Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Ball-pein hammers and scream alarms: the shadow of the Ripper

Guess you know by now I'm a mad keen genealogist and family historian. Well, a few days ago I was watching that new programme on UK Freeview channel "Yesterday" called "Find My Past". Using the genealogy site of the same name, the show traces back the ancestry of three people before bringing them together to show how their ancestors' lives dovetailed in some famous historical event, such as the Mutiny on the Bounty or the sinking of the Titanic.

In this week's episode, two of my interests came together: family history and real crime, as the events that brought the three subjects together were the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper. The three were descended from a journalist who wrote about the case in London in 1888, a policeman who was the last person, apart from the killer, to see fourth canonical victim Catherine Eddowes alive, and Catherine Eddowes herself.

Press image of what Jack the Ripper might look like from 1888

I watched with great interest learning more about these familiar topics. Much of the end of the programme was lost, however, when, with typical foot in mouth brain-foggery, I managed to comment to general hilarity:

"If that policeman hadn't let her out of the cells that night, she'd still be alive today!"


Another real crime programme on the Internet, about our own Yorkshire Ripper, took me back to the late 1970s and early 80s while Peter Sutcliffe was still very much at large. His crimes spanned the era of my teenage years and young adulthood. Towards the end of his criminal career, in 1980, I had just moved away from my South Yorkshire home to attend Leicester University.

It brought back to me the sense of unease we felt crossing nearby Victoria Park to get to campus from the halls of residence in Oadby. I went home to Yorkshire by train most weekends, as my father was ill. The grip of fear stretched much further than the North, as it was believed the Ripper might move about via the motorway network to commit murders further afield. As far afield, we believed, as the Midlands.

Victoria Park, Leicester

I was in the University Choral Society, so couldn't always abide by the commonsense advice never to walk alone there after dark. Rehearsals were on Monday evenings at 7.30pm if I remember rightly. There were shadowy trees and deserted walkways between darkened buildings after lecture hours to be hurried between on those long autumn and winter evenings. My 19th birthday fell in the first few weeks of the autumn term of 1980.  If a friend missed a practice, you were often on your own.

All this reminded me of two things above all that we young women learned about during the time before the Yorkshire Ripper was caught and convicted of 13 murders  in 1981. Two things we'd probably never had heard of if it hadn't been for the terror his crimes instilled into women all over the country.

First was the "Ball-Pein Hammer". I don't think I can ever think of that tool in any context but as a weapon of choice of the Ripper! Also apparently known as a "ball-peen hammer" - for peening, what else? A machinist's specialist hammer for metal working.  My dad had one in his toolbox, but it was just a common-or-garden hammer to us before the coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper's reign of terror!

Secondly, there was the "scream-alarm". Back in those days, this was a slim cylindrical tin of compressed gas, like an aerosol can. You pressed it to release a shrill, deafening screech, useful, I suppose, if you weren't in a position to scream yourself when under attack. They were made glamorous and sleek enough to fit in your handbag or pocket. Aka a "screech-alarm" or "purse alarm". They came with a warning not to discharge it close to your own or any other innocent person's ear, for fear of causing a burst eardrum!

Modern scream alarm - mine back then was metallic gold

I recall there was always a temptation to let out tiny almost imperceptible coughs from the device as you made your way along through the darkness of the night, just to make sure it would be fit for purpose if needed urgently. So after a few months, most of the internal gas had dispersed and you needed a replacement!

Oh the memories. Nothing for us to compare with the way the lives of his victims' families were torn apart forever. But I can still feel the countrywide sigh of relief when Peter Sutcliffe was finally arrested in my native Sheffield on 2nd of January 1981. Choir practices didn't seem such a risk, that Spring term! Though we kept the scream alarms about our persons for some time to come, and never quite looked at ball-pein hammers in the same way ever again!

Poster showing the handwriting and hoax  recording sent to police at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders

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