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George Clarke c. 1864

In my book, 'The Chieftain', several of George Clarke's minor criminal investigations could not be included because of space limitations. Rather than see them lost to posterity, I have decided to use this Blog  to provide information about some of the  unpublished events in which George Clarke was involved during his long career as a London policeman.

Clarke became a uniformed Police Constable in S Division (Hampstead) of the London Metropolitan Police in 1840.  He was probably first based at Albany Street Police Station (see 'The Chieftain' pp.19-20). As the principal activity of the London policeman was crime prevention, rather than crime detection, it is not surprising that there are few records (e,g newspaper  or Court accounts) of the daily activities of London's 'Peelers' or 'Bobbies' (as they were colloquially known). My research has unearthed only a few cases between 1840 and 1862 that were reported in contemporary newspapers, in which  a Police Constable or Police Sergeant George Clark(e) of S Division was involved . However, it is highly likely, though not 100% certain, that the George Clark(e) recorded in the following events was the individual who, in 1862, was transferred to the detective department at Scotland Yard. The accounts are also illustrative of the types of 'minor' crime dealt with by the 'Bobby on the Beat' in that era.

The Constipated Thief?

On 8th April 1844, Police Constable George Clark [sic] gave evidence at the Old Bailey in the trial of John White (aged 20) for stealing nine shillings and one groat . Three days earlier, White, had gone into the chemist’s shop of William Golding in Upper Albany Street, Regent’s Park and asked for a ‘black draught and a pill’ (a common purgative in the nineteenth century). The chemist’s errand boy, John Robinson, had given change of nine shillings and a groat for the half-sovereign that had been tendered before he noticed that the half-sovereign coin was counterfeit. Shouting “Stop Thief”, Robinson chased after White who was seen by a passer-by to throw away a packet later found to contain the nine shillings and a groat. P.C. Clark then appeared on the scene and, from his local knowledge, arrested White, who was subsequently found guilty at the Old Bailey and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. (References: Wikipedia - Black draught; Old Bailey Proceedings Online April 1844 John White (t18440408-1287)).

The Dangers of Staying Out Late

On 26th February 1849, George Clark [sic] (Police Constable S279) gave evidence in the trial at the Old Bailey of John Cummings (aged 20) for stealing a watch, two keys and one pound 18 shillings in silver, the property of John Turner.

Turner, a grocer’s assistant from Marylebone, had a few drinks on the night of 13-14th January and outstayed the curfew time for his own lodgings. He claimed to have met a woman who found him a bed in an accommodation house; at least that was his story and he stuck to it in cross-examination. After the woman had left, Cummings and an associate had entered the room armed with a poker, and claimed that the bed “belongs to me and my mate….[and] we pay 1s. 6d. a week for it”. Threatening Turner with the poker, they took all of his clothes, went downstairs and turned out his pockets before eventually throwing his trousers and boots back to him.

After getting dressed, and finding his watch, keys and money missing, Turner looked for the nearest policeman, who happened to be George Clark. After locating a colleague, Clark went to the house, where he found Cummings with two women in the bed previously occupied by Turner. Cummings was arrested for stealing and, at his trial, was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation. (At that time, approximately 460 convicts a year were transported to Australia, but transportation was completely phased out by 1868 and had been uncommon for several years before that).
 (References: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, John Cummings ( t18490226-746); Wikipedia-Penal Transportation.)

A Police Officer's Retirement

Some five years after George Clarke had been promoted to Sergeant, The Lloyds Weekly Newspaper reported, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, a police event of a kind that has probably changed little over the years and which, on this occasion, was chaired by Clarke himself:
Testimonial To a Police Inspector – On Tuesday [14th September 1858] a crowded meeting of the constables and sergeants of the S division of the metropolitan police, was held at Mr. H. Wilkins’, the Abbey tavern, Violet-hill, St John’s-Wood, for the purpose of presenting a very handsome silver tea service, to Mr. Edward Cooke, late an inspector in the S division. Sergeant Clarke (19S), occupied the chair, and Sergeant Westlake, (2S) the vice chair; and in the course of some neat and eloquent speeches, it appeared that Mr Cooke had been in the police force for twenty-five years, had always been a good and kind officer, was much respected by the inhabitants, and that the service of plate then presented to him was purchased by the subscriptions spontaneously given by the sergeants and men immediately after Mr. Cooke’s retirement. Mr. Cooke having replied in very forcible terms, the company separated.”
(Reference: Lloyds Weekly Newspaper 19 September 1858.)

The Silk Thieves

Sergeant Clarke 19S was to appear again in a case reported in the press in June 1860. It involved fraud and the theft of silk, a valuable commodity in Victorian times.

Mr Philip Hillmand, a draper from Daventry, Northamptonshire, had been seeking to fill a vacancy for an assistant and a ‘William Woodhouse’ had applied for the post, giving as a reference the name of Mr Nicholas Whitehall, a draper in St John’s Wood. The referee was written to at the address provided and a glowing testimony was subsequently received, leading to the appointment on 28th May 1860 of ‘Woodhouse’ to the vacant position in Daventry.

On 31st May while out in his gig, Mr. Hillmand spotted his new assistant with a parcel under his arm, hastening along the road in the direction of the railway, where he apparently intended to collect his luggage at the station. However, ‘Woodhouse’ never returned and Hillmand discovered on the following day that he had been robbed of silks and other expensive articles to the value of £40 (worth c. £1750 today. Understandably keen to locate ‘Woodhouse’, Hillmand contacted his local police who communicated with the Metropolitan Police, and Sergeant Clarke was waiting for him when Hillmand travelled to London. Clarke took Hillmand direct to a house where they discovered ‘Woodhouse’ and took him into custody on the charges of robbery, and obtaining a situation by means of false character.

The prisoner, now revealed as ‘Henry Alfred Yorke’, appeared at Worship Street Police Court, where it was stated that he was likely to be a member of a gang of 12 or 14 others (including a certain William Woodhouse Kitt) who systematically pursued this system of fraud. The magistrate ordered that Yorke should be returned to Daventry under a police escort and, at the quarter sessions of 4 July 1860 at Northampton, he was found guilty of ‘larceny by servant’ and was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. 

In helping to secure a conviction, George Clarke had clearly-demonstrated useful knowledge of the relevant villains on his ‘patch’.

(Reference: The Times 30 June 1860.)

It is my good fortune to have some documented records for several of my ancestors which have provided me with information about their Christmas-time experiences.  Amongst one of the more interesting accounts is that of my great-great-grandfather George Clarke in 1864 when he spent Christmas in Germany accumulating evidence in a murder case.

Detective-Sergeant George Clarke, Christmas 1864

George Clarke c. 1864; at that time a Detective-Sergeant. Photo courtesy of John Ashe.

George Clarke had spent much of November 1864 investigating the murder of Theodor Fuhrhop, a recent German immigrant, whose decapitated body had been found on the Plaistow Marshes, London. The prime suspect, another German,  Ferdinand Kohl,  had been quickly arrested but the case against him needed to be strengthened by confirmation that some clothes and other items that Kohl had pawned had originally belonged to the murder victim.  As Fuhrhop had arrived in Britain only a few weeks before his murder, the people best able to provide confirmation or otherwise  of this were his family back in Germany.  Clarke picks up the story....:

"I beg to report in reference the murder of Theodor Christian Fuhrhop at Plaistow, K Division...... that after receiving instructions from Mr Greenwood, Solicitor to the Treasury, I left London on the 21st ultimo [December] for Hamburg taking with me the whole of the property belonging to the murdered man, and which was in possession of Police. I arrived at Hamburg on the 23rd and delivered the letter of introduction to Mr. Ward, Her Majesty’s Consul in that town, who granted me every assistance.  I shewed [sic] the property to the family of the deceased and it was all identified by Carl Henry Theodor Fuhrhop, the youngest brother, who I brought with me to London.  On the 25th I left Hamburg for Splietau in Hanover, accompanied by an interpreter for the purpose of ascertaining the antecedents of the prisoner “Köhl” which I found to be generally bad. He enlisted in the Kings Regiment of Hussars in 1860 for ten years but after serving 2½ years he was convicted and sentenced to three months in a Military Prison for stealing from his comrades, and was then dismissed the service. In the early part of 1864 he was charged with stealing a quantity of harness at Ledorf near Splietau, but he then absconded to avoid punishment and came to England.  I returned to Hamburg on the 27th and after making every possible enquiry I left for London where I arrived on the 31st.  I have since furnished Mr Hodgson of the Treasury with all the information I had obtained and that gentleman has also taken a verbal statement from Carl Henry T. Fuhrhop.  Mr Hodgson expressed himself pleased with the result of my enquiries”. [Crown Copyright extract from National Archives file TNA/PRO MEPO 3/77].

These days, a journey of that nature might be straightforward.  In the middle of winter in 1864 it was undoubtedly less so....and somewhat lacking in Christmas cheer! However, Clarke's trip to Germany proved worthwhile. The information that he gained then, and during his earlier investigations in London, was central to the case against Kohl who was convicted for the murder of Fuhrhop and sentenced to death, a sentence that was carried out in public on 26 January 1865 outside Springfield Prison, Chelmsford.  This was the last public execution to take place at the Prison. For further information about Clarke's investigation, see pages 51-65 of 'The Chieftain'.



