Why my brother’s murder has made me fearful of being a mother

‘Why my brother’s murder has made me fearful of being a mother’: On the 10th anniversary of the fatal stabbing, ex-EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella gives a powerfully moving interview

  • Former EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella lost her brother after he was stabbed
  • Since his death, she has campaigned against knife crime, meeting politicians 
  • Ben was killed after he went out to celebrate the end of his GCSEs ten years ago 
  • Brooke says that knife crime hasn’t improved since and has even worsened 

Walking back to her North London home last month, Brooke Kinsella came upon a scene with which many Londoners have become depressingly familiar in recent years.

Her path was blocked by a police cordon. There had been yet another knife killing.

But for Brooke, the former EastEnders actress whose younger brother Ben was fatally stabbed on the night he went out to celebrate the end of his GCSEs, ten years ago last Friday, the poignancy was almost too much to bear.

‘This was on a street I have walked down pretty much every day of my life,’ she says. ‘Another young life wasted, just like Ben’s. It hasn’t stopped. If anything, it has got worse. You do have moments where you think, what were we thinking, believing that Ben’s death would mark a changing point?’

Brooke Kinsella (pictured) said that knife crime offences have increased despairingly since her brother Ben was stabbed to death ten years ago

Her frustration and despair are palpable. Understandably so, given the knife crime epidemic in London and England’s big cities. The number of offences soared by more than a fifth last year, with almost 40,000 offences using blades recorded by police in 2017. This year alone, some 60 people have been knifed to death on London’s streets.

Ben’s killing shocked the country, partly because of his youth and background, partly because of his sister’s celebrity.

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Brooke was a household name thanks to her role on EastEnders, and the Kinsella family was part of a tight-knit and influential community. One of the teenage friends who cradled Ben as he died was the son of Birds Of A Feather actress Linda Robson.

The fact that Brooke is now no longer an actress — and is perhaps better known for her work as a campaigner against knife crime — speaks volumes about how Ben’s death changed her life and the life of her family.

‘I’ve no idea what kinds of people we would have been if it hadn’t happened,’ she says. ‘Would I still be an actor? My sister is 25 now and still our baby, but she was a teenager when she was thrust into all this.’

Ben, pictured as a young boy with his sister, had been celebrating the end of his GCSEs with friends when he was stabbed 11 times

‘This’ is the whirlwind of campaigning that gave Ben’s distraught family an initial sense of focus. In the days and weeks after his death, they found themselves sudden ‘experts’ in knife crime.

Since then, Brooke has met countless politicians (she had an advisory role in David Cameron’s coalition government), travelled to the U.S. to find out how they deal with knife crime, and in 2011 was awarded an MBE for services to charity.

She can quote statistic after statistic about death rates and crime initiatives. And she is devastated that, ten years on, we are no closer to finding answers to the issues she and her family raised a decade ago.

‘I don’t have a simple answer, because I don’t think there is one,’ Brooke says. ‘It’s about education. It’s about a generation of kids growing up with so little respect for their own lives that they don’t care about taking someone else’s. It’s about money, police resources, all that.

‘But as depressing as it is to think it’s still happening — maybe on an even bigger scale — we can’t just walk away. If the steps we’ve taken have saved even one life, then it was worth it.’

Ben’s (pictured) brutal killing shocked the country, partly because of his youth and background

Brooke’s memory of the night Ben died, June 29, 2008, is vivid in parts and ‘fuzzy’ in others. The shock is still tangible.

Ben, a popular and bright student who wanted to be a graphic designer, had just finished his exams (he never got to know his results, but he passed all his GCSEs, receiving two A*s, two As, four Bs and one C) and headed out to celebrate with friends. There was an altercation between one of them and a man named Osman Ozdemir.

At 2am, when the group set off to return home, they realised they were being followed.

Several of the group started to run. Ben did not, possibly because he had not been involved with the earlier fracas. ‘There are so many things that we will never know the truth about,’ says Brooke.

Her little brother was set upon, kicked and punched to the ground and stabbed repeatedly. Two thrusts entered his lungs; another split a rib before puncturing his heart. Some of the wounds were nearly 7 in deep. Brooke can still recite the location and size of each wound. ‘I had to know. I think when you don’t know the detail, your mind goes into overdrive, imagining the worst. However bad it was, I had to know.’

Ben was a popular and bright student who wanted to be a graphic designer and had just finished his exams – he would never know his results

Harrowing CCTV footage shown during the trial of Ben’s attackers recorded him staggering from the scene, supported by friend Louis Robson. He was pronounced dead at 7.24 am, by which time his family had rushed to his bedside.

Brooke remembers little about this, apart from the fact his face had not been touched — for which she is movingly grateful.

Right from the moment the news broke, the Kinsella family behaved with dignity and poise, in stark contrast to the frenzied senselessness of Ben’s death.

A march through London in Ben’s name was hastily arranged. Candles snaked their way through the capital. The family appealed for calm and voiced their hopes that his death would somehow prove to be a watershed in London’s bloody knife history.

‘I have to be honest: it was a bit of a selfish thing at first,’ says Brooke. ‘We didn’t want Ben to be forgotten. It was about saying: “This is our son, our brother, and he is special. He matters.” ’

Just weeks later, they were meeting politicians. But in the immediate aftermath, Brooke mostly remembers the family holed up in Ben’s bedroom, numbly going through his possessions.

She manages a laugh. ‘I’m sure he was looking down cursing us,’ she says. ‘What 16-year-old boy wants his family going through his things? Yet we had to. It was the only way we could feel close.’

