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The Hull Arsonist (Part 1)

The name of Peter Sutcliffe will almost be a household name amongst those with an interest in crime and the macabre, and there will be scant few who do not know of the terror that the “Yorkshire Ripper” brought to the North of England during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. When he was finally caught – just two days into the new -year in January 1981, his arrest brought to an end one of the most high profile, horrific and prolific killing sprees in British criminal history. Coverage of Sutcliffe’s arrest, and revelations about his life and confessions dominated the British press at the time – and because they so dominated, another killer who was put away for his crimes just 18 days after Sutcliffe’s arrest went largely un-noticed. It is a worthy case to recount, for the person in question is one of the most unique figures in British criminal history, is arguably as prolific a killer as Sutcliffe, and he too, struck in Yorkshire.

“A FAMILY OF FUCKING RUBBISH, WE ALL HATE YOU. YOU SHOULD ALL LIVE ON AN ISLAND (DEVIL’S ISLAND). BUT IM NOT KIDDING BUT I PROMISED YOU A BOMB AND BY HELL I’M NOT KIDDING. WHY DON’T YOU JUST FLIT WHILE YOU’VE GOT THE CHANCE. IF WE CANT GET YOU OUT NORMALLY THEN WE’LL BASTARD WELL BOMB YOU OUT, AND THAT’S TOO GOOD FOR YOU”

The above missive was a warning scrawled on a piece of cardboard taken from a Cornflakes packet, and it summed up how by 1979, the name “Hastie” was infamous to the residents of Selby Street, in Hull, East Yorkshire. The Hastie family lived at no 12 Selby Street, and consisted of parents Tommy and Edith Hastie, and their seven children – four sons and three daughters. Tommy Hastie was a habitual criminal with a long criminal record, and the entire Hastie family seemed destined to follow in his footsteps, being involved in vandalism and theft and having many run ins with the neighbours throughout the 1970’s. They were commonly known as a “problem family” throughout the local area and were feared and detested in equal measure, as is evident by the anonymous missive that was received by the family in late November 1979. By the beginning of December 1979, Tommy Hastie was in the midst of serving his latest prison sentence for burglary of a local sports club, so Edith and the rest of the Hastie’s were home alone.

On the night of 04 December 1979 all of the Hastie daughters were staying with nearby relatives, leaving just Edith and the four boys – Charlie aged 15; Paul aged 12; Thomas aged 9, and Peter aged 8. It was just approaching midnight and the entire Hastie family were asleep, when someone crept up to the house, poured paraffin over the porch and through the letterbox, and set it alight.

The house was soon an inferno, and although Edith and Thomas Hastie managed to get out to safety, the fire was ultimately to claim the lives of Charlie, Paul and Peter Hastie. All three suffered horrific burns over 75-80 percent of their bodies in the fire, and were all to die over the following few days in the burns unit of Wakefield’s Pinderfields Hospital. Police were summoned when fire service investigators at the scene were able to determine almost instantly that the fire had not been an accident. There were spent matches found on the porch, and an overwhelming smell of paraffin, as well as a pool of paraffin nearby where someone had set a can down. But the resulting murder investigation, led by Detective Superintendent Ronald Sagar, faced an uphill battle from the start. The Hastie family were hated and feared by all in the area, and there seemed to be no shortage of suspects as to who could have wished them harm. Sagar was to comment at the time:

“Never before have I encountered such hatred and dislike for a family”

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12 Selby Street, scene of the Hastie fire

Police focused at first upon the theory that the author of the “devil’s island” note had made good on their threat against the family, and as a result handwriting samples were taken from hundreds of people living in the area. A match was quickly found, but the author was ultimately ruled out. It transpired that the author was a frail old lady who had been constantly terrorised and had property damaged by the Hastie boys. She was a churchgoer, and thought that writing a letter filled with swear words “would be the only type of language they would understand”. She had used cardboard from a Cornflakes packet to save on the cost of a stamp.

The funeral of the Hastie children took place on 4th January 1980, with a procession led down Selby Street. There were many onlookers to the procession, but a distinct lack of mourners and a very apparent lack of sympathy, believing that however extreme, the family had only got what had been deserved. Local television cameras were there to capture the moment when a hysterical Edith Hastie was to shout to the crowd:

“Which one of you fucking murdering bastards did this? It was one of you!”

Six months later, police enquiries had drawn a blank. Almost every different theory and line of enquiry possible had been explored and ruled out, including the theory that Edith or one of the Hastie daughters themselves had started the fire, and the possibility that the real target of the fire was the next door house – which was a known drug den. Ron Sagar and his team were under pressure – the enquiry was going nowhere and manpower needed to be redirected, and after six months the enquiry team were left with just one unexplored line of enquiry. Enquiries about the Hastie boys had revealed rumours that the eldest boy, Charlie, was involved in the local “rent boy” scene, and was said to behave indecently with local homosexual men for money  – perhaps the reason behind the horrific fire stemmed from this?

