Date Of Execution: 23 Apr 1913
Crime Location: Abdys Farm, Kimberworth
Execution Place: Wakefield
Executioner: Thomas Pierrepoint
Walter William Sykes was convicted of the murders of Amy Nicholson 10 and Frances Alice Nicholson 7 and sentenced to death.
He cut their throats at Abdy's Farm, Kimberworth on 15 November 1912. It was also thought that he had outraged Amy Collinson although the medical evidence put forward said that she had been outraged some days before the murders.
The murders were unsolved for a while, but Walter Sykes later confessed to them. He made his first confession verbally to a collier in a urinal in Mexborough and later corroborated it with a policeman , and made his second confession in writing at a police station. He made two statements, the first at 4am which he said was not true, and the other at 7am which he later said was all lies.
However, his confessions were used against him in court and he was convicted. It was said that without the confessions there was virtually no evidence against him and certainly not enough to convict him, but that the other evidence found by the police corroborated his statements, and he was found guilty.
However, it was also later suggested that he was innocent and that many people suspected the step-father of having committed the murders, and a recent book has also been published in 2017 on that topic entitled 'The Abdy Farm Murders: Who killed two little girls at Kimberworth? by Jeannette Hensby'.
Walter Sykes was a showman employed by a man that lived in a caravan in Thorpe Hesley, about two or three miles from the scene of the crime and himself lodged at that time in Darfiled. The show only worked on one day. He was employed as an assistant to a round-about proprietor.
Amy Nicholson was the illegitimate daughter of a woman that lived a farm labourer whose wife was the sister of Amy Nicholson's mother at Abdy's Farm.
Frances Nicholson was the daughter of a man that lived in Scholes Coppice which was about three quarters of a mile away from Abdy's Farm.
The area was described as being rural in character.
On 15 November 1912, Amy Nicholson and Frances Nicholson left a concert practice at Kimberworth Village Chapel at 7.30pm to go to their homes which were about a mile away.
Their bodies were found in a field close to Abdy's Farm the following morning.
They were last seen by two friends who they had been playing with in the yard of their house between 8.30pm and 8.40pm.
After they failed to return home their parents went out looking for them until 2am in the morning of 16 November 1912. They started looking again the following morning and were found by Frances Nicholson's mother lying under a hedge.
Both their throats had been cut to the bone.
Amy Nicholson's parts showed that she had been fully outraged, but the police report noted that the medical evidence stated that the outrage had happened some days previously. However, the police report stated that they were more inclined to think that she had been outraged when she was murdered and that the doctor was mistaken in the dates that he had given for the outrage. It was noted that she had not complained of being outraged earlier to her aunt with whom she lived, and that when she was found her legs were wide open.
When the police searched the scene, they found impressions in the ground of some boots with protectors as well as the impressions of corduroy as if someone had been kneeling heavily on the ground with corduroy clothing, or clothing with corduroy on it.
However, it was noted that no trace of the murderer could be found until 29 December 1912 when a man, Walter Sykes, was heard to say at a urinal to another man that it was he that had murdered Amy Nicholson and Frances Nicholson.
An 18-year-old collier from Kilnhurst, near Mexborough, said that he had seen Walter Sykes in a urinal in Kilnhurst at about 2.30pm on 29 December 1912. He said that there was a policeman nearby and that Walter Sykes said to him, 'Yon fucking bobby's watching me'. The collier said that he asked why the policeman would be watching him and said that Walter Sykes said, 'He is watching me for that f...ing murder at Rotherham'. The collier said that he asked Walter Sykes what he meant and asked if he meant the two girls, and said that Walter Sykes replied, 'Yes and when he's watching me he's watching the f...ing right one, but he will never catch me, he'll find me f...ing sharper than hissen'.
The collier said that he followed Walter Sykes out of the urinal and caught him up and said that Walter Sykes said, 'Ah, I am the f...ing Rotherham murderer and they'll never catch me'. The collier said that he then remarked, 'It's strange someone didn't hear them scream', and said that Walter Sykes replied, 'They didn't f...ing well scream, I watched that'.
The collier said that Walter Sykes then went off towards Mexborough and he went to a police station and told a policeman what Walter Sykes had said.
A policeman later approached Walter Sykes in Mexborough and said, 'What have you been saying?' and said that Walter Sykes replied, 'What I told the collier is quite true. I did the murder at Rotherham'.
He was then arrested and taken to a police station where he was questioned by a police inspector and he said, 'I might as well tell you. It is the first time I have mentioned it to anyone since I did it'. The police inspector then asked him what he meant by that and said that Walter Sykes said, 'That murder at Rotherham. I did it with a pocket knife with two blades in it. I was the worse for drink at the time. I have sold the knife. I am wearing the same clothes now, except the trousers, which were worn out. I slept out that night and went to Hemsworth next day'.
