It was November 15th, 1912 and Amy Collinson (Nicholson) aged 10 and her cousin Frances Nicholson aged 7 had spent the evening rehearsing for the Christmas Nativity presentation at the Chapel in Kimberworth, Rotherham. As the rehearsal drew to a close, Amy and Frances prepared for a substantial walk home in the dark. Accompanied by several of their friends who lived along the route, they set off after 8pm in the dark. Their number shrunk until the last friend, Doris Stainrod, bade them goodbye in the vicinity of the Sir Colin Campbell Public House, now called simply ‘The Colin’.
The two girls were now on their own for the next leg of the journey which took them down the road to the rear of the pub (now Farm View Road) to its meeting with what is now Grange View Road, at the junction of Upper Wortley Road. From there they would cross onto the footpath behind what is now Hungerhill Road, where it cuts through Barker’s Park to Kimberworth Park Road in the Redscope School Area. Kimberworth Park Farm, locally known as Abdy Farm after a previous 19thC tenant, William Abdy, was part of Kimberworth Park belonging to the Wentworth Estate of the Earls Fitzwilliam and was let to Amy’s Foster father. It stood on the site of what is now Redscope School, and its land covered Barker’s Park from as far as Oaks Lane, up to where the Domino Public House stood until recently.
Amy Nicholson was being raised by her Aunt and Uncle, the Collinsons, whom she called Mother and Father. Her real mother was the unmarried sister of both her foster mother and Frances’ father, Isaac Nicholson. Frances, her cousin, lived further on towards Scholes village in the end cottage of a row at the side of local landmark, Keppel’s column, a folly built on the Wentworth Estate, in a previously wooded area known as Scholes Wood or Scholes Coppice.
The plan was that the girls would make their way to the farm, where Frances’ brothers would be waiting to take their sister on the final leg of the journey to Scholes. But they didn’t arrive as expected. The distance they were to cover was around a mile or so, which should have taken them roughly 30 mins or so, allowing for dawdling, and gossiping with their friends. They were certainly expected by 9pm. At 10pm the boys went to look for Amy and Frances, and walked the route they had expected to follow, coming back by an alternative that ran nearby. Mr Collinson walked down in the other direction to see if the girls had diverted along the route near the Grange Manor. When no sighting of the girls was made, it was proposed that the girls had stayed over at a friend’s house instead, which wasn’t unheard of, and arrangements were made to recommence the search early the next morning. The boys returned home to Scholes to appraise their parents.
Early the next morning as the family gathered with a few local neighbours to resume the search, Mrs Collinson went out onto the land, and at the rear boundary at its junction with the footpath, found the two girls dead under a hedge. Both had had their throats slashed. Her hysterical screams brought the family running, and the police were summoned immediately. An imprint of what was felt to be corduroy material was found in the mud nearby as though somebody had knelt down in a pair of rough trousers; a cast was made. A partial print of a boot obviously covered with a boot protector was also found and cast, although the tread was indistinguishable. A woollen glove was also recovered.
The girls’ friends who attended the Chapel rehearsal were interviewed and one mentioned seeing Amy talking to a strange gentleman a few days before, whilst she sat on the boundary gate. A subsequent medical examination of the bodies showed Amy appeared to have been raped recently. Frances’ brother and both fathers were questioned at length but released without charge, as no evidence could be found linking them to the crime. Without further leads, the trail went cold. Both girls were released for
burial several days later and were interred in a grave together at nearby St Thomas, Kimberworth. There was a huge turnout of local residents for the funeral, all horrified at the gruesome murder of two small girls from the close-knit community; they lined the route of the cortege, many flower arrangements were given and a substantial sum of money raised by donations which were given over to purchase a lavish gravestone for the two children.
Christmas came and went. Just as it seemed that the crime would go unsolved, as the New Year approached, in the afternoon of Sunday, December 29th 1912, a local teenager named Vesey Haigh, from Kilnhurst a few miles away and worked on the trams that ran through Kimberworth, happened to be chatting to an itinerate fairground labourer, Walter Sykes; Sykes was known to be a little on the slow side intellectually and somewhat vagrant by nature, often relying on the charity of others.
Haigh was surprised when Sykes suddenly and without prompting stated,
“Your bobby (policemen) is watching me for that Kimberworth (Rotherham) murder, and if he’s watching me he is watching the right one, but he cannot catch me as he’s watching a man who’s a sight sharper than himself.”
Sykes then prepared and made his way to Mexborough some miles aw
ay, followed by Haigh who made a report to the police there. Sykes was arrested and confessed his role in the crime. His statement to the Inspector claimed,
“I may as well tell you the truth. It is the first time I have mentioned it to anybody.”
Asked what he meant, he replied,
“That murder at Rotherham. I did it with a pocket-knife. I was the worse for drink at the time. I sold the knife. I am wearing the same clothing now, except the trousers, which were worn out. I slept out that night.”
There were no traces of blood found on Sykes’ clothing.
Dr Dean, Professor of Microbiology at Sheffield University confirmed that the pen-knife which Sykes claimed he had used to cut the girls’ throats and then sold and later recovered, was found clean of blood traces using the most delicate tests. His trousers which had been much repaired, a detail confirmed by Sykes’ employer’s wife Mrs William Gedney who had recently given him an old pair of similar ones to use for patching and repairs, were also recovered after Sykes stated he had thrown them away when he received a new pair from the Workhouse where he spent Christmas day. Again they showed no traces of blood. He later changed his story, indicating that he had disposed of the trousers the next day in return for new ones.
The boots and their boot protectors also given by the Gedneys were also thrown away but never recovered. Sykes landlady, Mrs Copeland, claimed that he did not return to his lodgings on the night of the murders, but when appearing the next morning at between 10 and 11 am, had claimed to have slept in the open. She gave him a pair of clogs to wear that she had previously offered him, which he had initially turned down because of the noise they made and threw away his boots. Mrs Copeland confirmed the accused was absent on the night of the murder; Sykes later claimed he was in his room that night, despite having previously sworn he slept in his van.
His employer was unable to account for Sykes’ attendance at work in the days leading up to the murder, however did confirm that the day following, the 16th November, Sykes did turn in but extremely late. Further questioning of witnesses who came forward following his arrest for identification purposes, swore that Sykes had been seen in the Kimberworth district on the day of the murders, and the following day as the bodies of the girls were recovered from the scene. Further witness statement from one of Amy’s friends swore that Sykes had been seen talking to Amy on three days of the week prior to her murder.
Despite attempts to retract his confession, Sykes was remanded for trial at Leeds Assizes where he was subsequently found guilty of the rape of Amy Nicholson and the murders of both Amy and Frances. On 23rd April, 1913 Sykes was hung by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Albert Lumb (Lamb) at Wakefield. The prisoner showed no signs of distress prior to his execution, and his last words were “I’m Sorry”.
Despite several witness statements, which appear to corroborate Sykes’ own confession, which he later tried to recant claiming it was all untrue, there was no physical evidence – specifically blood spatter -linking Sykes to the crime. The rape of Amy Nicholson, although forming part of the proceedings, as evidence of motive, was never explored further, nor mentioned by the defendant.
As an interesting side-note, it is claimed by several local residents that they have been confronted by the ghost of Amy Nicholson on that lonely footpath, now used as a short cut from the local pubs in Kimberworth to the housing estate that stands on the former Kimberworth Park, from which it takes its name. I never saw her though.