Human Interest

The Life of a Victorian Detective

By  | 

Over 1,000,000 Viewers

2018 marks the 130th anniversary of the Whitechapel murders (aka the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes). While the identity of—arguably—London’s first serial killer remains unknown, his/her crimes have never been forgotten. Yet, at the root of the conjecture that has surfaced since, is the truth that real women—who’d once breathed, married, and bore children—had their lives brutally taken from them. This, in turn, left grieving families and friends in its wake. They, and those tasked to investigate, were bestowed with a horrific trauma only a few of us could try to begin to imagine today. In this, and my next Fresh Lifestyle Magazine feature, I’ll aim to bring into focus the human face of the Whitechapel murders. I’ll start by providing an insight into the working conditions, society’s attitude toward, and the reputation of, the Metropolitan Police Detective. Then, in September’s feature, I’ll be casting a light onto the lives of some of the women Jack the Ripper murdered.

By the time the Whitechapel reign of terror began in 1888, the Metropolitan Police (more commonly referred to as ‘Scotland Yard’ on account of its headquarters’ location) was already fifty-nine years old. Founded on the 29th September 1829 by the then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, the force wasn’t entirely well received. This was partly due to:

 “the year before the New Police hit the streets, a translation of Eugene Frangois Vidocq’s memoirs was published in London. Worse, in 1829, two months before the book’s launch, a melodrama, VIDOCQ! The French Police Spy, was staged at the Surrey Theatre. The Frenchman had used his inside knowledge of crime to catch his fellow criminals and the response of the British public to this news was that they were not going to allow French-style police spies here.”(1)

The paranoia generated by the accounts of Vidocq’s exploits was strengthened when The Times newspaper reported that the Metropolitan Police had allowed:

“uniformed officers to go out in plain clothes, indeed assume various disguises ‘such as the dresses of cobblers, itinerant greengrocers and costermongers’ so as to catch members of the public who were passing bad coin.”(2) 

According to Joan Lock in her book, Scotland Yard’s First Cases (from whence the above two quotations were taken, see sources at feature end), this led to a Police Order being issued to limit the use of disguised police officers. If you haven’t read Joan Lock’s book, I would highly recommend it. It gives an excellent—yet easy-to-absorb—explanation of those early years of the Metropolitan Police. 

By June 1846, another order was issued by the Metropolitan Police, this time making it clear that plain-clothed officers were obliged to make themselves known if interfered with in the course of their duty.(3) The image of a plain-clothed policeman at work, that I’ve found most memorable, shows how, at the International Exhibition of 1862, a detective posed as a statue to catch his man. He reached out to grab the would-be criminal’s shoulder and his ‘victim’ leapt in fright. (4) 

In October 1877, the Trial of the Detectives, otherwise known as the Turf Fraud Scandal, further damaged the police detectives’ reputation by exposing corruption.(5) This led to the reformation of Scotland Yards’ Detective Branch in 1878 and the appointment of a new Director of Criminal Investigations, Charles Vincent.(6) 

If being accused of espionage and corruption wasn’t bad enough, detectives also had to contend with overzealous coroners, too. In Joan Lock’s book, Scotland Yard’s First Cases, she describes how coroners presiding over inquests into suspected murders were often reminded by the police not to disclose particular details of a case. These details being ones only the murderer should know and, thus, not the sort of thing the police wanted printing in the newspapers. Then, as with criminal investigations today, officers were acutely aware of how certain circumstances could be twisted by defense lawyers to cast their client in a good light. Should the sensitive details of a case be published by the press, and the culprit is charged on the basis of knowing those details, a good defense lawyer could argue they merely read of them in the newspaper. This, as a result, could form reasonable doubt in a juror’s mind and lead to the guilty party being acquitted. Modern courts may issue “gagging” orders to the press to prevent such sensitive information being leaked. In the 1800s, though, when inquests were heard in the back rooms of local public houses and presided over by laymen, both the press and public were permitted to hear every sordid detail. Since every brutal murder provided sensational entertainment to the masses in the form of penny dreadfuls and the Illustrated Police News (that had no connection to the police whatsoever)—amongst others—journalists were quick to record, and report on, whatever was disclosed in these hearings.