It is a real pleasure, for the first time, to host  a guest writer on this blog. The following informative article written by David Craig unearths some very interesting information about another  Detective at Scotland Yard in the mid-Victorian era: John William Reimers.  David's article also asks for any additional information that readers may have to add to his research on Reimers. Over to David:

Another Detective at Scotland Yard, 1869: Sergeant John William Reimers

by David L Craig, Brisbane, Australia; E-mail:

In researching the family history of my son-in-law, I discovered that his great-great-grandfather was John William Reimers, who was a member of the London Metropolitan Police in the Scotland Yard Detective Department from 1869 to 1879.  This led me to Chris Payne’s excellent book, The Chieftain, about the early days of the Scotland Yard Detective Department.  This contains a number of references to Reimers.  Chris has also written a number of blogs providing more detail about a number of the senior detectives at Scotland Yard who feature in his book.  Chris encouraged me to write a blog about Sergeant Reimers for publication on his website, using the research material I have acquired, to expand the information available on the members of the Scotland Yard Detective Department circa 1869.  An ulterior motive for my writing this article is the hope that one of Chris’ readers might have information that would allow me to fill in gaps I still have in Reimers’ life story.

John William Reimers was actually born Johann Wilhelm Diederich Reimers on 10 March 1830 in Oldenburg Province in, what was then, the Duchy of Holstein.  At the time, Holstein was controlled by Denmark, though most people in Holstein spoke German, not Danish.  Reimers’ parents were Carl Gocheim (or possibly Joachim) Heinrich Reimers and his wife Sophia.  Reimers’ father was a harness maker (and it seems that Reimers is actually a German word meaning harness maker).  This information comes from Reimers’ marriage certificate and his police pension document (from the UK National Archives).  Unfortunately, I have been unable so far to ascertain any further information about his Holstein family.  His Summary of Police Service from The Met Collection, says that Reimers’ occupation prior to joining the London Metropolitan Police was saddler, which would seem to be a logical occupation for someone whose father was a harness maker.

Reimers migrated to England sometime during the 1850s, where he Anglicized his name to become known as John William Reimers, though he variously appears in documents as John Reimers or William Reimers.  I have not yet been able to establish with certainty when he arrived in England, or why he migrated.  He was certainly in England by 1859, as he married in England and joined the Metropolitan Police as Police Constable A-595 Westminster Division (ie Scotland Yard) in that year.

A probable reason for his migration was the political turmoil in Schleswig and Holstein.  These two Duchies tried to break away from Danish control and join the German confederation in the late 1840s.  The army of Schleswig-Holstein, supported by the Prussian army, fought the Danish army in the First Schleswig-Holstein War in 1848-50.  It appears that Reimers fought in this war, presumably in the German-backed Schleswig-Holstein army, and was wounded in the fighting.  The evidence for this is a newspaper report (The Standard, London, 28 August 1862) concerning the trial in the Middlesex Sessions of Fritz Tull, a native of Schleswig-Holstein.  This article says:

The evidence was very ably interpreted by William Reimers, 595A, a countryman of the prisoner’s, who was engaged in the Schleswig Holstein war.

Reimers’ police pension document says that he had a shot wound in left leg, but that he was not injured in his service with the London Metropolitan Police.  So, it seems likely that the leg wound was inflicted during Reimers’ service in the First Schleswig-Holstein War.  As the Danes defeated the Schleswig-Holsteiners in that war, life was probably quite difficult for soldiers from the defeated side in the aftermath.  Many who fought on the Schleswig-Holstein side migrated to other countries after that war.  For example, there were quite large Schleswig-Holstein communities established in the USA at the time by people fleeing the aftermath of the war.  A Second Schleswig-Holstein War was fought in 1864, resulting in Schleswig-Holstein becoming a German State (as it is today), but Reimers was in England and a London policeman by that time.

Reimers joined A Division (i.e. Westminster Division or Scotland Yard) of the London Metropolitan Police as a uniformed Police Constable on 6 June 1859.  He remained in A Division for the whole of his 20 years of police service.  He was promoted to Police Sergeant on 29 May 1867 and transferred to the Detective Department as a Detective Police Sergeant on 28 June 1869, at the time of a major expansion of the Scotland Yard Detective Department.  He was later promoted to Detective Inspector on 2 October 1876, but then demoted to First Class Detective Police Sergeant only a short time later on 26 December 1876.

This demotion appears to have occurred as a result of a falling out with his superior, Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich.  As detailed in Chris Payne’s book and blogs, Druscovich was one of the detectives convicted of corruption in mid-1877, and it seems likely that Reimers may have been unfairly demoted.  As detailed in The Chieftain, Reimers had told Superintendent Williamson in early December 1876 of a conversation that took place between himself and Druscovich in late November that year:

I said, ‘How are you getting on with the turf swindle?’ He [Druscovich] said, ‘Damn the turf swindle! I wish I had never heard anything of it’. He then added ‘I have documents in my hand with which I could smash two’. Just before he said this I had said ‘I believe there is some one else in it besides Meiklejohn’. Then he made the remark about the documents. I then said to him ‘Have you told the Governor so?’ (Meaning Mr Williamson.) To that he replied ‘No, I have not; let him find out like I have done’. I then said to him ‘Surely you will not jeopardise your position for the sake of screening others’. He made no reply.

Just under six months after joining the police service, Reimers married Harriet Stedman on 14 December 1859 at the Church of All Saints, Croydon, Surrey.  Harriet was baptised in Ockley, Surrey, on 17 December 1826, and so was just over three years older than her husband.  Her parents were James Stedman (a farmer) and Hannah Carter, and she was the middle child of ten children.  Reimers and his wife had five children: Carl Bernhard (1860); Wilhelm Inkerman (1861); Horatio Nelson (1863); Nora Sophia Harriet (1866); and Hans James Stedman (1868).  The youngest two children died before their second birthdays, in 1867 and 1870 respectively, leaving the Reimers with three surviving children.

Reimers became a naturalized British citizen on 23 December 1872 (three years after he transferred to the Detective Department), and his three surviving children are mentioned on his Certificate of Naturalization.

Reimers’ police service and cases in which he was involved, both before and after joining the Detective Department, can be followed through a number of sources, including The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 at  and various British newspaper court proceedings reports that are searchable on-line, eg the 19th Century British Newspapers or British Newspapers 1600-1900 databases (accessible through most libraries).

Cases reported in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey that mention Reimers include:

A newspaper report in The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of 7 October 1871 indicates Reimers had a favourable personal outcome from one case he investigated:

A FORTUNATE CAPTOR – One of the officials of the Detective Department, Scotland Yard, succeeded on Friday week, in arresting a postmaster named Geib, who absconded some weeks ago from Siromberg, in Rhenish Prussia, with a sum of 18,000 thalers. Of this sum 15,000 thalers were recovered. Geib was despatched on Friday to Hamburg, in custody of a Berlin police official. A reward of 1000 thalers falls to his captor, Sergeant Reimers.

Chris Payne’s book, The Chieftain, also contains some references to Reimers.  These include an amusing anecdote about Reimers, as a uniformed Police Sergeant in 1867, cooperating with the Detective Department and getting lost with two others in the London sewers:

The superintendent’s report of events above is dated and timed ‘20th December 1867 12 Midnight’, enabling one to visualise a less-than-happy senior officer waiting in Scotland Yard to receive a late report from a less-than-sweet-smelling Reimers! However, the events do not seem to have had any adverse impact on his career, as Sergeant John William Reimers (born in Germany and by then a policeman for eight years) became a detective colleague of Clarke some eighteen months later.

Another case involving Reimers mentioned in The Chieftain was the investigation with Inspector Meiklejohn of the high-profile theft in 1876 of a portrait by Gainsborough of the Duchess of Devonshire.

Reimers resigned from the London Metropolitan Police on 12 August 1979 after 20 years’ service, all in A Division, and was granted a pension (not then an automatic right) of £86 18s 8d per annum.  His pension document in the UK National Archives at Kew states that he was 5 feet 11½ inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes and a fair complexion.  Unfortunately, there is no known photograph or portrait of him.  The reason given for his unfitness for service on his pension document was adema of the leg (presumably this means oedema/edema, ie swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in the body's tissues).  This may have been a long term result of the shot wound in his left leg.

Reimers must have maintained contact in London with the German speaking community there, because at least one of his sons, Carl Bernhard, attended the German school in the Savoy in London.  His German language skills were also clearly made use of by his employer, as there are a number of references to him translating in case reports.  A number of the detectives in the Detective Department had non-English speaking backgrounds, including Nathaniel Druscovich, though not everyone thought this was a good idea.  Chris Payne notes in The Chieftain that Inspector James Thomson said in 1877:

My individual opinion is that it is unwise to let foreigners have anything to do with our police. They think a great deal of themselves, they take too much upon themselves and they get into difficulties. I was strongly opposed to Druscovich coming to Scotland Yard and I advised them at the time not to have him … I thought there was a good deal of the foreigner in him, because when he first came to Scotland Yard … his English was almost broken English.

The Reimers family had a number of addresses in London during the 20 years he served in the London Metropolitan Police.  At the time of the 1861 England Census, the Reimers were living at 51 Charles Street, Westminster.  By the time of the 1871 Census, they had moved to 89 Vauxhall Bridge Road, Westminster.  They must have moved again soon after that, as at the time of Reimers’ naturalization in 1872, the family was living at 3 St Anne's Terrace, Miles Street, South Lambeth.  Reimers was still living at his 1872 Miles Street address at the time of retirement from the police service in 1879.

Reimers’ 1879 pension document says he intended to reside and draw his pension at 3 St Anne's Terrace, Miles Street, South Lambeth.  However, less than two years later, at the time of the 1881 Census the Reimers family was no longer at that address.  In fact, apart from their eldest son, Carl, who was living as a boarder at 6 Currie Road, Battersea, at the time of the 1881 Census, the Reimers family had disappeared totally from view by 1881.  I have not been able to find any trace of Reimers, his wife Harriet, or his sons, Wilhelm Inkerman Reimers and Horatio Nelson Reimers, in any of the British Censuses from 1881 onwards, or in the readily available censuses or birth, death and marriage records of any country.  Only the one son, Carl Bernhard Reimers, appeared in the English Censuses and London Electoral Registers after 1881.  So it seems that most of the Reimers family probably left Britain sometime between 1879 and 1881, but where they went remains a mystery at present.

After being missing from British records for over 20 years, Harriet Reimers reappeared in the records in London when she died on 1 January 1901 at 110 Fentiman Road, Lambeth.  This is only one street away from where she and her husband were living between 1872 and 1879.  She is listed on her death certificate as a widow, implying that her husband (referred to in her death certificate as John William Reimers, a Police Detective Inspector) died before 1901.  The informant for Harriet’s death certificate was her son, Carl, who was living at 13 Bucharest Road, Wandsworth, at that time.  When John William Reimers died, or where, is not known.  The fate of his sons, Wilhelm Inkerman Reimers and Horatio Nelson Reimers, is also unknown.

Carl Bernhard Reimers remained in London and married Jane Abbey in 1892.  She was the daughter of a family Carl was boarding with at the time of the 1891 England census.  Carl and Jane had a son, also Carl Bernhard Reimers, in 1895.  He died at birth, or very shortly after, and Jane died in 1908.  Carl remarried in 1908, not long after Jane’s death, to Vera Nash Little.  Carl and Vera had two children, Franz John Ludwig W (known as John William) Reimers in 1911 and David Leo Winston Reimers in 1914.  David Reimers was my son-in-law’s grandfather.

I would be very interested to discover more about the life of Johann Wilhelm Diederich (aka John William) Reimers, especially before he joined the London Metropolitan Police service in 1859 and after he retired in 1879.  If any readers know more about Reimers’ life, I would be grateful if they could contact me at the e-mail address at the top of this blog.


Sir Richard Mayne; Metropolitan Police Commissioner (1829-1868)
Sir Richard Mayne; Metropolitan Police Commissioner (1829-1868)

Two weeks after the death in December 1868 of the long-standing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, one of the small team of detectives at Scotland Yard, Detective Inspector George Clarke, found himself handling a crime that was linked to a defence-procurement contract. However, it had nothing to do with the purchase of sophisticated (or unsophisticated) Victorian weapons, or the latest version of an ironclad battleship; instead, it concerned a supply contract for 300 loads of elm timber for the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Dockyard.

On 15 January 1869, Antonio Brady, the Registrar of Contracts at The Admiralty, Somerset House, had been told by a potential contractor, Nicholas Maxwell, of an attempt to extract a bribe from him. Maxwell had been informed that he would only secure the timber-supply contract if he paid a £30 fee to a member of the Admiralty staff. The member of staff concerned was William Rumble, the Admiralty’s ‘Inspector of Machinery Afloat’. Antonio Brady promptly contacted Scotland Yard and sought the assistance of the Detective Department and the case was allocated to George Clarke.

George Clarke c. 1864; at that time a Detective-Sergeant. Photo courtesy of John Ashe.

The first task for Clarke was to find out more about Rumble and to determine whether he alone was in a position to guarantee a contract, or whether other Admiralty staff members were involved. A meeting between Maxwell and Rumble was arranged at Maxwell’s office on 18 January, where Clarke listened from a side room. Rumble stated that he had an unnamed friend in the Admiralty who was in a position to influence the contractual arrangements. Clarke’s next step was to maintain surveillance of Rumble and to identify any acquaintances. Clarke and Detective-Sergeant Sayer started to follow Rumble for part of each day. Fortunately, it did not take too long to make progress. On 20 January, at Waterloo Station, Clarke saw Rumble meet an unknown man at 10.30 a.m.:
“Rumble went up to him and commenced a conversation – they walked down the back stairs into York Street, and over Waterloo Bridge into Lancaster Place, and there they parted, and [the unknown man] went into Somerset House by the entrance in Lancaster Place.”  (Old Bailey Proceedings)
Rumble’s contact was quickly identified as James Gambier, a  clerk in the Admiralty storekeepers department, who was the first to know when a tender had been accepted, and also had the responsibility to write to the successful contractor. Thus, by delaying the issue of the formal contract letter Gambier could create a window of opportunity to extract a ‘fee’ from the successful contractors.

Clarke and Sayer maintained regular surveillance at Waterloo Station, and confirmed that Rumble and Gambier met there on at least eleven occasions. However, the police had no specific evidence linking Gambier to attempted bribery. A decision was therefore taken, with Maxwell’s agreement, for the £30 ‘fee’ that Rumble had asked for, to be paid to him. Obtaining a £30 cheque from the Admiralty, Clarke cashed it into three traceable £10 Bank of England notes and, at a meeting at Maxwell’s office on 2 February (at which Clarke again listened from the side room), Rumble was handed the money by Maxwell. By 3 February, Maxwell received confirmation that he was the successful contractor. The police had to wait only a short time for the bank notes to filter through the system; one was paid in to the Church of England Insurance Office by Gambier to cover a life insurance premium, and the other two were paid in by Rumble, one to a warehouseman and the other to a wine merchant.

Armed with this information and a warrant, Clarke arrested the two men at Waterloo Station on Wednesday 17 February. Both were taken to Bow Street Police Station and were charged with having conspired to obtain £30 from Nicholas Maxwell by false and fraudulent pretences. A search of the men revealed that both had pocket books; Gambier’s proved particularly interesting, in the form of abbreviations and ciphers that were suggestive of other financial transactions of a similar kind. By the second magistrate’s hearing, Clarke had found a means to translate at least part of the cipher in the pocket books, and it was said, at the hearing, that all the persons whose names were supposed to be identified by initials in Rumble’s notebook had denied being party to any transactions involving the payment of any ‘fee’ to gain a contract (now there's a surprise!). The prisoners were committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

Rumble’s defence against the charges was that he had “merely acted as an agent, and that he had no intention to commit a criminal act”. Gambier’s defence counsel contended that “although [Gambier] had acted indiscretely and improperly in taking the money from Rumble for giving information relative to this contract he had not contemplated or been guilty of a criminal act”. The jury did not take long to disagree, bringing in a ‘guilty’ verdict against both men who were each sentenced to 18 months hard labour. (The Times 10 April 1869)

The CSS Rappahannock
The CSS Rappahannock

Something that did not appear in any of the hearings or newspaper accounts of the case, was that Rumble had an interesting track record. In an unconnected case, he had been previously charged, in 1864, with an offence relating to the fitting out of a gun-boat for prospective use by the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Originally named the Scylla, it had been sold by the Admiralty in 1863, ostensibly for the China trade, but in reality it had been bought by an agent acting for the Confederate States Navy. Rumble had been put on trial at the Queen’s Bench, Westminster between December 1864 and February 1865, charged with offences under the Foreign Enlistment Act, which included the accusation that he had been actively involved in repairing and fitting out the ship at Sheerness, engaging crew, and being on the ship on its testing voyage to Calais, on which occasion the Confederate flag was raised and the ship re-named as the CSS Rappahannock. (Ultimately, the ship did not go into active service as it was detained in port by the French authorities.) Though found ‘not guilty’ at this earlier trial, Rumble had nonetheless been punished subsequently by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty who had reduced him to half-pay, giving him a motive for his subsequent crime.

The CSS Alabama (Wikipedia)
The CSS Alabama

It seems likely that Clarke and others must have been aware of that situation, and yet the newspapers did not refer to it in their coverage of Rumble’s 1869 trial, perhaps because of the ‘not guilty’ verdict in 1864. Whether any reference to the CSS Rappahannock case was also suppressed, to avoid further embarrassment to the British Government on the sensitive issue of breaches of neutrality during the American Civil War, might also have been a consideration. The ‘Alabama claims’ by the United States, based on the building in Britain and supply of ships to the Confederacy during the American Civil War,  ultimately led to substantial financial reparations being paid by Britain to the USA in 1872.

Further information on the criminal investigations of George Clarke between 1862 and 1877 can be found in my 2011 book The Chieftain.


George Clarke c. 1864. Photo courtesy of John Ashe

Between 1865 and 1868, a resurgence of  republicanism within the British- and American- Irish communities saw the development of various plots and schemes to promote the establishment of Ireland as an independent democratic republic.  The groups and individuals adopting this cause have been generically referred to as 'The Fenians'.  During this period, the law-enforcement agencies, particularly the police on the British mainland (including the small number of detectives at Scotland Yard), frequently struggled to deal adequately with the Fenian threat. This culminated in December 1867 with the Clerkenwell bombing in which a Fenian gunpowder bomb (which had been set in an attempt to release the Fenian prisoner, Ricard Burke, from Clerkenwell House of Detention) killed and wounded substantial numbers of the public and damaged many properties. However, by mid-1868, the Fenian conspiracy had temporarily ebbed away; partly through lack of funding, but also because many senior Fenians were imprisoned (often as a result of informants), had fled into exile in France or America, or had simply had enough. As a result, my great-great-grandfather George Clarke (then a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard) was able to concentrate on more conventional detective work, including a couple of murders, as well as numerous illegal-betting cases, baby-farming and abortion.

Michael Davitt. Fenian Arms Organiser in 1870
Michael Davitt. Fenian Arms Organiser in 1870

However, by 1870, some aspects of Fenian activity had resumed, including the acquisition of arms.  In May 1870,  Clarke (who had been promoted to Chief Inspector in 1869) arrested the Fenian arms organiser Michael Davitt at Paddington Station, where Davitt had been awaiting the delivery of a number of revolvers from a Birmingham arms manufacturer. In July that year, Davitt was convicted of Treason Felony and sentenced to 15 years penal servitude

The day after  Davitt’s trial  concluded, the Franco-Prussian War started, on 18th July 1870. Across the Channel, Napoleon III of France declared war on Prussia after years of tension between the combatants. The British Government adopted a formal position of  neutrality in the conflict, and it was not long before the Scotland Yard Detective Department was engaged in helping to sustain the UK position. However, Irish sympathies in the conflict lay with the French (and at that time Ireland in its entirety was part of the UK); a large spontaneous demonstration of popular support was held in Dublin on 19 July and a National Committee was formed on 7 September to provide medical aid and supplies to France, by recruiting an Irish Ambulance Corps. Assembled from various parts of Ireland, the Corps sailed to France on 8 October in a chartered ship, La Fontaine.  In appearance at least, The Irish Ambulance Corps was an humanitarian gesture that was unlikely to compromise Britains' neutrality in the Franco-Prussian war.

