Sheffield 2: more student memories – and a murder enquiry
In my last post about our recent visit to Sheffield I confined myself to the university campus and the memories it invoked. This time I’ll be looking at the places I lived: stop reading now if you’re not prepared for a bit of a rant!
In my first year as an undergraduate (1975-6) I lodged in an area called Woodseats, sharing a room with another History student, Hazel. Our landlady was Mrs Fisher and we were her last “girls”. I don’t think we were so bad that we finished her off, but she must have been in her 70s by then and probably finding lodgers too much to deal with. Although I liked both Hazel and Mrs F, this arrangement was quite isolating: I had applied to a Hall of Residence nearer campus but didn’t get a place. Woodseats was two bus-rides from the university which made going out at night tricky: I used the late night buses and occasionally walked home which, in the light of what I am going to write about later in this post, is quite hair-raising to look back on.
Woodseats was too far out to visit, but I did go to see the house I shared with two other students, Janice and Hilary, in my second and third years. 43 Bates Street, a typical two-up two-down terrace seen at the top of the post, was much nearer campus. It was also absolutely freezing with one gas-fire in the living room being the only heating. Upstairs was particularly cold because our rooms extended over the entrance to the back yard and thus had no downstairs to insulate them. After we moved out the owners decided not to rent to students any more and sold the house – hang on, is there a pattern here?
After graduating in 1978, I left Sheffield for a year to work for Hampshire Libraries (subject of last year’s nostalgic visits: Winchester and me and Southampton and me). When I returned in 1979 I moved into a university flat in Victoria House. I shared with Janet (who featured in March’s Gallivanting post) and four other young women, and John lived in the flat above us (How we met). That block has been demolished (see – it’s a pattern!) and replaced by the modern building just beyond the terrace of houses, pictured above, which terminates in the Bath Hotel.
Both terrace and pub look far more salubrious than they did in our day when they were at the edge of the red-light district. At the time, that impacted on John more than on me, but later it made my blood run cold. John recalls being asked if he was “doing business” by women standing at their front doors and, because he sometimes parked a hired mini-bus in the area (he went caving with the university’s Speleological Society), he was interviewed by police in connection with the Yorkshire Ripper enquiry. I have a lot to get off my chest about this, so here comes the rant.
UK readers will no doubt be familiar with the case of Peter Sutcliffe who killed 13 women between 1975 and 1980 (neatly spanning my time in Sheffield) and who became known as the Yorkshire Ripper. I’ve always known the enquiry into the murders was badly botched (Sutcliffe was interviewed 9 times and dismissed before he was finally charged) but a recent documentary showed it was even worse than I had thought. I can forgive an inability to cross-reference thousands of pieces of paper in a pre-computer age. I can’t forgive antediluvian views on women, but can see they were part of the times: the police formed a theory that the killer was “just” targeting prostitutes and women of “loose morals”. You know, the kind who went out to pubs and enjoyed themselves. (Utterly, utterly unforgivable was the retired detective who had learned nothing in 40 years and still appeared to hold similar views.) At the beginning of the killing spree “ordinary” women victims were regarded as mistakes and the evidence of women who had been attacked by what appeared to be the same man, because of his methods, was discounted if they were not prostitutes. Some of these women gave remarkably accurate descriptions of Peter Sutcliffe.
The police were later taken in by a hoax tape and letters from a man calling himself Jack the Ripper. One retired detective said in the documentary that there was nothing in these which had not been in the press, so there was no proof that they came from the killer – when he pointed this out he, as a junior officer, was over-ruled. “Jack” had a Sunderland accent, and the letters were postmarked from there, so anyone interviewed from then on was judged by those criteria. (John was asked when he last visited Sunderland. He didn’t even know where it was.) Many lives could have been saved if the evidence of women survivors who said their attacker had a local accent had been taken seriously, but as it wasn’t the enquiry failed completely. The conscientious policeman who finally caught Sutcliffe in January 1981 was not part of it, yet afterwards the enquiry’s leaders were filmed smiling and congratulating themselves at a press conference. They should have been ashamed to show their faces.
I expect many people who lived in Yorkshire at the time have their stories about how the Ripper touched their lives. As I have said, John was interviewed. A friend of a friend was in the same Bradford pub as student Barbara Leach the night she died in September 1979. Even closer, the final victim, Jacqueline Hill, was an English Literature student at Leeds in the same year-group as my sister. However, Sutcliffe had never killed in Sheffield, which was maybe why I wasn’t worried about going home alone to my lodgings at night. But where was he caught? Here:
In my postgraduate year, I volunteered as a tutor to a woman from the Bangladeshi community who had little English. To train for this, I attended a few evening classes in a Teachers’ Centre on Melbourne Avenue which starts right where I was standing to take the photograph above. I had no idea it was a place prostitutes took their clients, but this is where Sutcliffe was caught with a young woman who had a very lucky escape. No wonder my blood ran cold when I heard about it. It makes me shiver even now.
When I planned this post, I meant to write about my student homes and then look at the wider city, but anger ran away with me. Normal service will resume next time. For now, I want to end by remembering the following women whose lives were cut short in the most brutal fashion:
Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls, Jacqueline Hill.