For more than thirty years I have been fascinated by one of South Yorkshire’s most horrific murders. A killing that drew UK wide headlines, pulled in Scotland Yard’s supposed best and had a less than satisfactory outcome. Leastways one that most people back then, and maybe a few today, thought was unjust. A double child murder, not in an industrial landscape but on its fringe. The murders of Amy Collinson and Frances Nicholson. Cousins, Amy was ten and Frances seven and both died together in a field some 100 yards or so from the safety of Amy’s family home, Abdy Farm.
Abdy farm house, now long gone, sat some three hundred yards away from its neighbour, known locally as Binders farm. The two fronted land that formed a part of the Earl Fitzwilliam estate and both were owned, or managed, by Henry Binder. Side by side on the only stretch of road at the time in this wide open farming landscape, Kimberworth Park Road. Today that road is still there, the open, rural outlook the farms once shared is not. That was lost when the land was sold in the 1950’s in order that Rotherham’s town council could build one of its largest council estates.
What is still there is the murder site itself. Known locally as Barkers Park, it is, as it has always been, an open field. Today used for recreation, at the time of the murders probably for grazing horses or general livestock. The two farms were replaced at some time around 1955 by a school and a pub ( the pub is also now gone).
On 15 November 1912, 7 year-old Frances Nicholson, arrived at Abdy farm straight from school with cousin Amy. The two were fed and set out together at around 5.30pm to attend their school Christmas carol rehearsal. An annual event held at the Old Chapel Hall, Kimberworth. A village approximately 1.5 miles away. The night was cold, dark, misty and there was a little intermittent drizzle. They arrived there at around 6pm and sang until 7.30pm.
After leaving the hall the two girls crossed the road along with others to play outside Norton’s shop. A sort of general grocery that the girls often used on route to and from school. From there, in company with three other girls, they walked off toward the Colin Campbell pub, which lay on Old Wortley Road and was their only way back to Abdy Farm. Once reached the girls played a while longer outside a small terrace of stone cottages that backed on to the pub. At around 8.20pm, with the weather growing ever more inclement, one of the small group, Emily Stainrod, whose family occupied one of the cottages was told by her mother to bring them indoors. There the girls were given tea and bread and butter before being sent out again to complete the journey home. The time was around 8.40pm.
From that point on the story of what happened that night becomes somewhat confused. According to police files they believed the two girls walked away from that cottage alone. In fact Emily Stainrod would later give evidence to that effect. But it was not true. When the girls set out they were a group of four. Amy and Frances on route to Abdy Farm and Ivy Broomhead and Doris Wood who lived at a place called Dropping Well.
Old Wortley Road, the road they were following, took then to the only other house on their route, Toll Bar House. Built years earlier to extract tolls it straddled the junction of Old Wortley Road and Upper Wortley road and was where the party of four split up. Ivy and Doris to head west, Amy and Frances to cross to the five bar gate that was the entrance to a narrow lane that would take them the rest of the way to Abdy farm.
Now whilst they were making this walk Frances’s two brothers had been sent over to Abdy from her home at Scholes Coppice; a tiny hamlet that sat beneath the towering Keppel’s column. A folly built in honour of Admiral Keppel and his place in a sea battle back in the Napoleonic wars. The boys instructions had been to accompany Frances back home safely. Scholes being upwards of a mile away. What happen next has always been a mystery.
What is known is these two boys were sent out from the farm by Amy’s mother to go find the girls at around 8.30pm. Their instructions were to walk along the front of both Abdy and Binders farm then take the the narrow lane that ran beside Henry Binders Farm yard. That lane ran in a straight line bordering the field behind the farms ( where the girls bodies were later found) for about half a mile. On route the boys had to clamber over about several wooden stiles before it emerged at that five bar gate opposite the Toll Bar House. At 9pm they returned empty handed and were sent out a second time and told to go past the Toll house and walk to Dropping well to check the girls had not gone there.
At 10pm they arrived at Frances’s home in Scholes, still empty handed, which prompted her father to put on his boots and make the walk back to Abdy farm and organise a search. It went on until after two in the morning. At around 8 am the bodies of both girls were discovered in the field close to the back of Abdy farm. Both had been savagely attacked, their throats cut, and their bodies pushed into a shallow ditch beneath a partial hedgerow.