As outlined earlier, scrutiny from the press was something the Metropolitan Police had to endure on a near constant basis. While popular fiction was immortalising the police detective in the forms of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1852-53) by Charles Dickens and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, the press would challenge individual officers whenever a case wasn’t immediately solved and/or, in their opinion, the likeliest suspect wasn’t given sufficient scrutiny. 

A Victorian detective had other hardships to endure aside from press criticism, the detriment of their profession’s reputation, and public mistrust of the police. Namely, poor pay, mounting personal expenses (often not refunded) incurred during investigations, and long working hours. Prior to the Police (Weekly Rest Day) Act of 1910,(7) officers were obliged to “perform the grinding continuous duty of seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year.”(8) When one considers this latter point against the fact some Scotland Yard officers were required to travel abroad to seek out fugitives and/or escort prisoners back to England—in the days before airplanes—one may start to appreciate the enormous physical strain these detectives were under. 

The issues outlined within this feature were common across the Metropolitan Police throughout the nineteenth century. The officers of H division—responsible for the policing of Whitechapel—in 1888 would’ve been well aware of them. Furthermore, they would’ve formed part of the backdrop against which they worked while trying to identify, and apprehend, Jack the Ripper. Even then, the general sense of contempt against the police was as strong as it had been at its formation. A perfect example of this is the Riot Damages Act on 1886 wherein the police were held financially responsible for any damages caused during, or by, a riot. According to Richard Cowley in his book, A History of the British Police, the “theory was that the police were there to stop riots, but if one occurred then the police had to pay for it as a ‘punishment’ for neglect of duty in the first place.”(9) As we’ve seen here, the police, and its detectives, were obliged to ‘pay’ for their perceived ‘neglect’ in many other ways, too.

Sources of reference:

Handcuffs image: Original image photographed by Craig Short Photography and edited by Karen MacDonald for T.G. Campbell. All copyrights for this image retained by T.G. Campbell

All copyrights associated with/linked to the following sources remain with their respective authors and/or publishers

(1) Location 1377 in the Kindle eBook of Lock, Joan SCOTLAND YARD’S FIRST CASES: 7 — Murder! Murder! (2018, Endeavour Media Ltd)

(2) Locations 1396-1397 in the Kindle eBook of Lock, Joan SCOTLAND YARD’S FIRST CASES: 7 — Murder! Murder! (2018, Endeavour Media Ltd)

(3) Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, Period 1829 – 1899 Time Zone: 1846 – 1855

(4) Moss, Alan & Skinner, Keith THE VICTORIAN DETECTIVE (Shire Publications, 2013) p.15

(5) Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, Period 1829 – 1899 Time Zone: 1871 – 1885

(6) Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection, Period 1829 – 1899 Time Zone: 1871 – 1885

(7) Cowley, Richard. A History of the British Police The History Press, Stroud, 2011

(8) Cowley, Richard. A History of the British Police The History Press, Stroud, 2011

(9) Cowley, Richard. A History of the British Police The History Press, Stroud, 2011

T.G. Campbell is a British Crime Fiction Author living just outside of London, England. Her debut novel, The Case of The Curious Client, won the Fresh Lifestyle Magazine Book Award in April 2017. A month later she was honoured to accept the opportunity to become a monthly columnist. Her novels follow a fictional group of amateur detectives operating in 1896 London called the Bow Street Society. She undertakes extensive research and study of the British Victorian Era to ensure accuracy in her work; study/research which includes visits to museums, attending Victorian Era-themed events, and a whole lot of reading. It’s her passions for history, true crime, and British Victorian culture which she wants to share with Fresh Lifestyle Magazine readers. All her works may be found on Amazon and more can be found at  

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply