Shirley Ann Milburn (16 February 1949 - 20 June 1987) was Peel's first wife, who was an American he married in 1965. She was an orphan (both parents died in 1965) Peel had first got to know through letters and calls on WRR in Dallas, where he was working. When he discovered that she was going to be sent to her uncles hundreds of miles away, Peel decided to marry her, despite she being 15 years old. Peel insisted that Shirley sworn to him that she was 16 when married and later found out she really was 15 when police stopped the couple in Texas for speeding, where they were travelling to Oklahoma, for Peel to start his new job at KOMA. When Peel decided to leave America in 1967, he brought his wife along with him to Fulham in London, where she lived with him for some time. He referred to her on Perfumed Garden as 'The White Rabbit' after the Jefferson Airplane song. Although she was supportive after his nervous debut on Top Gear, their marriage was troubled. Peel said, "My wife and I were very young when we married...and I think we did so for all the wrong reasons. It wasn't a shotgun wedding or anything, don't get me wrong, just that we had differing ideals which perhaps weren't right." [1]The fact that he regularly brought the Misunderstood back to stay with them only serves to underline the fragility of their situation.[2]

Peel later admitted that Shirley would sometimes subject him to physical violence: according to Sheila, this began even before they left the States, with John ending up in hospital in Oklahoma City after Shirley threw a stone frog at this head. [3] JP hoped their moving to London would help the situation, but the reverse occurred. She withdrew into herself, became depressed and put on weight. Eventually, he decided to move out and live in an apartment in Regents Park. Peel was still married to Shirley, although living apart when he found his new love (soon later his 2nd wife) Sheila in 1968, where he met her at the studios of How It Is, which Peel was presenting. Despite the fact that they were separated, Shirley used to call him, making comments to Sheila that suggested stalking. Shirley and Peel were finally divorced in 1973 and in the same year she was convicted of drugs and fraud offences and sentenced to a period in Holloway Prison. Later on in life, she suffered a severe bout of depression and died from self-inflicted injuries.

After her death, Peel commented to the Sunday Correspondent in 1989 that:

"She fell in with some extremely dodgy people. She died last year[4] as a result of a previous suicide attempt. She married three more times after me, and I was the only husband by whom she didn't have a child. All the children were in care. She did some terrible things, you know. She didn't deserve to die though." [1]

External Links

  1. Margrave Of The Marshes, Corgi edition, p.226.
  2. Margrave, ibid., p.267.
  3. Margrave, ibid., p.277.
  4. According to the Ancestry website, she died in 1987.