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Victorian True Crime through the Eyes of a Scotland Yard Detective
By Chris Payne
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Chris Payne
All rights reserved.
THE JOURNEY TO SCOTLAND YARD
This town is paraded with policemen in blue
They carry a mighty big staff and make use of it too.
They batter your sconce in for pleasure,
In the station house poke you for fun,
They take all your money and treasure
And fine you five bob when they've done!
Early Days in Therfield
George Clarke was born in July 1818 in Therfield, Hertfordshire, a village on the ancient Icknield Way amongst the chalk hills some 3 miles south-west of Royston. He was the fifth child and fourth son of Robert Clarke and his wife Catherine (née Gatward). Catherine's family, which included several members who encountered the wrath of the law, had been resident in Therfield for several generations, while Robert, whose occupation was variously recorded as 'agricultural labourer' or 'gardener', had been born in the nearby village of Barley. Married in December 1807 at Therfield church, Robert and Catherine had at least ten children between 1809 and 1833 (six boys and four girls).
The Clarke family must have been on the margins of poverty, though they managed to avoid the workhouse. In 1821, Robert and Catherine and five of their children were sharing a house in Therfield with Catherine's parents and six of Catherine's younger brothers and sisters; a total of fifteen people in the one house. Between 1793 and 1815, the agricultural sector, and those employed in it, had profited from the need to sustain food production during the wars with France. However, after the wars had ended, peace brought only poverty to those employed on the land. Under these circumstances life for the Clarkes was undoubtedly hard, and it is little wonder that several of Robert Clarke's sons explored different ways of earning a living. Amongst George Clarke's three older brothers, only Leonard, the older brother nearest in age to George, followed in his father's footsteps as an agricultural labourer, but later immigrated to Australia. The two eldest, Thomas and Robert, spent their lives in Therfield but earned their living from occupations other than agricultural labouring, albeit in allied trades. The eldest brother, Thomas, was variously a butcher, jobber and cattle dealer. Robert initially earned his living as a butcher and carrier, but by 1861 had become a shopkeeper in the village, a position that he occupied for much of the rest of his life.
George Clarke was the first member of his family to move to London to obtain work, joining an exodus of working men from the countryside to the city. He was not to be the last, as his younger brothers Henry and John Clark (sic) had followed suit by 1845 and 1856 respectively. In addition, by 1861 two of his younger sisters, Susan and Jane, had married and were based in London, living in Bethnal Green and Marylebone with their respective husbands, Samuel Sitch (a carpenter) and Joseph Norton (a fruiterer).
It seems unlikely that Clarke's application to join the Metropolitan Police in 1840 was his first job in London, but the precise timing and nature of his initial move from Therfield is a matter of speculation. His police 'joining records' provide some possible clues. Every applicant wishing to join the Metropolitan Police had to submit three written testimonials of character, one of them being from their last employer. Clarke's testimonials came from a Thomas Garratt of Kingston House, and from two others (whose names are illegible in the records) located at Regent's Park and Portland Terrace, suggesting that Clarke was already working in London by 1840. Between 1837 and 1842, Kingston House, a mansion in Westminster, was let to Richard Wellesley, the eldest brother of Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington). Between 1822 and 1832, the Duke of Wellington's youngest brother, Gerald Wellesley, had been Rector of Therfield at a time when George Clarke was growing up. The Clarke children were all baptised at Therfield church and the family were probably regular churchgoers. Thus, one possibility is that George Clarke initially gained employment in London as a member of the household staff of Richard Wellesley, following earlier contact with the Wellesley family in Therfield.
London and the Metropolitan Police
The London of 1840 was crowded, noisy, smelly and dark. The population was predominantly English but had significant ethnic minorities and was becoming increasingly multicultural. Industrial premises existed cheek by jowl with crowded housing, and the principal use of coal as a fuel added to the smell and created the smoke-blackened buildings and the fog-laden atmosphere. Gas lighting had brightened up some streets and buildings. The more select areas contained the gated communities and mansions built in the Georgian and Regency periods, owned by rich merchants, politicians and landowners in London for the season. The busy streets were crowded with handcarts and horse-drawn vehicles of all shapes and sizes, but a revolution in transport had started with the opening of a primitive terminus at Euston by the Birmingham Railway Company in 1837 and the construction of the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Maidenhead in 1838. For many it was a place of brutality and hardship; child mortality was high, life expectancy low. Numerous diseases were prevalent and the arrival of cholera in 1832 simply added to the problems faced by those living in crowded and unsanitary conditions without clean water and effective sanitation or medication. In 1840, London was also in the middle of the worst economic depression that had ever afflicted Britain. In this environment, the Metropolitan Police were doing their best to maintain order and prevent crime.
The London Metropolitan Police had been set up in 1829, the necessary legislation being driven through Parliament by the Home Secretary and later prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. The orthodox history of the force is that an incompetent and corrupt system of parish policing in pre–1829 London made it essential to establish a more effective and centrally organised police force for London. More recent historical analyses have questioned this perception of the 'before and after', though the details need not concern us here. After the enabling legislation was passed in Parliament, Peel had appointed two commissioners, responsible to the Home Office, to establish and manage the force. These were Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne. Rowan was 47, with a distinguished military record in the Napoleonic wars. Mayne was a 33-year-old Dublin-born barrister who had not held any administrative post. The appointments proved to be shrewd and effective ones and the two men worked well together right up to the time of Rowan's retirement in 1850. From 1855 Mayne became the sole commissioner and operated in an increasingly autocratic manner until his death in 1868. Between 1862 and 1868, after joining the detective department at Scotland Yard, George Clarke found himself working in close proximity to Commissioner Mayne and at times received his orders directly from him.
The original Metropolitan Police district was a 10-mile radius from Charing Cross, excluding the City where a previously established City Police was retained under the City of London Corporation. The Metropolitan Police headquarters was established in Whitehall Place, adjoining Old Scotland Yard. The district was managed within several divisional areas, each headed by a superintendent; seventeen divisions were operational by May 1831 and by 1834 the number of London policemen was just short of 3,400. It was the two commissioners, Mayne and Rowan, who drew up and implemented the operational strategy for the force. Embodied in the early police instructions was the philosophy that the principal role of the Metropolitan Police would be to contribute towards crime prevention. Creation of a small plain-clothes detective force (focusing on crime detection) was delayed until 1842, not least because of political and public concerns that this would lead to a civilian-spy system similar to those found in some European countries, and further fears that men in plain clothes were more susceptible to corruption. These concerns were real in the minds of many people, and remained so for many years. James Davis, who was appointed in the 1870s as the legal adviser to the Metropolitan Police commissioner and worked on a daily basis with the detective department, expressed the following views to a Home Office Commission in 1877:
... the principle of having police in plain clothes is, in my opinion, an evil, and I think that their being in uniform is one of the greatest guarantees for good conduct. I may say that all action in plain clothes, which is to a certain extent a disguise, and where there is no public control over the officer in question, is an evil. No doubt there are exceptional cases where the advantages outweigh the evil, but I still think that a detective force, that is to say, men going about who are police officers not in uniform, is of itself a great evil.
However, Davis did not allow his personal principles to prevent him 'supping with the devil' when at work.
The accountability of the force to the Home Office, rather than to local administrative authorities in London, was justified on the grounds that the police would need to perform tasks of national importance, such as protecting the monarch, the royal palaces, Parliament and public buildings, and protecting society from terrorist threats. Centralised government control ensured that functions additional to the prevention and detection of crime were added to the Metropolitan Police remit, to aid the smooth running of a variety of aspects of society. These included traffic regulation, the licensing of cabs and street-sellers, supervising the prevention of disease amongst farm animals (which were still numerous in London in the mid-nineteenth century) and implementing government legislation established to protect individuals from their own 'moral weaknesses' (including drunkenness and gambling).
From the outset, efforts had been made to ensure that the all-male police was not regarded as a militaristic organisation. This started with the selection of the policeman's uniform, which initially consisted of top hats and blue swallowtail coats with the minimum of decoration, in contrast to the colourful military uniforms of the time. A future police colleague of Clarke's, Timothy Cavanagh, was not impressed by the uniform, describing it retrospectively as 'a cross between that worn by the ex-Emperor Zoolooki of the Squeejee Islands, and the policeman in the pantomime'. Apart from the uniform, some other operational aspects of the force were closer to a military regime, including the hierarchical structure. In addition, many of the commanding officers were former soldiers, and constables were subjected to strict discipline and had to cope with ceremonial drill and its associated cleaning and polishing. One consequence of the strict discipline was a high turnover of policemen. Of the 2,800 constables serving in May 1830, only 562 remained in the force by 1834 – drunkenness being one major problem. As late as 1865 the annual staff turnover rate in the Metropolitan Police was still high at 13.5 per cent.
The work was also uncomfortable and often dangerous, and recruitment mainly attracted unskilled or at best semi-skilled labourers who would be less discouraged by these features of the job and the low pay. Constables were paid 21s a week, of which 2s were deducted for section house accomodation. Sergeants received 22s and 6d a week. All ranks were required to give their whole time to the service, wearing their uniforms on and off duty and, even if they matched the qualification criteria for the electoral roll, policemen were not entitled to vote.