However, on 24 September 1870, The Times [24 September 1870] reported that a London-based Committee, with offices at 7 Bolt Court, Fleet Street, had also been formed to raise money and send out able-bodied young Irishmen to form an Irish National Ambulance Corps in France; also reporting that “upwards of 2000 athletic Irishmen had presented themselves”. By the end of September, police enquiries had been initiated, as 7 Bolt Court was well known to police as a Fenian rendezvous. On 1 October, Inspector Brannan of Holborn Division reported that the London-recruited ‘Ambulance Corps’ was a ‘cover’; that in fact the Fenians were attempting to raise an ‘Irish Brigade’, and that as soon as the men landed in France they would be expected to take up arms for France and join the Foreign Legion. If correct, this would be an offence against the Foreign Enlistment Act, and would also have compromised Britain's neutral status in the Franco-Prussian conflict. On 3 October, P.C. James Haire went to 7 Bolt Street in plain clothes to investigate the recruitment process. He saw an Irish-American of military appearance in charge, and a clerk. He was told that only Irishmen could join and he noticed that about 40 men applied during the hour that he was there [ Crown Copyright; The National Archives (TNA): Public Records Office (PRO) HO45/8444].

On 5 October the Solicitor-General’s office commented to the Home Office that “there seems scarcely sufficient evidence that the enlistment is for other purposes than the formation of an ambulance corps”, but their attitude was to change on receipt of a telegram from Frederick Bernal, the British Consul in Havre which read “Thirteen men, Irish Ambulance Corps have applied Consulate. Required to bear arms – Refuse – Penniless – What shall I do”? An additional complication was a note received via the Foreign Office from the German Ambassador in London, Count Bernstadt, stating that “He has reason to believe that enlistments of Irishmen for military service in France are being made in this country – requests urgent enquiries”. By then, suspicions started to emerge that the Fenians could potentially be exploiting the opportunity of the Franco-Prussian war to give Irishmen experience of military training and warfare that could later be deployed to the Fenian's advantage in Ireland.

Clarke had already received his orders from the Home Office; he would be off on his travels again, this time to a country at war where he would be operating ‘undercover’:

“The main object of the Officer’s [journey] is to obtain sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution against the agents here who engaged these men ….Then to return the men by the cheapest route. The men will not be aware that Mr Clarke is a Police Officer and he can therefore deal with them in whatever manner he may deem most advisable”. [Crown Copyright; TNA:PRO HO 45/8444]

The survival of Clarke’s report allows him to tell the story:

“October 19th 1870; With reference to the alleged infringement of the Foreign Enlistment Act, I beg to report that as directed I left London for Havre on Tuesday the 12th Inst. On my arrival at 4 p.m. on 13th I put myself in communication with Frederick Bernal Esq. H.M. Consul, who informed me that about 80 men arrived at that Port, on Friday the 7th Inst. by the “John Bull” Steam Ship from London. Most of these men called at the Consulate, and said they had been induced to leave home for the purpose of joining an Ambulance Corps. 21 of these went on to Caen the following day (Saturday) and 40 more on Sunday; 19 refusing to proceed any further, and remained at Havre in a destitute state till Monday when he paid their passage to Southampton.

I proceeded to Caen on Friday being furnished with a letter of introduction to C.G.Percival Esq., Vice Consul at that place, and had an interview with him the following morning. He stated that a number of men from England had been lodged in the Barracks there for several days, but that most of them had returned to Havre. He accompanied me towards the Barracks and on the way we met several of the men, four of whom said they were penniless and begged to be sent back to England. I paid their fare to Havre and accompanied them there, the others about ten remained at Caen. On reaching Havre I found about 50 at that place; on questioning them they stated they had been engaged by Messrs. McDonald, Cotter, Cotter, O’Hagan and Carmandy, who had an office at Bolt Court, Fleet Street, London, to proceed to France for the purpose of joining an Ambulance Corps, and had each paid 8/- for their passage. They were accompanied on their journey by the two Cotters; on reaching Havre [they] were joined by O’Hagan, who took them to Caen and there lodged them in the Barracks. By this time they suspected all was not right, and asked O’Hagan, who had assumed the command as Colonel Dyers, for an explanation. He informed them they were not required for the Ambulance Corps, but to join an Irish Brigade and fight for France. This they refused to do, and demanded to be sent home. They were confined to Barracks under the charge of the two Cotters, who called themselves Captain and Ensign, and told them they would be required to take the Oath as Soldiers of France, and threatened to place them under arrest if they were not obedient. They remained in Barracks till the Friday still refusing to become Soldiers, when about 48 of them were marched down to the boat for Havre, escorted by Soldiers with loaded rifles, and fixed bayonets, accompanied by the two Cotters and O’Hagan. When on board they were given about 7d. each. These man remained at Havre until noon 17th when I engaged passages for them (52 in number) to London in the Steam Ship John Bull; Mr Bernal giving an Order to the Captain for the payment of their passage money. He also advanced me 453 francs for the purpose of providing them with food and lodgings during their stay in Havre, they being entirely destitute, and in a starving condition, having received but little food since they left London, some having sold the greater part of their clothing. They further complained of being cruelly deceived and badly treated by those who had engaged them; several had left wives and families quite destitute, being promised by McDonald and others, that they would receive pay at the rate of 25/- per week, with rations and an outfit – these promises induced them to leave their houses. McDonald and Carmandy went with them on their outward journey as far as Gravesend. I accompanied these men to London and provided them with food on the passage – their names, addresses, and statements are attached, and several are prepared to give evidence if required.

I beg to add that about 350 men said to form an Ambulance Corps arrived at Havre from Dublin on Wednesday 12th Inst., and were still there at the time of my leaving. A great number of these were about the streets in a drunken riotous state and on Saturday night broke out in open mutiny, refusing to obey those in command, and a guard of Soldiers was called out to quell the disturbance, and I was informed by some of the parties that only about 40 of their number were required as an Ambulance Corps, and that the others must either join the French Army or return home, and I am of opinion from the riotous demeanour of these men, should they remain at Havre serious consequences will follow.I respectfully beg to state that I received every possible assistance and attention from F. Bernal Esq. at Havre, and C.G.Percival at Caen”. [Crown Copyright; TNA:PRO HO45/8444]

The reference made in Clarke’s report to an Ambulance Corps arriving from Dublin on 12th October, was the ship La Fontaine. Several of the men from this ship did go on to serve in a medical-assistance role. However others apparently did not:

“Contrary to the original intentions of those who sent the Ambulance Corps to France, a number of the volunteers, including some Dundalk men, adopted a more active military role soon after their arrival…[including] those who joined the Foreign Legion: they enlisted in the 1st Compagne Irlandaise, Légion d’Étrangère. The Legion had its headquarters at Bourges, numbered 30,000 men, and was attached to the Army of the Loire” [O'Mahony, C. (2000) The Irish Sword 22, 36-50]

The men received rifle and machine-gun training, and learnt how to operate as snipers ('Franc-tireurs') and guerilla fighters behind enemy lines. Whether any of the men from Dublin or London later participated in Irish Republican activities is not known.

Having done what he could to return those men who had been potentially duped into fighting for France, Clarke obtained statements (including a full description of events from one of the volunteers, William Costello) implicating McDonald and others involved in the recruitment process. On 21 October, the newly-promoted Chief Inspector Druscovich arrested ‘John McDonald’ believed to be the principal recruiter for the Bolt Street recruits to the Irish Ambulance Corps, whose real name was Joseph Patrick McDonnell. He was brought up before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street on 21 and 28 October, on charges under the Foreign Enlistment Act. At the second hearing, Clarke’s witness, William Costello gave his evidence of events. However, after the hearings, no trial appears to have taken place; the case against Joseph Patrick McDonnell was “removed by Certiorari’ (a writ from a superior court directing that a record of proceedings in a lower court be sent up for review) and it is possible that some legal or political mechanism was used to sweep the case under the carpet to avoid political embarrassment. McDonnell had been involved with organisations associated with Irish nationalism since 1862, including the National Brotherhood of St. Patrick, and the Fenians; he had been detained under the suspension of habeas corpus but was probably freed in 1869. McDonnell had also been appointed by Karl Marx as the representative for Ireland on the General Council of the International Working Man’s Association. In January 1872, at the latest, McDonnell was a free man, as newspaper reports for that month indicate that he attended the Association Council meeting. [The Times 22 and 29 October 1870, 4 and 21 November 1870; Leeds Mercury,  January 1872]

The Irish Ambulance Corps investigation, together with the monitoring of James Stephens in Paris, and surveillance operations on foreign refugees seem to have been the closest that the Metropolitan Police got to covert operations during the time that Clarke was a detective. Although Clarke had been sent to France on an ‘undercover’ mission, the object was for him to obtain evidence of criminal activity in the context of the Foreign Enlistment Act, rather than to play a political-espionage role. For Clarke, this appears to have been the last time that he was involved with Fenian investigations that reached court. There were subsequent occasions when his expertise on Irish matters was sought, but his involvement in these did not emerge as headline-making issues. There was a resurgence of Irish terrorism in the 1880s, driven by a combination of Clan na Gael and the maverick, O’Donovan Rossa. However, by then, Clarke had long retired, though his friend and colleague ‘Dolly’ Williamson was still at Scotland Yard, and in the front-line of the policing of this next phase of Irish republicanism.

'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011
'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

[The  primary sources for this article have been mentioned in the text.  For further information on the activities of Scotland Yard detectives in the mid-Victorian period, please see my 2011 biography of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke: "The Chieftain"]


My research interest in  Victorian detectives at Scotland Yard has recently led me to a couple of blind alleys, both of which have some potential links with the 1878 Congress of Berlin.  This conference, under the chairmanship  of the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck initially stabilized tensions that had arisen between the main powers following the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War  by reorganizing the Balkan countries, but ultimately allowed international grievances to fester until they rose to the surface again in the months before the First World War.

I thought that in this blog post I would explain my specific interests in this subject and cast some bait into the World Wide Web to see if any of my readers can help me escape from the information cul-de-sacs that I find myself in.

Superintendent James Jacob Thomson

James Jacob Thomson, former Superintendent of E Division, London Metropolitan Police (c. 1900)
James Jacob Thomson, former Superintendent of E Division, London Metropolitan Police (c. 1900). Photo courtesy of Frederic Le Marcis

I am  investigating the career of James Thomson, who worked in the Scotland Yard Detective Department between 1862 and 1869 (rising to the rank of Chief Inspector) before being appointed Superintendent of E Division (Holborn) in the London Metropolitan Police(1869-1887).   In his retirement statement published in the Pall Mall Gazette on 31 May 1887, Thomson mentioned  that, in 1878, he was relieved of his command and sent by Government on an exceptional mission on the continent.  No other details on this topic were given in the newspaper, but my interest was raised.  Why would Thomson have been sent on such a mission, and what could it have involved?

In 1910, seven years after Thomson's death, his widow, Martha Thomson,  wrote to Winston Churchill (then Secretary of State at the Home Office) after finding herself and her late husband in the media spotlight after some indiscrete comments published by the former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Anderson. (Mrs Thomson's letter is located at The National Archives; reference HO144/926/A49962; Crown Copyright).

Mrs Martha Thomson (c.1900)
Mrs Martha Thomson (c.1900). Photo courtesy of Frederic Le Marcis

In her letter Martha Thomson commented about her husband's service and mentioned:

"... in 78 [1878], he was chosen by the Privy Council to go to Russia on a secret mission, relieved of his command at Bow Street, and given double pay, with a promise of £500 on his return if he succeeded.  He did succeed, and War was not declared, but one of the Russian Chiefs of Police (who was an old friend) and who had helped him, was sent to Siberia, and Mr. Thomson barely escaped......After his return from Russia, he received a letter of thanks from the Privy Council.  Then, as the £500 was not sent him, he went to his chief, Sir E[dmund] Henderson [Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police] and asked for it. After some months had elapsed, Sir E.H. told him that he had done all he could to obtain it for him, but as there was no 'Fund' to draw Secret Service money, he begged him to forego it. Of course it was a great blow to us, as we were comparatively poor, but the position had to be accepted, and he returned to his Division."

Mrs Thomson's reference to 'Russia' and 'War was not declared' is of particular interest, and seems to draw a specific link with the events leading up to the Congress of Berlin. The Congress  was held at a time when contemporary newspaper reports indicate that there was considerable tension between Britain and Russia with regard to Turkey, Austro-Hungary and the Balkan States, with Germany to some extent acting as a mediator. Newspapers on 1 April 1878 highlighted something of the extent of this tension, reporting that the British Cabinet (under Disraeli as Prime Minister) had agreed to call out the Army Reserves.   War between Britain and Russia was certainly perceived amongst politicians and the British press to be a possibility.

However,  why might Thomson, a former detective and more recently a senior uniformed police officer have been sent out to Russia at this time? Certainly Metropolitan Police records note that Thomson was specifically granted, by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, an absence of "28 days leave...from 15th [April] to 12th [May 1878] inclusive" (MEPO 7/40 12th April 1878).  This was a very unusual time for senior officers to take their holidays (which were generally taken between August and September, and usually for less than 28 days). Such a  period of absence would certainly have been long enough for Thomson to visit Russia and neighbouring countries.  Thomson had previously travelled to Russia when he was leading the Scotland Yard hunt for forgers of Russian rouble banknotes. In addition he is known to have been fluent in several languages, including French which at that time was the language of diplomacy. The timing of such a visit, if it occurred during Thomson's 'leave', would have been shortly before the Congress of Berlin (13 June to 13 July 1878)

Martha Thomson's reference to a Russian Chief of Police is also of interest.   In St Petersburg (then Russia's capital city) there were a considerable number of newspaper reports about the acquittal in April 1878 of the nihilist, Vera Zasulich, who had earlier been arrested for the attempted assassination of General Fyodor Trepov, the Police Chief in St. Petersburg.  If this was one reason for Thomson's visit to Russia, how might that link to the issues surrounding the Congress of Berlin?

By 1910, Mrs Thomson was  in difficult financial circumstances as her husband's police pension had died with him (as was the custom in those days), and she took the opportunity in her letter to use her husband's distinguished service (and her own assistance in 1887 in a secret surveillance operation on a Fenian; see Christy Campbell's book Fenian Fire; 2002) to request some financial assistance.

Internal government correspondence on her letter expressed the viewpoint that "The whole story seems very romantic, if it is not mythical, as I cannot imagine what she means by the Privy Council sending him out" ( extract from memo of 13th April 1910 from R.S Meiklejohn; HO144/926/A49962;  Crown Copyright).  The Home Office  then replied to Martha Thomson on 14th May 1910 indicating that the Secretary of State "regrets that he is unable to satisfy you in any way", with regard to financial assistance (HO144/926/A49962).

My specific interest is whether or not Thomson was involved in some secret mission in Russia. I think he probably was but I haven't been able to locate any substantive information to confirm it (apart from that quoted above), or indeed why Thomson's skills and expertise as a detective and senior policeman might have been helpful.  In addition,  how (as in his wife's recollections) might he have helped to prevent War?

So having now cast my bait, I would be interested to see what rises to the surface or, to mix metaphors further, I would be delighted to locate anyone who has another piece of information that might fit my incomplete jigsaw of this aspect of James Thomson's career. Please leave a comment below or contact me directly by email at

Herbert Edwin Clarke

My second 'Congress of Berlin' cul-de-sac concerns an aspect of my own family history. Herbert Clarke (known  as 'Bob' within his family) was the youngest son of my great-great grandfather, Chief Inspector George Clarke (a senior detective at Scotland Yard's Detective Department between 1862-1878), and the subject of my recent biography 'The Chieftain'. In 1878 George Clarke was forced by the Home Secretary (Sir Richard Cross) to retire following Clarke's acquittal in the notorious 1877 'Trial of the Detectives'.

Whether or not George Clarke's trial had unsettled his family sufficiently to encourage his youngest son to emigrate, I don't know for sure.  However, some time in 1878 Herbert Clarke left to work in Cyprus and did not return to the UK to visit his family until 1904. He returned to Cyprus later that year and  died in Nicosia in October 1927.

In 1878, as a direct result of the Congress of Berlin, Britain took over the administration of Cyprus as a protectorate, from the Ottoman Empire.  Undoubtedly, the British administration would have led to the establishment of a police force, and military bases on the island and I suspect that Herbert Clarke may have worked initially within either the police or the army.

Believed to be Herbert Edwin (Bob) Clarke. Photograph probably taken c. 1905-1910 (Photo courtesy of John Ashe)

I have only one photograph that I believe to be of Herbert Clarke, showing a man of middle age in his masonic regalia (records show that Herbert Clarke was a member of a masonic Lodge in Nicosia).   Any comments or information that might add to my knowledge of Herbert (Bob) Clarke would be very welcome. Once again, please leave a comment below or contact me directly by email at



This is the last of my short-series of blog posts on the subject of the senior detectives based at Scotland Yard in  mid-Victorian London.  The series ends with one of the most charismatic yet puzzling characters: Nathaniel Druscovich.

Nathaniel Druscovich

Nathaniel Druscovich was born in the early 1840s in St Georges in the East, a parish in the Tower Hamlets area of London.  His father, Matthew, was a carpenter, from Moldavia, and Nathaniel spent some of his youth in the  Eastern European areas of Moldavia and Wallachia (which later united to create the state of Romania). After his return to England, he decided to join the London Metropolitan Police and spent a short period in C Division (St James) as a uniformed Constable. By October 1863, aged 22, he had shown sufficient promise to be appointed to the Sergeant position in the Scotland Yard Detective Department that had been vacated by the promotion of Richard Tanner to Inspector.

Because of Druscovich's overseas experience, he was fluent in several languages, albeit not in English, and his appointment caused a flutter in the Scotland Yard dovecote.  Speaking in 1877 with the benefit of some hindsight, Druscovich's senior colleague, James Thomson commented on the appointment:

"My individual opinion is that it is unwise to let foreigners have anything to do with our police. They think a great deal of themselves, they take too much upon themselves and they get into difficulties.  I was strongly opposed to Druscovich coming to Scotland Yard and I advised them at the time not to have him....I thought there was a good deal of the foreigner in him, because when he first came to Scotland Yard....his English was almost broken English" (The National Archives, Crown Copyright; Document 45/9442/66692 Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 542-3)

Despite Thomson's critical perspective, Druscovich's 'foreignness' became one of his principal assets to the Detective Department.  During the re-emergence of Irish Republicanism between 1865 and 1868 (the 'Fenian Conspiracy'), Druscovich's linguistic skills were used in covert monitoring operations in Paris, of Fenians who were using the French capital as a bolt-hole in 1867. Druscovich, and his fellow Scotland Yard colleague Detective Sergeant John Mulvany, were extensively used in this role, supplemented by occasional visits by Chief-Inspector Williamson. However, it seems that their surveillance was soon spotted by the Fenians in Paris, including one of the ex-American Civil War mercenaries, Octave Fariola, who had attached himself to the Fenian cause.  As early as January 1867  Fariola, commented that "the English detectives were soon on the scent" ('The Chieftain' p. 85). Possibly the fact that the detectives appear to have stayed in the Hotel d'Angleterre was a bit of a give-away, despite Druscovich's fluent French!?  [As covert operations were new to the Scotland Yard force at this time it is perhaps unsurprising that mistakes were made.]

Druscovich did not spend all his time in Paris, finding time in the spring of 1867  to marry Elvina le Capelain (from St Helier, Jersey) at St James', Westminster. By 1871 the couple lived in Vincent Square, Westminster, later moving to Lambeth. They had no children.

Like all the Scotland Yard detectives, Druscovich was expected to be involved in helping to police horse-racing events at the leading racetracks such as Epsom, Sandown, Ascot and Goodwood. This could be a rough-and-tumble business, and would have brought him in contact with members of the illegal-betting fraternity.  However, there were plenty of other investigations that drew on his language skills.  London was already a multi-cultural community and, in 1868, when there was an outbreak of burglaries at properties owned by the rich and famous, it was natural to team Sergeant Druscovich up with Inspector George Clarke,  when it was realised that the villains were predominantly from continental Europe.  Both men were applauded and rewarded for their successful investigations. In May 1869, at the age of 27 he was promoted to Inspector. In October 1870 he reached the rank of Chief Inspector and was clearly acknowledged as a rising star in the Department.  By comparison, George Clarke was 51 years old before he became a Chief Inspector.

In 1869-70, Druscovich was involved in inquiries on 'baby-farming' and infanticide (again, alongside Clarke).  This appears not to have been the best use of his skills and his case-notes display some frustration with the difficulty of gaining sufficient evidence for prosecution in this area of criminal activity. However, there was plenty more for him to do.  He played a very significant role in  dealing with cases involving foreign nationals.  Thus, he was frequently commended in Police Orders for his work on extradition, and also received complimentary comments and financial rewards for his work on suppressing illegal foreign lotteries and frauds (The National Archives; MEPO 7). In addition, he was a leading figure in at least two murder cases involving foreigners; arresting Marguerite Dixblanc in 1872 for the murder of Marie Riel; a case that led to a guilty verdict and death sentence at Dixblanc's Old Bailey trial.  Druscovich's work was acknowledged by a financial reward. In 1876, he worked with his boss, Superintendent Williamson, on the mutiny and murder that had occurred on the British-registered sailing ship Lennie, which led to the arrest, trial, conviction and hanging, for murder on the high seas, of four of the crew, Matteo Cargalis ('French Peter'), Giovanni Cacaris ('Joe the Cook'), Pascales Caludis ('Big Harry') and George Kaida ('Lips').

William Kurr on the front cover of the Police News coverage of the Trial of the Detectives
William Kurr on the front cover of the Police News, 1877

Later that year, it was logical that Williamson should give Druscovich the responsibility for investigating another case with foreign links.  This was a turf fraud case initiated in London by two clever fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr. The object of the fraudsters was to lure naive French punters, unfamiliar with the UK horse-racing scene, into believing that there was such a thing as a 'sure bet'.  As a consequence, one lady, the Comtesse de Goncourt took a while to realise that the £10,000  that she had invested in the scheme (about £400,000 in today's money), was likely to have gone for good. However, once she realised her mistake, and being a determined soul, she soon had her legal representatives banging on the door of the Scotland Yard Detective Department.

Although George Clarke was the acknowledged Scotland Yard expert on betting crime, he was busy with two other important cases.  In addition, much of the correspondence relating to the case was written in French; hence the natural choice to lead the investigations was Nathaniel Druscovich. Starting in September 1876, it took until the end of December to run down the Turf Fraud gang.  But Druscovich was not directly responsible for any of the arrests. Ironically it was George Clarke who made the first arrest, of a minor member of the gang in November.  Alerted by a 'wanted' poster issued by Williamson, it was Dutch Police who arrested Benson and two other gang members in Rotterdam in December. Kurr's arrest in London was made under Williamson's direction in late December, at a time when Druscovich had been sent to Rotterdam to arrange for the extradition of Benson and his colleagues.

There were signs at the time that Druscovich was getting 'edgy' during the investigations. A Scotland Yard colleague reported that, in late November, Druscovich had sworn "Damn the turf swindle! I wish I had never heard anything of it" ('The Chieftain' p. 211). At Christmas, having been told by Williamson to remain in Rotterdam, Druscovich granted himself some leave and returned to the UK; an action that incurred the displeasure of Williamson (who promptly sent him back to Rotterdam), and a censure from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Edmund Henderson. Later, Druscovich received a caution for irregular conduct in June 1877, when he was judged to have been at fault in 'failing to differentiate clearly between charges made and legally proved' when giving evidence at a magistrate's court. One imagines that his mind was on other things, but he had started to blot his copybook.

A cartoon of William Palmer (right), Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) and John Meiklejohn (left) in teh dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, "The Trial of the Detectives", 1928)
A cartoon of  Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) with John Meiklejohn (left) and William Palmer (right) in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, "The Trial of the Detectives", 1928)

By early 1877, evidence had emerged that two of Druscovich's senior colleagues, Chief Inspector William Palmer and Inspector John Meiklejohn had corruptly co-operated with William Kurr and Harry Benson to prevent their arrest. Some pieces of evidence had also started to emerge that Druscovich had sought to protect Meiklejohn by ignoring the increasing evidence of Meiklejohn's collusion with Benson and Kurr; in the process delaying or potentially preventing the arrest of the Turf Fraud gang. Nonetheless, the arrest of Druscovich and his two colleagues on corruption charges  on 12th July 1877, caused a public sensation, as did the subsequent Bow Street Magistrate's hearing and Old Bailey trial.

The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr
The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

So, how did the outstandingly promising young detective find himself in this position? Ultimately, the case made against Druscovich was that he had fallen under the influence of Kurr in April 1876 when he had needed money to meet a debt that he had incurred on his brother's behalf and, at Meiklejohn's recommendation, had accepted a £60 loan from Kurr (c. £2400 in today's money).  As a consequence, the prosecution concluded that, from the day he was given responsibility for the turf fraud investigation,  Druscovich had conducted his investigations in a manner that had given the fraudsters every opportunity to evade arrest, receiving from the fraudsters some additional money and jewellery (that had been found in his house) in the process.  The Old Bailey jury found him guilty of perverting justice, though recommended mercy, a view which was not shared by the Judge who sentenced Druscovich and his convicted colleagues, Meiklejohn and Palmer, to the maximum term permitted for the offence: two years hard labour.

When he was released from prison, Druscovich returned to his wife Elvina at their house at 64 South Lambeth Road and established himself as a private inquiry agent; one of his jobs involved investigations into bribery in the Oxford parliamentary constituency in the May 1880 election.  He did not survive long, dying in December 1881 at the age of 39 from tuberculosis, which he had probably acquired while in prison. Pensionless after his conviction, he left £448 7 shillings in his Will; enough money, it would seem, to have found other ways of covering his brother's debt of £60 in 1877?

Most of the information relayed in this blog post, particularly the Great Turf Fraud and the Trial of the Detectives is covered in more detail in my recent book 'The Chieftain'. I have also found "The Great Detective Case; A Study in Victorian Police Corruption" (2000, by Richard F Stewart) to be a very readable account though I do not share all its conclusions!

[My research on the cases that Druscovich investigated during his  Scotland Yard career is incomplete, and a more focused study of  newspaper archives, and MEPO (Metropolitan Police) and HO (Home Office) records within the National Archives, would be timely and, I think, productive.  His distinctive surname should ease the task, though it is not surprising that it is not always spelt or transcribed accurately (the worst example I've encountered being one transcription of 'Druscovich' as "Densccoirche"!).]




The former location of Old Scotland Yard (Whitehall Place, London)
The former location of Old Scotland Yard, including the Detective Department (Whitehall Place, London)

This article is the penultimate one in the short series of blog posts that I have written about the senior detectives based at Scotland Yard on 12 May 1869. At that time, the first significant increase  was made to the number of detectives employed at Scotland Yard since the Detective Department had been founded in 1842. (See also my earlier posts dealing with Superintendent Adolphus Williamson and Chief Inspectors James Thomson and George Clarke.)

On 12th May 1869, Detective Sergeant William Palmer was promoted to the rank of Detective-Inspector and, on 17th October 1870, to Detective Chief-Inspector. He was later to become infamous because of his conviction for corruption in the sensational 'Trial of the Detectives' in November 1877.  His career has not been studied in detail and  deserves further study; the following incomplete and brief analysis is a small contribution to that.

Chief Inspector William Palmer c 1877

William Palmer is probably the least well-known of the Detective Chief Inspectors based at Scotland Yard in the 1870s. Born about 1835, in Carshalton, Surrey he is recorded in the 1851 census as a labourer, living at home with his parents (his father, also a 'William', was a carpenter).

By 1861 Palmer had joined the police, married and become a father, and was working as a Detective Sergeant in the Naval Dockyards and lived in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey. In January 1862 he transferred to the Detective Department at Scotland Yard, a few months before Sergeant George Clarke also joined the Detective team. It seems likely that the two men became friends as well as colleagues. In 1871, census records reveal that the two men and their families (by then Palmer had at least four children) lived in the same short street in central Westminster; Great College Street.  As later events were to reveal, they also became members of the same Lodge of Freemasons, Domatic Lodge No. 77, which met regularly at Anderton's Hotel, Fleet Street, where they were also joined by former-Detective Inspector Richard Tanner, a well-regarded Acting-Secretary of the Lodge until his premature death in 1873.

