Caught in Blackheath: The notorious burglar, Charles Peace

Charles Peace (1832 – 1879)

(Monarch: Victoria)

Charles Peace / Credit: Purkess – The adventures of a notorious burglar

In the last three months of his career, Peace had a criminal love affair with Blackheath. It wasn’t reciprocated.

Wherever this man set up his abode, the houses of the leading gentry were burglarised night after night. The public blamed the police and took to writing indignant letters to editors of newspapers, but the ‘gang’ could never be discovered.[1]

Who was he?

Charles Peace / Credit: The Star (Sheffield)
He was a vagabond, thief, master of disguise, murderer, womaniser, and fugitive.[2]

or

He was the sole monarch of housebreakers.[3]

Like many other scoundrels, Charles was born to parents who tried to do the best for him. They were religious and hard-working – his father having a varied career from a collier to a lion tamer to a shoemaker. His mother was the daughter of a navy surgeon.

Peace did fairly well at school but became known for some other interesting skills rather than his academic abilities.

Irving, H. B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. New York (State): George H. Doran 1918
Irving, H. B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. New York (State): George H. Doran 1918

At just fourteen, Charles was injured in an accident at a steel-rolling mill where he worked. A fragment of red-hot steel entered his leg just below the knee. After eighteen months in the Sheffield Infirmary, he was left with a permanently damaged leg. Sadly, around this time, Charles’ father died.


Not long after these two events, Charley makes a move to the darker side of society, and Old Ma Peace took some of the blame for being a ‘criminally disposed mother’[4] although there’s little evidence (yet) to suggest this is true.


The Beginnings


In 1851, when Charles was nineteen, he began a spate of burglaries in and around Sheffield. At the same time, he taught himself to play the violin. A violin with one string. Yes. One string. And apparently, he was rather good at it.


People who heard him allegedly called him the modern-day Paganini (the celebrated violinist and composer [1782-1840]). Charley Peace with his one-string-violin versus Paganini, the master – it makes one wonder who was listening.

Charles Peace’s violin and ladder / Credit: Museum of London
Charles Peace’s violin and ladder / Credit: Museum of London

The self-imposed violin therapy didn’t stop Peace from the highs of burglary, though. He continued in his career as a night housebreaker, earning the reputation as The Portico Thief because he always entered a house from the first-floor window – quite something with his damaged leg.


In 1854, Peace was sentenced to four years at Her Majesty’s leisure for a multitude of burglaries.


Escalation


Out on release, Charley-boy finds the love of a woman; a widow called Hannah who already had a baby son called Willie. In 1859 they married, but in the same year, his sister (married to a man with an inclination to use his fists on women) sadly dies, although from what is unclear.

Hannah Peace / Credit: Illustrated Police News 15 February 1879
Hannah Peace / Credit: Illustrated Police News 15 February 1879

With his new wife and the loss of his sister, Peace might have chosen to settle down, but he contracted rheumatic fever and was unable to work. So, once recovered, he headed to Manchester and pillaged a lady’s house of some ‘substantial booty’.[5]


He doesn’t seem to have been a lucky chap because he was caught the next day after the police set a trap and was sentenced to another six years in prison – not that long considering he almost killed one of the police officers who’d been hot on his trail.


Good Old Ma Peace perjured herself, trying to provide her son with an alibi.


After his release in 1864, Peace got drunk and tried to do yet another burglary. Why these villains think a load of drink in their system will make them better criminals is a bit of a mind boggle. He was sentenced to another eight years in prison (1866) and tried to do a Jack Sheppard manoeuvre by somehow smuggling a small ladder into his cell. How he managed to shove that up his prison uniform without being seen is a mystery.


Although he wasn’t successful, he did get as far as cutting a hole in the ceiling, running along the prison’s roof, and slipping into the governor’s house to find a change of clothes. While waiting for the right time to scarper, he was caught.


In 1872, Peace was released and went back home to Sheffield to be with Hannah, his stepson, and his daughter. Sadly, the child Hannah had been pregnant with when Peace started his sentence was a son that died before Peace’s release.

Mrs Katherine Dyson / Credit: Illustrated Police News 15 February 1879
Mrs Katherine Dyson / Credit: Illustrated Police News 15 February 1879

Charley went on the straight and narrow for a few years, but then the family moved to Darnall, where he met the Dysons – particularly Mrs Dyson.


Apparently, she was an ‘attractive woman, buxom and blooming … and ugly men [can be] notably successful with women,’ [6] although Mrs Dyson claims that Peace was a demon beyond the power of even a Shakespeare to paint.’


Peace claims they were lovers. Mrs Dyson seems disgusted by the idea. Either way, events unravelled, and Mr Dyson stepped in to end whatever was happening. He threatened Charley and took out a summons against him. So, Peace packed up his bags and moved his family to Hull.


The Murder of PC Cock

Murder of PC Cock
Murder of PC Cock

On a job in Manchester, Charley was seen leaving the scene of his latest burglary. Two policemen tried to catch the daring thief, and Charley shot his gun purposely wide as a warning, but then PC Cock withdrew his truncheon, and Peace cocked his gun again, shot the PC and fatally wounded him.


Two local brothers were charged with the murder – one was released without evidence, and one was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to a prison sentence. Peace attended the trial, he said, to make sure he wasn’t a suspect.


The Murder of Mr Dyson

Charles Peace / Credit: National Emergency Services Museum, Sheffield
Charles Peace / Credit: National Emergency Services Museum, Sheffield

Charley wasn’t quite over Mrs Dyson and became a bit of a stalker – often seen lurking around her house. It got so bad that the Dysons moved from Darnell to another part of Sheffield, but Peace found them and continued his reign of creepy behaviour.


Apparently, he was in ‘a state of constant irritation and excitement on the Dysons’ account’[7]and was known to have beaten his own daughter when she mentioned his obsession.


In November 1876, Peace found his way back to the Dyson house and threatened Mrs D with ‘speak, or I’ll fire.’


Mrs D ran screaming back into the house, and Mr D, hearing the commotion, heroically comes face to face with Peace. A warning shot is fired, but Mr D ignores it and chases Peace down the alley. A fatal mistake. Charley-boy turns and fires again, aiming at Dyson, who fell to the floor – a shot to the temple.


Mrs Dyson runs back out of the house when she hears the shouts and screams, ‘Murder! You villain! You have shot my husband.’[8]


Peace escapes and makes his way back to Hull by train, where his wife kept an eating-house.


Charley on the run


Mrs Peace must have loved old Charley-boy because when the police came knocking at her door asking about her husband, she said she hadn’t seen him for two months. Meanwhile, he was sitting at the table eating the dinner he’d demanded on his return from his recent murderous activities. Mrs Peace distracted the coppers, giving Charley time to do a runner.

Irving, H. B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. England: Cassell, 1918
Irving, H. B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. England: Cassell, 1918

Later, he shaves his head, dyes what is left of his hair and sticks on a pair of spectacles. Becoming a master of disguise (he even wears a prosthetic arm at one point), Peace moves all over the country for the next couple of years but eventually, in 1877, finds his way to London and to Blackheath.


London – paved with gold


It didn’t take long for Peace to make a success of his most recent move. He started off in a downtrodden and rundown place in Lambeth and ended up in a suburban residence in Peckham where he lived quite an opulent life as a dealer in musical instruments. He changed his name to Mr Thompson – the name of the woman he had shacked up with, and bought a horse called Tommy.


As if his life wasn’t complicated enough, Charley wanted his wife, Mrs Peace (not Mrs Thompson), to move down from Hull and live with him at Crane Court in Greenwich with Mrs Thompson. Yep, you read that right. He wanted his wife and his mistress under one roof.

Mrs Thompson didn’t care much for Greenwich, though (says a lot about someone), so he moved them all to No. 5, East Terrace, Evelina Road, Peckham.

Peace, Mrs Peace and Mrs Thompson / Credit: Illustrated Police News 15 February 1879
Peace, Mrs Peace and Mrs Thompson / Credit: Illustrated Police News 15 February 1879

Together, they lived a decadent life, with Turkish carpets, gilded mirrors, a piano, a Spanish guitar, beaded slippers, and a walnut suite of furniture. Although they lived in the house together, Mrs Peace (who now passed as Mrs Ward), and her son, Willie Ward, inhabited the basement, while Charley and Mrs Thompson occupied the best rooms on the ground floor.


During his years there, Peace presented himself as a gentleman and even invented a contraption for raising sunken vessels. It was worthy of mention in the Patent Gazette and a meeting with Samuel Plimsoll (Liberal MP and of Plimsoll Line fame) at the House of Commons, who had the sense to decline Peace an audience with the head of the Admiralty.


Charley became such a character in and around Peckham that when local burglaries were committed, he was warned by the local police to stay safe (the odd little man, up late in his cellar, inventing things like a smoke helmet for firemen and brushes for washing railway carriages). They had no idea he was one of England’s most wanting criminals.


Life sounds quite idyllic at this point, but Mrs Thompson was often on the drink and inebriated. Apparently, she was so loose-lipped that Charley or Mrs Peace (now called Mrs Ward) would follow her when she went out of the house – swaying on the gin – and drag her home for an unacceptable beating.


The local community believed that Mr Thompson (Peace) was dedicated to his career as an inventor, picture framer, and musical instrument dealer. Meanwhile, Peace/Thompson was still wanted for murder up north while committing crimes across the south of London. What they also didn’t know was that Charley carried his gun strapped to his hand so he couldn’t ever drop it. He was always prepared![9]


Blackheath booty

Blackheath / Credit: James Holland / Harris Museum and Art Gallery
Blackheath / Credit: James Holland / Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Blackheath was one of Charley’s prime hunting locations for booty. After all, it had ‘cribs that were worth cracking’. [10] Although Peace/Thompson worked mainly on his own, he occasionally had the help of Bandy-legged Bill (Bill Rawton).[11]


For residents of Blackheath and Greenwich, there was a plague of twenty-six burglaries that ‘had excited much interest and even alarm’ throughout London by their ‘regularity’, according to The Times.

These burglaries, which have excited so much interest and even alarm in London, commenced in the early part of last winter, and were kept up with great regularity all through the season. The police received reports almost every Thursday and Saturday morning of burglaries at Blackheath, Lee, or Lewisham, and their utmost exertions failed to discover the perpetrator. At length they ascertained that the burglar had very small feet, traces of very small boot marks being invariably left in the gardens of the houses which had been burglariously entered. Still, however, the police were unable to trace the man.[12]

The burglaries were so frequent that locals wrote to the newspapers, as well as their MPs. They also began to blame the police, and an order was issued by Scotland Yard to all its divisions.

Sheffield Daily Telegraph - Saturday 01 March 1879 Blackheath burglaries police notice
Sheffield Daily Telegraph - Saturday 01 March 1879 Blackheath burglaries police notice

The Burglary at Blackheath / Credit: Dundee Courier - Friday 22 November 1878
The Burglary at Blackheath / Credit: Dundee Courier - Friday 22 November 1878

Blackheath bobbies


On 10th October 1878, around two o’clock in the morning., Constable Robinson saw a light appear to switch on in a window at the back of a house in St John’s Park, Blackheath. The house belonged to a Mr James Alexander Barness. PC Robinson watched for a while and then fetched two colleagues for backup. He needed it.


Inside the house was Charles Peace (Thompson), a two-time murderer.


The policemen noticed the light was moving in the room, so they surrounded the house – two in the back garden and one in the front – who rang the doorbell.


The moving light in the house extinguished. A man dropped from the drawing-room window onto the law and ran. The chase began.


PC Robinson dashed after Peace across the garden, but the burglar turned, the faithful gun strapped to his hand as he shouted:

Keep back, keep off, or by God I will shoot you’.[13]

PC Robinson paid no heed to the threat, so Peace/Thompson fired three shots that whistled past the PC’s head. Then a fourth shot came and the PC, missed by inches, pounced on Charley. They tumbled to the ground in a struggle, and a fifth shot – muffled this time – rang between the wresting pair. Robinson cried out.


But the PC did not give up, despite being shot in the arm.


He struggled and wrestled with the swearing Peace/Thompson until one of the other PCs caught up and battered the burglar with his truncheon. Charley-boy was taken to Greenwich police station on Park Row but gave his name as John Ward (how confusing is this getting?). Being a master of disguise, Peace/Thompson/Ward had used a solution on his face to change the colour of his skin and claimed to have only been in the country for a short period of time.


Justice

Charles Peace’s Tools / Credit: Illustrated Police News - Saturday 14 December 1878
Charles Peace’s Tools / Credit: Illustrated Police News - Saturday 14 December 1878

On November 8th, Mrs Thompson tipped off the police that John Ward was really Charles Peace. The police raided the Peckham home and found a stash of Blackheath booty. Hannah Peace had done a runner to Sheffield but was soon arrested, and Mrs Thompson quickly sold off Peckham house and all its contents.


By November 18th, John Ward (Charles Peace) was tried at the Old Bailey (details can be found here) for feloniously shooting with the intent to murder. He was imprisoned for life.


  • The JURY expressed their admiration of the courageous manner in which Robinson had discharged his duty and trusted that his conduct would be recognised and rewarded.

  • The COURT concurred in the recommendation of the Jury and ordered a reward of £25l.00 to be paid to him.