It is always difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the comparative values of salaries, not least because of the differences in living standards and taxation regimes between eras but, using one comparator, the annual salaries of a constable and sergeant in 1830 would be worth approximately £2,700 and £2,900 in 2010. Little wonder that Peel's new police were regarded as underpaid by modern standards. However, for Victorian labourers (including those from the agricultural sector who would only be drawing that scale of wage in the weeks when work was available) a job in the police gave them continuity of employment, and large numbers applied to join. Of 5,056 individuals recruited into the Metropolitan Police between 1840 and 1900, 48 per cent were labourers, of which 24 per cent were from the agricultural sector. From a regional perspective only 18 per cent of all recruits were from the London area, a further 24 per cent were from the Home Counties and 42 per cent from the other English counties, with the remaining 16 per cent from Scotland, Wales, Ireland or abroad.
Applications from men like Clarke were welcomed:
From the first day of the Metropolitan Police, the policy pursued, in recruiting for the force, was to endeavour to get men from the agricultural community, not only because of the superior physique of the rural worker, but because countrymen without previous experience of town life, made more trustworthy policemen than those who were London bred and might be described as knowing too much about London. The countryman's mind had the advantage, from the point of view of those who had to train him as a constable, of being fallow and not 'infertile'; the Londoner's might be more fertile, but it was usually far from fallow.
The establishment of the new police in 1829 was not greeted with much enthusiasm by Londoners (and the same could be said for the press of the day). When Londoners joined they not infrequently found that their decision had distanced or even ex-communicated them from their families and friends. However, by 1840 perceptions of the force had started to improve somewhat, largely through the efforts of Rowan and Mayne in establishing clear operational procedures and high standards. Indeed, as early as 1834 a Parliamentary Select Committee report described the new police as one of the most valuable modern institutions. In addition, though policemen remained the butt of many a joke and still encountered some public anger, the increasing adoption by the press and public of the more affectionate nickname of 'Bobbies' for police constables (rather than the more dismissive 'Peelers') suggested that some of the initial hostility had eroded.
In 1839 a second Metropolitan Police bill extended the district of the Metropolitan Police to a radius of 15 miles from Charing Cross, and the force's manpower was increased to 4,300 to accommodate this. In 1829 the infamous Bow Street Runners had originally been retained as a distinctive body, but they had functioned more as a private detective agency than a public service and there was confusion over the powers of the Metropolitan Police commissioners vis-à-vis the chief magistrate of Bow Street. Following the 1839 legislation the Runners were disbanded and were offered the opportunity to transfer into the Metropolitan Police, though it seems that few did. Other changes in the new legislation meant that the stipendiary (paid) magistrates of London lost their police role and their offices were transformed into the Metropolitan Police Courts, including Bow Street and twelve other such courts. By the time that George Clarke decided to apply to join the Metropolitan Police, the essential elements that he would encounter in his career, with the exception of the creation of a detective department, had been put in place.
The Uniformed Policeman
George Clarke, warrant number 16834, formally joined the force on 6 April 1840 at Scotland Yard. Of the eight new recruits listed alongside his name that day, only George Clarke was still in the police fifteen years later, the others having variously resigned or been dismissed. For Clarke to have been accepted, he had satisfied several recruitment criteria. His testimonials must have proved satisfactory, and a brief medical examination had ensured that he was physically fit and 'intelligent' and met the minimum height requirement of 5ft 7in. He had also needed to demonstrate that he could read and write and was able to understand what he had read. Aged 21, he was comfortably below the maximum recruitment age of 30. During the early recruitment of constables for the force, only one in three applicants met these basic criteria. Successful applicants such as Clarke were then sent for basic training, during which wages were 10s a week. Each preparatory class numbered about thirty men who were required to parade at the Wellington Barracks drill ground for several hours each day, six days a week, for a fortnight. Close-order drill and sabre practice constituted the bulk of this training, which was supplemented by two afternoon lectures by a superintendent and a considerable amount of legal material to be learnt by rote. Following this, the new constable patrolled with an experienced man for about a week; he was then moved to his division and sent out on his own.
Excerpted from The Chieftain by Chris Payne. Copyright © 2013 Chris Payne. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Journey to Scotland Yard,
2 A Murderous Year,
3 The Fenians are Coming,
4 Back to Basics,
5 The Tichborne Claimant, Theft and Fraud,
6 Suicide, Accidental Death or Murder?,
7 The Great Turf Swindle and Police Corruption,