Confession of a Killer

Confession of a Killer

In February 1879, convicted murderer Charlie Peace faced the death sentence for killing his former lover’s husband. Whilst he was waiting for his execution on 25 February, he made an astonishing revelation and committed to a crime for which someone else had already been convicted. In a written statement, followed by an interview with a priest, Peace confessed how he had shot Constable Nicholas Cock in Manchester during a burglary, on 1 August 1876. An expert in housebreaking, he had gone to the city to ‘work’ some houses in the leafy suburb of Old Trafford. He was walking down Upper Chorlton Road towards Seymour Grove and as he turned the corner, he saw two police officers talking to two civilians, at the junction of three main roads. Peace crossed the road and entered the grounds of a house. One of the police officers followed him and stood on the steps of the house with his bulls eye lantern switched on. Peace fled and as he jumped over the wall, he saw the other police officer coming towards him. Fearing capture, he fired one chamber of his revolver ‘to frighten him’.     Despite the danger, PC Nicholas Cock continued to rush at Peace, so he discharged another chamber: ‘My blood was up, being nettled that I had been disturbed, so I said to him; “You stand back, or I’ll shoot you.”’ The bullet struck the officer in the chest. As he was shot, Cock ‘threw up his walking stick saying “Ah! You bugger”’, and fell to the ground. Peace fled the scene by scaling a wall at the back...
The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

The Scandalous Love Life of Sophie Dawes

I love a good smuggling story and I’ve been exploring the Isle of Wight in search of secrets from its shady past. When I visited the village of St Helens for the first time, I had no idea that one of its past inhabitants was a courtesan, self-styled aristocrat, and maybe even a cold-blooded murderer. Looking out onto the green at the centre of the village, a few doors along from The Vine Inn, there is a small wisteria-covered cottage with a blue plaque. This is the humble birthplace of Sophie Dawes, a smuggler’s daughter who became Madame de Feuchères and frequented the court of French king, Louis XVIII. Her astonishing history is a real-life rags-to-riches story, with a rather sinister twist at the end.     Sophie was born at Freefolk Cottage, in St Helens, around 1792. She was one of the ten children of Richard ‘Dickie’ Dawes, a fisherman and renowned smuggler. When her father died, Sophie aged 11, was forced to enter Newport Workhouse with her mother and surviving siblings. It was there that she learned to read and write, as well as basic domestic skills, which would change her life forever.     After about two years in the workhouse, Sophie left and travelled first to Portsmouth, where she worked as a chambermaid, and then to London. A few years later, she was working in a brothel at Piccadilly, where she met the exiled Duke of Bourbon, who had escaped to London in the aftermath the French Revolution. Allegedly winning the attentions of young Sophie in a game of cards, when the 54-year-old duke returned...
Shanklin’s Secret Smugglers

Shanklin’s Secret Smugglers

I am very fortunate to spend time regularly on the Isle of Wight, especially in Shanklin where we have a small house. The village, with its historic thatched pubs and sandy beach, was one of the main centres of island smuggling in the past, and there are still traces of its secret history present today.     For centuries, smuggling was endemic on the Isle of Wight. Goods were brought in on vessels from continental Europe, concealed on the island and then moved to the mainland for distribution. At its height, it was estimated that two thirds of the island’s inhabitants were involved in ‘free trading’, from the fishermen and sailors who shipped the contraband to the women who decanted it into small receptacles for its ongoing trade journey. Tobacco was one of the most popular ‘imports’, as well as brandy, gin, tea, fruit and textiles. All these goods could fetch a high price in the UK, particularly if you didn’t pay the excise duty.     The smugglers’ pub was at the centre of local operations and there were several in Shanklin, which are still in business today. On the beach is the Fisherman’s Cottage, located at the bottom of the deep ravine of Shanklin Chine. It was built in 1817 by William Colenutt, who was also responsible for cutting a path through the dense foliage of the chine so that it could be opened to the public. Merchandise would be smuggled in from France, unloaded on the beach at Shanklin and then carried up the Chine, under cover of darkness.     Halfway up the Chine is...
The Hunt for Amelia Dyer

The Hunt for Amelia Dyer

In 1896, three detectives from Reading Borough Police Force caught one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. Pictured with artefacts belonging to the case, these tenacious police officers used all their powers of deduction and expertise to catch notorious child murderer Amelia Dyer. On 30 March 1896, when a baby girl was discovered strangled in a brown paper package retrieved from the river Thames by a passing bargeman, Detective Constable James Anderson (on the right) provided the first vital clue in this shocking and complex murder case. James Beattie Anderson was originally from Aberdeen, but he had lived in Reading for over a decade. Like the other police officers on the case, he was married with a young family – he had five sons. Constable Anderson managed to decipher the faint writing on the sodden parcel that contained the tiny corpse found in the river, at Caversham Lock. It read: ‘Mrs Thomas, 26 Piggott’s Road, Caversham’. The police went to the address, only to find that Mrs Thomas was no longer in residence, but Anderson had the idea to take the parcel to Reading railway station to see if he could find out where it had come from. The package bore a Midland railway stamp and a date, which enabled the railway clerk to locate the entry in his ledger. He told the police that Mrs Thomas’s real name was ‘Mrs Dyer’ and she now lived at 45 Kensington Road. The hunt for a murderer had begun.     The investigation was led by Chief Constable George Tewsley (in the middle). A portly, middle-aged man with a handlebar moustache,...
Reading’s Year of Crime

Reading’s Year of Crime

At the end of every year, throughout the Victorian period, the Chief Constable of Berkshire released the annual crime figures for Reading and the surrounding villages. In December 1896, he revealed that the town had ‘gained an unenviable notoriety.’ The salacious details were published in the Berkshire Chronicle. One hundred and twenty years ago, the quiet idyll of this rural Berkshire town was shattered by the discovery of Amelia Dyer’s tiny victims in the river Thames at Caversham. The infamous baby farmer had moved to Reading the previous summer and it was here that her heinous crimes finally came to light. The shocked Victorian residents followed the dreadful events as they unfolded and Amelia Dyer was hanged at Newgate later that year.     The Berkshire Chronicle also described how Reading Prison had been ‘a venue of an execution’ during the same year, with the hanging of trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who had been found guilty at the Berkshire Assizes of murdering his wife. His crime of passion was immortalised in The Ballad of Reading Goal, by Oscar Wilde, who was incarcerated in the prison at the same time.     A more ‘festive’ crime was mentioned next in the report. On Christmas Day, Arthur Haslam ‘startled the neighbourhood of Goring’ by firing a weapon into the sitting room, where his friends and family were celebrating. Fortunately, no one was injured but Arthur was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude. His motive for such a desperate act was not reported. According to the newspaper, ‘burglars usually meet with a warm reception in Reading’ and two men named Brady and Worsdale,...