Norwich girl's tale of marriage to Conmen King
2009: Being married to the so-called King of the Conmen
, was never going to be easy for Norfolk girl Val Hartman
. But her personal courage and an unshakeable faith in God, saw love win through in the end. Sandie Shirley
When Val Hartman married her husband after he left gaol it signalled the greatest challenge to her life. Three months after tying the knot, a betting docket fell out of his pocket. “I did not even realise what it was,” said Val who met Doug Hartman during a prison visit with the YMCA. Within a few years she knew he was a trickster and a gambling addict who later tried to take the roof from over her head to pay his debts.
Val had the unique privilege of witnessing her late husband’s dramatic transformation. Locked up in a South London cell for bank fraud, Doug read the Bible and was immediately convicted. Falling on his knees, asking God for forgiveness for the terrible crimes he had committed, his life was never the same again after 20 years of lies, disappearances and prison sentences.
He saw out his remaining sentence while telling prisoners, visitors and warders about the God that changed his heart and wiped the slate clean. After his release, the couple, who were divorced four years previously, renewed their wedding vows during a simple ceremony. It marked a venture of faith that took Doug - with Val often by his side - to the nation’s prisons to speak about the divine turnaround to thousands. “I often used to tell the men to be grateful for the loved ones that continued to support them,” said Val, 82, a prayer member of Prison Fellowship four years after Doug’s death.
She gave her first-hand account of life with Doug at Old Costessey Baptist Church - an event staged by the Norwich Motorcyclists’ Association. She met her husband after responding to a request for visitors at Blundeston Prison, Suffolk when she lived in Lowestoft.
“The prison governor was go-ahead - he wanted to develop a bridge with the outside world. He said these people are not monsters although they had fallen foul of the law. I remember the prison doors slamming shut when I first arrived and I struggled with what it must be like for the prisoners when they heard all those doors clanging behind them.”
The visits continued. The relationship blossomed. Six months later Doug left prison to live in an Essex hostel while working at a factory to integrate back into society; Val saw him at weekends. Eventually he moved to Suffolk, married and was employed at a print company. But when he lost his job because of his prison record, he gambled to earn some easy money.
The jobs continued to come go, as did gambling and later fraud. The financial crisis worsened - debts increased and poverty beckoned. Doug served in open and enclosed prisons in East Anglia and London and when the court cases arose he moved away so his home address was never disclosed.
“At Christmas he could be missing and many times I wondered if I could continue to exist like it. I would have lost my house if I did not divorce him. He would have stopped at nothing - gambling had become an addiction. I built a shell around me for protection - the love was always there but the trust had gone. I had the faith to forgive him but I was finally healed from all the hurt at Spring Harvest a year after we renewed our vows.”
Looking back she said: “I still hear from so many people who Doug has influenced since his life changed. There were many wonderful things that would not have happened if we had not got together.”