Charlie Peace - Illustration by Eddie Campbell
When did you first become interested in Charlie Peace?
Charlie Peace has been in my life since childhood. At first I thought he was this mythical character - a bogeyman - someone who would come and get you if you didn’t behave. Then my nana, who was from Sneinton, told me Charlie was actually this burglar who lived in Narrow Marsh. I thought she had made it up as Nottingham was never mentioned in any of the stories I’d read.
How did he end up in Nottingham?
Love. Or rather jealousy. He was a portico thief from Sheffield, a master of disguise and ferocious fighter who fell in love with an Irish-American woman and became so obsessed with her that he shot her husband and went on the run. In the play I have him going straight to Nottingham but in reality he probably went to Hull first, which is where his wife was from, and then to Narrow Marsh.
Why Narrow Marsh?
Before becoming a skilled career criminal he’d spent six occasions in jail during his youth where he would have learned about the notorious Narrow Marsh. Every criminal would have known that when you go to a particular town there’s always an area you can front up in. It was a feted warren - behind where the Galleries of Justice are now - and was right by the River Leen, which is now all underground. There were lots of cheap lodging houses and coppers wouldn’t have dared go down there.
Charlie Peace - Illustration
by Eddie Campbell
What do we know about his time here?
Very little other than he fell in love, again, with a woman called Susan Bailey. Charlie had this irresistible magnetic attraction to women and fell madly in love with her. Susan Bailey was a lace worker and amateur songstress and would have performed in the old Music Halls, perhaps somewhere like the Malt Cross. Her beautiful voice would have been a great attraction to this supposed travelling salesman who himself was a fine musician, playing, appropriately, the fiddle and billed in low music halls as ‘The Modern Paganini’. But unlike Susan, his musicianship acted as a cover for a much more profitable trade: house-breaking. His violin case hid the tools of his trade. There were all kinds of ‘jobs’ he was reputed to have done here, like a cigar warehouse on Castle Gate and a silk factory in Long Eaton, as well as factories in Melton Mowbray. None of these have been documented but there must have been some way that he financed his lifestyle while living in Nottingham. There are even rumours he kept his swag in a cave under the castle.
So his myth is born of gossip?
While he was in Nottingham he wasn’t living as Charlie Peace because Charlie Peace was public enemy number one. There was a hundred pound reward poster for his capture in every cop shop in the country. He lived here very successfully under an alias. It’s only after he was later caught in London and revealed as Charlie Peace that people in Nottingham started to say, “Oh yeah, we knew him.”
How did he end up in the Old Smoke?
There are several stories but the one that I’ve chosen to use for the play is where they catch up with him at his lodgings in Narrow Marsh and find him in bed with Susan. He persuades the coppers to leave the room while he gets dressed and the minute they turned their back he was straight out the window. He fled to London and set up a place in Peckham and brought Susan down to live with him. (Laughs) Problem was he was staying in a house with another woman who he told Susan was his mother... she was in fact his real life wife.
Which is why she dobbed him in…
Charlie’s luck eventually ran out and he was caught at another robbery, this time in Blackheath. When he was arrested he gave the name of John Ward. He dyed his face with walnut juice and so the police thought he was a mulatto – a person of mixed race – but as he spent time in the jail he started to turn white again. At some point they discover this person they’ve got in jail for robbery is actually public enemy number one. And the reason this happened is common law wife, must have been the one to tell them as she petitioned for the hundred pound. So historically all we know about Charlie Peace in Nottingham is retrospective, when a reporter tracked Susan down to talk about his trial and execution and about their life together in Nottingham.
So now Nottingham can claim another criminal as our own…
The interesting thing for me is the way that Charlie Peace was a real life criminal but right from the moment of his arrest, trial and execution he gets turned into this legendary figure in popular culture; through waxworks, the lurid stories of the penny dreadfuls, in the early cinema and - even in my day - through children’s comics, such as Buster. But nowhere in this mythological, radioactive afterlife do they deal with his life in Nottingham. I think this play is the first time that’s ever been done.
Tell us about your friendship with artist Eddie Campbell…
I read the graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore, which is illustrated by Eddie Campbell. It tells the story of another mythological figure, Jack the Ripper, whose real identity has never been proven. I loved the way that Eddie had drawn Victorian London and knew this was a man who understood the nineteenth century. It’s a gory story but it’s not depicted in late twentieth century graphic sensationalism. I discovered that Eddie lives in Brisbane, Australia which is where my wife is from, so the next time we were over I contacted him and arranged to meet up for a drink. We quickly became very good friends because we were interested in so many similar things. Eddie knows an enormous lot about the history of graphic design and popular illustration, more than anybody else I’ve ever met. He’s a historian of his form as well as practitioner of it. We discussed doing a graphic novel of Charlie but it never quite came off.
Eddie has done the visuals for the Playhouse…
When I got an opportunity to write Charlie’s story for the Playhouse I gave Giles Croft a copy of From Hell
and said this is what I want the set to look like. Eddie has worked in books for thirty-odd years and had never done a theatre piece before and wasn’t keen on the idea at first but I knew it was possible after seeing Billy Ivory’s wonderful play last year about Notts County. Diary of a Football Nobody had the most fantastic set design as it looked like an animated Roy of the Rovers cartoon. It was then I realised how I wanted my Charlie Peace set to look. Eddie could do these 2D illustrations which could then be animated 3D on the set.
The set design is authentic to the period as well…
One of the ways that Charlie Peace’s memory continued to circulate was through plays performed in the travelling fairground theatres that toured the country and would come every year to Goose Fair, for instance. So the form of my play is like it is being put on in the 1880s, shortly after Charlie’s death, to resemble the travelling theatres of the nineteenth century. Eddie’s drawings will be animated on top.
When the play finishes you’ll be bringing Charlie back to life once more for a graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread, which is about raising awareness of local history and the importance of libraries…
Charlie Peace - Illustration by Eddie Campbell
Twenty years ago I was allowed access to the repository of the newspaper and magazine archive on Carlton Rd. The staff found me these decaying copies of some old Victorian journals for a project I was researching, but sadly it’s closed down now. I was thinking about this recently as the British Library are digitising their archives and closing down their Colindale Branch of newspapers and magazines, which is where I did my research for Charlie Peace on the Buster comics and The Illustrated Police News. He made the cover nine issues on the trot with graphic illustrations depicting iconic incidents from his infamous career. No other criminal came close until an unknown serial murderer stalked the streets of Whitechapel…
Colindale was this kind of spooky place. You knew that everyone inside was there for a bizarre and peculiar reason. On one level research is getting easier with libraries putting all of their work online but on the other hand there’s a kind of physical and geographical memory of visiting libraries that I hold very dear. Research is an adventure. You remember your trip down there, the librarian who took you into the vaults, you remember the vaults being opened and seeing the magic unfold before your eyes. Although much more difficult than researching online, these are memories that will always stay.
Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend, Friday 4 - Saturday 19 October.
Nottingham Playhouse, Wellington Circus, NG1 5AF
Nottingham Playhouse website