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The London Metropolitan Police and the Congress of Berlin 1878; Some Unanswered Questions

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