My most impressive achievement as a young person was the Queen’s Guide Award. Not many girls managed this and fewer still from the neck of the woods that I was from: there was no precedent for it, and I gained it by sheer force of will and a ton of support from Guiders who came in all shapes and sizes, and who taught me a whole bundle of stuff about women and their power. There were police officers, nurses, high-powered educators, administrators in the NHS, probation officers – determined women who did not take the world lying down. I can remember their names: Audrey Lord, Carol Selwyn Jones, Kay Button, Bev Smith, Pat Sugden, Mrs Tansey and the Scout leader, Celia Worley. Those women, and others, taught me how to be myself. I would have been lost without them: working in a factory, or making ends meet between low-paid and unskilled jobs. This sounds like an exaggeration – it isn’t.
I sucked up the brilliance and madness of this world of women from 1975 to 1981 against the backdrop of a sinister force that gave an entirely different message – one that forced women off the streets, and that questioned our rights to take up space. One that made us all just a little bit more frightened.
The sequence of attacks began in 1969, but the first murder came in October 1975. I had just flown up to the Guides leaving the toadstool of the Brownies behind, and was battling my mother for a uniform (she was convinced I wouldn’t stick at it, and made me wear a blue shirt that was not the right colour and made me stand out like a sore thumb.)
Wilma McCann, a known prostitute, was stabbed in the neck, chest and abdomen multiple times and twice hit over the head with a hammer – her body was left in Chapletown, Leeds. It barely created a ripple in the news, and I was more concerned with the Christmas Carole concert and singing the descant (badly).
I was bored initially by Guide activities so me and my mate Dawn took it upon ourselves to write Swallow on all of our patrol’s equipment. Then, we’d try to. We’d try to swallow the pencil. We tried to swallow the notebook. We even tried to swallow the kit box which was bigger than both of us and weighed as much as a grown man. The Captain told us our antics were ridiculous. We protested: it clearly said swallow notebook, didn’t it? It clearly said swallow rubber? The Captain was not impressed… we laughed like drains!
Meanwhile, murder number two took place: Emily Jackson, 42. Struggling to make ends meet, she was eking out her slim income by turning tricks. She was also killed in Leeds.
“Something’s not right here,” my dad said, “Don’t you go wandering around at night, you two.”
“Don’t be soft,” my mam threw out, “You’ll frighten them.”
I looked at my sister who looked at me, and then we went to Tuesday club. We liked it at Coltman Street mission where the Tuesday Club took place because they had a better class of biscuit than the Church of our Guide Company. It was January, perishing cold. A woman would need to be desperate to go out on a night like this to be paid for sexual favours. “Don’t go down the tenfoot*,” our mother yelled after us. I didn’t like going through there in the daytime and never would. One of the Mainprizes once chased me with a Rubber Johnny** on a stick making me divert down the tenfoot, which practically scarred me for life.
In 1977, four more women were killed: Irene Richardson, Tina Atkinson, Jane McDonald (who was just 16 and not a prostitute) and Jean Jordan. Each of the women were hideously mutilated, and getting careless, the killer had left a boot mark on one woman’s sheets and a crisp new fiver for her services on another, that could only have been in 8000 people’s wage packets: the police interviewed 5000 men in relation to this including the killer. Still the police could not find The Yorkshire Ripper (as he was now dubbed in the press even though Jean Jordan was killed at Hough End, Manchester, where years later, I often walked my dog.)
1977 also happened to be the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. There was much talk, as I recall, about the killing of Jane McDonald who was just a few years older than all of us, and like us: just walking home from a night out. She could have been us. We had to travel in twos: not wander off on our own. I raced my sister home after Guides to watch Cagney and Lacey, which by a country mile, was the best thing on TV. A street away, women were keeping the wolf from the door by prostituting themselves. I worried for them.
At Guide Camp, that year, the fancy dress theme was ‘I’m backing Briton’. I can’t remember what my sister did, although it was something to do with arguing about ‘back in’ and ‘backing’ when she proposed to wear her clothes on the wrong way and that would definitely win a prize, but she made me cry. Our Captain, who was the Quarter Master at the camp, noted this – I saw her watch the scene play out, and a steely determination took hold of her. Later, she said to me, “I was the younger sister, too.”
As 1977 folded into 1978 and bored out of our tiny brainboxes my sister, me and our friends Alison and Dawn wrote “This is crap” and “Wash me!” all over the Captain’s old estate car. For good measure, Dawn and I also shoved an old exhaust we’d found up the back of the vehicle to give the Captain a bit jolt when she saw it. This was just high-spirits but a few days later when Audrey, the Captain, was driving up to Scotland, her actual exhaust fell off. Of course, this could have been a coincidence but she was a practical woman who would not believe it.
She rang up our mother who listened patiently to a list of complaints. Hanging our heads in shame, that Friday we walked up to the Church Hall. We began the evening in a circle, and the Captain called us to attention. She spoke quietly saying that my sister and Alison would be banned for life for their antics, without any hope of return, and Dawn – who she’d never liked – would be suspended for three weeks. “You,” she said, “Will have your stripes removed.”
I tried to open my mouth to explain that it was me that had actually put the exhaust up the back of the car, along with Dawn, but she would not hear of it. In a moment of great pomposity she said, “The older ones should take responsibility. They should know better!” I knew this wasn’t fair, but I just stood and looked on sadly as my three co-conspirators left the hall. “I’m sweeping clean with a new broom,” Audrey said, “I’m making room.”
Meanwhile, two further killings had happened: Yvonne Pearson and Helen Rytka, both young girls, both street workers. Helen was only 18 years old. As I read the circumstances around her death in the Daily Mail on my paper round, I wondered how a girl barely out of school had found this was the only thing she could do to survive. I knew nothing of the world of drugs and although we were as poor as church mice (I knew this because of what we didn’t have compared to my peers, and compared to the girls from the better off Companies who enjoyed activities I had never heard of: wind-surfing and rock-climbing and sailing), it was not the grinding poverty of those who have no options at all.
Within weeks, the Captain had restored my stripes and began subtly, introducing me to the steps I’d need to take to reach greatness. I should volunteer at a Garden Party she’d suggested. So I did. I sold raffle tickets. And I also bought some too. And won the main prize, much to my acute embarrassment.
It was more than a year before the Ripper killed again. By this time, he was killing any woman who dared to venture into the night. His 10th killing was a young woman called Joanne Whittaker who was only 19 and worked in a building society. His 11th was a student – Barbara Leach. She was just 20.
By now, everyone was talking about the Ripper – about how he didn’t care who or what you were, that he would kill you if you stayed out late: we were worried, but not in a coherent way. We learned this lesson well – women needed to watch out. There was a pervasive message right there: girls should not be out at night.
There was extensive coverage of a tape, sent by a bloke with a Wearside accent, that tormented the detective in charge of the case and his inability to catch him. This man – who sent the investigation in the wrong direction – was never caught.
I was coming on in leaps and bounds – something about the responsibility I’d been given suited me. One Sunday every month, I was responsible for church parade and often carried the colours or the union flag. I enjoyed this. And the badges kept on coming: I had an armful. The Captain said, “We’ll get you that Queen’s Guide Award.” I undertook long-term volunteering. I cleaned the church brasses. I wrote, I swam, I cooked, I knitted, I collected, I looked after children, I orienteered, I saved lives, I prevented accidents, I was a backwoodsman, I knew all about the commonwealth. I ticked each badge off in turn.
Two days before my 15th birthday, Marguerite Walls, a 47 year old was killed and three months later the Ripper committed his final murder, that of Jacqueline Hill, 20: another student, this time of Leeds University, on 17th November, 1980. I vividly remember her mother: the anguish, the anger, how articulate she was in her grief. (Years later the poet Rosie Garland, who I was briefly in a theatre company with, read a poem about Jacqueline Hill, a girl she shared a regular tutorial with. Rosie – who is now a novelist and long time member of the band The March Violets, could have been that 13th woman whose life was snuffed out but she hadn’t attended that night. It could have been her. Easily. On such a small axis of chance do we survive, sometimes. All that potential and promise, all those lives gone and still others who he attacked but who did not die, whose lives where nonetheless destroyed. All those who lived a half life because of what he did: the victims’ mothers and fathers, their children. Sisters. Brothers. Cousins. Friends: the pain rolling out in circles, crashing over whole neighbourhoods.)
By May 1981, I had completed the collection of all the badges I needed to be awarded the Queen’s Guide. I received a certificate from the Queen. I was chuffed as mint balls. This was a big enough deal to warrant my picture being taken by the local paper. It was very exciting for me and my family. The photographer came to the church and he stood me underneath a tree. I beamed. I would appear the week later. I looked forward to everyone seeing me.
Peter Sutcliffe’s trial began on the 5th May 1981 and lasted two weeks. He was found guilty of 13 murders and 7 attempted murders and was sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences. This verdict set newspapers into a frenzy: he had tried to say he’d heard the voice of God and this had compelled him to act. Page after page of coverage of this man and what he’d done, then, at the very right-hand edge on page 5 me, a sliver of space, smiling with my certificate on show. And beside my beaming face, the headline in bold, filling the rest of the page from left to right but for my small triumph, ‘Ripper Victim talks…’ And that was when I really thought: it could have been me.
It could have been any of us.
*tenfoot = an alley, ten foot wide
**Rubber Johnny = a condom
I used facts about the Ripper’s Victims from the Wikipedia entry for Peter Sutcliffe. You can read the whole thing here
I have written about Audrey before here