Outrageous killings in the history of Wharfedale

Ilkley Gazette: The Hopper Inn at Fewston The Hopper Inn at Fewston

THE grim and grisly past of Wharfedale has come under the spotlight in two new books documenting the history of murders in Yorkshire.

The 'ultimate crime' always proves a fascinating if prurient subject ensuring there is always a welcoming audience for such literature.

The books by Stephen Wade explore some of the most outrageous killings in the history of Wharfedale and the rest of the county between the mid-eighteenth century, when Dick Turpin was sent to York Gallows, through to the abolition of hanging in 1964.

The Wharncliffe A-Z of Yorkshire Murder includes details of murders in Wharfedale, including Margaret Peel of Fewston, in the Washburn Valley, the sex murder of Mary Learoyd in Ilkley in 1929, and the killing of Otley farmer Joseph Swaine at Skipton auction mart in the early 1930s.

As well as the crimes themselves, the book also includes articles of historical background, covering such subjects as the state of prisons, transportation and the Yorkshire Luddites.

As well as attacking mills to break the hated machines like the unsuccessful assault on Addingham's Low Mill in 1826, these rioters were also responsible for murder. The wealthy Huddersfield mill owner William Horsfall, was ambushed by three Luddites while riding home from Warren House pub in Honley in January 1813. He was hit with seven musket balls and it took two days for him to bleed to death. His killers were later hanged.

Seemingly more mad than bad, Otley poacher William Taylor shot his own child dead in November 1887. When police officers came to arrest him, he shot superintendent Thomas Birkhill at point blank range.

The book features several innocent women murdered by those they loved, including Martha Smith who was found in a pool of blood in her employer's kitchen on Riddings Road, Ilkley in 1905. She had recently run away from her violent husband after her old employer had reprimanded him for his abusive behaviour. He had followed her to her new workplace and stabbed her 40 times.

Spinster Mary Learoyd was murdered in Sedbergh Park, off Cowpasture Road, Ilkley, in August 1929. Witnesses reported seeing a courting couple, and a servant heard a woman scream and say wait a minute and I'll kiss you'.

There was a moral furore in the town, as Mary had many male acquaintances who became suspects, but the murder was never solved. Someone even pointed an accusing finger at her brother but he had nothing to do with his sister's violent end.

The crime caused such a sensation in the relatively peaceful local area that for years afterwards it was simply known as 'The Ilkley Murder' by everyone who mentioned it.

Also controversial yet much more low profile was the murder of Joseph Swaine, a farmer in his forties engaged to a 27-year-old Otley woman. He was battered to death in a public toilet on March 23 1932.

Mr Swain's false teeth were found on the floor as he lay dying just feet away behind a closed toilet door. Some well meaning person put them up on a shelf out of the animal muck, but Swaine never had need of them again.

Robbery was thought to be behind the attack but, despite a confession from a man who turned out to be mentally deranged, the crime was never solved. A criminal gang of pickpockets and robbers touring auctions around the country was felt to be responsible but the trail soon went cold.

The most recent Wharfedale murder in the book is that of mother-of-one Margaret Peel, who was beaten to death in her Fewston shop in 1938. She had been hit around the head 11 times with a weapon such as a tyre lever, with such force that her skull had cracked open. A tyre lever, thought to be the murder weapon was recovered from the nearby Fewston Reservoir, where her husband had been at work that morning.

Police figured that he had had time to sneak back to his home, kill his wife and make his way back to work without being seen.

Although the couple's marriage was described as happy, Peel remained the prime suspect. His behaviour seemed odd - when he first saw his wife's body he stepped over her to retrieve something and never touched her, instead checking the house and finding £12 missing.

After a sensational trial, Jesse Peel was acquitted of the murder of his wife, but was himself killed soon after when he was knocked down by a car, cycling only yards from his former home in the wartime blackout.

At the time it was said that the only suspects for the crime were the three Ps: Peel, the Parson and the village Policeman, but nobody seriously thought the other two had done it. The murder investigation was set up with its headquarters at the nearby Hopper Lane Hotel on the A65 and a large-scale manhunt was initiated to look for strangers who had been in the area but none was discovered.

The Peel's rented Water Board shop and house was forever after associated with the sinister event and proved so hard to re-let that it was decided to knock it down. The stone was used to build an extension to the village post office which is still discernable today.

Mr Wade's second book, Yorkshire's Murderous Women concentrates on lesser-known female murderers from the county including Leeds serial killer Louie Calvert, famous for removing her victims' boots after murdering them.

Although there appear to have been no famous Wharfedale lady killers included, the pickled tongue of poisoner Mary Bateman, known as Leeds's last witch, was in the possession of an Ilkley man nearly a century after her hanging in 1809.

The book has a broad scope and begins with early tales of witchcraft in the 16th century to modern crimes of murder committed by women. It also includes interesting sections on crime, punishment, legislation and the social history of the workhouse.

Both books are well illustrated with photographs and line drawings, although the photograph in Ilkley identified as close to Sedbergh Park, is quite a way off.

Author Stephen Wade is a freelance writer and social historian with a special interest in law and order in the north.

  • The Wharncliffe A-Z of Yorkshire Murder (£10.99) and Yorkshire's Murderous Women (£10.99) are both published by Pen and Sword Books Limited, of Barnsley.

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