Read about Sheffield's bloody history in new book on infamous murders

The Bloody Yorkshire true-crime series is a terrifying compilation of some of the vilest crimes in Yorkshire’s history which stunned and gripped the nation.

Thursday, 22nd October 2020, 9:55 am

Crime in the 19th century was rife, wages were low, alcohol consumption was high, forensic science was in its infancy, all-male juries convicted people on the flimsiest of evidence and sometimes innocent people were hanged or transported for a crime they didn’t commit.

The gap between rich and poor was enormous, stress and tempers were high, often fuelled by alcohol, passion, jealousy, and lack of money were the usual instigators. Sheffield, like the rest of the country, had its share of crime and murder.

Here are two of the crimes from the Sheffield area from Bloody Yorkshire Volume 1.

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London Road, Heeley, where poisoner Kate Dover had her shop, featured in Bloody Yorkshire Volume 1 by Wendy M Rhodes

Kate Dover, poisoner

In 1882, 27-year-old Felicia Dorothea Kate Dover, known as Kate, came before Justice Lewis Cave for the murder of her employer and lover, Thomas Skinner.

Sixty-year-old Skinner was a local artist and etcher and a pioneer in the development of the steel industry. Having invented a ground-breaking method by which mass production of etched designs could be put on to steel blades, his services were much in demand.

Born in 1819, Skinner was described as being of superior intellect, he could speak five languages fluently and he had a retentive memory. Thomas married Mellond Mills in 1839 in Ecclesall but she died a few years later.

The house at White Croft where the Laycock murders took place, depicted by the Illustrated Police News

Kate was a fashion-conscious woman with a bohemian attitude, known among her friends as ‘the queen of Heeley’ on account of her colourful dress sense, her love of make-up and her air of superiority. Hard-working with a sense of individuality, Kate had her own shop on London Road selling confectionery.

Thomas Skinner was a regular customer and the two, despite their age difference, soon became a couple. Skinner lived at 24 Glover Road, Lowfield and Kate became his housekeeper, giving up her shop and eventually leaving her parents’ home at Thirlwell Terrace.

The couple had an amicable yet tempestuous relationship with Skinner reported as having a short temper and an alcohol addiction.

He was known to strike Kate on occasions on account of Kate’s spending habits. She found it difficult to make ends meet and she would often pawn his clothes for money.

The grisly Laycock family home murder scene, depicted by the Illustrated Police News

Skinner’s previous housekeeper Jane Jones had worked for Skinner as his wife’s nurse before his wife died. Jones and Skinner were close and he taught her his trade and how to etch steel.

She married William Jones and the couple lived with Skinner until Kate Dover came along. Jones did not approve of the relationship between Kate and Skinner, so she and her husband left and set up a home of their own.

Jones remained friends with her old employer but she and Kate did not see eye to eye and there appears to have been a degree of jealousy over the closeness of the relationship between Jones and her former employer.

One Sunday Jane Jones had received a gift of produce from a relative, including onions and potatoes, and shared them with the Skinner household.

On the same day, Kate tried to buy prussic acid from chemist JJ Redding, saying she needed it to mix with sugar to kill a cat. The chemist refused Kate’s request as he told her cats do not eat sugar.

Kate prepared a Sunday lunch of fowl with an onion stuffing which she made herself.

Not long after Skinner became ill and he was writhing in excruciating pain, Kate herself also became ill and began to heave. In an attempt to blame Mrs Jones, she turned to Skinner and said: “My God, she has done for us both this time.”

The doctor was called but it was too late, Skinner died in the early hours of the evening.

The police were called and Kate was seen burning some papers on the fire. Suspicions were raised and the contents of the dinner analysed and found to contain a significant amount of arsenic.

A post-mortem was conducted and following an inquest, Kate was arrested for the wilful murder of Thomas Skinner.

The trial took place on Monday 6 and Tuesday 7 February, 1882 at Leeds Assizes in Leeds Town Hall. She pleaded ‘not guilty.’ The jury disagreed.

The murder of the Laycock family

Poverty and excessive alcohol problems are never a good combination and the Laycock family had both. Joseph and Maria Laycock lived with their four children, Sarah, 8, Frank 6, Mary, 4, and Joseph, aged 2, in a ramshackle house at No 2 Court off 17 Queens Row, White Croft.

Joseph was well known to the police with numerous convictions for petty crime including theft, drunkenness and wife beating.

Maria was also a habitual drinker who would fly into violent fits of rage when confronted with the consequences of her drinking. She was, however, a hard-working woman who endeavoured to provide for her children.

On the morning before the murder, Maria collected medicine bottles to take back to the shops for money so that she and Joseph could go on a drinking spree around the local pubs.

The couple drank steadily all day and they were heard having an almighty row with Joseph yelling at Maria that he was ‘going to do her’. The neighbours were used to the couple’s arguments, it was commonplace, so when a woman’s scream was heard just after midnight, nobody took any notice.

The following morning the Laycocks’ house was unusually quiet, the children were normally up and getting ready for school. One of the neighbours, Mrs Kidnew, sensed that something was wrong, so she knocked on the door. No answer, so she walked in the house.

She was shocked to see Maria Laycock lying behind the door with her head almost severed from her body. Tentatively, she crept through the rest of the house and found all the children dead. They had all been stabbed and the weapon, a bloody bread knife, was found near their bodies.

The only person found alive was Joseph Laycock, who had a gaping gash across his throat in his attempt to take his life. Joseph was taken to hospital and recovered to face trial for the brutal murder of his family.

Read more on these stories and further tales of murder from around Yorkshire and the Sheffield area in Volumes 1 & 2 of Bloody Yorkshire available from Amazon and all good bookshops. Volume 3 is out next year.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.