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.