The post mortem that followed confirmed death by a single cut to the throat and added that Amy had been raped. But, according to the examining pathologist, not on the night of the murder but several days earlier. He also added that blood had been found on her underwear. Now that alone is significant, more so back then than it would be today. It was the custom, adhered to by almost all households at the time, that washing was done on a Monday, no other day of the week. Changing underwear therefore was generally done on the same day. So, Amy put on fresh underclothes before she went to school that Monday, which meant the bloodstaining had to have been that day or a day or so following. Someone had sex with the girl on either Monday, Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday.
Suspicion fell on her father, Arthur. Then came the revelation she had been seen with a man outside the school gates on those same days and that man had definitely not been her father. For police it was confirmation that this man was the killer. Rape, outrage as it was termed in 1912, or the discovery of such, was deemed sufficient motivation to commit murder. After a fruitless six day search and the use of bloodhounds around the murder site, Rotherham’s Chief Constable, Edwin Weatherhogg, called in Scotland Yard. They proved more than useless and by Christmas that year the case was going cold.
It stayed that way until 29 December that same year when a man named Walter Sykes confessed to the murders. Poorly educated, uncommunicative, unskilled and generally unemployed, Sykes took work where he could find it and had a habit of sleeping rough. Why he confessed has never been understood. But his confession was treated seriously. By this stage of the investigation police had failed to find any suspects and were in desperate need of a breakthrough. Suspicion, remember, had initially fallen on Amy Collinson’s father. An obvious suspect probably because for many accusations of rape generally involved family and for Collinson it was life changing. But according to police files they never believed he had any involvement in his daughter’s death. So, Sykes deciding to step forward was an unexpected bonus. But did he actually do it?
Certainly the courts believed so, even though he eventually recanted. The trial in March 1913 had no problems announcing a guilty verdict and despite objections on a local level, and various psychological assessments, he was executed in Wakefield prison on 23 April 1913.
So, that’s the story. Today, 110 years later, for many that verdict was flawed. Modern day arguments are along the lines of Sykes being unfit to stand trial, a man who lived a simple, innocent life, a man incapable of murdering two little girls or simply a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Certainly there was never any supporting evidence brought out at the trial. Everything against him was circumstantial. Problem for Sykes, apart from the confession, was his inability to provide himself with an alibi. Despite numerous attempts by various interested parties to overturn the verdict that failure alone condemned him.
So, did he do it? Most people looking at this case today still end up pointing a finger in the direction of Amy’s father, Arthur. He they believe had motive if he had raped her, knew where she would be that night and probably had opportunity. But then so did Walter Sykes if he had been the man meeting her outside school. The man she had been raped by, and the man who knew exactly where she lived.
My point of view over the years has always been that she was murdered by someone in her family and Arthur Collinson did fit the bill. But after reading the trial and the various letters and documents associated with the case it has become clear to me that Sykes was the more likely killer. a key witness did ID him as being the man at the school gates. The evidence produced at his trial by a man named Gedney, who had employed him on an ad hoc basis during the week of the murder, created a sort of time line for his movements. Witness evidence also showed he had met Amy Collinson in the summer of 1912 despite his denials, and knew where Abdy farm was located in the landscape he was familiar with.
There has to be an understandable argument that if Amy’s underclothes were unchanged during that week, as alluded to earlier, and were due to have been changed on the Sunday night prior to washing on the Monday (Monday long established back then as a washing day). Then the blood found by the pathologist would have been found by her mother, that would have led to awkward questions. In turn that would no doubt have revealed his identity. Sykes would have needed her silenced before that could happen. Friday (the day of the murders) was the last chance to do that. If he had been meeting Amy at the school he would have known about the carol concert rehearsal. He would also have known that if he wanted to see her that night the only place to be certain of finding her alone was at the bottom of that field that led to the back of Abdy farm. What he would never have expected was that when Amy walked across it she would not be alone. But the night was dark, he would have heard long before he saw, which means Frances became a victim simply because she was there.