Paula Williamson describes her fiancée as “charismatic, witty and cheeky” – a man who likes llamas and is passionate about his art.
For most, her soon-to-be-husband Charles Bronson – now called Charles Salvador – is one of the UK’s most violent prisoners.
“It’s a marvel we make it work,” says Paula, 37, who marries Bronson, 64, in the confines of HMP Wakefield in Yorkshire next Tuesday.
Bronson, a former bare-knuckle boxer who was first jailed for armed robbery in 1974, will not be able to attend his own wedding reception.
So what brought the couple together and what will their nuptials be like?
Paula, a former soap actress, first wrote to Bronson in 2013 after reading his book on living in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital.
“I wanted to thank him – it had hope, and really helped me mentally,” she says.
They exchanged letters for the next three years, before he asked to meet – by which time he had changed his last name to Salvador and broken off an engagement with another woman, Lorraine.
“I never spoke to him about Lorraine, as that’s his own business,” Paula says.
She describes their first meeting at HMP Wakefield: “I wasn’t nervous until I heard the slamming of gates and went through security.
“Then I heard this booming cockney voice shouting out my name.
“He was in a segregation unit – a prison within a prison – and stood in the corner sparring in mid-air, I thought he seemed like a nervous boy.
“I said to him, ‘Charlie, come here and give me a hug, it’s bloody me’.”
She has visited Bronson once a week since then. She says the “hours fly by” during their meetings, as they talk about the meals she plans to cook him and he makes her a cup of tea.
“A few weeks in I asked Charlie, ‘What are we?’ And he replied, ‘Well you’re my soulmate of course, we are in a relationship – I adore you.'”
To outsiders, it may seem an unlikely match.
Luton-born Bronson, a petty criminal since his teens, had his original seven-year sentence increased after a string of violent outbursts, with his time inside dramatised in a 2009 film starring Tom Hardy.
Paula, who lives in Stoke-on-Trent with her four cats, studied acting at university, before landing minor roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale.
But she insists they are “very similar creatures”, with a shared experience of mental health problems.
“I’ve suffered from awful depression and anxiety following a relationship breakup,” she said.
When Bronson proposed to Paula over the phone on Valentine’s Day, he said they had “both been to dark places”.
Bronson’s jail history
- 1974 First jailed, age 22, for armed robbery and wounding
- 1975 Attacked a fellow prisoner with a glass jug
- 1985 Carried out a three-day rooftop protest
- 1988 Returned to prison for robbing a jewellery shop
- 1992 Released, but found guilty shortly afterwards of conspiracy to rob
- 1994 Holds a prison librarian hostage, demanding a helicopter and tea
- 1998 Takes three inmates hostage at Belmarsh
- 1999 Given a life sentence with a three-year tariff for kidnapping
- 2014 Assaulted prison governor Alan Parkins
Five friends will attend the wedding on 14 November, to be held in a parole hearing room.
Afterwards, Bronson will go back into solitary confinement and the celebrations will continue at a nearby pub.
“We have a bit of time together after the wedding, then he goes back to his cell, which is heartbreaking,” Paula says.
But the reception will be a less private affair.
Paula has agreements with tabloid newspapers to write stories about the wedding – having previously invited the Daily Mirror to film the moment Bronson proposed.
“People say I’ve courted the media,” says Paula, who insists she is a “solitary person”.
“I want to show Charlie’s not forgotten about.”
One important person will be avoiding the cameras: the mother of the bride.
“Mum’s not coming to the wedding as she’s a private person,” Paula says, admitting her family have objected to the match.
“Mum was a bit concerned as he has this awful reputation, but she knows I’m a strong-willed character with my head screwed on,” she adds.
She says the backlash from strangers is far worse – claiming she has lost acting jobs over the relationship and is trolled on social media.
“I’ve had a hell of a lot of hatred towards me for being with him,” says Paula, who spends her time answering people’s letters to Bronson and campaigning for him to be released.
“It’s madness at the moment,” she adds. “I’ve said to Charlie, ‘do you want to swap places for a bit’?”
How do prison weddings work?
- Prison governors can approve a prisoner’s request to marry, if they are unlikely to be released or deported within three months
- There are dispensations for inmates with less than three months to serve – such as if they are having a baby or if someone is terminally ill
- The prisoner and their partner are expected to pay any costs associated with the marriage, like transport to the ceremony if it takes place outside prison
- Governors can object to a marriage – including if they are worried about a convicted sex offender or if they think the couple is colluding to commit an offence
Source: Ministry of Justice
Bronson has a parole hearing on 7 November to determine whether it is safe for him to mix with other prisoners.
The couple can currently only kiss and hold hands between bars during Paula’s visits to Wakefield – one of the most secure prisons in the UK and one that counts paedophiles and serial killers among its inmates.
“He’s locked up for 22 hours a day,” says Paula. “If I thought he’d be in prison the rest of his life, it would be a strange thing to marry.”
Despite the separation, Paula insists they are like “any other couple”.
“We have little fall outs and tiffs,” Paula says. “But after 10 minutes of seeing him I’ll smile and say ‘for goodness’ sake Charlie, stop being such a stupid git!'”
She adds: “I know I’m not 19 any more, but we’ve also discussed having children one day.”
Paula admits living together would be “very different” from their current life of letters, phone calls and weekly visits.
“I’ve said to Charlie, when you get out, you will have a room, and that will be your sanctuary,” she says.
They want to live in a cottage, keep llamas and go on cruise holidays, while Bronson does his art and gives talks to young offenders.
In the book Paula first read in 2013, Bronson said his troubles were behind him – and described himself as a “prolific artist”.
“I’ll carry on campaigning for him until we get that life,” Paula says.