Real-life Sherlocks: the detectives of Scotland Yard and their curious cases

Scotland Yard is arguably the most famous police force in Britain, its very name synonynous 'bobbies' patrolling the pea-soup nights of Victorian London. Sinclair McKay explores its origins and evolution, its standout cases, and the colourful real-life detectives who inspired literature's greatest sleuths for BBC History Revealed

Policemen from Scotland Yard patrolling at night

He was a jewel thief who dressed like an aristocrat, with a diamond stud in his dress shirt. This shadowy yet showy figure was occasionally witnessed on Mayfair rooftops at night in the 1920s, shimmering out of apartment windows and onto white-stuccoed balconies, before vanishing into the darkness. The audacious serial burglar had been preying on London’s wealthiest inhabitants. But then came one obscure clue: a footprint on a drainage pipe. And something about it struck Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard as being unusual.

He was a jewel thief who dressed like an aristocrat, with a diamond stud in his dress shirt. This shadowy yet showy figure was occasionally witnessed on Mayfair rooftops at night in the 1920s, shimmering out of apartment windows and onto white-stuccoed balconies, before vanishing into the darkness. The audacious serial burglar had been preying on London’s wealthiest inhabitants. But then came one obscure clue: a footprint on a drainage pipe. And something about it struck Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard as being unusual.

Advertisement

Fabian had a cast made of the footprint and had this sent to the special laboratory within the Yard. As Fabian later recalled, his inkling of something being awry was confirmed. It was the print of “a crepe rubber-soled evening dress shoe”. This was something, he wrote, “that no gentleman would wear”.

The investigation illustrated the twin tracks of Scotland Yard’s approach: a dogged thoroughness combined with the occasional lightning flash of inspiration. There was another element here too: a sense that real-life cases and fictional crimes sometimes dovetailed thematically. This burglar, for instance, appeared to have based himself upon EW Hornung’s elegant thief Raffles. Fabian and his associates found the one shop that made this style of shoe. The shop kept full records of all its customers. But there was a hitch: the swanky burglar had given a false name and address. So what next?

The history of Scotland Yard is threaded with such intriguing puzzles. The fascination is perennial because we wonder how we would set about solving them. Inspector Fabian was electrified with an idea. The burglaries had all been focused on one particular corner of Mayfair. And so over the space of several evenings, the detective took up position on a bar stool in a particularly glamorous hotel. Of all the dozens of people who came and went across the threshold of that bar and its parquet floor, one stood out: the man in evening dress whose footsteps made no noise.

It was the distinctive crepe soles. Fabian discreetly followed the young man home. The thief’s lodgings were found to be filled with an extraordinary quantity of dazzling valuables – huge riches in a modest room.

The history Scotland Yard

Scotland Yard occupies a curious position in the national and international imagination. The headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, sited close to Downing Street and the House of Commons, still attracts countless tourists to stand beneath its revolving sign, posing for selfies. This in itself is, if you will forgive the term, arresting. How many other police forces around the world attract similar attention?

Part of the reason is that the words ‘Scotland Yard’ instantly evoke both history and myth – a city wreathed in fog, killers stalking cobbled dockland alleys, gangsters in wet neon Soho streets, the shrill notes of police whistles, constables with handlebar moustaches, detectives dressed in raincoats who face the world with eyebrows permanently raised in amused scepticism.

The reality is just as colourful. Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police Service in 1829. It was a successor to the small band of 18th-century ‘thief takers’ assembled by judge Henry Fielding and popularly known as the Bow Street Runners. This new police force answered the question of how to maintain the rule of law in a city that seemed – with its growing population – to be teetering on the edge of disorder.

As part of their training, the first recruits were taught to fight with sabres. Initially, there were 895 constables, 88 sergeants, 20 inspectors and eight superintendents. This new force had its headquarters in Whitehall Place, backing on to a courtyard called Scotland Yard.

Scotland Yard itself became the site of a macabre and gruesome murder mystery

Almost immediately, the work of these new officers – with the city divided up into districts and ‘police offices’ – was eagerly chronicled in the press. As well as assaults and robberies and a great many cases of coin forgery, there were more baroque crimes, such as an outbreak of grave robbery in Poplar, near the docks, in 1833. As a gesture towards new immigrants, numbers of Irish men were recruited in the 1830s and they frequently came to be loathed by local Irish communities. Broadly, though, the police swiftly established their place in the city’s landscape.

After some decades of steady expansion, the Metropolitan Police (now occupying several properties on Whitehall Place) needed new purpose-built offices. It was at this point that Scotland Yard itself became the site of a macabre and gruesome murder mystery. In 1888, as builders prepared to start work on the vision of architect Norman Shaw – alternating brick and pale Portland stone, still there on Victoria Embankment today – the dismembered body of a lady wearing a satin dress was found in a disused cellar. Ironically, the crime was, and remains, unsolved.

The first detectives

It had been for such crimes that a new strata of police officer had been brought into being in 1842: the Detective Branch. There had been initial resistance to the idea of investigating officers in plain clothes; too reminiscent of the state spies found throughout various continental countries. But soon these detectives seized the public imagination.

In 1843 came the case of the Bermondsey Horror. A young married couple, Frederick and Maria Manning, had hatched a ghastly plot, targeting a wealthy docks official called Patrick O’Connor. Maria had an intense relationship with O’Connor, who was besotted with her. One night she invited him to dinner at the marital home in south London. The couple attacked and murdered O’Connor, and buried his body beneath the kitchen flagstones. Maria went to O’Connor’s lodgings, seized all his share certificates and immediately went on the run, even leaving behind her hapless husband.

Detectives tracked down both their whereabouts – she in Edinburgh, he in the Channel Islands – using ultramodern telegraph communications and the new railways. The case, together with the gruesome husband-and-wife public hanging that followed the guilty verdict, was a popular sensation.

Cover of Le Petit Journal, 14 August 1910
Sensational cases, like that of the capture of Dr Hawley Crippen, were lapped up by an eager public (Photo by Getty)

There were plenty more sensational cases to follow. One of the first detectives to be recruited to the department and to achieve public prominence was Inspector Charles Frederick Field. He was intimately acquainted with the direst, most poverty-stricken slums; but also made night-time patrols of the Egyptian mummies in the British museum.

The inspector attracted the attention of Charles Dickens – who was a journalist as well as a novelist. He joined Field on several nocturnal journeys through London’s most crime-afflicted districts. In Dickens’s novel Bleak House, one strand of which concerns the murder of a character called Tulkinghorn, the charismatic Inspector Bucket – who moved with invisible ease through all social strata, sniffing out hidden truths and buried secrets – is thought to have been inspired by Field. This intertwining of reality and fiction was to intensify as the years went on.

Before forensics, detection was as much a philosophical discipline as a scientific one

In the decades before forensics, detection was as much a philosophical discipline as a scientific one; the recognition that fingerprints were unique had been made in the 1788 – and was in fact used in a limited sense in Indian bureacracy – but it was not until the turn of the century that Scotland Yard began compiling an extraordinarily detailed record of such prints.

One of the first times fingerprints were used in evidence at the Old Bailey was in 1902; a case involving a smart London villa, a serial burglar, and a purloined set of billiard balls. The thief’s prints had been found on the sash of the window. In a twist about 50 years later came the curious case of the Footprint on the Television; the set was in the flat of one Mrs Bowles, and the thief this time had crept in through her window, placing the sole of his foot upon the TV, in order to steal some underwear drying on the mantelpiece. The police got their man; but there never seemed any explanation of why he was barefooted.

The birth of forensic science

The principles of forensics went back centuries. A 13th-century Chinese book, The Washing Away of Imputations or Wrongs, gave stern advice about careful and impartial autopsies in order to avoid miscarriages of justice; there was also an example of determining which sharpened sickle had been used in a murder (when laid out in a row, the sickle that attracted the most blowflies to the specks of remaining blood). But in the 19th century, science was taking vast leaps; as well as huge improvements in microscopy, there were also chemical laboratories in Scotland Yard with experts identifying even the rarest poisons. And although the Ripper murders in 1888 were to go unsolved, the Yard investigation opened up a fresh innovation: the use of photography.

Figures such as medical analyst Charles Tidy came to be proficient in weighing up crime scenes simply from the positions of bodies: the shape of the muscles pressed against the floor. Then, in the early 20th century, Sir Bernard Spilsbury acquired fame in the popular press as the Yard pathologist who introduced the ‘murder bag’ to crime scene investigations. After he had seen constables picking up evidence with their bare hands, this became standardised kit: rubber gloves, tweezers for handling tiny objects and fragments, tape measures and evidence bags for the preservation of individual items.

Pioneering pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury
British scientist and pioneering pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury introduced the ‘murder bag’ – an early forensics kit (Photo by Getty)

Spilsbury, incidentally, had been among those summoned to the dark musty cellar of Hilldrop Crescent in 1910, to gaze upon buried human remains: the wife of Dr Hawley Crippen. Dr Crippen by that stage was on a transatlantic liner. Here was a triumph of technology and velocity for the Yard: thanks to advances in telegraphy, between ships and back to London, it was possible to confirm the fugitive’s position. And Chief Inspector Dew of the Yard was dispatched on a rather faster steam ship to catch up with him, and to help make the arrest in Canadian waters.

Despite the brilliant Yard organisation – the meticulously cross-referenced files, the records of fingerprints, the laboratories and scientific expertise – some murders were still solved with astounding lateral thinking. In 1917, as London faced Zeppelin attacks in World War I, a brutally slain corpse was found – in pieces and wrapped in paper – near to King’s Cross Station. There was a note attached to one parcel: “Blodie Belgium!” What could this cryptic message mean? Was it something to do with the war?

Chief Inspector Frederick Wensley’s investigation led him to a butcher called Louis Voisin. And he suspected the note was a deliberate false trail. The moment of inspiration came when – procuring pen and paper – the inspector asked Voisin to write the phrase ‘Bloody Belgium’. Then he asked him to do so twice more as confirmation. The Belgian misspelled ‘bloody’ as ‘blodie’ repeatedly.

Back in the 1950s, Fabian had had such success with his weekly newspaper column relating exciting Scotland Yard investigations that it got turned into a television series called Fabian of the Yard. As ever, reality acquired a mythic dimension; even now, the words ‘Scotland Yard’ still evoke pea-soupers and bell-ringing car chases. In reality, the Metropolitan Police is readying itself for a future of cyber crime; this is now a world of data mining. None the less, all new recruits to the Yard must be very well aware that the institution still generates remarkable historical affection.

Scotland Yard in fiction

Even though ‘the Yard’ is a mainstay of popular detective fiction, its fictional personnel haven’t always been treated with respect: most notoriously, Inspector Lestrade, a “little sallow, rat-faced” man, who was forever doomed to trail behind private detective Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal tales. In the main, though, inspectors have made intriguing literary characters.

Sergeant Cuff, “who might have been a parson or an undertaker”, is the driving force on the trail of a stolen diamond in a country house in Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone. In a burst of proto-feminism, Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864) sees the Yard call upon the services of a woman – Miss Gladden, or ‘G’ – who solved seven mysteries in one volume.

The 1950s brought an injection of social realism from author John Creasy. His creation, Commander George Gideon, not only dealt with a wide variety of crimes, from tormented bomb plotters to racehorse fixing, but he managed a team who learned from his great experience. And he had a home life: a wife and children, all as a counterpoint to the sometimes nerve-fraying situations he found himself in.

These were stories about the Yard as an institution; its fantastic record-keeping, and forensics, and admirable lack of cynicism when faced with the toughest of customers.

Perhaps the greatest recent recruiting sergeant to the real Yard has been PD James’s much-loved detective Adam Dalgliesh, who featured in 14 of her novels. As well as his shrewd eye both for tell-tale details and for the hinterland of the human heart, Dalgliesh was a poet. Not only that, a published poet: here was a detective who understood passion.

Sinclair McKay is a journalist whose books include the The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (Aurum, 2011), The Mile End Murder: The Case Conan Doyle Couldn’t Solve (Aurum, 2017) and an upcoming narrative history of the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden (2020)

Advertisement

This article was first published in the February 2020 edition of History Revealed