There are certain British killers whose names loom large in popular culture. Hindley and Brady. Fred and Rose West . Harold Shipman. But most people will never have heard of one of the most prolific serial murderers of the past century: Bruce George Peter Lee. He committed a string of horrific crimes in the north of England, but has always evaded the widespread infamy of his more notorious peers in depravity. Why?
Part of the answer lies with one of those peers: Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Sutcliffe was active in the north at the same time as Lee, sucking up all the publicity of the time. But it’s also likely that Lee’s MO meant he never captured the imagination of the tabloids. Rather than being a 'hands on' murderer or sexual sadist, his chosen method of attack was arson, and he seemed to be motivated more by a compulsion to ignite flames, rather than by a specific urge to kill.
Lee, who was called Peter Dinsdale before he changed his name, can’t be as easily pigeon-holed as other serial killers. The case is too messy, too strange, too sad, with Lee himself an awkward, almost pitiable figure. This may have been why he wasn’t able to be transformed into a notorious figure of demonic allure by the press.
The mystery massacre
On 4 December 1979, Edith Hastie and her sons were awoken by the smell and sound of fire in their home in Hull. Someone had poured paraffin through their letterbox and set it alight. Acting quickly, her oldest son Charles – aged just 15 – pushed her out of an upstairs window. There was a big drop, but he knew there was no other chance for her survival. Charles himself stayed inside the inferno to save two of his younger brothers. It was impossible, and all three would perish from their injuries. But, despite the horror of their deaths, the local community was anything but sympathetic.
Police already knew the Hasties as a 'problem family' who were blamed for rowdy, anti-social behaviour in the area. The boys’ deaths didn’t melt anyone’s hearts, either. 'Never before have I encountered such hatred and dislike for a family,' one detective later recalled.
The sheer number of people with grudges against the Hasties meant anyone could have been a suspect. The police interviewed a wide number of young people in the area, and were stunned when one of these lads, Peter Dinsdale, casually admitted to being the arsonist. It turned out there was a personal grudge after all – Dinsdale claimed he’d been sexually involved with one of the victims, Charles Hastie, who’d then blackmailed him for money. On top of that, Dinsdale had apparently been mocked by the family for daring to develop an interest in one of the female siblings, adding to his sense of furious humiliation.
It looked like the case was closed. Dinsdale, who’d had a rough childhood, seemed to have a below-average IQ, was known as 'Daft Peter' and had a deformed arm and leg, looked like a social misfit who’d murderously lashed out at a family who’d pushed him too far. But that wasn’t the full story, by a long shot.
The unexpected confession
Just when detectives thought they’d wrapped up the whole sorry episode, Dinsdale revealed the fire at the Hastie home was just the latest of many, many arson attacks he’d unleashed over the years. The first had been committed when he was just 12, when he stalked the house of a fellow schoolboy called Richard Ellerington. In the dead of night, Dinsdale set the place alight, almost killing the whole family. Young Richard died in the blaze.
Just weeks later, Dinsdale struck again at the home of a man called David Brewer, who was incapacitated at home after a work injury. Brewer had gone to the loo and returned to the living room to find it being devoured by flames. His clothes caught fire and he was seen running in anguished desperation through the street, covered in burns. Brewer died, but Dinsdale was far from done.
According to Dinsdale’s shocking, unsolicited testimony to the police, he carried on setting houses alight over the ensuing years, killing men, women and children. Each incident had been dismissed as a mere accident by authorities, allowing Dinsdale to carry on indulging his mania. He claimed the urge was almost beyond his control, and that he knew he was ready for a new attack when his fingers began to tingle. 'My master is fire,' he said, chillingly.
Dinsdale, who changed his name to Bruce Lee in homage to the martial arts icon, was eventually convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, and sent to a secure hospital. But controversy has dogged his case ever since, with some believing he falsely claimed 'credit' for some of the fires. One of his worst apparent crimes – an attack on a retirement home which claimed several lives – was later ruled to have been an accident, bringing his official body count down.
But despite the debates about exactly what he did, and despite the striking lack of public knowledge about his crimes, there’s no denying his place as one of the country’s worst mass killers. The man who calls himself Bruce George Peter Lee once said, 'I am devoted to fire and despise people'. He proved that, with horrifying consequences.