A horrendous murder in 1912 proved to be an investigation full of surprises for a true crime writer. Chase reporter ANTONY CLAY tracks down Jeannette Hensby
A TRUE crime writer opened up a web of mystery in her bid to get to the bottom of a vicious double child murder that took place in Rotherham more than a century ago.
Her search for clues to a crime which sparked widespread revulsion has seen some surprising twists and turns akin to the plot of an Agatha Christie novel.
Jeannette Hensby, of Rotherham, investigated the slaying of two Kimberworth cousins, one aged ten and the other seven, on November 15, 1912.
Amy Collinson and Frances Alice Nicholson went missing after a Christmas concert rehearsal at the Old Chapel at Kimberworth, Rotherham.
Their bodies were found the next day under a hedge with their throats cut.
In The Abdy Farm Murders, Jeannette has revealed that a 24-year-old labourer called Walter Sykes was hanged for the murder but that local people believed that Amy’s foster father, Arthur Collinson, was the real killer.
Local people have always suspected Collinson as the murderer, particularly given the evidence that the older victim had been raped days before the murder. He was also the police’s prime suspect before Walter Sykes was found.
As in her previous book, The Rotherham Trunk Murder, Jeannette tried to discover whether there was a miscarriage of justice in a shocking crime which prompted a special edition of the Rotherham Advertiser newspaper.
Jeannette made an appeal through the Advertiser’s Letters page for information on the killing of the girls and found that the case is still being talked about today.
Amy lived with her family at Abdy Farm, Kimberworth Park, and Frances lived on Wortley Road — now Upper Wortley Road — close to Keppel’s Column near Wentworth. Abdy Farm stood on the site now occupied by Redscope Primary School on Kimberworth Park Road.
The girls set off for a concert rehearsal at 5.30pm but didn’t go straight home afterwards, instead playing in the street with other children. At 8.30pm, Amy’s parents sent Frances’s two brothers to look for them but to no avail. The two sets of parents started a search, helped by police, but nothing was found.
At first light next morning, Frances’s mother Dora Nicholson went to Abdy Farm to resume searching and she and Amy’s mother, Sarah Collinson, made the grim discovery of the two girls’ bodies.
A post mortem examination also revealed that Amy had been raped, probably three days before the murder.
Jeannette said: “I can’t remember when I first heard about the case. I have always vaguely known that the girls got murdered there.
“Belonging to Masborough Heritage Society, quite a few of them suggested I write about it.
“I have always been interested in reading about true crime, especially where there is a lot of mystery, but in terms of writing it’s important to look back at old cases where there are no relatives still alive.
“But it takes a lot of work to do it.”
Jeannette started work on the book, studying archived copies of old newspapers and official court records.
She now believes that the evidence convicting Walter Sykes was sketchy at best and the police investigation inadequate.
Jeannette said: “Once Walter Sykes had confessed the police did not want to look for someone else, even though he withdrew his confession later. I don’t think it was properly investigated after he confessed.”
She found that the evidence placing Sykes at the scene was not good and that reports of a drunken man at the location of the killings were never properly looked into.
Amazingly the story took some surprising twists after a report about Jeannette’s book appeared in the Rotherham Advertiser.
A supposed death bed confession to the double child murder was revealed by a Rotherham pensioner after reading the report. Bernard Cruise said that his dad Jim heard Arthur Collinson admit he had killed two young girls and let an innocent man hang for it a century ago.
Evidence was given in the first edition of the book which suggested Mr Collinson was unlikely to have carried out the killing, but now Mr Cruise said his dad heard evidence first-hand to the contrary.
Mr Cruise said that his dad lived next door to Collinson on Park Street, Masbrough, and one day, when Collinson collapsed, Jim Cruise rushed round to help.
Mr Cruise said: “Collinson said to my dad ‘I cannot meet my maker knowing I have killed those two bairns and let that lad hang for it’.”
Mr Cruise said that Collinson’s wife, who had given him an alibi, quickly ushered Jim Cruise out of the house.
Records appear to show that Collinson actually died some time later in Scunthorpe in 1947.
Mr Cruise said that the conversation took place during the Second World War years and he remembered Collinson babysat him on occasion.
He said: “He was very morose. He was cruel to his dog Queenie and kicked her quite savagely at times.
“His son used to come to visit his dad but he left his daughter at our house.
“All Collinson was bothered about were his geraniums. He had a greenhouse full of them.”
The killings took place before Mr Cruise was born but he said he was told that thousands of people attended the girls’ funeral.
Jeannette was surprised by the revelation and revisited her murder investigation to try and work out how Collinson could have killed the children.
She said: “This from Bernard threw a whole new light on it.”
The author even added an extra chapter to her book thanks to surprising new information from other sources — including the victims themselves.
Jeannette said: “Kevin Turton, who wrote about the case 20 years ago, and a member of the murdered girls’ family, Carole Wynn-Jones, both came to see me, and what they had to tell me turned the case completely on its head.
“Carole’s information came from her grandfather, who was one of the boys who searched in vain for the girls on the night of the murder, and also from a spiritualist medium who gave messages from the two dead girls from beyond the grave.
“It was completely fascinating and it made me rethink everything about the case. It tied my brain in knots trying to make sense of it all, but I do think that this new information takes us much nearer to the truth about what happened than we were before.”
The new information was that one of the boys who searched for the girls later realised that he had got his times wrong which meant that Collinson could indeed have had the chance to kill the girls. The boy was said to have been haunted by the realisation throughout his life.
A quirky twist to the tale came via evidence supposedly from beyond the grave. The murdered girls supposedly sent a message via a psychic saying that Sykes was innocent. A spiritualist, on seeing a photograph of Collinson, claimed he was “evil” and had killed others as well.
Jeannette said: “The murder of Amy and Frances is such a fascinating case, although so tragic of course, and so well-known in the area that people have had their own opinions about who the murderer was ever since the night that they took place in 1912.
“The vast majority, including me, think that the wrong man was hanged.
“I like to research cases that have some mystery about them and then, using all the available evidence, reconstruct the most likely version of what happened, and who the murderer was. That is what I did with the murder of Amy and Frances.
“Of course, with such an old case, you can work only with the records that are available, mainly the Rotherham Advertiser in this case, and then form your opinions based on what those records suggest.”
Jeannette has also written a number of books about infamous murder cases.
- The Abdy Farm Murders is available online from Amazon.