Michael Eaton Talks About Famous Nottingham Criminal Charlie Peace

Words: Gav Squires
Saturday 23 September 2017
reading time: min, words

The notorious burglar and murderer Charlie Peace used to live right here in Nottingham. On the back of a successful play about Peace, Michael Eaton has written a book about him and comes to the Five Leaves bookshop to talk about how Peace was portrayed in various media.


I used to be Napoleon in the waxworks show.

All the people, they admired me so.

But now I've had bad luck, they've melted down my grease.

They've put me in the Chamber of Horrors and called me Charlie Peace!


The book is about how a real-life character became a folk legend and how this began even before his death and in many different types of media. Charlie Peace was a burglar but after a spell in jail in the mid-1870s, he had an affair with a women who had moved in two doors down and ended up shooting her husband dead. On the run from the law, he moved into Narrow Marsh in Nottingham. Even though he didn't stay in Nottingham very long, he subsequently became a bogeyman figure, used to scare children in the city - "if you don't behave, Charlie Peace will get you."


After his death, Buster comics ran a strip called The Astounding Adventures of Charlie Peace, portraying the arch-rogue of Victorian London. He was depicted as the villain as hero, he was never allowed to keep his ill-gotten gains, usually giving them to the poor in the style of Robin Hood. In one strip he was even transported to 1960s London!


As we saw from the ditty above, Charlie has always been associated with waxworks. In fact he is the only figure to appear in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors twice. Even a Bishop of London joked that he had been "melted down for Peace" when someone said that they couldn't find his waxwork at Tussaud's. In the three weeks between his trial and his execution, Peace did a deal with Madame Tussaud's to buy his memorabilia.


By the time that Peace was caught and hung, ballads were on the way out. However, he was still mentioned in any that referenced waxworks, for example the lyrics to I'm Henery the Eighth I am:


Now at the waxworks exhibition not so long ago.

I was sitting among the Kings I made a lovely show.

To good old Queen Elizabeth I shouted, "Wotcha Liz!"

While people poked my ribs and said, "I wonder who this is?"

One said, "Its Charlie Peace" and then I got the spike.

I shouted, "Show your ignorance!" as waxy as you like...


In contemporary print, Charlie Peace appeared on the cover of the Illustrated Police News 8 weeks in a row. This was a record and it stood until the Limehouse killer, ten years later. The publishers of Illustrated Police News also published "penny dreadfuls" about Peace.


From the get-go, Charlie was a stalwart of popular theatre. There was a time when all plays being performed in theatres had to be registered with the Lord Chamberlain and 6 plays about Peace were so registered. However, there were actually more as there were also those advertised by travelling fairground companies.


One of the most famous films made about Peace was The Life of Charles Peace, released in 1905. It was made by William Hagger, a former fairground theatre showman, who shot it in Pembrokeshire using backdrops from one of his theatre shows. The film was one of the first to ever use title cards and also featured some of the earliest uses of match cuts.


The film was considered to be very anti-authoritarian, which played up to its very working class audiences. Frank Mattersham, a photographer made a second film with the same title later in 1905 but unfortunately, that film is lost. It was shot in Sheffield and made a great deal about the fact that some of it was shot in the actual locations that the events took place. He was even featured in The Beatles' film A Hard Days Night.


When Peace was eventually apprehended, by PC Robinson, he disguised himself using walnut juice and by dislocating his jaw. This is one of the reasons that none of his mugshots ever look the same. He also gave his name as John Ward but his plan was scuppered when his skin started to lighten while in custody.


He would keep the tools of his trade, including lock picks and a folding ladder, inside a violin case. In fact, he was quite the player, regularly performing in pubs. He even made himself a one-string fiddle and there are reports of him playing behind his head a la Jimi Hendrix. Who knows if he music career had taken off, maybe he would never have gotten involved in a life of crime.


Michael Eaton's book Charlie Peace - His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend is out now, published by Five Leaves.


Five Leaves bookshop website

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