From Pentonville prison, where Peace was serving life, he was taken to Sheffield for the charge of murdering Mr Dyson. On his way back, Peace tried to escape by jumping out of the train, but again, he failed and was found lying unconscious by the tracks. Numpty.


To his end, Charley continued to state that he and Mrs D had been lovers, even though she denied it profusely. And, in one last show of something moral, he admitted to the murder of PC Cock.


Peace was sentenced to death.


Execution

Execution of Charles Peace / Credit: Illustrated Police News, March 1st, 1879
Execution of Charles Peace / Credit: Illustrated Police News, March 1st, 1879

On the day before his execution, February 24th, 1879, Peace was visited by his family (but not Mrs Thompson). He spent the time praying with them and blessed them all individually. The following morning, he was due to be executed by William Marwood, who invented the long drop style of hanging (no more fifteen minutes of slow death wriggling like the highwaymen). He ate a good breakfast of bacon and eggs before being escorted to the gallows.


Peace was buried in Armley Gaol. He was 46 years old.


What happened to …


Mrs Dyson emigrated to America a few days after Charley’s execution. Her parting statement included her disgust for Peace and that she loved her husband, and he had loved her.


Mrs Thompson requested £100 for helping the police catch Peace and declined to help him financially so he could employ a barrister. Charles still wanted to see her even though he knew she had betrayed him, but they didn’t see each other again once he had been arrested. She sold everything in the Peckham house and was never charged with any offence.


Hannah Peace was found not guilty at the Old Bailey for receiving stolen goods and continued to visit her husband until the day of his execution. Hannah died in 1891.


Final note


There is a lot of false information on the internet about Peace – much of it comes from sources after his death, written for dramatisation. Many pictures depict him as an old and rather ugly looking chap, but Peace truly was a master of disguise.


As can be seen below, he had many faces, and the truest depiction is not the one on the far right used in almost every source as this was Charley disguised. We will never really know which one has the greatest likeness, but the photo in the middle at the bottom is used in a book written by Houdini. The book gives an account of how Houdini pulled an escape stunt from the cell Charles Peace was formerly held in. There is no source to follow for the photo, but the stunt and entry into the book were witnessed by the Commander Chief Constable, Charles Scott.

The Many Faces of Charles Peace
The Many Faces of Charles Peace

 

Next time (Tuesday 26th October) we take a look at the history of the Palace of Placentia and the Old Royal Naval College.


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The website is still a work in progress as everything is checked against the primary sources (as far as possible) rather than relying on Google, so thank you for sticking with me.

 

Footnotes

  1. Dickens, Charles Culliford Boz. "SOME TALK ABOUT BURGLARS." All the Year round 889 (1885): 342-47

  2. Hobson, Dan. Sheffield’s notorious criminal and violinist who strung along the police, The Star, 19th December 2015.

  3. Whibley, Charles. The Book of Scoundrels

  4. Irving, H. B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. New York (State): George H. Doran [c1918], 1918 p.39

  5. Ibid p. 41

  6. bid p. 44

  7. Purkess, G. Charles Peace: or, The adventures of a notorious burglar: founded on fact and profusely illustrated. London. 1880

  8. ibid

  9. Dickens, Charles Culliford Boz. "SOME TALK ABOUT BURGLARS." All the Year round 889 (1885): 342-47

  10. Purkess, G. Charles Peace: or, The adventures of a notorious burglar: founded on fact and profusely illustrated. London. 1880 p. 378

  11. Ibid p. 431

  12. The Times. The Burglaries On Blackheath, Friday, November 8th 1878

  13. Moss, Eloise. Night Raiders : Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968. First ed. Oxford, 2019

Sources

  • Purkess, G. Life, trial, and execution of Charles Peace. London, Michael Sadleir Collection of Ephemera

  • Charles Peace: A Notorious Sheffield “Public Enemy.” The Police Journal. 1935;8(1):104-112.

  • Dickens, Charles Culliford Boz. “SOME TALK ABOUT BURGLARS.” All the Year round 889 (1885): 342-47

  • Moss, Eloise. Night Raiders. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019

  • https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/retro-place-where-infamous-sheffield-murderer-charlie-peace-killed-470900

  • Hobson, Dan. Sheffield’s notorious criminal and violinist who strung along the police, The Star, 19th December 2015.

  • Whibley, Charles. The Book of Scoundrels

  • Irving, H. B. A Book of Remarkable Criminals. New York (State): George H. Doran [c1918], 1918 p.39

  • The Times. The Burglaries On Blackheath, Friday, November 8th 1878

  • Moss, Eloise. Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968. First ed. Oxford, 2019