File photo: Mick Philpott, right, and wife Mairead react during a news conference at Derby Conference Centre following the fire at their Derby, England, home which claimed the lives of six of his children.
File photo: Mick Philpott, right, and wife Mairead react during a news conference at Derby Conference Centre following the fire at their Derby, England, home which claimed the lives of six of his children.
File photo: Mairead Philpott is driven away in a prison van from the Magistrates' Court in Derby, central England.
File photo: Mairead Philpott is driven away in a prison van from the Magistrates' Court in Derby, central England.

London -

Mick Philpott made no apologies for the way he lived. “It's a great lifestyle,” he boasted to Jeremy Kyle during one of his pantomime interrogations on daytime TV.

A mini-celebrity who in the years leading up to the tragedy became a tabloid bogeyman, the 56-year-old unemployed baker was pilloried as an emblem of the modern benefits culture.

The fact he was father to 17 children by five different women and lived with two much younger partners - his wife and a mistress with whom for more than a decade he spent alternate nights in a caravan parked in his driveway - enraged conventional right-wing media morality. Yet it also earned him an almost sneaking admiration from those on the liberal left that felt he was a defiant figure of working class individualism.

Life inside 18 Victory Road however was anything but great for the two women who inhabited Philpott's world. It was also anything but a life of idleness and hand outs - at least for them.

Quick to anger, he was their master who controlled the money they earned from the cleaning jobs to which he drove and collected them each day. He pocketed the benefits to which their large families entitled them.

They were to become virtual prisoners in the three bedroom semi-detached house where they lived along with 11 children - nine of whom were fathered by Philpott - a pet dog called Goldie and Crackle the bird.

When they defied him he beat and humiliated them, refusing to let them go out or mix with anyone that might threaten his control over them.

Yet while Philpott was able to engender almost instant loathing in authority figures his unconventional lifestyle, whilst not applauded, was tolerated by neighbours. Family life was unsurprisingly chaotic and although police were occasional callers to the house, social services had little or no involvement. The children were outwardly well-turned-out and cared for - largely as a result of his wife Mairead, who would cook and clean while Mick splayed snooker or darts in the family games-room, smoked cannabis with his friend Paul Mosley or made love to his mistress Lisa.

Far from being the family from hell, the Philpotts were liked by many and the wiry patriarch revelled in his local notoriety. According to neighbours the children were content.

Vicky Ferguson, a neighbour whom the Philpotts tried to frame along with her partner Adam Taylor over a borrowed petrol strimmer, recalls a “normal family - nice happy kids”.

Ms Ferguson told The Independent: “The house was clean and tidy - no pots hanging around. Lisa was with Mick most of the time. The kids' bedrooms were typical - toys and stuff. They had everything you could imagine them having.”

Ms Ferguson, a mother of two who was friends with both Mairead and Lisa, said she was puzzled by the arrangement, but like others just got on with it - largely for the children's sake. “I never got involved in the relationship too much. I said why did you let Mick sleep with another woman? But I left it at that.

Philpott needed to control his women. According to detectives he was unable to form relationships with partners of his own age. Instead he would “groom” his targets when they were young normally when they were at “rock bottom”.

Then he would begin a sexual relationship, isolating them from their family in order to dominate them.

His violence against women had already earned him a prison sentence when, in 1978, he was convicted of the attempted murder of his 17-year-old girlfriend, Tracey Hill, stabbing her 11 times when she tried to leave him. He was also convicted of maliciously assaulting her mother during the same incident.

Philpott blamed his criminal record for his inability to get a job but he repeated his pattern of behaviour time and again. While married to his first wife Pamela Lomax, with whom he had three children, he met 14-year-old Heather Kehoe.

She ran away with the then 39-year-old him two days after her 16th birthday and went on to have two children by him. But the relationship soon turned abusive. At one point he ordered their eldest son to punch his mother in the face and kick her.

Philpott met Irish-born Mairead when she was 19, a single mother in deep distress. Abused as a child and raped as a teenager she had been severely bullied at school. Her dream, of becoming a ballerina, had been tempered into the reality of working in childcare and at first she looked on Mick as her “guardian angel”.

A previous abusive boyfriend had punched her and shaved her head. Life at Victory Road offered an alternative - provided it was on Mick's terms.

Lisa Willis was 17 when she met Philpott, then in his 40s and married to Mairead, at a New Year's Eve party. She too was a single mother.

Born an orphan with no birth certificate she had nowhere to go. Within weeks she was ensconced in the Philpotts' home and estranged from her family.

Relations were complex. Philpott favoured Lisa over Mairead who he used a glorified skivvy to wait on him hand and foot, according to visitors.

But the two women formed a strange alliance, with Lisa the most dominant, describing themselves variously as like sisters, lovers, friends - and as more children came along the youngsters came to regard each other as siblings with two mums.

Lisa was not spared the violence even though she was the favourite who Mick planned to marry. Within weeks of her moving in he beat her repeatedly with a piece of wood. In 2002 she defied him again, initiating a sexual relationship with Mick's eldest son. Yet her decision to leave along with her five children fractured the family set up irrevocably.

Mairead attempted suicide, describing the absent woman as “my first, my last, my everything.” Yet while she appeared compliant to her husband, her performance in the witness stand was remarkably assured.

Despite attempts to prise their stories apart, she resolutely refused to blame him the for the deaths of their children suggesting only that it was a “possibility” he may have set the fire whilst she was asleep.

Lisa meanwhile had considerable “moral courage” to take the step of walking away from Philpott, according to police.

Assistant Chief Constable Steve Cotterill said she had been bravely stood up to a tyrant. “In his tiny mind he thought `how dare she'. This was a woman he had controlled or groomed from an early age when she was vulnerable and then she had the moral courage to leave him and then despite his best efforts he has not been able to win her back.”