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Peter Sutcliffe’s long shadow across the north

Some might say that the Yorkshire Ripper’s death marks the closing of a chapter, but in the north of England his malign influence lives on.

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In London, the saying goes, you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. Something similar could be said in West Yorkshire about the case of the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe.

It seems almost everyone of a certain age has a story to share about how their father or grandfather was one of the 130,000 men brought in for questioning during the Yorkshire Ripper’s murderous spree that ran from 1975 to 1980. Sutcliffe, a lorry driver, beat 13 women to death with a hammer, screwdriver and his fists and feet, mutilating some to such a savage degree that their intestines spilled out. People still remember the daily news items: how the eyes of suspicion fell on any man with a beard or a driver’s licence, how the tapes of the Ripper hoaxer “Wearside Jack” led police to fixate, erroneously, on the same Sunderland accent of my grandparents. Women will recall their personal responses, from the self-imposed lockdowns that might seem familiar now to the Reclaim The Night protests, or how, as girls, they first became aware of the concept of misogyny. How as women, they would always have to look over their shoulder.

My own connection is surely similar to that of thousands of others across the north: Sutcliffe’s arrest and subsequent trial are some one of my formative memories. To this five-year old he represented the ultimate bogeyman; a nebulous, shadowy form with blank eyes pushing through a gap where a face should be. The beard and the ridiculous hair, the suits, the ambiguous stare – and was that a suggestion of a smile that harboured secrets? Then there was the trainee teacher wife at home, the family and colleagues surprised that “Our Peter” – “daft Pete”, who was awkward but harmless, who visited his elderly relatives and warned siblings to be careful because “there’s all sorts of nutters about” – could commit such crimes. All these composite parts joined together, Frankenstein-like, to create a figure of terror that still permeates the psyche of this region.

[see also: Remembering the New Cross house fire​]

Years later I would move to West Yorkshire and come to know his home turf, and discover that Sutcliffe had never really gone away. His presence still lurked in the scrublands and railway arches of the post-industrial towns that were his stalking grounds (Halifax, Huddersfield, Keighley), the side streets of the cities where he picked up women (Bradford, Leeds, Manchester) and in the brooding valleys and lonely stretches of moorland motorways that interlinked them. Only when the story of fellow West Yorkshireman and sexual predator Jimmy Savile broke in 2012 was the Ripper challenged in his position as the most insidious man the north of England had ever produced. 

When Sutcliffe died from Covid 19 this week – in the same Durham hospital in which I was born – I was staying in a house belonging to Gordon Burn and reading his 1984 biography of Sutcliffe, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, while surrounded by some of the late writer’s research notes. The night before Sutcliffe’s death, I went to bed reading about him throwing dinner parties for his family and then driving off into the city with his hammer, or taking his neglected nephews out for Christmas day trip three days before his arrest. He was there in my dreams, again. I mention this only to illustrate how far and wide his greasy tendrils continue to reach. 

Sutcliffe still defines perceptions of the north of England. He is one link in a dire chain of criminals that runs through what was then known as the West Riding and into Greater Manchester, and includes Harold Shipman; Ian Brady and Myra Hindley; the “Rillington Place Strangler” John Christie; the “Black Panther” Donald Neilson; and Savile. These are the figures who define the north in popular consciousness as much as any sporting hero or classic novel. 

[see also: The surprising history of the written word]

One of the strengths of Somebody’s Husband is the way in which it conveys the perceived normality of Sutcliffe’s early life. To write it, Burn relocated to Bingley, Sutcliffe’s birthplace, and won the trust of the community. Here he discovered Sutcliffe’s parents had stayed together and that his family were relatively tight-knit, and arguably not much more dysfunctional than any other family of eight living in close quarters. The first half of the book shows Sutcliffe tinkering with motorbikes, quietly supping pints of ale, and catching rabbits with his young brother. But then his secret life seeps through the pages: the long hours spent locked in bathrooms or rifling through people’s drawers, the hygienic fastidiousness, the fascination with a grotesque waxworks museum in Morecambe. It’s then that you’re reminded this is an utterly pathetic individual. Not a loudmouth brawler trading blows on the cobbles, or a wife-beater, but something even worse: a coward who always leapt from behind, without warning.

The Sutcliffe story is also broader than one pathetic man. It encompasses police ineptitude and institutional misogyny so deep-rooted that his victims were dismissed as lesser people simply because some of them sometimes had sex with men, for money. No matter that they were mothers and wives; the notoriously tough and sometimes corrupt West Yorkshire police force collectively shared the same view as large portions of the public, and indeed Sutcliffe himself: these women were out late at night when they should have been at home with their men or their bairns, so they were asking for it.

More than anything, the Sutcliffe story is about the vulnerability of women on the streets of England, something still relevant today. Surveillance has made the sort of spree committed by a serial killer such as Sutcliffe – whose victims were all found out in public – far less likely, and advances in DNA forensics have made perpetrators easier to trace, but the murderous impulse of such men hasn’t diminished. They might get caught, yes, but only afterwards. Women still work the streets of Chapeltown or Holbeck or Manningham for crumpled five or ten pound notes; still get beaten, raped or murdered by men.

Today true crime is a thriving genre that has found its natural home in the world of podcasts, but the case of Sutcliffe broke new ground and spawned a plethora of documentaries, plays and literary depictions, each offering a different angle. The story no longer belongs to him and has instead been reclaimed in feminist readings that focus on the 13 victims, from Wilma McCann in 1975 to Jacqueline Hill in 1980, and the nine further survivors. The American academic Nicole Ward Jouve’s excellent 1986 book The Streetcleaner: The Yorkshire Ripper Case On Trial was perhaps the first to reframe the story in a context too nuanced and progressive for the tabloid newspapers, and offered a much-needed outsider’s view on a bleakly beautiful northern England that Jouve initially only knew through writers such as the Bronte sisters. Further reappraisals have followed.

Some might say that Sutcliffe’s death marks the closing of a chapter, but his malign influence runs deep in the soil here in West Yorkshire. I’d wager that, alongside Savile, the Yorkshire Ripper will be remembered – mythologised, even – for centuries to come.

Benjamin Myers is the author of several Yorkshire-based books, most recently The Offing, Under The Rock and The Gallows Pole

Ben Myers’ award-winning novels include The Offing, The Gallows Pole, Beastings and Pig Iron. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. benmyers.com 

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation