Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The criminal side of Manchester


Some years ago I co-wrote a book called The World of Crime (you can still find it on ebay).  Today I was giving a Corrie walking tour (if you require more information on those please look at previous postings) around Manchester and Salford and in the pouring rain, sheltering under a viaduct we got talking about Manchester's Victorian crimes - and I remembered this article I did years back for a crime magazine promoting the book.  Hope you enjoy it.

Dukinfield Police.  Picture copyright
Tameside Council.
‘The World of Crime’ brings together a unique collection of true criminal tales from the Victorian and Edwardian periods. These stories come from across the globe – from America, Canada, France and of course, from the British Isles. But of most interest to Lancashire readers will be two chapters based in the north – one telling the tale of a policeman’s lot and the other, the fiendish story of master criminal Charles Peace.

Peace was born in Sheffield, the son of a very resourceful man indeed. His father, originally from Staffordshire, worked as a collier until he lost a leg in a freak accident and was thrown onto the occupational scrap heap. He re-trained – as a lion tamer would you believe – and joined the famous ‘Wombwell’s Wild Beast Show’. The family eventually ended up in Sheffield and little Charlie Peace was educated in the city until he was fourteen when he was sent to work in a rolling mill.

Here he too was victim to a tragic accident when a piece of red-hot steel entered his leg and he was left a cripple. In 1851, aged just nineteen, he took the first steps on his path of crime. He broke into a house but was caught and sentenced to one month’s detention. After his release he took up the violin and toured the area playing at fairs and in public houses. One contemporary account describes him as “the modern Paganini.”

Violin playing was just a cover however, and he was arrested again in 1854 when he served a further four years. Upon his release he took up both violin playing and burglary once more and on August 11th 1859 a house in Manchester was broken into and a large quantity of goods stolen. The following day the police discovered the stolen goods hidden in a hole in a field, they left the items there and kept watch. Soon after, Peace arrived to retrieve his bounty and he was arrested following a violent struggle. This time he got six years.

Charles Peace’s story continues in the same vein – further crimes, further arrests, further sentences. By 1876 he had a wife, a daughter and a mistress. At about midnight on August 1st of that year he entered the grounds of a house belonging to a Samuel Greatorex on the boundary of Whalley Range and Chorlton, about four miles south of Manchester city centre. Unfortunately he had been seen by two constables and one of them, twenty-three-year-old PC Nicholas Cock went to challenge him. Peace drew a revolver, the young PC held his truncheon out shouting, “Put the gun down and don’t be foolish!” Peace fatally shot him in the chest and made off.

Near the scene of the killing lived two brothers, William and John Habron, who were well known to the police. It was they who were arrested for the crime having been overheard some days before threatening the young constable. John Habron was found guilty and sentenced to hang – Peace sat in the public gallery and watched the case, no doubt with some glee. Habron was not actually hung but, following some petitioning of the Home Secretary by influential local businesspeople uneasy with the evidence offered against him, the innocent man was sentenced to a period of penal servitude.

Peace continued to commit his crimes and prospered so much that he ended up living in a large villa in London with two mistresses. It all came to an end when he was arrested during a robbery and, having threatened to shoot the arresting constable, he was sentenced to life for attempted murder. One of the mistresses collected a £100 reward for revealing his true identity and the police realised that they had caught one of Britain’s most wanted. He was hung on February 25th 1879 and shortly after, William Habron was freed with £800 compensation.

Another section of the book recounts the career of Jerome Caminada who rose from constable to superintendent in Victorian Manchester. He’s gone down in the history books because of the colourful, detailed diaries he kept and this book uses many of these recollections to great effect. Caminada’s beat included Spinning Field just off the busy thoroughfare of Deansgate which is described as being, “One of the worst dens for prostitution and theft – it was a very brave police officer who entered these premises without fearing for his safety.”

In Caminada’s time public houses were allowed to stay open from 4am until 1am and were popular haunts for the under-classes. Many of the beer-houses laid on ‘entertainment’ such as dog fights, rat-baiting and badger draws and it was here that gangs met to discuss and plan their next crimes. The police officer draws the distinction between the different types of criminal and their punishments, chronicling that a poor man who stole goods worth twelve shillings was sentenced to ten years whereas a middle-class criminal got just twelve months for stealing £4000.

“I have often stood by when men have been sentenced to terms of penal servitude which have filled me with sorrow, because I have been convinced that in many cases the sentence meant either a criminal death of insanity; for astonishing as the statement may appear, I have never yet known a man or a woman return from a long sentence of penal servitude in their rational mind; and yet in all probability the criminal had never in the course of his or her life a single chance of getting out of the circumstances in which he or she was born, breathing through poverty an air of temptation.” he records expressing an incredibly liberal attitude for the times.

Caminada served with the Manchester Police from 1868 until his retirement in 1899 by which time he had become the most honoured man in a force that totalled 1,037 officers. It is only right that this new book pays tribute to such a man and gives a unique insight into life in Manchester during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Criminal and police are well represented in this collection of twenty-eight stories – some murders, some cons such as the man who ‘sold’ Buckingham Palace and some famous names such as the disappearance of Agatha Christie or the real crimes investigated by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A great read full of intriguing yarns and illustrated with over ninety pictures.

If you live in Greater Manchester and you like true crime, you'll find more stories like these in Crime Files Oldham, which will be out via the Oldham Chronicle newspaper in September. 

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