I recently visited the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury, London, where the author lived for two years. He moved into 48 Doughty Street in 1837, with his wife and family and, whilst there, wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. One of my favourite pieces of Dickens’s journalistic writing is his description of meeting the early Scotland Yard detectives.
On a ‘sultry evening at dusk’, in 1850, Dickens and his colleagues at Household Words hosted a ‘social conference’ with the members of the ‘Detective Police’, which had been formed eight years earlier. The gathering was held at the editorial office in Wellington Street, the Strand. It was a hot and busy night, with carriages setting down theatre-goers opposite, and with much ‘shouting and bellowing’ coming through the open window.
The editorial staff had arranged the room ready to receive their guests. There was a round table in the centre, on which cigars and glasses had been placed. The chairs were set out around the table. The first to enter the room were the two inspectors, Charles Field and Robert Walker. According to Dickens, Field was middle-aged, with a ‘portly presence’. He had ‘a large, moist knowing eye, a husky voice, and a habit of emphasising his conversation by the aid of a corpulent fore-finger’ (he was the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House). Field’s companion Inspector Robert Walker was described as ‘a shrewd hard-headed Scotchman – in appearance not at all unlike a very acute, thoroughly-trained schoolmaster.’
The inspectors were followed by five sergeants: Stephen Thornton, Jonathan Whicher, Henry Smith, Edward Kendall and Frederick Shaw (Dickens used pseudonyms in his published account). All in plain clothes, they took their seats in a semi-circle with the two inspectors at either end of the line, all facing the editors who were seated on a sofa opposite. Dickens noted down his first impressions:
Every man of them, in a glance, immediately takes an inventory of the furniture and an accurate sketch of the editorial presence
He then described each one in turn, highlighting their physical characteristics and their sleuthing expertise. Sergeant Thornton was ‘famous for steadily pursuing the inductive process, and, from small beginnings, working on from clue to clue until he bags his man.’ Jonathan Whicher (of Road Hill House fame) had ‘something of a reserved and thoughtful air; as if he were engaged in deep arithmetical calculations’. Smooth-faced Sergeant Smith was ‘a dab at housebreakers’; Kendall for ‘a prodigious hand at pursuing private inquiries of a delicate nature’; and Shaw was a ‘little wiry Sergeant of meek demeanour and strong sense’. All the detectives were respectable-looking, well-behaved and ‘of unusual intelligence’, ‘with an air of keen observation and quick perception’. They lit the cigars, handed round the glasses and began to talk about their ‘lives of strong mental excitement’.
The editor opened by inquiring about the ‘swell mob’. Inspector Field removed the cigar from his lips, waved his right hand towards Jonathan Whicher and said, ‘Sergeant Witchem is better acquainted with the swell mob than any officer in London.’ Whicher shared his experiences of working with professional thieves and swindlers. The conversation moved on to related topics such as cracksmen (burglars), fences (receivers of stolen goods), public-house dancers and ‘young people who go out “gonophing”’ (picking pockets). They chatted about some of the most ‘celebrated and horrible’ crimes committed in recent times, in which the detectives had been involved. The meeting ended at midnight and Dickens concluded that:
For ever on the watch, with their wits stretched to the utmost, these officers have, from day to day and year to year, to set themselves against every novelty of trickery and dexterity that the combined imaginations of all the lawless rascals in England can devise
As the detectives slipped back out into the night, the celebrated author noted wryly that, ‘One of the sharpest among them, and the officer best acquainted with the Swell Mob, had his pocket picked going home!’
‘Detective Police’ was published in Household Words in two parts, on 27 July and 10 August 1850.
I would have loved to have been present at such an extraordinary meeting and thanks to Dickens, we can imagine what it would have been like to meet these groundbreaking detectives.
I would highly recommend a visit to the Charles Dickens Museum. Also, near to the house is the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre which holds documents associated with Dickens, including photos, letters and drawings.
If you’d like to find out more about the antics of the Victorian detectives, please join my Facebook group, The Victorian Detectives’ Club – all sleuths welcome!