What Was Crime-Fighting Actually Like in Sherlock Holmes-Era London?

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May 4 2012 11:32 AM

Ruffians, Pickpockets, and Jewel Fences

What was crime-fighting actually like in Sherlock Holmes-era London?

Rendering depicting characters in story "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.
Rendering depicting characters in story "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series.

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Click here to read June Thomas on the charms of Steven Moffat’s Sherlock.

With the second season of Sherlock debuting this Sunday on PBS, here's an old-fashioned Edwardian mystery to warm up with: You are a police detective sent to the lair of "Kemmy" Grizzard, a notorious London jewel fence. He is known to have a stolen diamond necklace for sale on the premises. Inside, you find Kemmy and three likely buyers calmly sitting down in the dining room to a soup course.  There is nothing incriminating in their pockets, and upon informing Kemmy that you will search the home from top to bottom, his response is ingratiatingly polite: Gentlemen, search wherever you like.

The house is turned upside down for four hours; nothing is found, and you leave in defeat. So where did the necklace go? The solution is almost as simple as Poe's purloined letter:

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"The Chief-Inspector and his men went away. Without saying a word to the other men, Kemmy went on with his dinner, he drank the now-cold soup, and then from the bottom of the plate, took out the diamond necklace. It was washed, and auctioned."

It's a lapse worthy of Sherlock Holmes' hapless Scotland Yard foil, the dogged but unimaginative Inspector Lestrade. But unlike Holmes or Lestrade, Kemmy Grizzard was real—and his home at 73 Parkholme Road  still stands today. The story comes from George Cornish's memoir Cornish of Scotland Yard (1935), which is part of a genre of long-forgotten Yard tell-alls that flourished as a group of old-timers retired in the 1930s. They offer a fascinating, almost wistful glimpse into a gaslit era of crime—the real-life London most of us only know from the fictional tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Being a Yard grunt in the 1880s was tough work: The men often began as East End detectives working, as Detective Sergeant Benjamin Leeson put it, for "24 bob a week and a good hiding at more or less regular intervals." Leeson's Lost London: Memoirs of an East End Detective (1934) begins with his inauspicious first hours on the job, when he is dutifully hazed by being sent into Shovel Alley—"so named because it was chiefly inhabited by 'coalies' who fought and killed people with their shovels." Leeson got off fairly easy: After residents cheerily guffawed "Copper lost his way!" he was swept into a brawl and lost his helmet. It turned up later, "being used by a crowd of boys as a football."

Leeson had joined the force just as the Jack the Ripper murders were terrifying London, and the Ripper haunts Scotland Yard memoirs. Frederick Porter Wensley joined the force around the same time Lesson did, and in Forty Years in Scotland Yard (1931), he recalls these first weeks on the job, as hundreds of police scoured the streets of the Whitechapel slums without result. Wensley and others took to nailing pieces of old rubber bicycle tires to the soles of their regulation boots, the better to quietly pad up behind the Ripper while in the act. 

One newly hired officer, P.C. Ernest Thompson, may have succeeded all too well when he spotted a suspicious character in Swallow Gardens.  "He is believed to be the only constable who ever saw Jack the Ripper," records Chief Inspector Tom Divall in Scoundrels and Scallywags (And Some Honest Men) (1929). "He ran after him, but fell over something on the ground; turning his bull's eye lamp on to see what it was, he was shocked to find the mutilated body of a female." This was Frances Coles, who was still alive, barely, but unable to speak.

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