'We didn't realise Mum was a victim of domestic abuse until Dad killed her and our sister'

Luke & Ryan have written a book about the death of their mother and sister at the hands of their father
Luke (L) and Ryan have written a book about the death of their mother and sister at the hands of their father Credit: Andrew Crowley 

“We all like spectacular stories about evil,” says Luke Hart, “but evil is quite mundane. Every day, it was just work for my father; what he was doing to us”.

Luke and his younger brother Ryan are the sole survivors of their father’s obsessive control over his family - the deadly culmination of which was one of the most horrific manifestations of domestic abuse in recent years.

On the morning of July 19 2016, four days after the brothers had helped their mother and sister escape from the family home, the two women went for a swim. As they returned to the car park, in Spalding, Lincolnshire, a man stepped out, aimed a shotgun at them and fired - before turning it on himself. It was their father.

The 13-page letter he left behind – the brothers refuse to call it a suicide note and never refer to their dad, a builder’s merchant, by name – was a self-pitying catalogue of perceived slights. He had been writing it for weeks, long before killing his wife of 26 years, Claire Hart, 50, and 19-year-old Charlotte.

“It reads like an ultra-masculine fundamentalist manifesto. The sort of thing a terrorist might leave,” says Luke. “He had spent months on the internet, researching men who killed their families and listening to misogynistic rants”.

It had taken a monumental effort from Luke and Ryan to save up enough money to secretly move their mum and sister into a rented flat. The boys were exceptional students, driving themselves to excel with the aim of funding the escape. “We lived for the future”, says Ryan. “It was the only way to survive misery in the present.”

Charlotte and Claire Hart were murdered in July 2016

They got first class masters degrees in mechanical engineering. Luke, 29, now works part-time in digital technology; Ryan, 28, is a full-time engineer in the oil industry and spends every other month working on a rig on Qatar. Charlotte, a bright girl, had dropped out of university and was about to train as a teacher when she was murdered.

Both brothers are in little doubt that if they had not been away from home at the time, it would have been a mass killing. “He saw it as an alpha male battle - we were the young lions, he was the old,” says Ryan. “He always hated us.”

Because their father never actually hit them, the siblings had never seen him as a physical threat. “We didn’t make the connection,” says Luke. “We didn’t realise that 75 per cent of women murdered by their partners are killed after leaving.”

It was only afterwards, sat in Spalding police station, they saw a poster listing the characteristics of coercive control - which has been made a crime in 2015: rigid rules, financial control and stalking. It was a lightbulb moment and perfectly described the prison they had been living in.

That definition has now become the focus of their lives. The brothers, who share a house in Surrey, have founded Coercion and Control Awareness to educate others about dangerous patterns of behaviour.

They believe that the landmark release of Sally Challen last week - who served almost a decade in prison for killing her tyrannical husband - is a sign that “society is also beginning to recognise the dynamics of power and control that lie behind domestic abuse.”

Sally Challen was freed in June 2019, after successfully appealing her murder conviction Credit: Yui Mok /PA

Mrs Challen, 65, had suffered years of coercion and humiliation. Her son, David, has described his mother’s life as “an undercurrent of abuse… a drip, drip, drip.”

“Domestic abuse is not simply the accumulation of assaults”, agrees Luke. “Abusers use many isolating and constraining tactics which do not require violence.”

A cathartic book the Hart brothers self-published last year, has now been expanded into a powerful memoir, Remembered Forever. “In pain you have to find purpose”, explains Luke. “My recovery has come from using everything that has happened in a constructive way. Our public speaking, the book, everything we do, takes the narrative from [our father] and gives it to Mum and Charlotte.”

It could not come at a more apposite time. The annual cost of domestic abuse in Britain is reported to be £66billion. One in four women will suffer it in their lifetime and two are killed each week by a partner or ex. The Government has just announced a package of support, including secure accommodation, for victims. While the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill will bring economic abuse within the definition of domestic abuse – which will have its own Commissioner.

The brothers, who regularly consult with the police and Crown Prosecution Service, are disappointed that the burden remains on women to flee and think too little is being done to tackle perpetrators and educate professionals.

“I think they are terrified of admitting that domestic abuse is a gendered crime”, says Luke. “We cannot ignore the fact that men are disproportionately the perpetrators and women disproportionately the victims.”

They were incensed by media reports describing their father as “a good man” who must have “flipped”. His emotional thuggery was deliberate, they say. He took pleasure in fear.  

The siblings on holiday as children - outwardly a happy, normal family

From the outside, the Harts seemed like a close family - with a large house, children who were grade A students, and a daughter who loved horse riding. But, behind closed doors, no opportunity was missed by their father to punish his family.

He confiscated Claire’s passport and restricted her access to money so that, with only a part-time wage from Morrisons, she couldn’t leave. He would follow her to work, empty their joint account, monitor her phone calls, and make lists of jobs for her every day, so she had no free time. When he discovered that Claire had taken Ryan for a coffee without his permission, spending £3.50, he said she was lucky to get off with a reprimand because “other men would have beaten you.”

While he wasn’t violent, he knew how to inflict pain on Claire - triggering a nerve associated with her Multiple Sclerosis. Once, when Luke was a toddler, he deliberately fed him peanut butter, despite knowing he had an allergy.

He bullied Charlotte over the £10 a week she spent taking their dogs to agility training, until she stopped. When the boys went to university, he would charge them a nightly fee to come home and check on their mum and sister. Meanwhile, he spent thousands of pounds on an extension to make the family appear wealthy.

The brothers now speak widely about their experience, in order to help others Credit: Andrew Crowley 

The boys always regretted standing up to him, as it would lead to further punishment. So they just worked hard and tried to save up.

“We had been giving our Mum really hard-fought freedoms”, says Luke. “Swimming once a week, a smartphone. We thought they were liberating her – but our father escalated his behaviour.”

The brothers have lost the two people they held most dear. Ryan, the outwardly more emotional of the two, is still in therapy but rebuilding his confidence through sport, including skydiving: “I proved to myself that I wanted to live because I kept opening the parachute.”

He used to avoid relationships because it would compromise his ability to look after his mother and sister, and didn’t think he “deserved” a girlfriend. “I have met someone, but it’s still quite new for me,” he says, adding that he cannot countenance marriage. “I want to be everything my father wasn’t.”

Fatherhood has been ruined for both brothers. “I don’t ever want to be a father”, Ryan says. “The word “dad” sends shivers down my spine. I couldn’t ever be called that by a child. It would remind me too much of the past.”

Remembered forever by Luke and Ryan Hart published by Orion Publishing Co RRP is available to buy at £7.99 from books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

Visit cocoawareness.co.uk for more information.