Investigating 19th century crime
Detective reports from Angela Buckley, Victorian Super-Sleuth…
From the first scene of Inspector Edmund Reid poring over his files in the flickering gaslight of Leman Street police station, I’ve been hooked on Ripper Street, and I’ve avidly followed the adventures of the Whitechapel detectives through all five series. But, what was the real Inspector Reid like? And, did the character portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen resemble him?
The ‘real’ Inspector Reid was indeed Head of the CID at the Metropolitan Police’s H Division in Whitechapel during the time of the murders attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’. The pervious year, Reid had replaced Inspector Frederick Abberline (also present in the TV series), unaware that he would be investigating the most famous crimes in history.
Edmund John James Reid was born on 21 March 1846, in Canterbury, Kent. By 1861, the family had moved to Camberwell, London. Working as a grocer’s assistant, Edmund, aged 15, was living with his father, who was a railway clerk, his mother and five sisters. He remained at home until 1868, when he married Emily Jane Wilson, also from Canterbury, and the couple moved to Southwark, where Edmund found employment in a warehouse. The Reids had two children: Elizabeth in 1872 and Harold in 1882.
After several jobs, including working as a pastry cook and a steward on a Thames steamer, Edmund joined the Metropolitan Police on 4 November 1872. Aged 26, he was five feet six and a half inches tall, he had dark brown hair, grey eyes and a ‘fresh’ complexion. PC Reid was first allocated to P Division Camberwell. Within just two years, he was promoted to the Detective Department and transferred to Scotland Yard in 1878. Successful cases included the apprehension of a notorious coiner, known as One Arm Steve, and the arrest of the perpetrators of ‘The Great Silk Robbery’. In 1886, Reid, now an Inspector, joined the newly-formed J Division Bethnal Green before taking charge of H Division in Whitechapel a year later.
When Emma Elizabeth Smith died on 4 April 1888, following a brutal attack, Inspector Reid led the investigation into her death. Although she wasn’t considered formally to be the first victim of Jack the Ripper (neither was the next victim), her killing was followed by a series of gruesome murders that would terrify the people of Whitechapel and completely baffle the police.
Four months later, on 7 August, the mutilated body of Martha Tabram was discovered in George Yard Buildings, near Whitechapel High Street. Once again Edmund Reid took charge. He began by taking statements from local residents. He also organised several identity parades, after he had learnt that Martha had been out the night before with a friend who, like her was a prostitute, and two soldiers. Mary Ann Connolly, known as ‘Pearly Poll’ identified a soldier from the Grenadiers, but he was later discharged. As the murders continued unabated, the former head of H Division, Inspector Reid worked alongside his colleagues, including his former boss Inspector Abberline, to find the killer but, as we all know, Jack the Ripper was never caught.
After the killings stopped, Inspector Reid continued working in Whitechapel until 1895, when he was moved to L Division Lambeth. He retired soon after, on 27 February 1896, after which he returned to Kent, where he worked as a private detective and a publican. His wife, Emily, died in 1900. A decade later, Edmund was living in Hampton-on-Sea with his son Harold, who was a corporal in the army. In May 1917, Reid married Lydia Hailing, but the marriage only lasted a few months as, on 5 December, Edmund died from a serious kidney condition and a brain haemorrhage. He was buried in Herne Bay Cemetery.
On the surface, the real life of Inspector Reid doesn’t seem to have differed that much from the character portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen. However, there were some surprising details about his personal life which showed the detective in a very different light. Edmund Reid had many accomplishments, including acting, singing and conjuring. He was also a record-setting balloonist. Operating out of Crystal Palace, not far from his first placement at P Division, he won several medals for ascents. I would have liked to see the fictionalised Edmund Reid doing magic tricks or in a hot air balloon – there’s definitely a need for another series….