porch, sharing Raphael’s sheepskin coat while waiting for mourners to emerge and give their names. Such was the misery of the occasion that the journalists retired to a local pub. Several drinks later, they set about writing up the list of mourners.

“In among the 300 names were a Mr D. Duck and a Mr M. Mouse,” Judy confessed. “It went in the paper like that – and nobody noticed!”

Judy spent the last 13 years of her 41 in journalism as crown court reporter for the Nottingham Evening Post and was held in such high esteem that she was given a special send-off by three judges in full regalia.

Court business was suspended for half an hour while they gathered to pay tribute to the “super reporter”, praising her fairness, accuracy and understanding.

“It was overwhelming,” said Judy (60), who plans to write a book about her courtroom experiences during retirement in Stirlingshire, Scotland, where she has moved with new husband Bob Rose to look after her father.

She entered journalism in 1958 after leaving Edinburgh University with no idea of what she wanted to do. Then she saw an advert for a trainee journalist on the weekly Fife Free Press.

The wage was £5 a week and her most important job was to make tea for the other editorial staff.

“I had to go down into the printing works to boil up the kettle. They had these metal pots where the metal for the pages was melted down and, every now and then, one of them exploded and I got scalded on the legs.”

She progressed to covering Women’s Institute meetings – in person – and eventually to the sheriff court, where one doddery old sheriff had a habit of falling asleep. One day, he nodded off midway through with a string of driving-without-due-care cases and awoke to slap motoring endorsements on three people who did not have a TV licence.

Judy joined the Swindon Advertiser in 1962 and there met and married district reporter David Cullimore, A year later, both joined the Workington Star, Cumbria. In 1964, their daughter was born and Judy took a break from the job.

They moved to Derbyshire in 1965 when David was appointed chief reporter of the Long Eaton Advertiser. The family-owned weekly was still produced by hot metal and run by an MD who insisted on getting his hands dirty in the comp’ room. One evening, with the paper all set for the press, he picked up a forme, not realising that the chase had not been tightened. The entire page fell out…and it was late that night when Judy finished phoning local vicars with descriptions of brides’ dresses and ‘grooms’ haircuts to ensure that wedding photos were married up with the correct copy.

She had become chief reporter and news editor by the time the Advertiser was taken over by the Nottingham Evening Post. Faced with redundancy or a job on the Post, she moved to Nottingham in 1984. Her first assignment was to walk down the River Trent Embankment and count how many lifebelts were missing.

After a spell as a general reporter, she was asked to become one of a team covering the crown court. “No way” was her first reaction but gradually, the prospect of nine-till-five and no weekend working outweighed the appeal of waiting for buses to work at six o’clock on cold winter mornings. By 1993, she was the sole crown court reporter and began arranging her holidays around court sessions.

Relations between the Post and court staff had been civil, but there was still an air of “us and them” and Judy, who prided herself on being able to talk to anyone, began breaking down the barriers.

By the time she retired, she was on first-name terms with everyone from ushers to judges, while probation officers – notoriously suspicious of the press – would cheerfully escape their smokeless offices for a chat and a fag in the press room.

“You have to rely on people telling you things,” Judy said. “I was in court one day and a barrister came in and pulled me out and said, ‘here, come in my court, I’ve got a really good case’. If you went down to the press room and there was something good happening in court, the ushers would phone up and whisper ‘get up here’.

“People who weren’t used to covering court regularly just couldn’t believe how well we got on with each other, but it took a few years to get to that stage. To start with, I was doing it by the seat of my pants, but I think people learned to trust me. They knew they could unwind and I wouldn’t go rushing off and putting stuff into print.”

Such were her contacts that she managed to file several “exclusives” despite the almost constant attention of several news agencies.

Among the thousands of cases she covered two stand out: the Beverly Allitt trial, which attracted 200 reporters and photographers on the opening day of the nurse’s trial for murdering children in her care at Grantham Hospital; and the case of Michael Sams, who kidnapped estate agent Stephanie Slater and murdered prostitute Julie Dart.

Even to a hardened court reporter, some of the details were distressing.

But along the way, there were many lighter moments. When the man branded England’s No 1 football hooligan – Paul Scarrott, a musclebound skinhead with “Forest” tattooed inside his lower lip – appeared on charges of rioting, Judy was taunted by his mates at the back of court as she sat at the press bench.

Scarrott was not impressed. He asked a court officer to pass his friends a note. It read: “Lay off Judy. Leave her alone or you’re dead.”

“He used to wave to me when I went out of court. Everybody at the office said ‘blimey, Paul Scarrott fancies you!’ I got my leg pulled endlessly.”

Keeping up with the growing number of restrictions on court reporting was “a minefield” but one thing never changed: the need for good notes, and for that, Judy was thankful for her 140-words-per-minute Pitman shorthand.

She ended her career saddened by the demise of the court reporter (brought about largely, she believes, by the switch from broadsheets to tabloids and away from in-depth coverage) and frustrated by the continued failure of court authorities to insist that defendants’ addresses be read out in court.

For now, though, all that is behind her. But as she begins a new life north of the border, those who know her would not be at all surprised to hear that she’s dug out her Scottish law books and popped into the local sheriff court for a spot of driving without due care…

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