On Tuesday, 25th April 1882, a shocking tragedy took place in Skipton and in a field known as Park Hill, which was and still is situated behind Skipton Castle today.
A man by the name of Matthew Jackson Hunter, who was 27 years of age, would be found lying on his left side on the field. Lying next to him was his wife, 25 year-old Alice Maud Hunter and his little girl, 4 year-old Elizabeth. Both were dead.
Matthew Hunter was a well-known character of the town and had occupied the position of assistant overseer and rate collector for the Skipton district of the union. Having held that office for several years, he was always known as being a very respectable man.
However, weeks before the tragic events of the 25th April, Matthew had begun to show signs of depression, which would become more apparent leading up to the time of the tragedy.
It was just before twelve o’clock on the Tuesday when Matthew went out for a walk with his wife and child. When he had left his house at Primrose Hill, he made his way towards Grassington Road before beginning the walk back through Park Hill and by the Castle Woods.
At around half-past one, three young boys; Walter Holgate, George Phillips and John Newby, whilst having their after-dinner walk through the Castle Woods and returning by way of Park Hill, they observed a person partly sat up and near to a hedge. This person was holding a knife in one hand, and a woman was laid down beside him, on her face.
When the three young boys got closer, they saw blood on the man’s hand and he then began making sweeping motions along his neck with the knife.
Due to shock and confusion, the boys never noticed the body of a little girl, who was laid down and behind her mother.
They quickly shot off down the field as fast as they could and it didn’t take too long before they found a police constable.
Being alerted to the scenes in the field, Sergeant Benn and Constable Thistlewaite at once accompanied the boys to the area, and found Alice Hunter and her daughter, Elizabeth very much dead, the former with her head nearly severed from her body, and the child with a knife-wound on the left side of her neck.
As for Matthew Hunter, he was not dead, but had a fearful gash along his throat.
Sergeant Benn and Constable Thistlewaite asked Hunter who had killed the woman and the child. Hunter nodded and implied that he had done it himself, though he did not speak.
It didn’t take long for the police to find the weapon used on both Alice and Elizabeth – a shoemaker’s knife which Hunter was still holding.
The knife and the scene of the crime was besmeared with blood and it appeared that a severe struggle between Hunter and his wife had occurred due to how ‘ruffled’ and dirty her clothes were and her hands were cut in several places.
As for the little girl, Elizabeth, she had a wound on each side of her neck and across her throat.
The police would quickly raise the alarm, and with the help of other constables, all were removed to the Skipton Workhouse in a cart. Dr. Russell was summoned and he at once commenced to sew up Hunter’s throat.
What makes this so tragic is that the attacks on both Hunter’s wife and that of his daughter had occurred only eight or ten yards from the footpath on the hill that was, during the day, visited by hundreds of people.
Due to the severity of the injuries Hunter had inflicted upon himself, it wouldn’t be until Saturday, 3rd June when he would appear at the Skipton Petty Sessions to face charges with the wilful murder of his wife, Alice Maud Hunter, and his child, Elizabeth Alice Hunter.
Appearing in an extremely weak condition, he had to be assisted into the dock by two police officers. The court was crowded during the hearing due to the interest in the case.
Mr. W. A. Robinson appeared for the prosecution whilst Hunter was undefended.
In opening the case, Mr. Robinson said he did not propose to make any formal speech, but would simply examine various witnesses.
Emily Harrison, who was a sister to Alice Maud Hunter, would tell the court that she had last seen Alice alive on the morning of the 25th April, at around half-past seven, when Hunter, Alice and Elizabeth all left the house together to go for a walk.
Emily herself had lived with them for about three months, and during that time, Hunter had threatened his wife, Alice. He had also threatened all of his family with a razor around a month before the murders too place, but the razor had been taken away from him.
Next to be questioned was William Lister Whittaker, a farmer residing at Embsay, near Skipton. He remembered meeting Hunter and his wife and daughter in Raikes Road on the 25th April. It was around half-past eleven in the morning. Whittaker and Hunter had a conversation regarding some business, and they both proceeded to Hunter’s house to look at the rate book. Alice Hunter and her daughter, Elizabeth, remained outside as Hunter had told them to do so.
Before Whittaker had made it to Hunter’s house, Hunter told him that he had too much hard work, and it had been affecting his brain. He also remarked that he had come out for a walk in order to enjoy his dinner better.
After a few minutes, Hunter and Whittaker had finished with their business and Elizabeth had asked her father if she could return to the house, but Hunter told her to stay outside with her mother.
Walter Holgate, one of the three young boys who came across Hunter and the two victims on the 25th April was next to be examined. He would tell of how he and two of his friends had come across Hunter lying upon his left side with his throat cut and holding a knife in his hand. It was around half-past one in the afternoon.
Holgate mentioned that as soon as the boys had got a little closer, Hunter began to make another cut at his throat and it was then he noticed a woman lying on the ground and looking very much dead.
P.S. Harrison Benn said that in consequence of information received from Holgate, he went to Park Hill about ten minutes to two o’clock. There he found Hunter lying on his left side, with his head resting on his wife’s shoulder. She was lying face downwards, dead, with her throat cut. Beside Alice, at her left hand, was the child – Elizabeth, who was lying upon her back and with her throat cut.
Benn, with the help of Police Constable Thistlewaite managed to tie up the wound on Hunter’s throat with a handkerchief. He then found a knife covered in a large quantity of blood near to Hunter.
Benn did not recognise Hunter, and asked him who he was and he motioned a though he wanted to write. Benn handed Hunter a lead pencil and a pocket-book, in which Hunter wrote the name of his father, ‘S. Hunter.’
Hunter then fainted and was afterwards taken to the workhouse, where he was searched. A penknife, some lead pencils, and 3s. 1d in cash were found upon him.
William Russell, assistant to Dr. Wilson of Skipton when questioned told of the injuries sustained to both Alice and Elizabeth Hunter. He would also tell the court that several days after Hunter was taken to the workhouse, he wrote something upon a piece of paper and handed it to him. The note stated that he, Hunter, did not know what he was doing at the time. Hunter also told Russell that he had pains in his head but at no point did he ever mention his wife or child.
At the end of the session, Hunter was formally committed to take his trial at the assizes and was removed from the dock.
On Thursday, 27th July, Matthew Jackson Hunter was indicted at the Leeds Assizes for the wilful murder of his wife and child. Evidence showed that he had for some time acted in a somewhat strange manner and had threatened to murder his wife and thereafter commit suicide.
After hearing much of the evidence already outlined, and having heard from many witnesses, the jury did not call for the Hunter to defend himself but acquitted him on the ground of insanity. However, he was ordered to be confined during Her Majesty’s pleasure within the grounds of Broadmoor Hospital, a high security psychiatric hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire.
At eleven o’clock in the morning on Friday, 28th April 1882, both Alice and her daughter, Elizabeth were buried together at Waltonwrays Cemetery in the presence of a large crowd. The service was conducted by the Reverand P.C. Kidd, rector of Skipton.