This week we hear from independent researcher Francesca Roe, who describes how an unassuming document in the Central Library collections casts light on the Yorkshire Ripper investigation and its failings. Francesca will be giving a talk on the same subject at the Central Library on July 17 at 6pm – to reserve your place please visit our Ticketsource page.
Between 1975 and 1980, Peter Sutcliffe – better known as the Yorkshire Ripper – murdered 13 women in the North of England. The terror felt by women in the region and the length of time it took for Sutcliffe to be caught have contributed to his notoriety. In the decades after the murders, authors and filmmakers have drawn considerable inspiration from the case: Gordon Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son provides insights into Sutcliffe’s social background, the Dewsbury-born author David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet blends the Ripper murders with fictional crimes, and Blake Morrison’s dialect poem The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper explores Sutcliffe’s hatred of women from the perspective of one of his drinking pals. In 2009 Peace’s novels were adapted into a film trilogy, Red Riding, which attracted considerable success.
One of the most compelling elements of the Sutcliffe case, and one which features prominently in art and literature about the murders, is the heavily criticised police investigation. West Yorkshire Police interviewed Sutcliffe nine times but were infamously led astray by a hoax tape sent by a prankster with a Sunderland accent – a critical error that left Sutcliffe free to kill several more women. Dismissive police attitudes towards women have also come under scrutiny. Liza Williams’s 2019 BBC documentary The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story interviewed Tracey Browne, a local woman who recalled how police dismissed her after she was attacked by Sutcliffe in Silsden, and questioned West Yorkshire’s decision to continue imposing fines on sex workers during the murders, creating a further financial incentive for women to work on the streets. Still today, some of those interviewed in the documentary are resistant to criticism. At Sutcliffe’s trial, prosecutor Michael Havers controversially claimed that ‘perhaps the saddest part’ of the case was that some of the victims were not prostitutes. Havers is defended from accusations of misogyny in Williams’s documentary by fellow prosecutor Harry Ognall; the term ‘misogynist’ can be debated, but Havers’s comments undoubtedly reveal a perception of sex workers as less worthy of sympathy. Ognall’s inability to understand why these comments might be controversial suggests that lessons remain to be learnt.
Criticism may have been hard to swallow, but the failings of the investigation could not go unanswered. In 1981 the Home Office ordered the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Lawrence Byford, to lead an official inquiry into the Ripper investigation. The report remains one of the most comprehensive analyses of the case, recommending practical changes to police methods – the standardisation of indexing procedures in police incident rooms, better communication between forces, and the computerisation of records. The Byford Report, however, was not the only analysis of the Ripper case to be published in the immediate aftermath. In Leeds Central Library, an unassuming typewritten document bound in red cardboard also sheds light on the case. The document is titled Report into the Investigation of the Series of Murders and Assaults on Women in the North of England between 1975 and 1980, and is a summary of a 1981 internal review of the investigation carried out by the Deputy Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Constabulary, Colin Sampson. The words ‘internal review’ raises an obvious question: as Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Lawrence Byford was responsible for investigating police failures across the UK and was ultimately answerable to UK Parliament. By contrast, we might wonder whether an internal report – even one conducted by the chief of another force – could be as impartial. How do the reports compare?
Even before reading the reports, the difference in the titles is striking. Byford’s report names the murderer explicitly – The Yorkshire Ripper Case: Review of the Police Investigation of the Case by Lawrence Byford. By contrast, the internal inquiry refers only to ‘Murders and Assaults on Women in the North of England’. At risk of reading too much into a title, the absence of Sutcliffe’s name suggests a degree of reluctance. This may not be far from the truth; Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, Ronald Gregory, originally declined to publish the report, citing concerns around prejudicing further enquiries. The report was published after Gregory sold his own memoirs to The Mail On Sunday, but the title seems designed to keep attention away from its contents. There is also a subtle distinction in the tone of the reports. Both acknowledge the immense pressure that West Yorkshire Police were under: however, Sampson states more explicitly that the aim of his report is not to determine individual culpability but to learn lessons for the future, whilst Byford’s report is somewhat less lenient: ‘where the police have been responsible for serious errors of judgement, negligence, or indifference of carelessness then this too has been highlighted […] Not surprisingly, the limitations in the police investigation take up a greater part of my report than do the lessons for the future’. The reports explicitly state their differing objectives and scopes: Byford was given privileged access to police materials, and his report was always intended to be a more comprehensive dissection of the investigation. By contrast, Sampson’s report was limited to the incident room and intended to provide West Yorkshire police with practical recommendations that could be implemented immediately.
