The Detective Police

For the first thirteen years there was no detective branch in the Metropolitan police. Down to 1839 the Bow Street runners and the constables of the seven police offices established in 1792 continued in existence and were regarded as the experts in crime detection or “thieftaking” but they were Criminal investigation, that is to say, the function of making inquiry into the circumstances of a crime and collecting information with a view to tracing and prosecuting the criminal, was, under the old system, one of the duties of justice and constable. It had, however, been very much neglected, outside of the limited sphere within which the Bow Street runners operated, and its revival was one of the great improvements that followed on the establishment of the Metropolitan police. The Bow Street runners were more of a private detective agency than a public service. As a witness before the parliamentary Committee of 1837 put it, they  “were private speculators in the detection of crime rather than efficient officers for the ends of justice.” They moved when they were sufficiently paid to do so, and, although normally only eight in number, they did not confine themselves to London, being available to the highest bidder for their services in any part of the country. Their official salary of a guinea a week was just a retaining fee, and the actual remuneration in any case was privately agreed upon.

From the beginning it was the duty of the Metropolitan police, immediately a crime was reported to them, to institute an investigation, regardless of whether there was anyone to prosecute or meet the cost of inquiries. The contrast between the Bow Street system and that of the new police was illustrated by the division of labour during the ten years (1829-1839) that the runners and the new police co-existed : the runners took the jewel robberies and left the murders to the Metropolitan police. AIl the murderers were traced, but only a sixth of the jewel thieves were brought to justice. There was, however, a widespread opinion, which found support even at the Home Office, that the new police, however excellent for the prevention of crime and the preservation of order, were not up to the work of “thieftaking” or “thiefcatching”, which was looked upon as a peculiar art or craft or mystery, requiring long years of initiation as well as special aptitude. The police magistrates, and especially the Chief Magistrate, Sir Richard Birnie, who were naturally partial to the old system over which they presided and jealous of the new, tried, so far as possible, to grant warrants only to the old constables, so as to keep the tracking down, or at least the arrest of criminals, in their hands.

There was also the difficulty that any attempt to organise a detective police would have been denounced as involving espionage and an imitation of foreign methods. Political espionage was one of the main purposes which the French police system had served both under the ancien régime and Napoleon. A semi-official detective corps had come into existence in Paris in 1810, when the notorious Vidocg, an ex-criminal turned police agent, was allowed to organise a band of other gaol-birds, as a brigade de sureté, who informed against their old associates and had the reputation of arranging or instigating many of the crimes they detected. The Bow Street runners were not ex-criminals, but they were hand-in-glove with the criminal classes and consorted with them in the “Aash houses.” In the new police there was a strict prohibition of such practices ; no constable was allowed to associate with known bad characters, or to use his own discretion as to the means of obtaining information.

Lastly, the fact that the new police were a uniformed force had certain consequences. Uniform for police was rather an innovation. Some of the Bow Street police had been conspicuous in blue coats and red waistcoats, but the foot patrol wore anything they liked. The parish constables had no uniform, the only thing that distinguished them being a staff or truncheon. In short, the old police were policemen in plain clothes, but once uniform had been adopted for the new police, plain clothes became a disguise and were viewed with suspicion, as the mark of a secret police. In consequence, down to 1869 the Metropolitan police were subject to almost military regulations in this respect, and could not appear in mufti, even when off duty, without special permission.  It was obvious, however, almost from the start, that some police duty could not be performed so well in uniform as out of it, and the Secretary of State gave discretion to the Commissioners to employ selected constables occasionally in plain clothes, mainly for keeping observation on pickpockets and beggars. The manner in which they exercised this discretion was called in question in 1833, in connection with the famous Popay case. Popay was an intelligent police-constable in Walworth, who, in his zeal to obtain information as to revolutionary activities, took a too active and well-acted part as a pretended adherent of the National Political Union of the Working Classes. A Select Committee of the House of Commons inquired into the case and (with one dissentient, the redoubtable Cobbett), exonerated the Commissioners of Police from the imputation that they had countenanced the employment of spies, but they censured Popay (who was dismissed) for “carrying concealment and deceit into the intercourse of private life.”