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Charlie Hastie

Local homosexuals were questioned in an attempt to establish the truth of these rumours, and in June 1980, a local 19 year old labourer who was questioned named Bruce Lee confirmed that not only did he know Charlie Hastie, but he had indeed been involved in “indecent sexual behaviour” with him. When pressed as to what this meant, Lee retorted “you know, mucking about, wanking and that”. Lee was not charged with any offence stemming from these revelations, and was released. After learning that the rumours about Charlie Hastie were true and he was indeed involved in the “rent boy” scene, Sagar decided to adopt a different tack: he decided to bring in known homosexuals for questioning, and accuse each in turn of setting the Selby Street fire, hoping that the real killer would break down and confess. This was a desperate strategy, but it was all that Sagar had left that he could do.

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Bruce George Peter Lee

The nineteenth such of these interviewees that police questioned was Bruce Lee, and Sagar said to him:

“Bruce, I’ll be quite blunt with you. I think that you started that fire at the Hastie family’s house, and that indecency with Charlie is probably the cause of it all somehow”

To Sagar’s surprise, Lee replied:

“I didn’t mean to kill them”

It transpired that Lee knew the Hastie family well, and he claimed that the fire was set “to teach Charlie a lesson”. Charlie, Lee claimed, had been threatening him and extorting money from him after the pair had indulged in mutual masturbation, with Charlie threatening to go to the police because he was after all a minor. Lee also claimed he felt a grudge against the family because he had constantly asked 16 year old Angie Hastie to be his girlfriend – and had been mocked and refused each time. In fact, he was constantly mocked and ridiculed by the Hastie family as a favourite target for bullying.

On 04 December 1979, Lee claimed he had gone to the Hastie house late at night, watching first from the shadows created by the opposite motorway flyover “for a good time until it went real quiet”. He described in detail approaching the door and pouring paraffin through the letterbox, then struggling to light the fire with matches. On the third attempt, he managed to ignite a newspaper and pushed it through the letterbox, then retreated back to the shadows he had been watching from to watch his handiwork. Lee was able to give investigators such correct intimate detail of the scene of the fire, and how it had been ignited, that there was little doubt he was responsible for the fire –  only the arsonist and the investigators themselves knew the exact forensics.

What kind of person, and what must occur in a life to set a person on the road to committing such heinous actions? It suggests a disturbed mind, unhappiness, anger and bitterness at the world, and someone with a very poor and sad life in general. Bruce Lee had all of these. He was born Peter George Dinsdale in Manchester on 31st July 1960, the unwanted child of a prostitute named Doreen and a father that the child never was to meet. Doreen had little if no love for the child, cruelly referring to him as “the freak” because young Peter had been born with epilepsy, a deformed right arm and congenital spastic hemiplegia in his right limbs. Between the ages of six months old and three years old, young Peter was cared for by his maternal grandmother as his mother didn’t want him around.  Even his grandmother tired of him by this time, and the boy spent the rest of his childhood living periodically in various care homes, periodically back with his mother and her common law husband, who Dinsdale got on reasonably well with. He attended a special school until he was 16, but suffered with what are now classed as learning difficulties and left school with no qualifications and an IQ measuring just 68. He was sporadically employed after leaving school, working such menial roles as labouring, assisting at the local Speedway track and at the gate for Hull Kingston Rovers on match days, and at a local pig farm. Co workers at the establishments Lee was employed at remember him as a sad character, quiet and unassuming and often mocked by those who knew him. Yet he never used to stand up for himself, he would just say nothing.

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Peter Dinsdale in his teens

As a result of such a chaotic and sad life, Dinsdale was often penniless, poorly clothed, and had few friends. It was whilst living in the various care homes that he was introduced to homosexuality, which he would partake in, and became involved in the local rent boy scene – where he met Charlie Hastie amongst others. He would often have to resort to sleeping with men just to earn money to eat, but it is possible that this was also as a need for affection in whatever form he could get it. Perhaps what sums up what a tragic figure Lee had become due to his haphazard life was the fact that he was known by all who knew him as “Daft Peter”, and was considered by all who knew him as an odd loner. Odd, but not dangerous. Perhaps in what was an attempt to overcome this and to transform himself, by age 19 he changed his name legally by deed poll to Bruce George Peter Lee, in adoration of the kung-fu star that he idolized. But this was after all, just a name change. He was still the same mocked and ridiculed youth, even with a “tough guy” name, and the impression he gave to people didn’t change. Ronald Sagar was to describe his first impressions of Lee as follows:

“He was…..not a normal young man, he was deformed, his right arm and right leg were deformed, he had a limp, he had a habit of holding his right arm across his chest. He was poorly dressed, he was clearly undernourished, and on first impressions one had to feel sorry for him”

Lee admitted to the detective that he had started hundreds of fires over the years, and that his first fire had been in 1969 when he was aged just 9. He had burnt a shopping centre to the ground, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. He enjoyed the thrill of setting fires, and explained that he favoured paraffin as an accelerant. He would break into premises, or sometimes just squirt paraffin through any gaps or letterboxes he could find. He would then strike a match and retreat to watch his handiwork. He claimed that he would travel around, either on foot or by pushbike, always armed with a washing up liquid bottle of paraffin, and would set fires “when I began to feel a tingling in my fingers”. Lee was able to hide in plain sight amongst the confusion of his fires, and enjoyed being in the crowds of onlookers, watching the emergency services dealing with the destruction he had caused. He admitted to Sagar:

“I like fires I do. I like fires. Fire is my master. I am devoted to fire and despise people”

Following his confession to being responsible for the Hastie fire, Lee was charged with three counts of murder and a count of arson, and remanded to Hull prison awaiting trial. That may have been the end of the investigation, but when the local papers reported that a person had been arrested for the Hastie fire murders, and a picture of Bruce Lee published, it opened a new chapter – and the floodgates.

On the night of 21st June 1979, nearly six months before the Hastie fire, Rosabell Fenton was preparing for bed when she saw a figure of a man stood by her front door. The figure moved away when he became aware that he had been seen. She was convinced it was “Daft Peter”, who she knew and had shouted at earlier that day as he was loitering on her porch acting suspiciously. Thinking no more about it, Rosabell went to bed but was awakened shortly later by neighbours shouting “FIRE”, as her house was ablaze. Rosabell immediately went to the bedroom of her 7 year old daughter to try to get her out to safety, but the fire was too fierce and both mother and daughter had to take shelter in the corner of the sitting room. They were eventually rescued in time, but both Rosabell and her daughter were badly injured in this fire. Rosabell was heavily pregnant at the time, and sadly suffered a miscarriage. She also had to spend eleven months recovering in hospital and had to have plastic surgery. The cause of the fire at the time was blamed on a discarded cigarette dropped by a neighbour who had left the house shortly before Rosabell had gone to bed – but Rosabell remained convinced that this was wrong and that the fire had been deliberately set. More so, she was convinced that it had been set by “Daft Peter”. It was only a year later when a picture of “Bruce Lee” appeared in the local press following developments in the Selby Street fire did she recognise both him and “Daft Peter” as being the same person, and voiced her suspicions to the police.

Detective Sagar visited Lee whilst he was on remand to question him about this fire, and when this was put to him, Lee readily confessed to breaking into the house and setting this fire also, saying:

“I just did it. Someone I knew didn’t like her and, well, I just did it”

Knowing that he was already dealing with a self confessed pyromaniac, Sagar pressed Lee further, asking Lee if there was the possibility that any of the other fires that he had started in the past may have caused injury – or worse, even death. Sagar wasn’t expecting any confessions, but what Lee had to say chilled Sagar to the bone and was the start of a tale so shocking that it was to eventually lead to the name Bruce George Peter Lee being ranked in the Guinness Book of Records as one of Britain’s worst ever multiple killers. Pausing for a long time, Lee replied:

“Yes, you are right. I killed a little baby once”

To be continued.

 

The True Crime Enthusiast

 

2 thoughts on “The Hull Arsonist (Part 1) Leave a comment

  1. i was 8 years old,born in hull and with my parents and sister in winter 1979 after a sunday drive out we all went back to my fathers work building on st andrews dock,we where there for an hour or so before we heard the sound of metal banging together my father went to investigate and 10 mins later he ran back in and shouted :everybody out now: we all ran out in fear to be confronted with the building next door burning to the ground a major blaze which took many pumps and firemen to get under control over days,the crowds started to gather we where there for hours and found out a couple of years later that bruce peter george lee was stood behind us watching his handy work

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  2. Bruce Lee wasn’t remanded too Hull Prison, (at the time, Hull Prison was a Catagory “A” Dispersal Prison). He was infact, remanded to H.M.P Armley, Leeds, were he was placed down the Hospital Wing!
    I remember at the time of the Hastie’s fire, I was 10 years old & lived down Albany Street, Spring Bank & a family of Brothers I knocked about with, went too a special School, called Deringham & the Hastie Brothers, also attended the school, (when their!) Anyway, I remember the day after the Selby Street fire, going with those same friends & standing in the middle of Anlaby Road Flyover, looking at 12 Selby Street & seeing all the blackened fire around the door/windows! Sad story tbh

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