I have not conducted a detailed search to identify the cases that Palmer was associated with.  As he shared the same name as The Rugeley Poisoner , references to 'William Palmer' in the criminal literature tend to be dominated by his more murderous namesake. However, from my superficial analysis,  it does appear that Chief-Inspector Palmer's contribution to crime-detection was lower-profile than that of his senior colleagues, particularly George Clarke and Nathaniel Druscovich.

Like all the Scotland Yard detectives, Palmer was involved in helping to police the Fenian Conspiracy (1865-1868). His Christmas Day in 1867 was spent transferring the Fenian, Henry Shaw (aka Mullady or Mullidy) from Kilmainham Prison, Dublin to London where Shaw later faced trial at the Old Bailey in which he was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. In 1869, Palmer worked with George Clarke on some of the early betting prosecutions prompted by a Home Office crack-down to reduce illegal betting.  This included the Deptford Spec illegal lottery (see 'The Chieftain' pages 121-122). In July 1872 he was leading the investigation of the 'Regent's Canal' or 'Hoxton' murders of Sarah and Christiana Squires,  crimes that appear not to have been solved (The National Archives; document MEPO 3/105).

It was not until 1877, that Palmer's name hit the headlines, and in a truly sensational manner. In August 1876, a criminal betting scheme that became known as the Great Turf Fraud was implemented by two clever and determined fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr. Chief Inspector Druscovich was put in charge of the inquiries, and progress was slow, but in early November, Druscovich received information that the fraudsters had been seen in Bridge of Allan, Scotland, in company with Inspector Meiklejohn ( a Scotland Yard colleague ) . By the time Druscovich arrived, Kurr and Benson had fled but at their hotel, he located some correspondence addressed to a 'Mr Gifford' (a known alias for William Kurr) that included a telegram  sent from Fleet Street on the night of 10th November 1876 when Palmer and Clarke were attending a masonic dinner at Anderton's Hotel, Fleet Street. The communication warned 'Gifford' that the fraudsters' location had been identified and it prompted them to depart quickly. Further investigations revealed that Kurr had replied to the telegram, and had addressed his reply to Palmer's home address. The handwriting of an incriminating letter written by a 'W. Brown' (also in the correspondence collected at the Bridge of Allan hotel) was recognised by Superintendent 'Dolly' Williamson, as that of Chief Inspector Palmer

Though it took some considerable time for this information to be acted on (and only after the Turf Fraud gang were safely behind bars), in May 1877 a confidential memo from the Treasury Solicitor to the Home Secretary stated that "there is no doubt of the complicity of Meiklejohn and Palmer" but expressed uncertainty whether the men had committed an indictable offence or whether they should be dismissed without attempting to prosecute them. On 12th July 1877 the decision had finally been reached, as Palmer was arrested that day.

A cartoon of William Palmer (right), Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) and John Meiklejohn (left) in teh dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, "The Trial of the Detectives", 1928)
A cartoon of William Palmer (right), Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) and John Meiklejohn (left) in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, "The Trial of the Detectives", 1928)

With others he faced a prolonged Bow Street magistrate's hearing followed by an Old Bailey trial. Although he protested his innocence and sought actively to be granted bail, he and two of his Scotland Yard colleagues (Meiklejohn and Druscovich) were ultimately convicted of corruption and sentenced to 2 years hard labour. His friend and colleague Chief Inspector George Clarke who was arrested later in the proceedings was the only one of the accused detectives to be acquitted.

In Palmer's case, unlike his convicted colleagues, there was no evidence that he had accepted money or other bribes from the fraudsters.  So, his reasons for writing to warn Kurr appear not to have been mercenary.  What other reason may he have had?

One of the defence barristers in the trial was Sir Edward Clarke (acting for George Clarke).  In his autobiography (1918; "The Story of My Life" pp.147-148) Edward Clarke made the following comments:

"Palmer was more sinned against than sinning.  He knew nothing of Kurr or Benson, and had received no bribe from any one.  He had been persuaded by some one more astute than himself to write the telegram and letter whose production convicted him, and in loyalty to his fellow prisoners he kept silence. After his term of imprisonment had expired he was allowed by the Surrey magistrates, partly at my instance, to become the holder of a public-house licence, and I believe he did well."

So had Druscovich,  Meiklejohn, or even George Clarke persuaded Palmer to help Kurr and Benson evade arrest?  We shall probably never know for sure.

Edward Clarke's recollection that Palmer later ran a pub was correct. He became manager of The Cock public house at 340 Kennington Road, Lambeth where he lived with his wife and family.  He died from pneumonia, aged 53, on 8 January 1888, leaving £283 in his Will.

A much fuller description of the Great Fraud Case and the Trial of the Detectives can be found in my biography of Chief Inspector George Clarke, 'The Chieftain'

Addendum: I am grateful to Neil Watson (author of "The Denham Massacre: Nineteenth-century Britain's Most Shocking House of Horror Murders"; published March 2018 by Mango Books) and Adam Wood (Mango Books),  for alerting me to the fact that William Palmer was also very briefly involved in that murder case in 1870; one report by Palmer is filed at The National Archives in  File : MEPO 3/98.







Today, I continue my short reviews of the senior detectives at Scotland Yard during the mid-Victorian era. George Clarke was one of my great-great grandfathers and is the principal reason why I became interested in Victorian crime detection. In May 1869, seven years after his initial transfer to Scotland Yard,  Clarke had just been promoted to Detective Chief Inspector, alongside Detective Chief Inspector Thomson. A more detailed analysis of Clarke's contribution to crime detection is available in my 2011 biography of him 'The Chieftain' .

George Clarke c. 1864. Photo coutesy of John Ashe

George Clarke was born in July 1818 in the small village of Therfield, Hertfordshire, set on the chalk downland south of Royston. He was the fifth child in a family of at least 10 children; his father, Robert, was an agricultural labourer. During the agricultural depression that followed the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, times were hard for those, like Clarke's family, who worked on the land. Poverty may well have contributed to the fact that two of George Clarke's uncles were sentenced to terms of transportation for theft, and his mother, Catherine Clarke, received a fine for a 'weights and measures' offence. So George, by proxy at least, had some familiarity with the law (or the wrong side of it) at a young age.

He appears to have been the first of his family to head to London to find work.  One possibility is that he was initially employed as a groom at Kingston House, London, which, in the late 1830s was rented by Richard Wellesley, the elder brother of Arthur Wellesley (the First Duke of Wellington) and of Gerald Wellesley, who had been rector of Therfield during Clarke's adolescence. However, in 1840, at the age of 21, Clarke decided to join the Metropolitan Police, formally becoming Police Constable George Clarke, warrant number 16834, on 6th April 1840. At 5 feet 7 and a half inches, he just exceeded the minimum height requirement at that time. P.C. Clarke was allocated to S Division (Hampstead) , one of the larger Metropolitan Police Divisions in terms of area and, at the time, relatively rural. He was to stay in S Division until 1862, being promoted to Sergeant on 27 May 1853.  On the promotion front he was outshone by his younger brother John Clark(e) who followed his brother into the Police and achieved promotion to Sergeant at Enfield Lock (in N Division; Islington) within 5 years, but advanced no further.

Details of George Clarke's career as a uniformed officer are hard to find, compounded by the fact that 'George Clark(e)' is quite a common name, and there were several PCs of that name in the Metropolitan Police during Clarke's career. However, those records involving P.C. or Sergeant Clark(e) of S Division, that reached the newspapers and court reports (and which probably involved him) can be found elsewhere on this website (see: The Constipated Thief?;  The Dangers of Staying Out Late; A Police Officer's Retirement; The Silk Thieves).

The reason for Clarke's transfer in 1862 to the small Detective Department of Scotland Yard, after 22 years as a uniformed officer, is unclear but may have occurred through the recommendation of his Divisional Superintendent and/or his apparent acquaintance with a long-standing friend and colleague, 'Dolly' Williamson (later Head of the Detective Department).

George Clarke's signature
George Clarke's signature

Once a  Detective Sergeant, Clarke's investigations are much easier to track down, helped by the fact that he was the only 'George Clark(e)' in the small team of nine Scotland Yard detectives (in 1862), and by the fact that his reports are recognisable by the presence of his distinctive signature on many documents that have survived at the National Archives, Kew. In addition there are  numerous  references  to cases in which he was involved, in the newspapers of the day and in trial transcripts from the Old Bailey.

Once he became a Detective-Sergeant, Clarke's first major case was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller on the North London Railway in July 1864. He was the Scotland Yard officer who arrested Muller in America, on board the sailing ship Victoria in New York harbour. In November that year he was also busy assembling evidence that led to the conviction of Ferdinand Kohl (a sugar-baker of German origin, based in London's East End) for the murder of a fellow German. This also involved overseas travel, with Clarke spending Christmas Day 1864 collecting evidence in Germany. Both Muller and Kohl were found guilty and hanged in public, as was the custom in those days.

Michael Davitt, arrested by Clarke in 1870
Michael Davitt, arrested by Clarke in 1870 (Wikipedia)

Between 1865-1868 and extending into 1870, a resurgence of Irish Republicanism (referred to as the 'Fenian Conspiracy')  spilled over into England and occupied much of the time of Scotland Yard's detective department.  Amongst many other related activities, in July 1867, Clarke arrested  the organiser of the Fenian insurrectionary force in Ireland,  Octave Fariola, a Swiss-born radical , and veteran of Garibaldi's campaign in Italy and of the American Civil War. Later, in 1870, he arrested the Fenian arms -organiser, Michael Davitt (who, after serving a sentence of penal servitude, became an MP and notable social reformer). Clarke was also sent on an undercover mission to France during the Franco-Prussian war to obtain evidence relating to the Fenian recruitment of men to fight for France, which was being conducted under the humanitarian guise of an 'Irish Ambulance Corps'.