After he was cautioned, he made two statements, one at 4am and the other at 7am, but before he signed them he said, 'What I've already told you is not true'.
One of his statements read: 'I am 24 years of age, and at present have no fixed abode. I have been in regular employment. I worked for the showman from October of this year to December. I was out all night on the night of the murder. The murder was done with a pen-knife. I have never said anything to anyone about having committed the murder before this afternoon. I told the inspector that I had murdered the two children at Rotherham, and that I did it with a pen-knife. I don't know the time I murdered the children, but it was dark'.
The police found hat on the day of the murder Walter Sykes had been employed as an assistant on a round-about at Low Valley which was about 8 or 9 miles away from Kimberworth.
They also spoke to some children that said that they had seen Walter Sykes. A 12-year-old boy said that he had seen a man speaking to Amy Nicholson about the August Bank Holiday who he later identified as Walter Sykes and a little girl, aged 11, who said that she had seen Walter Sykes speaking to Amy Nicholson several days before the murder as well as on the day of the murder.
The little girl said she went to the same school as Amy Nicholson and said that she remembered seeing her with a man on the week she was killed. She said that she had seen her with the same man before that week often, several times. She said that the man spoke to her and asked her if she came from Lancashire, but she said that she didn't answer him and ran away. The little girl said that she saw the man standing at the corner of Meadowhall Road near Norton's shop, saying that it was at about 4.30pm when they were coming out of school, saying that she saw him there three times, on the Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The little girl said that she was taken to the police court twice and saw some men standing in a row. She said that Walter Sykes was one of them but that he had no beard or hair on his face, and she identified him again in court. However, she said that she went to the police station two or three days before she identified Walter Sykes where she picked out a man who was rather taller, saying that she thought that he was the man that she had seen, but said that on the second time she was quite certain that the man she had seen was Walter Sykes.
She said that she last saw Amy Nicholson at school on the Friday, 15 November 1912 and saw her with Walter Sykes that day when she was going past the corner.
The police also spoke to a man who they described as a responsible witness who told them that he had seen and spoken to Walter Sykes in Kimberworth village at about 7pm on the evening of the murder.
The man was a soap manufacturer from Rotherham. He said that he was in Kimberworth on the evenings of 14 and 15 November 1912 and said that on the evening of 15 November at about 6.45pm he was there and that at about 7pm he came to the corner where Morton's shop was and saw a man there. He said that he approached the man and asked him if he could tell him which day was early closing for Morton's shop. He said that his foot knocked against a bundle that the man had, something like a pair of trousers and a shirt rolled up in a handkerchief. He said that the man had a hat and muffler on but was standing under a lamp.
The soap manufacturer said that he identified Walter Sykes as that man on Sunday 12 January 1912 from a row of 12 or 13 men and said that he didn't have the slightest doubt about that but added that if he had then he was more convinced that he had chosen the right man after he heard Walter Sykes speak in court.
The police also spoke to a mother and daughter that said that they saw Walter Sykes on the morning the bodies of the children were found and said that he came up to the crowd and watched the police removing the bodies and taking impressions of boot and corduroy prints on the ground. The mother said that she worked at Park Farm nearby and was near the spot where the children were found on the road opposite at about 9.30am when she saw Walter Sykes coming from the direction of Hudson's Rough. She said that he passed close to them and that she saw him about a quarter of an hour later going up the same footpath towards Hudson's Rough. She said that at the time the police were putting the children's bodies in the ambulance. She said that the appearance of Walter Sykes attracted her attention and that she talked about it with her daughter. She identified Walter Sykes in court but said that she could not say whether he had had a beard.
The woman's daughter said that she had been watching what the police were doing at 9.30am on the morning of 16 November 1913 and said that she saw a man come from Hudson's Rough up the field and stand against the gate where he could see what the police were doing. She said that he was small, dark and unkempt. She said that she later picked the man out on 6 January 1912 at the police station. She said that she didn't swear to him, noting that at the police station his eyes looked swollen and his face darker, but said that at the magistrates Walter Sykes looked much more like the man that she had seen.
The police report suggested that as such, Walter Sykes thereupon got rid of his boots and removed corduroy patches from his trouser knees.
However, the police report noted that apart from Walter Sykes's own confession, the statements of the 12-year-old boy, the little girl, the soap manufacturer and the mother and daughter were the only items of evidence that identified Walter Sykes as the man who had been seen with Amy Nicholson and a person that had been at the scene of the crime on both 15 and 16 November 1912.