His family had hoped that Ben’s death could prove to be a watershed moment in London’s knife crime epidemic – that sadly hasn’t been the case

What they found was crushing. There was the letter Ben had written to then prime minister Gordon Brown for GCSE coursework, highlighting how worried he was about knife crime. Ben had personal experience, having been threatened when he prevented the theft of a mountain bike.

Then there was an essay he wrote imagining his death from stabbing. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing in any circumstances, but given that it pretty much documents what happened, it was harrowing in the extreme for his family to find.

‘It was as if he’d had a premonition,’ Brooke says. ‘But in time it was comforting because it ended with him looking down from heaven and talking about the calm. I like to think he discovered that place, too.’

More than 1,000 people attended Ben’s funeral — including EastEnders actors Michelle Ryan and Gillian Taylforth, and the father of Damilola Taylor, who had been stabbed to death, aged ten, in November 2000.

More than 1,000 people attended Ben’s funeral — including EastEnders actors Michelle Ryan

Brooke never planned to have an alternative ‘career’ as a campaigner. She travelled to the U.S. to visit prisons. In 2009, she made a documentary which took viewers up to the end of the trial of her brother’s killers. She was a key member of the team setting up a trust in her brother’s name, organising exhibitions in schools.

She has little to say about the three men who attacked Ben. Jade Braithwaite, Juress Kika and Michael Alleyne were each sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 19 years.

‘I don’t like to think about them,’ she says. ‘But while I hate to think about them getting out, we’ve worked with a lot of families who haven’t had any justice at all. In that regard, we were lucky.’

Brooke has long since accepted that every celebration will now be tinged with sadness. She was still taken aback, though, at the conflicting emotions she felt on her wedding day last December.

Since his death, Brooke has met with politicians like Theresa May (pictured) and even visited US prisons

‘It was the happiest day of my life, but also the saddest,’ she says. ‘My mum sewed his photograph into my bouquet. She didn’t tell me what she was doing until the night before, which was probably good because I was already finding the whole thing so difficult.’

Mostly, she admits, it was hard to accept her own happiness after so much heartache. ‘When you lose someone the way we lost Ben, you think you will never smile again,’ she says. ‘You can’t imagine laughing. Then when it happens — that first time you realise that you are actually smiling — you feel guilty.’

The trick to dealing with bereavement, she now knows, comes in accepting that the happy and sad will be forever entwined.

‘When my nephews were born — we have five now — it was the same. It was such a happy thing, but also sad because they would never know uncle Ben.’

That’s what makes it so hard to accept that his killers are now more than half-way through their 19-year minimum sentences.

‘At the time we thought we were lucky. They got a decent stretch. But they will still be young when they come out. They have time to meet people, have families, do all the things that Ben will never do. That is hard, really hard.’

She helped to set up a trust in her brother’s name, organising exhibitions in schools as she tried to raise awareness

There is still a sense of disbelief. ‘When I hear myself talking about it, it sounds like someone else is speaking. In some ways I don’t think I’ve dealt with it. I didn’t allow myself much time to grieve.’

Even now, grief takes Brooke unawares. ‘The big things — his birthday, the anniversary — you prepare for, but the little things that come out of nowhere blindside you. We used to read the Harry Potter books together. Then when one came out and Ben wasn’t here to read it, I was in bits.’

Does it feel like ten years? ‘In some ways. They say that time is a great healer, but I don’t know that it is. I think it’s more the case that you learn to live with it.’

Although she did keep acting for a time, it was half-hearted.

‘I’d never really set out to be an actor. It’s something I fell into, but after Ben it was a case of choosing what I wanted to do and the campaigning, going to America, was what I felt I had to do.

This harrowing photo is from CCTV footage and shows Ben staggering down a road with his shirt covered in blood

‘Acting felt like something I was pretending to do — a bit like a child playing a game.’

Brooke started to work for a theatrical agency, and discovered that she loved it. ‘I got more of a buzz out of telling other actors about a job than I did when the phone rang for me,’ she admits.

She met her husband, lawyer Simon Boardley, when they were set up on a blind date by a mutual friend — Robert Rinder, the barrister-turned-TV-star who is best known as Judge Rinder.

He actually brought Simon along to the Ben Kinsella Exhibition, one of the most ambitious projects launched by the family. It features anti-knife-crime workshops, targeting kids likely to become embroiled in gangs. An ideal setting for a first date? Hardly.

‘I was furious,’ Brooke admits. ‘What was Rob thinking? But it got it all out in the open. Anyone getting involved with me was going to get all this too, and Simon has been a rock. My only regret is that he never got to meet Ben.’

As the big sister of the family, she has had the near-impossible task of trying to support her parents.

‘I find things like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day hard. My little sister always buys a present for them from Ben, which is lovely, but also so sad. We’ve just had Father’s Day; My dad has three girls, and we always try to cheer him up, but we can’t replace his son.’

Now Brooke’s thoughts should be turning to her having her own family — but what happened to Ben has made her less willing to rush into parenthood.

‘I do want to have children, absolutely,’ she says. ‘But it’s scary. We live in a scary world and I don’t know how parents cope. I honestly don’t know how my mum and dad get out of bed in the morning.’

And yet they do. They all do.

Last Saturday, to mark the ten-year anniversary, the Kinsella family led a charity walk in Ben’s name to mark his life and legacy.

‘We won’t let him be forgotten,’ says Brooke. ‘Never.’

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