The Yorkshire Ripper Files: Why Chapeltown in Leeds was the ‘hunting ground’ of Peter Sutcliffe

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Although Peter Sutcliffe’s 13 murders spanned the whole of Yorkshire, Leeds - and in particular the inner suburb of Chapeltown - became a notorious ‘hunting ground’ for the killer.

Many of his attacks came after he had cruised the streets looking for victims, and the area’s reputation as a red light district meant that it was easier for him to persuade women to get into his car while soliciting.

The Gaiety on Roundhay Road has now been demolished

The Gaiety on Roundhay Road has now been demolished

Chapeltown - what the area was like in the 1970s

Chapeltown, which lies to the north-east of the city centre, was once an affluent district of Leeds, developed in the 19th century for the city’s emerging merchant classes. Many architecturally significant villas and mansions were built in the area and several of Leeds’ mill owners had large residences in Chapeltown. It became a hub for the Jewish community following their migration from Europe. Cheaper terraced housing was later built on the remaining land between the substantial properties and the city centre.

By the 1970s, when the Ripper’s killing spree took hold, the area was in decline. Wealthy residents, including the prosperous Jewish families, had moved further north to areas such as Moortown and Alwoodley. Many of the old mansions had been divided up into low-rent bedsits and flats, and the population was transient. Chapeltown became Leeds’ main red light district, with the sex trade centred around Spencer Place, the thoroughfare which divides Chapeltown and Harehills. Close enough to the city centre to attract custom but with quieter streets and cheap accommodation readily available, it was a notorious neighbourhood for vice.

The first murder

Although Sutcliffe had already attacked several women who survived their ordeals, his first murder took place in Chapeltown in 1975. His victim, Wilma McCann, lived on Scott Hall Avenue and had been drinking in local pubs when Sutcliffe picked her up when she was thumbing drivers for a lift home. They agreed a price for sex and parked up next to the Prince Philip playing fields, off Scott Hall Road. Sutcliffe hit the mother of four, who was 28, with a hammer and left her body to be found by a milkman the next day.

Chapeltown becomes the focal point of the investigation

In 1976, he stabbed Emily Jackson, 42, over 50 times after picking her up while she was soliciting outside the Gaiety pub on Roundhay Road. He drove her to some derelict buildings on Enfield Terrace on the Manor industrial estate.

Another Leeds attack took place just months later, when Marcella Claxton, 20, was attacked in Roundhay Park with a hammer after she had accepted a lift from Sutcliffe while walking home from a party. She survived.

In 1977, a prostitute from Chapeltown, Irene Richardson, was murdered in Roundhay Park. The 28-year-old lived in a boarding house on Cowper Street, and was also picked up outside the Gaiety. She was hit with a hammer on Soldiers Field and her body was left behind the sports pavilion, where it was found by a jogger.

At this point, police believed they were hunting for a 'prostitute killer', and their activities focused on Chapeltown. Attacks on women not involved in sex work were even dismissed because they didn't fit this theory.

Shortly afterwards he committed the murder that most horrified the public - the killing of 16-year-old Jayne Macdonald, who was both his youngest victim and the first not to be involved in sex work. Jayne, who lived on Scott Hall Avenue, close to first victim Wilma McCann, had been on a night out in the city centre and was walking home up Chapeltown Road when Sutcliffe spotted her and followed her. He later said he believed she was a prostitute. He attacked her with a hammer and knife in a children’s playground off Reginald Street. Sutcliffe had deliberately driven to his ‘hunting ground’ after leaving a family party in Bradford.

Towards the end of the year, he targeted another Chapeltown prostitute, Marilyn Moore. She was soliciting on Spencer Place when Sutcliffe picked her up and he drove her to some waste ground behind a mill on Buslingthorpe Lane. He hit her with a hammer but she survived, despite suffering a serious brain injury.

Sutcliffe begins to prey on women in Headingley

In 1980, he was on his way to Chapeltown from Bradford to look for victims when he opportunistically killed Marguerite Walls, 47, a civil servant, in Farsley. She was walking home from work at the time but Sutcliffe believed she was a prostitute and strangled her.

He then began to switch his Leeds attacks to the areas near the university, including Headingley. Sutcliffe was eating a KFC outside the Arndale Centre when he saw student Jacqueline Hill, 20, walking home up Alma Road and dragged her off the street. She was stabbed to death behind the shopping centre. Another woman, Dr Upadhya Bandara, a doctor visiting from Singapore to attend a course, was attacked in the same area of Headingley weeks earlier. She had seen Sutcliffe inside KFC staring at her and he then followed her into an alleyway and attempted to strangle her before he was disturbed and fled.

Sutcliffe is caught

Sutcliffe was finally arrested in January 1981 in Sheffield, where he was seen with a prostitute in a car with false number plates. He confessed to his crimes after two days of questioning in Dewsbury.

Chapeltown moves on

Chapeltown's dark days didn't end with the Ripper's capture. It had already been the scene of rioting in 1975, and there were further incidents of social unrest and community tensions during the 1980s. Relations with the police were poor and the area had a reputation for violent crime. Spencer Place continued to be the centre of the sex trade in Leeds. By the mid-2000s, however, the city's main 'vice district' had moved to Holbeck, where a managed zone currently operates with the support of police and other agencies. Chapeltown began to regenerate as the area became more welcoming to families and significant investment was ploughed into local amenities and community projects. The area is now best known for its annual West Indian Carnival - a celebration that has become a major event in the Leeds calendar.