Sheffield’s notorious criminal and violinist who strung along the police
He was a vagabond, thief, master of disguise, murderer, womaniser and fugitive.
Perhaps Sheffield’s most notorious criminal, Charlie Peace baffled police up and down the country, while wooing the middle-classes with faux shows of sophistication.
Now items belonging to the crook – including a violin and prosthetic hand – are being exhibited for the first time.
Charlie Peace spent much of his wild life a wanted man, using a host of disguises to evade detection from police.
However, his life tale was the stuff of legend from day one.
Charlie’s mother was a naval surgeon’s daughter while his father was a one-legged lion tamer who worked in a travelling show.
He was the youngest of four children and, on his 14th birthday, accidentally pierced his left leg with a red-hot piece of steel.
The damage was incurable but Charlie would develop staggering agility – a trait that would aid his criminal escapades.
Around 1846 he began his criminal career. His signature crime was the faked collapse, which would attract the attention of caring passers-by whom he could pickpocket.
He was talented in other areas too – as an accomplished violin player and even a dabbler in amateur dramatics.
However, these interests were halted by four convictions between 1846 and 1859.
Charlie was a ‘portico thief’, entering houses through the first or second floor window, stealing jewellery and, on one occasion, seven pairs of boots, for which he was sentenced to four years.
Having tried and failed to escape prison, Charlie tried to commit suicide by slashing his throat with a nail. He failed at that too.
After his release in 1859 he returned from prison to Sheffield and married Hannah Ward, a widow with a baby. However, she didn’t reform him.
The pair were soon arrested after stealing from a house in Manchester and hiding the loot in a sewer, where the police waited to arrest them.
Throughout his ‘career’ Charlie served sentences in Millbank, Portland and Chatham jails and at a convict settlement in Gibraltar.
He returned to Sheffield in 1864, to his wife, stepson and new baby daughter, Jane, and started a framing business.
Then, after contracting rheumatic fever and being unable to work, he started burgling again, yet again in Manchester.
He was caught and sentenced to seven years. After his release in 1872 the family moved to Britannia Road in Darnall. And it was there that Charlie became besotted with his married neighbour, Katherine Dyson, the wife of railway engineer Arthur Dyson.
Charlie insisted she was his mistress and tried to woo her with great persistence.
His constant pestering led the Dysons to move home.
The rejection sent Charlie into a murderous rage and, on November 29, 1876, he visited the Dysons’ new Banner Cross cottage and shot Arthur in the passageway next to the house.
An inquest was held at The Stag Inn then a £100 reward was put on Char lie’s head. Aware of the bounty, he moved to Hull to be with his family who had moved away.
But after a few weeks he set out on a nationwide burgling spree, where he took lodgings with a new mistress – in the home of a police sergeant.
After dodging the law several times, and even shooting at a policeman in Hull to avoid arrest, Charlie and his mistress Susan Grey set up home in Peckham, London.
Peace and his new girlfriend passed themselves off as ‘Mr and Mrs Thompson’.
Their home was richly furnished, thanks to Charlie’s fruitful nocturnal activities, but the household was hectic.
The ‘Thompsons’ shared their home with Charlie’s real wife and children, who lived in the basement. In the evenings he would host musical soirees and entertain guests with song.
On October 10, 1878 Charlie was caught at last while out burgling. Policemen wrestled him to the ground – but not before one of the officers, PC Edward Robinson, was shot.
A spirit flask, a cheque book, a letter case, a crowbar, a gimlet, a centre-bit, a hand-vice and two chisels were all found on Charlie’s person.
He was charged at the Old Bailey for the attempted murder of PC Robinson.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s mistress had revealed the thief’s true identity, which led to him being sent back to Sheffield to the magistrates’ court for the hearing into Arthur Dyson’s murder.
He was put on a train at 5.15am. Towards the end of the journey he asked if he could ‘pass water’. His warders obliged and opened the window for him. Never to waste an opportunity, Charlie jumped out – but a warder caught him by the foot, leaving him dangling head-down from the window while the express train sped along.
Charlie wriggled free and the train continued, for a short while, until it was stopped. Charlie was caught, put on trial at Leeds Assizes, convicted – and hanged for murder.
Yet his idiosyncratic personality prevailed until the very last moments of his life.
Before his last meal – bacon and egg – Charlie apparently said: “This is bloody rotten bacon.”
Charlie’s items are on display at the Museum of London until April 10.
They form part of the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition, a collection of evidence held in the Metropolitan Police archives.
n For more information visit: www.museumoflondon.org.uk