Dr Paul Bahn Jess Franklin

Forty years ago, a PhD student at Gonville and Caius had a knock on his room door. Outside stood two police officers. They made their way into the room and started to search. “They took advantage of the situation all over Cambridge to look for drugs and everything… as soon as I opened the door they knew it wasn’t me.” He was 6ft 2in., the suspect was described at 5ft 6in. or under. After a search of his African tom-toms, his machete and finding a pair of paper knickers the police left, leaving a file at the station entitled; ‘Paul Bahn – harmless eccentric.’

In light of recent attacks in the city, and on the 40th anniversary of the events of 1974-75, it only seemed fitting to conduct an interview with Paul Bahn – archaeology academic, broadcaster and author of The Cambridge Rapist.

Bahn's was a name with which I was already familiar, though I could not remember how. This guy wrote my archaeology textbook. This led me to my next thought: ‘well, why is he writing this book?’ The tale of a local man who kept a whole town living in fear for nearly a year seems like the plot of a successful horror novel, but what Bahn has written is not a work of fiction. It is a recollection of one of the worst crimes Cambridge has ever seen. The story of the Cambridge Rapist is true and Paul Bahn lived through it.

Between October ’74 and June ’75, Cambridge was under siege from a serial rapist, and women across the city lived in fear. Peter Cook struck ten times in eight months, each incident becoming more sinister and violent as his confidence grew. One of the more extraordinary facts of the case was the attacks carried out inside the University’s colleges – with Homerton witnessing one of the more brutal attacks. It was “horrendous, absolutely horrendous.” “He seemed to be striking whenever and wherever.” Unprecedented for its time, the chief detective in the case D.S. Hotson, suggested women should invite their boyfriends round for the night to protect themselves.

In an effort to combat the rapist, students Richard Jopling and Dave Carter, set up a bodyguard service for women living alone in the city in order to ward off any attempted intrusion by Cook. Bahn later took over the running of the operation. He recalls, “being the mid-seventies, there was a lot of religious and moral objection to this.” “The feminists hated this and thought it was insane that they had to rely on men for protection. I think that explains why the bodyguard squad never had a single request from students.” Of course, the squad disbanded on the Sunday morning Cook was caught but the scheme was active for nearly half a year with pairs of unacquainted student volunteers spending their nights in the presence of single women in the town. The books tells, very candidly, of the ten attacks which took place and includes testimonies from all the victims. Having tracked down police officers involved, the book tells the story from both the police and the towns-folk’s perspectives.

Cook’s capture and subsequent release was a triumph for the police, and a weight off the city’s shoulders. “Everybody was jubilant. It was a Sunday morning they got him and all day people everywhere celebrated with parties and drinks.” It also allowed for the closure of the bodyguard service which, whether through boredom or exam season, had dwindled to a handful of male students who sporadically carried out their duties. 

Although an archaeology student, Paul Bahn became highly interested in the story. “As a youth I had devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories, admiring his deductive process of thought, and had at one point entertained thoughts of becoming a detective myself.” This fascination led him to follow the attacks of the Cambridge rapist avidly, keeping newspaper cuttings and questioning the police on the event. These actions landed him with a search of his room in college as a suspect.

It was amazing to me, reading the book, that it does not seem to be in the public consciousness in spite of its scale at the time. “The media are so fickle you know? A lot of people have forgotten there was even such a thing as the Cambridge Rapist and the media has a very short memory of these things.” Only a handful of articles from the BBC and the Mail reported the death of Cook in 2004.

“The book didn’t take very long at all” Bahn explains, “being a squirrel and a hoarder I’ve got everything in one great big file.” The book was finalised in 2011 and published, with the blessing of Fulton Gillespie, a reporter for the Cambridge News during the ordeal who later wrote an unpublished manuscript detailing the episode – one which Bahn drew some of his information from.

In light of recent attacks in the city, how have things changed? Cook cut telephone and electricity lines before breaking into his victim’s houses, and left countless DNA evidence, which the technology of the time could not investigate.  “It was very much of its time,” Bahn adds, “it just couldn’t happen now, we have CCTV everywhere, the police have computers and DNA tests but above all, everybody has mobile phones so his modus operandi would not have worked”.

We exchanged goodbyes and I put the phone down – only to realise I neglected the perfect chance to impress my supervisor with a direct quotation from a giant of the archaeological world in my essay. I should send him an email.