Despite their varying remits, many of the issues raised by Byford are echoed in Sampson’s report; Byford maintains that ‘all of the eggs were in the same basket’ with respect to the hoax tape, while Sampson also concludes that ‘eliminating factors were totally reliant on the author of the tapes and letters being the killer. This was a mistake’. Byford argues that the pressure of long working hours led to a lack of morale among officers and a tendency not to probe suspects too deeply in interviews, whilst Sampson concurs that ‘everyone was under pressure […], but there seems to have been a lack of persistence and follow-up in respect of the interviews with Sutcliffe’. Both Sampson and Byford acknowledge that police made a crucial error in not viewing the photofits from surviving witnesses alongside each other: Byford writes that ‘had senior detectives of West Yorkshire assembled the photofit impressions […] they would have been left with the inescapable conclusion that the man involved was dark haired with a beard and moustache’, whilst Sampson concludes that ‘greater emphasis should have been given’ to descriptions of the attacker as a bearded man.
And yet, whilst Sampson highlights many of the same problems as Byford, his analysis of these issues is often less thorough than Byford’s. Both Byford and Sampson cite the £5 note investigation in their reports, during which police worked with local firms and banks to identify a note left at the scene of one of the murders. Sampson maintains that police faced considerable obstacles in tracing the note and were unfairly criticised by the press: ‘to be one of nearly 6,000 persons who could have received the £5 note is not the ‘miraculous escape’ as suggested by the media’. And yet Byford states that further enquiries narrowed down the list of individuals to ‘a readily manageable 241’ – a different impression to the one provided by Sampson’s summary. Both Sampson and Byford are critical of media reporting on the case, and suggest the use of press officers in future cases. Nonetheless, Byford argues that some aspects of media speculation were justified, a point which is not raised by Sampson. Jacqueline Hill was attacked by Sutcliffe at around 10pm; her blood-spattered handbag was found shortly afterwards and handed to police, who did a cursory search but failed to identify other possessions left at the scene. When Jacqueline’s body was found the following morning, media reports questioned whether she might have survived if police had searched more thoroughly – speculation that is described by Byford as ‘perfectly proper’.
In some cases, Byford raises issues that are mentioned by Sampson only in passing. Byford is critical of the police’s belief that Sutcliffe was a ‘prostitute killer’, noting that the murder of Jane MacDonald elicited a more sympathetic response from both the public and the press, and arguing that police should not have assumed that Sutcliffe ‘wrongly identified MacDonald as a prostitute’. As Byford notes, ‘The possibility that any unaccompanied woman was a potential Ripper victim was not considered at that time’. This point chimes with the claims made by Liza Williams’s 2019 documentary – that police did not listen to women who were attacked by Sutcliffe but who were not sex workers, leading them to wrongly presume that the Ripper was driven by a hatred of sex workers rather than generalised misogyny. Sampson’s report does note the police perception that Sutcliffe was a ‘prostitute killer’, but does not provide much by way of critique. Although Sampson’s report is limited to the incident room, police assumptions regarding Sutcliffe’s choice of victims would been relevant and it is hard to see why they were not highlighted more prominently by Sampson, even in a summary of the report.
None of which is to suggest that Sampson’s report is a whitewash. Byford and Sampson largely concur on the major flaws in the investigation, and it should be remembered that the document held in Leeds Central Library is only a summary (the full report has not been published, and would have to be requested from the Home Office under Freedom of Information laws) and Sampson was not provided with the same resources afforded to Byford. Nonetheless, there are points even in the summary of Sampson’s report where he does not probe as deeply as we might expect: Sampson writes, for example, that ‘despite extensive enquiries, the note was never specifically linked with Sutcliffe or his place of employment’. The question of whether it should have been, given Byford’s mention of a revised list including only 241 employees, is not asked. Similarly, he maintains that ‘the value of the Photofits, except the three from the survivors, was limited because it was never certain if the man was the one concerned or not’ – an explanation that seems somewhat too easy given his own statement elsewhere in the report that eyewitness accounts, whilst far from infallible, should have been given greater emphasis.
Although Sampson’s report did not seek to find individual blame there were bound to be consequences for senior officers. Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield fell ill with heart problems whilst working on the Ripper case, and was quietly transferred away from the CID to operational support. He died of a heart attack two years later. Detective Chief Superintendent Dick Holland, Oldfield’s right-hand man, was moved from CID to uniform. The case may have destroyed the health and careers of those most intimately involved in it, but it also generated some positive developments, at least on a national level. HOLMES (the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System) was a computerised database set up in response to the recommendations in Byford’s and Sampson’s reports, which acknowledged the huge challenges faced by detectives attempting to sift through 40 tons of paper and emphasised the desperate need for a computerised database. HOLMES is still in use today, and HOLMES 2 is currently under development.
Police reports may make for dry reading, but the events documented in Leeds Central Library shed light on a crime which still resonates deeply today. Questions of blame aside, the summary of Sampson’s report offers a fascinating dissection of one of the most notorious criminal investigations in West Yorkshire’s history. Read alongside Byford’s report, it demonstrates the legacy of the Sutcliffe case in driving changes to investigative methods, media management, and raising thorny questions around the treatment of vulnerable women by police.