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The Senior Detectives at Scotland Yard, 1869; Chief Inspector James J. Thomson

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).

11 thoughts on “The Senior Detectives at Scotland Yard, 1869; Chief Inspector James J. Thomson

  1. Le Marcis Frederic

    Dear Chris Payne
    I read your blog with great interest. I am the great great son of Clementine Thomson. She did married in France Eugène Ernest Le Marcis after a quick marriage on Jersey Island with an old and poor french aristocrate (Fénis du Tourondel). It has always been said in my family that Clementine was the daughter of James Thomson who was a London Superintendent. We still have a picture of him, of his grave, etc. etc. We do have as well some papers belonging to him and especially a book where he did put some articles he kept from newspapers. I am actually living and working in Burkina Faso but willing to exchange with you. I do not understand why you founded he had no children...

  2. admin

    Dear Frederic. I am very pleased that you contacted me and I would be delighted to communicate with you further. My reason for assuming that James Thomson had no children, was a record in the 1911 UK census. By that date James Thomson had died, but his widow was still alive. Amongst the questions asked of women in the 1911 census, was to record how many children they had had. Thomson's widow recorded that she had had no children. Of course, census records are not always accurate and there are also other potential explanations why James Thomson was Clementine's father. I'll check my information again and contact you directly by email. . The records of James Thomson that have survived in your family sound fascinating and I would love to hear more about these. I also think that they would be of considerable interest to historians interested in the history of the LondonMetropolitan Police. Regards. Chris Payne

  3. Le Marcis Frederic

    Dear Chris,
    Do not hesitate to write to me directly. I am currently working in Burkina Faso but will be back in France this summer and then be able to check the archives...

  4. admin

    For those interested in this discussion, I am pleased to say that Frederic and I have resolved the issue of the relationship between Clementine Thomson and Superintendent James Thomson. They were in fact, sister and brother and the reason for any previous confusion was that their father, a merchant in Smyrna, Turkey, also had the name 'James Thomson'. My dialogue with Frederic has also revealed much more information about the career of Superintendent James Thomson which we are continuing to investigate between us. Further details in due course!

  5. peter kennison

    Dear Chris
    Really like your blog which I would like to reference in a forthcoming book - part of our series of mapping the history of each london police station before many get pulled down or sold off. These are the Behind the Blue lamp - policing North and North east London (2003), Policing South and south East London (2011) and forthcoming Policing Inner, south and north west london (2014). I would like to use some information regarding Thomson from your research. I am also a picture collector and I have a good picture of him looking very young in his superintendents dress uniform. I am happy to share it.

  6. admin

    Dear Peter
    I am pleased that you like the blog and I would be very happy for you to refer to it in your forthcoming book. You might also like to mention my book 'The Chieftain' which contains quite a bit of information about the mid-Victorian Scotland Yard detectives. I would certainly be interested to see a copy of your photo of James Thomson.
    Following other comments from Frederic le Marcis to this post about Thomson, it emerged in our dialogue that Frederic is a direct descendant of Thomson's sister, Clementine who married into the French aristocracy. When James Thomson died, several of his effects were inherited by Frederic's ancestors, including a 'book' (entitled 'Superintendent Thomson') of newspaper cuttings and other documents relevant to Thomson's career. This book has survived, though in a somewhat fragile state but Frederic is clearly interested in finding a way to make the information more widely available to interested researchers.

  7. peter kennison

    Dear Chris

    I sent on the picture of Thomson as a superintendent to you but got no reply. Did it arrive Ok?

    Best wishes


  8. admin

    Hi Peter. I'm pleased to say that, after an exchange of emails the picture did arrive. Great picture; many thanks. Quite a fancy uniform it seems if you were a Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police!

  9. Randall James

    Dear Chris,

    Did the Sergeants and Inspectors report to the Chief Inspectors or to
    the Superintendents? And did this hierarchy stay the same into
    the 1930's? Thank you!


  10. Peter Kennison

    hi Randall/Chris

    Having just read Critical years at the Yard by Belton Cobb (undated) but looks mid 1950's they talk about Superintendent Williamson as a modest man with a sense of humour. He was called 'Dolly' by his men (obviously not to his face) as his first name was Adolphus - so nicknames were used in the office. To their face certainly from the inception of the Flying Squad the chiefs were either Sir, Boss and laterly Gov or Gov'nor.

    Yes each sergeant (as there could be as many as 3) reported to the First Class DS (one only) and he in turn reported to his DI on division and only Detective Chief Inspectors (DCIs) were attached to the Yard. In 1932 there were 8 DCI's at NSY together with teams headed by a DI and there were 49 of them. Each Division had its own DI known as the Divisional Detective and separate CID offices at the HQ station.

    I hope this helps
    Dr Peter Kennison

    1. Randall James

      Thank you, Peter. Very helpful!
      I wonder if you could get my email from Chris,
      so that I could ask a few more questions?


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