The Truth about Charlie Peace (1832–1879) – by Dr. Alan Caunt — 18th Nov 2019

Charlie Peace was Sheffield’s most notori­ous Victorian mur­derer who was born in grim sur­round­ings at Angel Court, Nursery St., Sheffield, in 1832. This is now the site of ‘The Big Gun’ pub.

His father, John, was a cob­bler, pic­ture framer, and sub­sequently trav­elled with the Wombwell Menagerie as a one legged lion tamer.

Charlie star­ted school in Pitsmoor, then, at Paradise Square for his middle school classes. He got employ­ment at Millsands Works as an appren­tice tin smith, then as a foundry worker at Kelham Island, where at the age of 14, he acci­dent­ally had a red hot iron bar through his leg. 18 months in the Sheffield Infirmary ensued, where he had his left knee­cap removed, but he learnt to play the violin. After dis­charge and a spell with a lock­smith, learn­ing how to make and pick locks, at 17 years of age he was not only an accom­plished viol­in­ist play­ing Paganini at The Prince of Wales pub on Ecclesall Road, but had acquired good house­break­ing skills.  He was short, with a limp, 2 fin­gers miss­ing from a fire­arms incid­ent, prob­ably had suffered with rick­ets and could dis­lo­cate his jaw at will. What a pic­ture!

At 19 he had 1 year in prison after house break­ing with his sister, using a hinged ladder which looked like a pole, when folded. Graham Wardley, a rag and bone man of the Salt Box Houses on Psalter Lane was sus­pec­ted to be the ‘fence’ for his stolen goods. There is a plaque and poem about Wardley at the remains of these houses, even today.

At 22 he was back in Wakefield prison for burg­lary, for 4 years, during which time he tried to escape.

On his release, he mar­ried Hannah Ward, who already had a son. They had 2 fur­ther chil­dren and lived in Kenyon Alley, near Netherthorpe. He still went burg­ling and was soon arres­ted in Manchester where he gave a false name of George Parker. This time he had 6 years hard labour, in Gibraltar.

2 years after his release, in 1866, and at the age of 34, he was caught burg­ling again and sent to prison for 7 years. On his release in 1873, he still went thiev­ing, and even­tu­ally settled in Darnall in 1875, and lived near to a couple called Dyson. He had an affair with Mrs. Dyson, and threatened to kill Mr. Dyson (a Civil Engineer). He was tem­por­ar­ily scared off, and moved to Hull, but when in Manchester whilst burg­ling, armed with a gun, he shot and killed P.C. Cock who had tried to arrest him. Two local broth­ers named Habron were wrongly con­victed of the murder, as they had pre­vi­ously pub­licly threatened to kill the P.C. There is a museum in Preston where P.C. Cock is buried.

Following the murder, Charlie Peace went back to Sheffield to Banner Cross (959 Ecclesall Rd. – which is now a Barbers) where the Dysons then lived. He slandered Mrs. Dyson and got into an argu­ment with Mr. Dyson, whom he shot dead. This was on 29/11/1876.

Charlie went on the run, and there was a big man­hunt.

Meanwhile, he took a girl­friend as a maid to Peckham where he changed his name to John Thompson, (one of many ali­ases he used through­out his life) had a horse and cart, became a respect­able member of the com­munity and had a good life, whilst at the same time, con­tinu­ing his thiev­ing, becom­ing a one-man crime­wave.

He was finally caught by P.C. Robinson, whom he attemp­ted to shoot. He was con­victed of attemp­ted murder and burg­lary. He con­fessed to being Charlie Peace, which wasn’t at first believed, but was con­firmed by his wife and Mrs. Dyson. His family sold up as he was sen­tenced to hard labour in Pentonville prison, for life, so he decided he wanted to die. He came up to Sheffield by train and drew a plan of the Bannercross scene of the murder of Mr. Dyson, which con­vinced the author­it­ies of his guilt of Mr. Dysons murder. On the second trip by train to Sheffield for the com­mit­tal pro­ceed­ings, he jumped out of the train window whilst hand­cuffed to an officer. He was injured in the ensu­ing ker­fuffle, but, reach­ing Sheffield, he was tried in a cor­ridor in the Sheffield Courts.

It took 10 minutes, by a non-white judge, to sen­tence him to be hanged at Armley Gaol by chief hang­man William Marwood, the ‘’long drop’’ pion­eer. The year was 1879. He was buried in a coffin in uncon­sec­rated ground.

There is a recon­struc­tion of the hanging scene in Madame Tussauds.

Before his death he con­fessed to the murder of P.C. Cock, so the Habron broth­ers were exon­er­ated.

In his will he left everything to his wife in her chip shop at Darnall.

A man whose per­son­al­ity changed, after a trau­matic acci­dent in his youth, with a com­pul­sion to burgle, he spent 50% of his life in gaol, and has a sep­ar­ate sec­tion for his thiev­ing arte­facts, at Scotland Yard.

Would he today be dia­gnosed with a treat­able con­di­tion?

Dr. Caunt, a retired anaes­thet­ist, and reg­u­lar S10 Probus speaker, amazed us again with his depth of research into this com­plex and vil­lain­ous char­ac­ter, about whom there have been numer­ous books, films, pho­to­graphs, museum exhib­its and talks.

All agreed it was a most enjoy­able and enlight­en­ing hour.