Walter Sykes later gave an alibi and said that the round-about proprietor could prove where he was on the day of the murder, but the police report stated that the evidence of the round-about proprietor went wholly against him after the round-about proprietor said that Walter Sykes had left the roundabout camp at about 4.30pm on 15 November and didn't return until midday on 16 November 1912.
It was also heard that Walter Sykes had said that he had slept in the caravan at Thorpe Hesley on the night of the murder, but the police report stated that it could be proved that the caravan had been locked up at that time.
The round-about proprietor said that Walter Sykes had started working for him in October 1912. He said that his round-about was working on the Monday and that Walter Sykes worked on it until up to midnight. He said that on the Friday Walter Sykes left between 4.30pm and 5pm saying that he asked for his tea a bit earlier as he wanted to get off. The round-about proprietor said that he remembered going for a pair of old boots with protectors, noting they were not nails but Blakey's Medium Size nines. He said that Walter Sykes then returned on the Saturday after dinnertime and said that he spoke to him at about 1pm. He said that he didn’t sleep in the caravan at Thorpe Hesley as it was locked up.
It was also shown that Walter Sykes had not slept at his lodgings, and that the story he had told to his landlady of having gone to a person's dray on the night of the murder was also proved to be untrue. His landlady said that he had been lodging with her since 30 October 1912 and said that she was sure that he had not slept there on the night of 15 November. She said that she saw him between 10am and 11am on the Saturday, 16 November and said that he told her that he had been to Hemsworth with a dray for a man and had been tired and so had slept out on the open common. She said that he had been wearing very dark clothes and a dirty cap and had a blue muffler round his neck. She said that on the Saturday 16 November Walter Sykes had been wearing some old boots and said that she destroyed them and gave him some clogs that he had previously refused when she had offered them to him on the previous Thursday on account of the noise that they made. she said that on the Saturday he told her that he had cut his foot on something, an old boot, and asked if he could put the clogs on if she would let him.
Walter Sykes's landlady said that Walter Sykes paid her 3/ a week for lodging and said that she had one other lodger and that Walter Sykes had been out before on other nights. She also added that she kept a fish-shop which she attended to herself and stayed at until 11pm, noting that it was not in the same house where she lived.
When the person whose dray Walter Sykes had referred to with the landlady was questioned he said that he had not seen Walter Sykes on 15 or 16 November and said that he had not driven his dray to Hemsworth.
It was also heard that another woman said that before the murder, Walter Sykes had been wearing trousers patched with some corduroy that she had given him and the police determined that the corduroy that she had matched the pattern of corduroy that they found at the scene. The woman said that after the murder, she noticed that Walter Sykes had substituted brown material for the original corduroy patches.
The police report stated that Walter Sykes's statements were verified in at least two details. The first that he had sold his knife that he had used to cut the children's throats, which was later traced to the purchaser, and the second, that he had got rid of his trousers that he had been wearing on the day of the murder by leaving them in a closet where they were found by the police with their brown patches on the knees.
The knife was recovered from a man that lived in a lodging house in Rotherham. He said that Walter Sykes came to his lodging house on 17 December 1912 at about 6.30pm and offered to sell him his knife and said that he bought it for 2d. He said that a couple of days later on 19 December 1912 he gave the knife to another man, and then later communicated with the police about the matter and then on 13 January 1913 went to the police station in Rotherham and picked Walter Sykes out.
However, it was also heard that when the knife was tested, it had no blood on it, either blood in general or human blood. The professor of pathology who carried out the tests also said that the parcel of clothes that he was given to examine had no blood on them either.
At his trial a medical officer said that Walter Sykes was weak-minded to a certain extent but said that that did not amount to more than that he was below the average intelligence.
Whilst in prison, Walter Sykes said to a policeman, 'I wonder what he meant by saying I should get on better if I spoke the truth. I think I have told him enough already. I should not have been here if I had not talked to that young chap at Mexborough. This is what you get by talking. I have nothing to be frightened about being here, I have not done it, but I know a lot about it. I know who did it, but I do not know his name, but I shall pull him in. I do not want to go to Leeds nor Wakefield. I want to get off tomorrow, and then I will get lodgings, and lead a different life and turn over a new leaf. I do not want to be waiting at either place for a month or two, and then get for life or strung up'.
At his trial he denied being the man that killed Amy Nicholson and Frances Nicholson and said that he had never been to Kimberworth in his whole life or ever seen the district. He added that all he had ever seen of Rotherham was when he was taken there to the police station. In court he said that he slept the night of 15 November 1912 at his lodgings.
