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Verdict reached at the Old Bailey ‘Trial of the Detectives’; 20 November 1877

The main protagonists in the Trial of the Detectives; the Detectives: Clarke, Palmer, Druscovich and Meiklejohn,  Froggatt and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

In an earlier blog post in September 2012, I wrote about the events that had led to the arrest in September 1877 of my great-great-grandfather, Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke (aka 'The Chieftain') on a charge of perverting the ends of justice.  By late October 1877, events had moved fast. With his police colleagues, Inspector John Meiklejohn and Chief Inspectors Nathaniel Druscovich and William Palmer, Clarke had found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey in the first major Metropolitan Police corruption trial.  Edward Froggatt, a solicitor, had joined the policemen in  the dock, on similar charges.  The two principal prosecution witnesses were two notorious convicted fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr, who appeared in court in their prison uniforms.

The trial was the public sensation of the year and was, in its time, the longest trial that had taken place at the Old Bailey.  By early afternoon on 20 November 1877, the judge, Baron Sir Charles Pollock, had almost completed his summing-up before asking the jury to consider their verdict. With such trials providing the spectator-sport of their day, the Daily Telegraph produced a vivid  report of the events that followed:

Punch magazine's perspective on the Trial of the Detectives. John Bull pushes open the door to the Scotland Yard Detective Department, while holding the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Edmund Henderson, in his spotlight.

"The summing-up was anything but interesting even to the judicial mind.  The evidence was wearisome from repetition, and the judge’s system necessitated constant allusion to the same circumstances. However, there were the prisoners exposed to the public gaze, and subjected to determined scrutiny. Whenever Druscovich stood up, whenever Froggatt sat down, whenever Clarke leaned upon his elbow, whenever Meiklejohn scrunched up a pen in his strong fingers, whenever a note was passed down from the dock to the barristers or solicitors, each one of these facts was duly recorded and whispered about by the unprofessional spectators in court.  But as the lengthy list of witnesses was wearily exhausted, on one face only was seen a sign of expectancy or a ray of hope, and that was the face of Inspector Clarke.  Anxiety seemed to fade from him as the end drew near.  Meiklejohn never stood for a second.  His features never relaxed their gloom. Druscovich and Froggatt were nervously anxious and apprehensively fidgety, were often whispering and constantly writing during the early morning hours.  But Clarke’s face was comparatively cheerful and illumined with hope. When the hour for the adjournment came the case of the detectives was summed up and finished. The jury was fully charged as far as four of the prisoners were concerned.  Froggatt’s was purposely kept apart by the judge all through, and this was taken after luncheon. And so without much solemnity, and with scarcely any deviation from an even and unruffled course, the jury retired to consider their verdict at twenty-five minutes past three.

Court-room sketches of the Trial of the Detectives published in the Penny Illustrated Paper, 3 November 1877

The court was now full to overflowing.  There were more people present – many more – than when the Penge convicts [the murderers of Harriet Staunton] were sentenced to death.  At the entrance to the bench there was not standing room.  Barristers struggled to their seats with difficulty.  Every avenue was blocked, and there were almost as many visitors standing as sitting. The counsel connected with the case returned to their seats, and all was anxiety, crowd, confusion, intolerable heat and expectancy.  The jury only asked, through their foreman, for some documents to verify the handwriting of Palmer, and then they retired.  At this moment there was – naturally perhaps – some little hesitation on the part of Clarke and Froggatt in following the other prisoners down the stairs into the gaol.  Hitherto they had been on bail and up to this moment they were free men.  Going down those stairs accompanied by the warders, certainly looked like going to prison, and both Clarke and Froggatt hesitated.  They did more: they looked appealingly to Mr. Sidney Smith [Governor of Newgate Prison], who was in his old painful corner in the wide dock, as if to ask protection from this first step to gaol. But it could not be, and it was far better as it was; for who would willingly expose himself to the cruel gaze of a crowded court during those dread moments, when the jury is deciding the fate of prisoners? For then, when the judge is absent, when formality is comparatively at an end, the long pent up silence gives way to a period of what looks like heartless animation.  There is a buzz of conversation, the usher indignantly calls to some daring personage instantly to remove his hat, the ladies are escorted into inner apartments for consoling cups of tea, there is an in-coming and out-going of City magnates in purple robes and chains of office.  Anything but solemnity prevails while the jury deliberate in their room, and the prisoners wait below with visions of the treadmill and oakum-picking before their eyes. The more crowded the court the greater the gossipping; and if in a murder case actual levity is not restrained, how much less can silence be expected when it is whispered about that “after all they can only get two years”. Painters have given to us scenes of intense dramatic effect as conveying the horror and despair of those who “are waiting for the verdict”. But they are ideal.  They do not occur at the Old Bailey when the rope is dangling in mid-air, and they are not expected when the ultimate doom will only be the crank and cropped hair [these comments refer to the fact that the potential sentences for anyone found guilty on the charges in this case would only receive imprisonment with hard labour and not the ultimate sanction of capital punishment by hanging, which would only be handed down for offences such as murder and treason] .

