A Chat With Detective Littlechild

Although not directly involved in the police investigation into the Jack the Ripper crimes, Chief Inspector John Littlechild (1848 – 1943), was, nonetheless, privy to much of information being brought in by the on the ground detectives who were labouring to bring the Whitechapel murderer to justice.

It would later be Littlechild who would name Dr Francis Tumblety as a person of interest, when replying to a letter that had been sent to him by the journalist George Sims enquiring into likely suspects.


Littlechild retired from the Metropolitan Police in 1893, on the grounds of ill health, and, like so many of his former colleagues, became a private investigator.

One of the more notorious cases he was involved in was gathering information on behalf of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844 – 1900), that would be used in the court battle with Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) which ended in Wilde’s imprisonment and ruination in 1895.

It was Littlechild who tracked down the male prostitutes who would testify against Wilde to such devastating effect.


However, just after Littlechild’s retirement, a journalist from The Sketch paid him a visit at his home near to Clapham Common, and, in the course of the interview, Littlechild opened up about his thoughts on detection and detectives.

The interview was published on Wednesday, 21st June, 1893:-


“A stone-grey door in Scotland Yard still bears the name of Chief Inspector John George Littlechild, with the significant monogram “C.I.D.,” encircled with a neatly elaborate arabesque of flourishes, remindful of the days of our fathers, when quill pens were in vogue, and florid designs of cygnets and cupids adorned the fly-leaf of every orthodox copy-book, or figured ornamentally, touched up by the writing master, at the head of the fortnightly letter in which Master Hopeful eulogised the educational establishment of Dr. Birch and conveyed pathetic suggestions anent tips and a hamper.


But the Criminal Investigation Department knows that alert and indefatigable detective no more, for in safeguarding the interests of others Mr. Littlechild has somewhat neglected his own health, and in unravelling the tangled webs woven by those who practise to deceive he has overstrained the network of his nerves, with the result that he has felt obliged to resign his position at the early age of forty-six.

A portrait of Detective Jon Littlechild.
John Littlechild. From The Sketch, 21st June, 1893. Copyright, The British Library Board.


It was not, therefore, in the headquarters of the criminal-hunters at Scotland Yard that I recently had a talk with the ex-chief inspector, but in the pretty red-brick house, only a stone’s throw from that part of breezy Clapham Common where the trees are thickest, that Mr. Littlechild has made his home, and to which he has now retired upon a well-earned pension, in the hope of recruiting his shattered nervous system.


Well-cut features, alive with quick intelligence, honest eyes which look one straight in the face, and a lithe, upright figure are the points which strike one as the ex-inspector comes into the room.

The first impression which he gives is one of shrewdness and downright straightforwardness, and the second, “How utterly unlike a detective.”

A detective, that is, such as one is familiar with in the pages of Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens, nearer, perhaps, somewhat to the agent de la police secrete of MM. Emile Gaboriau and Fortune du Boisgobey, but, with it all, curiously unlike the popular idea of a detective, and more nearly approaching one’s conception of a keen junior partner in a firm of up-to-date solicitors.


Adjourning from a cosy dining-room, the walls of which are covered with paintings which show that the exciting nature of his profession has not debarred Mr. Littlechild from indulging a taste for art, as well as cultivating his pure tenor voice, we find ourselves in his “den,” in which he busies himself with a still pretty voluminous correspondence, and also with some literary efforts, which will result, no doubt, in some highly interesting reminiscences.

Souvenirs of his career are plentiful in the little room, ranging from photographs of his late colleagues and chiefs to such sensational items as a dynamite bomb and the album of James Carey, whose murderer, Patrick O’Donnell, was brought home by Mr. Littlechild.


A framed photograph, quaint and old-fashioned to a degree, attracts my attention, and I find that it is not only of peculiar interest, but paves the way for some curious comparisons between the old and new school of detectives.

“Ah,” said Mr. Littlechild, “that is Charles Frederick Field, the Inspector Bucket of ‘Bleak House.’ Charles Dickens knew him well, and the man with the fat forefinger, who was so sprightly with Miss Volumnia, and so gravely respectful to ‘Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet,’ spent many an hour slumming with the great novelist.”

“And how did Mr. Field get his nickname?”

“Quite naturally. Dickens and he and some other men were in the editor’s room at a big newspaper office before starting for the East End one hot night, and they were all invited to have something to drink.

The glasses ran short, so Dickens, noticing a fire pail, or something of the kind, hanging against the wall, called out in his hearty sort of way, “Here we are. Give Field some in a bucket!”

That was the origin of ‘Mr. Bucket.’

Mr. Williamson gave me Field’s portrait, and I value it much, for his sake as well as for the story attached to it.”

A portrait of Inspector Filed.
Inspector Charles Field. From The Sketch, 21st June, 1893. Copyright, The British Library Board.


“I suppose the qualities needed in an inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department today differ a good deal from those necessary in Inspector Bucket’s time?”

“Yes, in some points; but human nature, even criminal human nature, is pretty much the same always. It is the conditions, the surroundings, which are different.

A detective should not be, as some people think he should, an extraordinary man, but an ordinary one with practical common-sense and a liking for his profession.

With Talleyrand, he should say, ‘Not too much zeal,’ but it would not do for him to follow Wolsey’s advice and ‘fling away ambition,’ or he would make no progress at all.”


“Do you think there is anything in the commonly accepted idea that one can always tell a detective?”

“Nothing at all. It is quite a mistake. I have had many instances to the contrary in my own experience.

I was once on board a steamer coming from America with a forger in my care, and, in order to let things go pleasantly all round, I had asked the captain not to let it be known that I was 0n board.

A very nice young fellow made friends with me soon after we left the harbour, and a day or two later he came up to me with an air of great mystery, and informed me that he believed we had a Scotland Yard detective on board.

I was, of course, immensely surprised, and asked him to be sure and tell me if be discovered his identity.

On the same voyage, I had, in addition to my forger on the right hand, a young gentleman on my left who was suspected of murdering his father, a wealthy American banker.”


“Does the modern detective rely to any great extent upon disguises or make-up, Mr. Littlechild?”

“To some extent, of course, and he should have a good deal of the actor in him.

One of his most valuable talents is the power of looking like a fool while yet keeping his wits very much on the alert.

By assuming an air of superhuman innocence or stupidity, you may lure the deepest criminal in, as Perkyn Middlewick would say, until he falls headlong into your arms.


A good detective is an actor – with a difference.”

“That his acting is very real and very serious —–”

“And very much more difficult.

In a play an actor has every circumstance made to fit him, to play up to him, as it were, by an obliging author.

The detective has to fit himself to circumstances.

He begins in darkness and makes his way through obstruction.


The public, even the judges and our own chiefs, often only see the result of our work.

‘The prisoner, who was arrested by Inspector Blank’ –  that is all they generally see of it.

They know nothing of the many devices adopted in putting together the thousand and one links in the chain which led up to the capture, the narrow escapes from utter failure, the intense and incessant vigilance which has been necessary; for sometimes a single turn of the wheel in chasing a criminal, and days and months of labour may be lost in a moment.

Just as in chemistry an audience may see a vapour, a liquid, a crystal, a sudden flame of light, but they know nothing of how it was produced, so the public knows nothing of the steps which led to the clapping of the handcuffs upon the wrists of a forger, or the slipping of the white cap over a murderer’s head.”