The police report that was written before Walter Sykes confessed noted that Amy Nicholson and Frances Nicholson had left home at 5.30pm to attend the concert practice at the Old Church Schools about a mile and a half from the home of Amy Nicholson. The report noted that they had left the concert hall at 7.50pm and had then apparently stayed in the village with friends until about 8.40pm when they had said they were going home with the last person seeing them being a young girl that saw them off on to the public footpath that went across the fields leading to Abdy Farm. The report noted that no grown up person, as far as could be ascertained, were seen to speak to them or to any of the children, nor any strange men seen in the locality that day or evening, including the man that the children said had given Amy Nicholson some coppers. However, the report noted that unless the murderer was a lunatic, that, based on the description of the man that gave Amy Nicholson some coppers, that that man was probably responsible. However, they said that they were unable to find any grown up person that could assist them in that matter having seen the man described talking to Amy Nicholson or loitering about in the vicinity.
It was reported that there was a rumour that the girls foster-father was responsible for the murders, but the police report stated that they were satisfied that he had been making a rabbit hutch from 6pm until 6.30pm, the time at which the children were first noticed missing. The rumour that the foster-father was the murderer was the subject of a 2017 book on the case.
The police report noted that it was a strange coincidence that it was the first occasion that Amy Nicholson and Frances Nicholson had been out together in the evening.
It was noted by the judge when he summed the case up before the jury that there was little physical evidence and that apart from his confession, there was no case against Walter Sykes.
Although Walter Sykes pleaded not guilty and retracted his confessions, the police report noted that the summing up by the judge at the trial gave a good account of the evidence and its effects in corroborating Walter Sykes's confessions.
During his summing up, the judge said, 'Gentlmen, the sort of certainty which is expected from you before you find a verdict of murder is just the same sort of certainty which you would follow in all important matters of life. If you were to go now and say of course he killed the child; I know it, but I did not like to find him guilty on that evidence, if you go home and say that of course he did it, I know it, then you ought to convict him. I know no more practical test than this; would a man say, speaking honestly and without fear of the consequences, I am sure he did it. That is certainty'.
The judge then said, 'Now, Gentlemen, this case differs very much from some others, because it rests mainly, not entirely but mainly, upon confessions made by the prisoner himself, and I daresay it would not be contended by the prosecution that if there had been no confessions there was evidence enough in the case to convict the man. I should myself say that there was not apart from the confessions. But Gentlemen, a man may be convicted on his own confession alone. There is no law against it. The law is that if a man makes a free and voluntary confession which is direct and positive, and is properly proved, a jury may if they think fit convict him of any crime upon it. But seldom, if ever, the necessity arises, because confession can always be tested and examined, first by the police and then by you and by us in Court, and the first question you ask when you are examining the confession of a man is, is there anything outside it to show it was true; is it corroborated; are the statements made in it of fact so far as we can test them true; was the prisoner a man who had the opportunity of committing the murder; is his confession possible; is it consistent with other facts which have been ascertained and which have been, as in this case, proved before us? Therefore, you are never called upon, and juries are never called upon to act on a confession alone. They are called upon to see whether the circumstances of the case sufficiently persuade them that the confessions were proved; and for that purpose you must of course examine what he said, and it will be my duty shortly, as shortly as I can consistently within my duty, to point out to you in what respects if any, those confessions are corroborated'.
When the judge addressed the first confession, the confession Walter Sykes made at the urinal, he said, 'Now was that fiction? There is nothing at all to show that he was mad. The evidence is that he was sane. Stupid, dull-headed, brutal probably, certainly stupid and very dull headed, brutal you can judge from his language, but quite sane .Was what he said a mere desire to become notorious, or was it the language of a man who thought he was speaking to one of his own class, who were I suppose, judged from that point of view, if that point of view is right, men like himself who were enemies of the police and men who he thought would join him in exulting that the police were defeated and unable to detect crime? Either it was that or it was mere bravado and a desire to make himself what he was not and to declare to this man that he was a notorious and brave murderer from that sort of beastly instinct which makes a man wish to be made out worse than he is? If that had stood alone, you might probably have found it very difficult to decide which of the two it was. I mean if that had been the only confession, because there is nothing in that confession which you can catch hold of and say 'is that true', or 'is this true'. You could have got very little if that confession had stood there to enable you to ascertain if this man was in the neighbourhood, which was eight or nine miles distant at any rate, but you could have got evidence that he had been to this place at seven o'clock at night or thereabouts on the night on the evidence of the soap maker. But there is very little in the statement itself that you could catch hold of and say 'is this statement true or is there anything to corroborate it'.
The judge then went on to note that when the police man spoke to Walter Sykes he said that what he had said in his first confession to the collier was true and noted that Walter Sykes was certainly not insane nor drunk at the time he said things.
The judge went on to say, 'On the other hand if he was the guilty man it is very difficult for you and me to realise what the feelings of a man who has committed a barbarous murder are. There are some terrible descriptions given both by novelists and poets, but it is a very difficult thing for us to realise them. You cannot put yourself in the place of a man of that kind. They are so unlike the rest of humanity. But one cannot help thinking that it is quite possible that there is some sort of restless misery in their minds which drives them to speak and which would even make them welcome conviction to put an end to it. It may be so. You see we are approaching this question considering what said, but we do not think out what was in his mind and what motive would have made him say it if it was untrue, and what motive could have made him say it if it was true. You must think of it in that way. At any rate he repeats it to the policeman without, apparently, as much obscenity and in a very distinct language, 'I did the murder at Rotherham'.
When the judge detailed the second confessions or the two/three later statements that Walter Sykes made at the police station, the one at 4am and the second at 7am (and another in January) he broke each part down and detailed its implications.
In particular, he noted that after Walter Sykes made his first statement at 4am and then said that it was not true, the judge noted that he might have said or meant that it was incorrect in that there was an error in the statement and confession and not that it was in its entirety untrue.
The judge then detailed the third statement that he made on 4 January 1913 in which he said that he had made a false statement and asked for the round-about proprietor to be called as he would say where he was. The judge then addresses which one of his statements is true and which not, stating that the jury should decide which was false. The judge said, 'You must say one of them is untrue, and it may be that you will think that that takes away from the effect of what he already said. On the other hand, as I have said before you cannot enter into the mind of the man who has committed a crime of this kind. He may change from day to day and from hour to hour. At one time he may think I will make a fight for it, and at another time it may be that he would rather do the other thing. You can only test it by seeing how it works out. He apparently thought that if he could send for the round-about proprietor he could prove where he was on the night of the murder'. However, the judge noted that the facts showed that Walter Sykes had had his tea early and left the camp at about 5pm and was not seen again at the camp again until the Sunday about midday and also observed that they knew that he slept out as his landlady had said that she didn't think that he had come home that night and he had told her that he had slept out after driving a gray.
The judge detailed many of his statements, placing them in context and considering which were more likely to be true or not, and which were supported by proven facts and evidence. He also referred to a statement that Walter Sykes made to a policeman whilst in the cells on 17 January 1913 where he said, 'Ah if I had built my castles and had not given myself away they would never have found me out'. The judge noted that that statement needed no comment from him. The judge also detailed the other statements that he had made whilst in custody.
The judge then went on to detail the evidence outside of Walter Sykes's statements such as the sightings of him by the children, the soap maker and the mother and daughter etc as well as the boots and corduroy impressions etc.
After the summing up the jury found Walter Sykes guilty and he was sentenced to death with no recommendation to mercy.
His leave for appeal was also dismissed. His defence said that the judge had misdirected the jury or insufficiently directed them in regards to the point that the main evidence for the prosecution were Walter Sykes's confessions, but that the judge had not sufficiently explained the inconsistencies between his confessions to the jury. The defence noted that Walter Sykes's first confession was made on 29 December 1912 and said that it was couched in obscene language and that it could not be taken as the language of a man whose word could be relied on. The defence then noted that although the second confession whilst having been written out and signed, was withdrawn and said that the jury should have been directed to consider the danger of relying on such evidence.
Walter Sykes was executed at Wakefield Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint and Albert Lumb. It was said that as he was being pinioned, Walter Sykes had said, 'I am sorry'.
On 16 April 1913, a police report reported the fact that the soap manufacturer that had said that he had seen Walter Sykes outside Morton's shop at about 7pm on 15 November 1912, who had been considered a highly respectable man, had had a warrant taken out on him for obtaining money by false pretences. The report notes that they had no reason to doubt the soap manufacturers evidence noting that he had had no difficulty in identifying Walter Sykes at the police station, but it was thought that the fact that he appeared to have obtained several sums of money by false pretences and that he was one of the most important witnesses in the case should be recorded. Walter Sykes had been put on parade with seven other men, five to his left and two to his right. It was said that the soap manufacturer had gone into the room and without hesitation gone straight up to Walter Sykes and put his hand on his should and said, 'This is the man'.
The book 'The Abdy Farm Murders: Who killed two little girls at Kimberworth? by Jeannette Hensby' suggests that Walter Sykes was innocent of the murders.
see National Archives - HO 144/1240/230886
see The Abdy Farm Murders: Who killed two little girls at Kimberworth? by Jeannette Hensby
see Papers Past