They laid it down that the employment of police in plain clothes ought to be strictly confined to detecting breaches of the law and preventing breaches of the peace, if these objects were otherwise unattainable to go beyonå this was “most abhorrent to the feeling of the people and most alien to the spirit of the constitution”. Although the new police, as a whole, came well out of the Popay inquiry, the case undoubtedly had a discouraging effect as regards the further development of the detective side of police work. In 1839 the Bow Street runners ceased to exist, and London had to manage without regular detectives in 1840 and 184I. In 1842 occurred the famous murder by Daniel Good, and the fact that he escaped arrest for some time led to considerable criticism of the police, with unfavourable comparisons between them and the defunct Bow Street runners. The Commissioners were able to show that the detective operations of the new police had been much more effective than those of the runners ever were, but at the same time they persuaded a reluctant Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, to sanction, as a cautious experiment, the formation of a small detective branch (two inspectors and six sergeants) with an office in Scotland Yard. These men were entertained by Dickens at the office of Housebold Words in 1850 : they are described in the articles in that journal on “The modern science of thieftaking”, and they inspired the character (in Bleak Ťouse) of Inspector Bucket “of the Detective” who indicated the eternal basis of successful detective operations when he explained to Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, that he “had gone to work from information received”.

Dickens summed up the Bow Street runners and their “vast amount of humbug ” in a few masterly sentences, of which the last may serve as their epitaph : “Although as a preventive police they were utterly ineffective and as a detective police they were very loose and uncertain in their operations, they remain with some people a superstition to the present day”. The activities of the new detectives were, for the most part, confined to London, but their number must have been inadequate from the beginning. The strength of the old prejudice against detectives can be gauged from the fact that it was not until 1864 that there was any increase in the permanent detective establishment, and in 1868, when Sir Richard Mayne died, it was just a small branch of the Commissioner’s Office, fifteen strong in a force nearly eight thousand. This handful of men dealt with the more important cases and carried out special inquiries. Ordinary local crime was handled by the divisional police, but there was no definite organisation, or special pay for the work, and the selection of officers for it was haphazard and casual. 

At a quarter to four on the afternoon of Friday, the I3th December, 1867, a barrel of gunpowder was exploded against the wall of the exercise yard of the old Clerkenwell House of Detention. The explosion, besides more or less wrecking a street of houses, killed and injured a number of innocent men, women and children. The outrage caused the greatest excitement and alarm everywhere. It was thought to portend a widespread campaign of terrorism, although, in the event, it proved to be an isolated crime by a few reckless men, who merely designed to make a hole in a wall through which a prisoner detained on remand might get away. Queen Victoria urged the Government to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act for three months, a request which the Prime Minister (Lord Derby) met by the more practical step of a large increase in the Metropolitan police, whom he described, in a letter to Her Majesty, as “overworked and disspirited ” and “especially deficient as a detective force.” Under the new Commissioner (Sir E. Henderson, 1869-1886), part of this augmentation of the force was used for the creation of a detective establishment covering the whole district, and the existing detective branch at headquarters became the central office of the new organisation. The new detectives were instructed that their primary duty was to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the criminal. population of their districts – by the method of diligent observation, and not by familiar association, as under the Bow Street system. 

In that portion of the General Orders of the Metropolitan police which deals with criminal investigation, first place has ever since been given to observation as the indispensable factor in the prevention and detection of crime. Observation, it may be explained, does not involve elaborate disguises, but merely requires that the detective’s get-up should be in accordance with his surroundings.  Another part of the detective system which dates from 1869 is the employment of special winter patrols – detachments of plain clothes men drawn from the uniformed force during the dark winter months, to keep watch in any areas where house-breakings, burglaries or other offences are especially prevalent. It may be mentioned that in 1868 motives of economy and recognition of the intermittent character of detective work led the Secretary of State and the Commissioner to entertain for a time a plan for employing suitable persons on detective work, occasionally or permanently, without making them police officers. The idea was, however, abandoned, in view of its probably fatal resemblance to the continental practice of employing professional police spies or “indicateurs.” In this country the indispensable informant has always remained an out- of-pocket expense and public opinion would not tolerate his promotion to be a salaried retainer. That Scotland Yard was alive to the risks of reviving the cry of “espionage” , may be gathered from the doubtful welcome which the new detective force received in the Commissioner’s report for 1869, Scotland Yard’s first Annual Report. “There are many great difficulties,” wrote Sir Edmund Henderson, “iin the way of a detective system ; it is viewed with the greatest suspicion and jealousy by the majority of Englishmen and is, in fact, entirely foreign to the habits and feelings of the nation.” 

The system, however, was to suffer at first more from internal weakness than outside criticism. Many of the divisional superintendents were not well disposed to the idea of having a separate class of detective officers in their divisions, and they took no pains to select suitable men for the work. Cooperation between the central office at Scotland Yard and the local detectives, or between one division and another, was almost non-existent, and there were deplorable leakages of information. This state of affairs was brought to light as a result of the inquiry which followed the great Scotland Yard scandal of 1877, when three of the highest officers in the central office were found guilty, of conspiring with a gang of swindlers in the carrying on of fraudulent disclosures, said the Attorney General at their trial, “came as a thunderclap to the community, and spread over England the greatest possible alarm,” which was putting it rather high. A Committee was appointed to inquire into the detective service and they were impressed by a report on the detective organisation of the Paris police which was submitted to them by Mr. Howard Vincent (afterwards Sir Howard Vincent, M.P.), a young barrister who had made a special study of the efficiency of the French system.

The Committee accordingly recommended that the Metropolitan police should have a united and separate detective force. It was thus that a Criminal Investigation Department (the C.I.D.) was created in March, 1878, under Mr. Vincent. He was appointed Director of Criminal Investigation (“translation of the French ce Directeur des Recherches Criminelles “), to organise the new department. Extensive changes were made at Scotland Yard ~ the divisional detective staffs were reconstituted under inspectors, and special rates of pay were sanctioned for the C.I.D. so as to attract the best men. The new department encountered a great deal of opposition. There was disaffection among the uniformed men, because of the extra pay given to the plain clothes branch, and it was rumoured that the detectives were to spy on the rest of the force, as in Paris, where plain clothes men attached to the bureau known as the “contrôle générale” exercised a secret surveillance over other police officers. Some of the divisional superintendents sympathised with the rank and file in this matter, and complained that the detectives in the divisions were no longer under their control and that responsibility for the criminal side of police work had been taken entirely out of their hands. 

There was undoubtedly an idea at first of making the C.I.D. an entirely separate organisation, as in Paris, and the Director was given almost carte blanche to carry out any change he thought fit. The experience of the previous decade, however, had driven home the lesson that no police system can succeed without the closest co-operation between all branches and all ranks, and it was eventually laid down, in the autumn of 1878, While the detectives were to carry out their duties according to the instructions of the superior officers in their own branch, C.I.D. cases would pass through the divisional superintendent, so that he should retain a general responsibility for all police work in his division. This “treaty of alliance” has been the basis of the relationship between the detective and the uniformed branches ever since. 

In 1880 Scotland Yard, and the C.I.D. in particular, came under the strong and wise guidance of Sir William Harcourt at the Home Office ; and the first of several crises in police matters with which he had to deal was that which arose in connection with the case of the chemist Titley. Titley was brought to justice by police officers pretending to seek his aid in procuring an abortion. A similar proceeding by the police in another case ten years earlier had passed without challenge, but the Titley case raised a storm, and the police were actually indicted (though the indictment was quashed), for criminal conspiracy. Severe criticism of Scotland Yard’s detective methods, from the Bench as well as the public, led the Home Secretary to make a pronouncement in the House of Commons which was memorable for its repudiation of agent provocateur methods and its recognition of public opinion as the touchstone of police practice in this country. In regretting and excusing the action of the police, on the ground that proof of such crimes as Titley’s might otherwise be forthcoming only after a life haă been sacrificed, Sir William Harcourt said that, however great this evil, a greater was the danger that the confidence of the public might be shaken in the good faith of the police, and that “the cases in which it is necessary or justifiable for the police to resort to artifice of the description practised in this case must be rare indeed. As a rule, the police ought not to set traps for people”. In a fuller memorandum in the Home Office papers he added : “This is consonant, I believe, with the temper of the English people, even though they know that they have to pay the price in the defectiveness of their detective system”. 

Notwithstanding the Titley case and other troubles, the C.I.D. fully justified its creation, not only by many advances in organisation and method but by practical results in the successful detection and prosecution of crime. The number of arrests by detectives for criminal offences in the Metropolitan Police district rose from 13,128 in 1879 to 15,472 in 1880 and to 17,522 in 1883. 

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