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On this Day: 12th May 1869; The Rise of ‘Dolly’ Williamson and the Scotland Yard Detectives

Superintendent Adolphus Frederick Williamson (from Belton Cobb (1956) Critical Years at the Yard)

On 12th May 1869, Chief Inspector Adolphus ('Dolly') Williamson was promoted to Superintendent and head of an expanded Detective Department at Scotland Yard. At the same time, the man who was to become Williamson's deputy, Inspector George Clarke, was promoted to Chief Inspector during the most radical changes to the  detective force in London since 1842.

When the London Metropolitan Police Force was established in 1829, its principal role was crime prevention. Crime detection was given a lower priority, and the delay in establishing  a plain clothes detective force was also attributable to concerns that this would lead to a civilian-spy system similar to those found in some European countries. There were additional fears that men in plain clothes would also be more susceptible to corruption. Nonetheless, by 1842 the over-riding need for a detective force in London had become apparent and a small Detective Department  containing 8 men was established. The strong interest and support that the author and social reformer, Charles Dickens, displayed towards the new detectives probably helped offset some, though not all, of the initial public concerns.  Writing in Household Words (1850), Dickens commented:

Charles Dickens, 1868 (Wikipedia)
Charles Dickens, 1868; a fan of the Scotland Yard Detective Department (Wikipedia)

"The Detective so well chosen and trained, proceeds so systematically and quietly, does its business in such a workmanlike manner, and is always so calmly and steadily engaged in the service of the public, that the public really do not know enough of it, to know a tithe of its usefulness."

By 1862, when my great-great-grandfather George Clarke first joined the department as a Sergeant, there were 10 detectives at Scotland Yard. In November 1867, a further modest increase to 15 detectives had been approved by the Home Office at the time of the Fenian Conspiracy  but  was  not acted on until the long-serving Police Commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, died in December 1868 and was replaced by a new broom, Colonel Edmund Henderson.

Colonel Edmund Henderson, Metropolitan Police Commissioner 1869-1886 (Wikipedia)
Colonel Edmund Henderson, Metropolitan Police Commissioner 1869-1886 (Wikipedia)

It seems that Henderson had fewer reservations about increasing the number of detectives in London and, on the same day that Williamson and  Clarke were promoted, Henderson announced that the Scotland Yard Detective Department would be increased to 27 staff including a Superintendent (Williamson), 3 Chief Inspectors, 3 Inspectors and 20 Sergeants.  In addition, a few days later, approval was given for a total of  180 new detectives (Sergeants and Constables) to be appointed across the Metropolitan Police's Divisions.  As a consequence, the number of detectives in the Force had, on paper, increased from 15 to 207.  The team of 27 at Scotland Yard  reported direct to the Police Commissioner, and the remaining 180 to their relevant Divisional Superintendents.  This divergence in line-management was to remain a bone of contention until the later establishment of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) in 1878.

An interest in matters criminal has thrived across several centuries.  The 'Detective Story' has become a very popular and entertaining part of modern literature; however, within this literature, it is the fictional detective that has predominated.  This contrasts somewhat with the Victorian age where news of the exploits of the real detectives fascinated not only Charles Dickens but, increasingly a high proportion of the population, through newspaper reports and word-of-mouth.

'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 recent 'resurrection' of Inspectors Richard Tanner, and Jonathan Whicher, by the authors Kate Colquhoun ("Mr Briggs' Hat") and Kate Summerscale ("The Suspicions of Mr Whicher"), respectively, has provided a  fresh look at some of the realities of life for the Victorian Scotland Yard detective. My personal interest in Victorian detectives has been in unearthing the story behind George Clarke's detective career, now published in my biography of him, 'The Chieftain'.  However, I'm sure that further investigation of his colleagues in the burgeoning mid-Victorian Scotland Yard Detective Department would prove of equal merit.  By mid-1869, Tanner and Whicher were no longer at Scotland Yard, but 'Dolly' Williamson and  his senior colleagues were an interesting bunch and, in my view, worthy of further research in their own right. For that reason I've decided to provide brief pen-pictures of the men occupying these positions  in the hope of sparking further interest in them; starting today with Superintendent 'Dolly' Williamson. In future blog posts I intend to add similar pen-pictures of those men filling the ranks of Chief Inspector and Inspector at Scotland Yard during the 1870s.

Superintendent Adolphus Frederick Williamson
Superintendent Adolphus Frederick Williamson

Superintendent Adolphus  Frederick Williamson

Known to friends and colleagues as 'Dolly', Adolphus Williamson was a Scot whose father had been Superintendent of T Division (Hammersmith). His first job was as a temporary clerk in the War Department before he decided to follow his father into the Metropolitan Police in 1850.  Initially working as an assistant clerk in P Division (Camberwell), he gained promotion and joined the detective department as a Sergeant in 1852.  He later went on to become the Head of Scotland Yard's Detective Department, achieving the ranks of Chief Inspector, Superintendent and District Superintendent/Chief Constable en route.

During his long 36-year career at Scotland Yard Williamson was involved in many of the high profile criminal investigations of his day.  This included his early work with Inspector Whicher on the initially 'unsolved' case of the Road Hill House murder.  Once Constance Kent confessed to the crime several years after the initial investigation had failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion, it was Williamson as Head of Department who concluded the case. He was at the forefront of the Detectives' involvement in investigations of  Irish Terrorism on the British mainland, during the Fenian Conspiracy (1865-1868) and in the 1880s when a bomb explosion in London in March 1883 marked the start of another Fenian campaign. A 'Special Irish Branch' (the forerunner of Special Branch) was established under his leadership a month later. Well-liked and respected by his colleagues, Williamson's reputation was nonetheless fortunate to survive (apparently unscathed) when, in 1877, his Department's three Chief Inspectors (Clarke, Nathaniel Druscovich and William Palmer) were arrested and tried for corruption in the now notorious 'Trial of the Detectives'.

St John Evangelist Church, Smith Square. Location of Williamson's funeral
St John Evangelist Church, Smith Square. Location of Williamson's funeral

Williamson is said to have had a great capacity for hard work, combining it with a dry sense of humour.  As a young man he was a powerful sculler and a devotee of the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, but like Wilkie Collins' 'Sergeant Cuff', his principal relaxation was gardening.  He died on 9th December 1889, still in post, though for some months prior to his death his health had failed. The Home Secretary expressed his "...deep regret with which he hears of Mr. Williamson's death, and of his sense of the great loss which the Police and Public have sustained in being deprived of an Officer distinguished for his skill, prudence and experience and whose life has been unsparingly devoted to the Public Service." The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) expressed similar sentiments. Williamson's well-attended funeral service was held at St John Evangelist church in London's Smith Square (now a popular concert venue).