The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story

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Women’s anger boiled over in 1977

It is interesting that, after many years of media obsession with serial killers, a new book, opera and TV documentary share an emphasis on the social conditions and attitudes that made some women more vulnerable to assault and allowed the killers to get away with it for so long.

Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five uncovers the impoverished lives of the victims of the infamous Victorian killer, Jack the Ripper. She highlights the material circumstances which drove them into prostitution to keep themselves and their families alive.

Meanwhile, at the English National Opera is the world premiere of Ian Bell’s very good Jack the Ripper and The Women of Whitechapel, which depicts a group of destitute women living in an East End doss house who band together to attempt to survive the terror of the Ripper.

The three-part BBC documentary The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime, examines how attitudes towards working class women in the 1970s had a profoundly negative effect on the police investigation and allowed the Yorkshire Ripper to remain free for so long.

Between 1975 and 1981 a series of brutal murders of women across Yorkshire and surrounding areas sparked the biggest man-hunt in British history. Thirteen women were murdered and at least eight more survived attacks.

Many people rightly asked how a lone killer operating in a relatively small area of the country could remain undetected for so long, particularly when at least three of the survivors had given almost identical descriptions the man who had attacked them. This man was Peter Sutcliffe, who by the time he was arrested had already been interviewed nine times by the police.

Liza Williams’s documentary makes it clear that the only way to understand this is to look at the prejudices held by all those in authority.

Sutcliffe’s first victims, Anna Rogulskyj, Olive Smelt and Tracy Browne, were attacked with hammers and knives but in each case he was interrupted and they survived. All were attacked in residential streets. Journalist Joan Smith points out that Sutcliffe’s subsequent shift towards areas known for prostitution was pragmatic; it enabled him to pick up women and take them off somewhere more private so he could kill uninterrupted by passers-by.

The first woman killed by Sutcliffe was Wilma McCann, a young single mother of four, who had escaped an abusive relationship. She lived and was killed near the red light area of Chapeltown, Leeds. Like the following four victims, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson and Jean Jordan, she poor, working class and struggling to feed her children and put clothes on their backs. Some of the women turned to prostitution to make ends meet.

One victim is described by a police officer as “a woman of doubtful moral character” because she often went to the pub on her own. Another officer talks about Patricia Atkinson as “a woman who put herself about”. A neighbour states very firmly that “a bad man is a bad man but a bad woman is a bloody bad woman”.

The nature of the assaults and perceived character of the victims drew parallels with Jack the Ripper — hence the brand of the Yorkshire Ripper was created and the press sensationalised it at every turn.

It wasn’t until the murders of Jane McDonald in 1977 and Josephine Whitaker in 1979 — both women who, in the words of Josephine’s coroner, “were not of the same moral character as the other victims” — that the establishment really started moving. These victims personified what came to be known as the “innocent victim”. The Yorkshire Evening Post famously wrote an open letter to the Ripper lambasting him for his terrible “mistake” in killing Jane.

Officers flooded the area, a massive publicity campaign was launched, exhibition centres were set up in shopping centres, and house to house investigations were carried out. The climate of fear that had gripped Yorkshire turned to anger as years passed and the police failed to catch the perpetrator. Women were told to stay at home, only go out if necessary, and then in pairs or groups.

The film touches on the anger that sparked the first Reclaim the Night demonstration in Leeds in the winter of 1977. This was followed by another in November 1980 which was 500 strong. Women objected to being told to stay out of public places after dark, while men were free to go out as they pleased. After all, it was a man who was doing the killing.

The National Union of Students campaigned and won personal alarms and free transport for women students. They also demanded an end to police harassment of prostitutes, who were being arrested and fined in unprecedented numbers and being told it was in their interests to keep them off the streets. They would appear in court, receive a fine for soliciting — and then have to go straight back out onto the street to earn the money to pay the fines.

The film powerfully exposes the arrogance, sexism and contempt for working class women among the top brass and the media. And given the attitudes which have allowed girls and young women in towns like Rochdale and Rotherham to be abused so systematically for so long, we have to ask how much has really changed.