Leeds alumni reveal what it was like studying when the Yorkshire Ripper was active

‘It got so bad that you just didn’t know where he was going to strike next’

Infamous serial killer Peter Sutcliffe passed away in the early hours of this morning after contracting coronavirus while in prison. Also known as The Yorkshire Ripper, Sutcliffe was responsible for at least 13 murders in Yorkshire and the North West between 1975-80.

Sutcliffe began by murdering prostitutes before targeting other members of the community, including his last victim, University of Leeds student, Jacqueline Hill.

Ann Hall, who was a student at The University of Leeds between 1977-80, describes how in the early days, although students were aware of the Ripper, they were told he only preyed on women working in the red-light district.

“It was suggested that any other women killed or harmed by him were ‘mistakes’ according to both the police and the media. Really distasteful when I think back. We were uneasy and very upset to hear about the victims,” Ann told The Leeds Tab.

It soon became clear to Ann and others, like former Architecture student David Hughes, that Sutcliffe hated the entire female population and was not just targeting one specific group.

Leeds Uni student David Hughes at his graduation

‘Women stopped going out completely’

For David, the murders really began to hit home when students started falling prey to the Yorkshire Ripper. David said: “In 1980/81, you went in any pub in Leeds and there was just no women students. It was just blokes. Women stopped going out completely.

“It got so bad that you just didn’t know where he was going to strike next.”

David described how a body was found shortly after he moved into the Harehills area of Leeds. Everyone within a radius was interviewed about where they were on the night of the murder, including David and his house of seven.

Pippi, a former research assistant working at the University of Leeds at the time of the murders also recalled how men were under constant suspicion if they were walking near women who were on their own. Pippi described how her greatest fear was walking home in the dark, an activity which she couldn’t avoid doing. Pippi said: “I felt that the murderer must be very close to me.”

Even now, years after the murders took place, Pippi speaks of having “a lifelong anxiety about walking alone with a man walking behind [her].” Ann Hall shared Pippi’s anxieties about being alone while the killer was on the loose.

‘It terrified me when my flatmates would leave our door on the latch’

At the time, Ann was living with her new-born child in married quarters at Springfield Mount. Ann told The Leeds Tab: “The thing that terrified me at the time was that I had to leave my flat at night to use the shared bathroom and someone always seemed to leave the outside door on the latch.

“To be honest the thing to worried me most was the idea that he could kill me and my leave my daughter alone in my flat. It was a really scary time.”

Jacqueline Hill was murdered very close to areas where Ann would shop or go and visit friends.  Ann said: “It did shake me when this happened. I was lucky – so many others weren’t and the effects on their families will always be there.”

‘There was a massive party when he was caught’

When Sutcliffe was finally caught in 1981, David was in his final year, living in Armley, just outside the centre of Leeds.

“The buses were heaving. Everybody was standing, because everybody wanted to go into Leeds to party. It was just an amazing night in Leeds that night when he was caught.”

David Hughes up the lamppost having a cracking time

Although that initial celebration took place, the lasting impacts of Sutcliffe’s murders would be felt for many years to come.

Greta Schifano studied at the University of Leeds between 1984-89. She told The Leeds Tab: “The main thing as a female Leeds student at that time was that you would never, ever walk anywhere by yourself after dark. And you wouldn’t let anyone else do that either.

“There was a real sense of solidarity and looking out for each other.”

‘Even after he was gone no one felt safe enough to walk alone’

The Students’ Union organised a free minibus service for women to use so they didn’t put themselves at any unnecessary risk. This was funded by student events and collections. Gretta said: “I worked in the Union bar, and used to get the minibus home after shifts.

“We had to stay late to clear up so there weren’t as many people around when we finished.

“I was scared, but also not as the women’s mini bus was great and I had lots of friends so was never on my own.”

Gretta Schifano (right) with her daughter Izzy (left)

Gretta also described how students would avoid walking across Hyde Park unless there was daylight and you were accompanied by at least one other person.

Gretta told The Leeds Tab: “I could see [the park] from my halls (Henry Price). It was like the deep, dark woods – a no-go area. But halls felt very safe.”

It’s clear the murders of the Ripper have not only had a huge effect his victims and their families, but also on all members of the Yorkshire community past and present.

When interviewing Ann, she described how Reclaim the Night protests took place during the time when Sutcliffe was active, with women speaking out against the violence taking place.

It’s shocking therefore that still now, in October of this year, nearly 40 years after the Ripper was reprimanded, a similar “Reclaim Headingley Stadium Alleyway” event had to take place following a spate of sexual assaults.

Related Stories recommended by this writer:

• There have been 4,622 violence and sexual offences in Leeds student areas since October 2019

• Netflix is making a true crime documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper

• My last bit of in person teaching was cancelled and now I’ve had enough