The fraudster William Kurr on the front cover of the Police News coverage of the Trial of the Detectives

The prophets were true who anticipated that the deliberation would not be long. There had been plenty of time to consider the case in all its bearings before this, and there is one consolation in a long trial.  It means a short deliberation. So the five o’clock tea was curtailed and the fashionable gossip was cut short by the arrival of the usher, who, fighting his way through a desperate crowd, announced that the jury would be back in three minutes.  Back came the ladies, off went the obstinate hats, silence was emphatically pronounced, and at seventeen minutes past four the jury had returned, preceded by the young foreman, who held in his hand an ominous paper.  This was the verdict. He had not returned to ask any questions as some asserted. The fate of the prisoners was now in the foreman’s hands. But now there was a painful interval. The prisoners were arranged in front of the dock, all terribly distressed and nervous. But the judge had not returned. It seemed a long time this delay to all in court. It must have seemed hours to the accused. The longer the delay, the more the whispering, and once more, when the red curtains were parted and the judge appeared, it was necessary to command silence authoritatively.

At last the names of the jurymen are called over, and the Clerk of the Arraigns asks the dread question in order and in deep silence.  Meiklejohn? Guilty. Druscovich? Guilty. Palmer? There is an anxious hesitation, and the young foreman, who is terribly nervous, wishes to go back and recommend Druscovich to mercy. So Palmer’s fate hangs in the balance, and the presentment of the jury is made commending Druscovich to clemency. Once more the questioning begins again. Palmer? Guilty. Once more there is some hesitation. Clarke? No; the foreman wishes to do everything in order, and goes back instantly to Palmer. He, too, is recommended to mercy, because he was not bribed. And now comes Clarke’s turn, and apparently the most anxious moment of all, for the silence deepens. Clarke? Not guilty. The words were scarcely uttered before a burst of cheering rang through the court – not from one corner. Not from gallery alone, not merely the delighted relief of friends; but a sudden, strong, sympathetic cheer. The authorities of the court tried vainly to silence the noise, and it required the firm, indignant voice of the judge to restore silence. The court was to be instantly cleared if such indecent exhibitions of sentiment were heard again.  Instantly Clarke appreciated his position and fell back from the rank with a smile on his face. He looked young again, and beamed, as he stood back with folded arms, almost a free man.  Froggatt, terribly agitated with all this delay and excitement, closes up, and bows his head as the question is asked. “Froggatt?” “Guilty”."

'The Chieftain' my biography of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011


So, George Clarke 'got off' while his colleagues headed off to prison.  For the full background to this important case and the events leading up to it, as well as the subsequent repercussions, which included the establishment of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), please see 'The Chieftain' .

4 thoughts on “Verdict reached at the Old Bailey ‘Trial of the Detectives’; 20 November 1877

  1. Mike Vince

    Chris, fantastic! Riveting stuff. I "was" in the Old Bailey. I felt for Clarke and felt his relief at the verdict of "not guilty". Your research does you credit to bring back the history of the time.

  2. claire

    Fascinating I have court transcripts and cuttings etc as John Meiklejohn is my ancester. Where you aware that John Meiklejohn went on to be a private investigator and also wrote a book.

  3. admin

    Hi Claire. Many thanks for your comment and for contacting me. I was aware that John Meiklejohn wrote a book entitled 'Real Life Detective Stories' which was published in 1912 around the time of his death. Was that the one you meant? I've read it at the British Library . My book 'The Chieftain' mentions John Meiklejohn quite a lot and contains a photo of him which was kindly made available to me by Peter Meiklejohn (John Meiklejohn was his great-grandfather I believe). John Meiklejohn also published quite a few newspaper articles in the Leeds Mercury during 1890. I would be delighted to have a longer 'discussion' via email if that would be of interest. Regards, Chris Payne

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