Ruffians, Pickpockets, and Jewel Fences
What was crime-fighting actually like in Sherlock Holmes-era London?
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:
"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.
Thompson was left badly shaken. "When he came to himself again," Divall writes, "he told those around him that he was sure he would never die a natural death." Thompson was correct: He was later fatally stabbed in the line of duty.
Even without the Ripper, Whitechapel's legendary reputation for crime was richly deserved. Chief Inspector Divall recalls characters like Peggy Donovan, an improbable ruffian who robbed the unsuspecting by unscrewing his wooden leg and using it to club his victims over the head. Other criminals had a lighter touch: One gang, called the Stickers, was known for filching coins from bar tills by using walking sticks covered with adhesive.
The police themselves, on occasion, could display an equal finesse. While the penchant for disguise in detective fiction like Arthur Conan Doyle’s is invariably debunked—"Now this is all fudge" scoffed Detective Inspector Andrew Lansdowne in A Life's Reminiscences of Scotland Yard (1890)—he does admit that to pose as likely buyers of pornography, the police donned ... clerical garb. "It was scarcely a credit to the cloth that a clergyman's attire was considered the best disguise," he writes, "but it was."
For many years, Scotland Yard's tools remained about as crude as Peggy Donovan's wooden leg. When the first Sherlock Holmes story ran in 1887, fingerprinting at the Yard was still over a decade away. And while recounting a horrific 1901 triple-murder in a Camberwell grocery, the memoir Savage of Scotland Yard (1934)—penned by one Superintendent Percy Savage—offers this offhanded revelation: "In those days no police station in London was on the public telephone, and communication between one station and another was by means of old-fashioned needle instrument, which was not abolished until some years later ... The police had no motor-cars then ... [Officers], no matter how urgent their business, had either to walk or ride in horse-drawn buses or tramcars."
For these men, policing often meant witness testimony, working with the visible evidence left at the crime scene, and intuiting the involvement of such notorious local characters as Half-Pay Nancy, Tommy Demise, and "Mog the Man"—the last, naturally, being a woman who fought stripped to the waist and who bore "over 50 convictions for assault and drunkenness."
In short, police had many of the same tools as Sherlock Holmes, if not his brilliance. This state of affairs hints at one reason why Doyle's stories still fascinate us. They conjure up a London when one can imagine an amateur detective armed only with a keen mind and a magnifying glass solving the crime. By the 1930s, detection was truly a team effort, increasingly backed by careful recordkeeping and laboratory work—and now, the old Yarders complained, it was crime itself that seemed to have become the pursuit of amateurs.
"My experience convinces me that the criminals of 20 and 30 years ago were cleverer, more daring and more enterprising than the criminals of to-day," Superintendent Savage mused in his retirement. He believed that no technology had changed crime more than the arrival of the automobile: "The introduction of the motor-car has made life easy and less risky for criminals ... mobility makes the chance of capture much less than it used to be."
Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.