In 1867, Clarke's suitability as a detective was recognised by his promotion to Inspector and only two years later, in May 1869 to Chief Inspector. From 1869 onwards he effectively became second-in-command of the department, frequently deputising for his younger boss, Superintendent Williamson.

Arthur Orton aka The Tichborne Claimant Penny Illustrated Newspaper)
Arthur Orton aka The Tichborne Claimant
(Penny Illustrated Newspaper)

From about 1869, the principal emphasis of Clarke's work re-focussed on London-based crime, including tracking down a gang of foreign burglars and bringing to justice William Anthony who, in 1871, appeared to have been responsible for a high proportion of the arson attacks in London. Also (in a Home Office-motivated decision to pursue betting crime), Clarke led police investigations into the reduction of illegal betting and  'turf frauds', a task that was ultimately to provide his nemesis. However, he still tackled other significant cases, the most important in the early-mid 1870s, being the trial for perjury of The Tichborne Claimant, Arthur Orton. Here, the collection by Clarke of evidence that completely destroyed the credibility of a pro-Claimant witness (Jean Luie aka Carl Lundgren) and critically exposed The Claimant's fraudulent case, contributed significantly to Orton's conviction for perjury.

In 1876, Clarke tackled two major cases of suspicious death.  In one case, (the public sensation of the year), a young lawyer, Charles Bravo, died of poisoning by antimony (tartar emetic). Clarke's investigations were hampered by the fact that the police were only asked to investigate the case some 12 days after Bravo's death, after an inquest jury had returned an open verdict. A second inquest jury later in the year returned a verdict of 'murder by a person or persons unknown'.   Ultimately, Clarke failed to find sufficient evidence to implicate any of the leading suspects or, indeed, to confirm that a murder had been committed.  My personal suspicion is that Bravo himself inadvertently swallowed the poison in mistake for Epsom Salts, an hypothesis put forward by Yseult Bridges in her book How Charles Bravo Died (1956). The second suspicious death case was referred to in the press as 'The Austrian Tragedy" when a rich Englishwoman was found dead on the Stelvio Pass (then in Austria). Clarke arrested her French-borne husband, Henri de Tourville for her murder. In the process he confirmed that de Tourville was probably a serial killer, having almost certainly murdered a previous mother-in-law in 1868. Clarke gave important evidence at  de Tourville's trial in Austria, during which he pulled out from his bag part of the skull of the murdered mother-in-law to illustrate his point! De Tourville was found guilty, and received a death sentence, later commuted to a lengthy prison term (during which de Tourville  died).

Harry Benson, fraudster; aka Mr G. H. Yonge (by which alias he was first encountered by Ge Clarke in 1875)
Harry Benson, fraudster; aka Mr G. H. Yonge (by which alias he was first encountered by George Clarke in 1875)

Highly-regarded by his superiors, and well-known by press and  public, Clarke's career and reputation was destroyed in 1877, and it was his involvement with the policing of betting crime that was the cause. In 1876, two plausible and clever fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr established a fraudulent betting scheme, historically referred to as the 'Great Turf Fraud'.  Having extracted at least £10,000 (worth about £400,000 today)  from one unsuspecting French punter, the scam was reported to Scotland Yard and, because Clarke was busy with the de Tourville inquiry, the case was handed to Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich to investigate. Although the fraudsters were eventually captured and convicted (Clarke himself making the first arrest), suspicions emerged that some Scotland Yard detectives had been receiving corrupt payments from the fraudsters. In July 1877, Druscovich , together with his colleagues Chief Inspector William Palmer and Inspector John Meiklejohn were arrested. During the subsequent Bow Street Magistrate's hearing, Benson and Kurr gave evidence that also implicated Clarke  in the apparent police corruption, and Clarke was arrested by his friend and colleague, Williamson, on 8th September. Despite vigorously protesting his innocence, Clarke joined his three other colleagues and a 'dodgy' solicitor, Edward Froggatt, in the dock at a sensational trial at the Old Bailey, which is usually referred to as 'The Trial of the Detectives'.

The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr
The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

Clarke was the only one of the accused who was acquitted;  to considerable cheering in the court according to contemporary newspaper accounts. However, whether innocent or guilty he was regarded by the Home Secretary as a political liability and was retired from the Metropolitan Police Force on 4 January 1878.  It seems likely that he became a publican for a few years before setting up in business as a Private Inquiry Agent with his son, Harry, a business which continued beyond George Clarke's death in 1891.

In most historical accounts, Clarke is only remembered in the context of the Trial of the Detectives and his possible or probable involvement in corruption (depending on the  points of view of different authors). My biography 'The Chieftain' contains a detailed (and fully referenced) assessment of all the major cases in which George Clarke was involved.  If you want to explore whether he was innocent or simply lucky to be acquitted, you'll have to read my book and make up your own mind!



James Jacob Thomson, formerly Superintendent of E Division, previously Detective Chief Inspector (Scotland Yard) London Metropolitan Police (photograph c. 1900; courtesy of Frederic Le Marcis)

In a recent blog post I mentioned that I would provide pen-pictures of the senior detectives in post at Scotland Yard in 1869, a time of considerable change in the structure of the Detective Department and in the number of detectives operating within the London Metropolitan Police force.  In May 1869, under the leadership of Superintendent Williamson, there were three Detective Chief Inspector posts in the Scotland Yard Detective Department, one of which was temporarily vacant; the two others being filled by James Thomson and George Clarke . Thomson is the subject of my blog post today.

James Jacob Thomson, was an interesting and unusual appointment to the Scotland Yard Detective Department. Born on the 14th February 1837, in Smyrna, Turkey, he was the son of a British merchant operating in the Ottoman Levant.  His good education and life overseas equipped him with the ability to speak several languages. He probably first joined the London Metropolitan Police in 1856, originally being posted to C Division (St James's) but in less than a year he had left the force, moving first to the Devon constabulary before joining the Hampshire police. Later deciding to rejoin the London Metropolitan Police, he made a special application to the Commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, and was appointed as a constable in the Detective Department in February 1862, the next day being promoted to Sergeant. This was quite a different career progression to that of the majority of Scotland Yard's detectives at that time and illustrative of the way in which Mayne was prepared to adapt the recruitment procedures when it came to appointing detectives, creating an eclectic mix of experience and skills in the process.

Thomson received quite rapid promotion, being appointed Inspector in March 1864, a promotion that coincided with the retirement of Inspector 'Jack' Whicher.  In 1869, Thomson occupied one of the three Chief Inspector posts when the small Scotland Yard detective department was almost doubled in size (from 15 to 27 detectives) under a new Commissioner, Edmund Henderson.

Ricard O'Sullivan Burke, Fenian Arms Organiser; Arrested by James Thomson, 1867
Ricard O'Sullivan Burke, Fenian Arms Organiser; Arrested by James Thomson, November 1867

Some historians have commented that Thomson was "one of the Yard's most accomplished detectives" and he certainly dealt with several high profile cases; however he only remained in the Detective Department for about 7 years. During 1865 he was in charge of an investigation into the forgery of Russian bank notes, a case that led to the conviction of a substantial gang of forgers.  The years between 1865 and 1868 were notable for an upsurge of Irish Republicanism (usually referred to as the Fenian Conspiracy) that spilled over from Ireland to the British mainland. With his linguistic skills, Thomson was amongst the Scotland Yard detectives that were sent to France, undercover, to maintain surveillance of those Fenian leaders (including James Stephens and Thomas Kelly) who were known to use Paris as a bolt-hole. In addition, suitably armed with a revolver, Thomson was one of two police officers responsible for the arrest in London of the Fenian arms organiser, Ricard Burke, whose incarceration in Clerkenwell House of Detention in November 1867 led to a failed rescue attempt by Fenian supporters that killed several civilians in the 'Clerkenwell Explosion'.

Very soon after his promotion to Detective Chief Inspector in 1869, Thomson moved from Scotland Yard into a uniformed post, as Superintendent of E Division (Holborn). Whether this was his own choice or not is unclear but, from a comment he made in 1877 when giving evidence to a Home Office Commission on the Detective Force, I suspect that he may have become disillusioned with the daily grind of detective work, and saw the Superintendent post as an opportunity to move on, and perhaps to escape from the large shadow cast by his boss, the head of Scotland Yard's Detective Department, 'Dolly' Williamson.  Thomson's specific comments to the 1877 Commission were:

"Many people read about detectives, and they see things upon the stage about detectives, and they think it is a very good sort of life; but when they come to try it they find it is earning your livelihood, like lifting bricks and everything else, and they get tired of it"

As a Divisional Superintendent he had more flexibility to 'run his own ship', at a time when Divisions were allocated a small number of detectives, that (until 1878) were managed by the divisional Superintendent rather than from Scotland Yard. Thomson remained as Superintendent of E Division until he retired at the relatively young age of 50, in May 1887, on an annual pension of £283. By this time, there had been a resurgence of Irish terrorism on the British mainland (which had been renewed in March 1883 with a bomb explosion in London), and it seems that , after his 'retirement' Thomson was employed privately  by the Home Office and by James Monro (then Head of Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigation Department) on investigations relevant to the discovery and suppression of Fenian plots (see Christy Campbell (2002) Fenian Fire)

Chieftain front coverJames Thomson married Richmond-born Anna Martha Baker at Bosmere, Suffolk in 1868.  The couple  had no children.  Thomson died at his home at Mill-Hill near Hendon, on 26th June 1902,  leaving £394 3s 5d in his will.  For further information and references about James Thomson (and his police colleagues) please see my book 'The Chieftain', and Christy Campbell's  2002 book 'Fenian Fire: The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria' (Harper Collins).