Alleged Police Blackmailing

There can be little doubt that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, began 1888, the year of the Jack the Ripper murders, with an awful lot on his plate!

The ramifications of “Bloody Sunday” – November 13th, 1887 – were still being felt; and some elements of the press were not going to let the fall-out from the Miss Cass case of the previous year lie just yet.

A portait of Miss Cass
Miss Elizabeth Cass


However, one potentially hugely damaging allegation had been made against the Metropolitan Police in July 1887 by William Sprostan Caine (1842–1903), Member of Parliament for Barrow-in-Furness, whose accusations were published in the Pall Mall Gazette, on Saturday 9th July, 1887:-

The article read:-


“I have no hesitation in making some fuller statement concerning my charges of corruption and blackmail against the police, and shall be glad if you will let me do so in your columns.

For many years I have taken a warm interest in the welfare of those unhappy women who have drifted into a life of prostitution, and have been successful in helping to bring them back to a life of decency and virtue.

A little more than a year ago Clapham Common was the resort of a considerable number of these women, who plied their trade in well-frequented thoroughfares which cross this open space.

A portrait of William Sproston Caine.
William Sproston Caine (1842 – 1903). From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, 29th May 1880. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Their customers came thither to meet them, and these two classes of people made the Common virtually impossible to decent people after dark.

Householders living there could not send their servants out on errands without being molested by men, and their young sons on the edge of manhood could not pass any of the thoroughfares without constant solicitation and debasing language being poured into their ears.


Appeals were made both to the Home Office and to the police authorities, and although promises were plentiful the evil continued as rampant as ever.

I spent several evenings on the common after dark, and as far as possible got to the bottom of the cause why our many complaints had no effect.

My past experience of this class of women, gained in Liverpool, where my wife and I took an active part in the management of a home for fallen women, enables me to get from them information with greater ease than other people.


I found that there were thirty-two women who got their miserable living after dark on Clapham Common.

Each woman appropriated a bench, which are mostly placed under trees, and from this centre sallied forth in search of customers, on a beat carefully marked out, and which was not interfered with by any of her sisterhood.


The great majority of these women informed me that they deliberately placed themselves under the patronage of the police by bribing them with sixpence or a shilling a night.

I entirely believe them.

I am quite sure that if the police had chosen they could on the complaint (oft repeated) of the inhabitants have cleared the whole common in a single night, and kept it clear ever after.

We had, however, learned to despair of police assistance, and made up our minds to do our own work.


We formed a vigilance committee, and for some weeks a number of gentlemen did the thankless task of spending hours on the Common driving away by remonstrance and threats the men who came in search of these women, while at the same time they endeavoured, with some success, to persuade the women to enter a home which was provided for the purpose.

It is, however, impossible for private individuals to keep up the work of the police, and during the spring the evil once more increased, though it has never been so bad as it was in the spring of last year.


It is simply ridiculous for the Home Secretary and the police to deny that this system of blackmailing prevails. It is all but universal in every haunt of vice.

Policemen do not in the first instance demand it, but the girls, believing very rightly that if they “square the bobby” they will be allowed to tout for business unmolested, press money and kind on every newcomer, till it is looked upon as a “usual prerequisite,” and the police come to take it as a matter of course.


The only way to prevent this is by placing these haunts of vice, happily not many, under the especial charge of a well-tried inspector, with a sergeant to keep him company; known prostitutes should be ruthlessly moved on, but left alone so long as they simply walk steadily along, and do not loiter or solicit.

No arrests should be made by one policeman only, except in cases of drunkenness or rowdyism, when, if possible, some other witness should be secured.

Women of all sorts, who are not known prostitutes, should be as free to use the streets as men, and – with as little molestation from the police.

It is absurd to say that the regular prostitute is not “known.” She is as well known to the constable as a member of Parliament is to Inspector Denning.


I hope this agitation will not be allowed to drop until every decent shop girl and milliner in the purlieus of Regent-street can walk that thoroughfare at ten o’clock at night as freely and harmlessly as at ten in the morning.

The police of Liverpool, Manchester, or Glasgow would not permit such a scandal to exist for a week.

There they are the servants of the ratepayers, are under the control of a Watch Committee who are the elected representatives of the ratepayers, and until we get municipal institutions in London, and the police are under the control of the ratepayers instead of a Home Secretary, the Rogues’ Walk in Regent-street will remain a more or less permanent institution.


It is always the way with Home Secretaries to demand, indignantly, proof of such charges as the one I bring.

When proof is forthcoming they refuse the evidence of the only possible witnesses, because they are prostitutes. Such tainted proof is difficult enough to get, and when it cannot be got we are taunted with charges of slander. Where am I to get my thirty Clapham Common witnesses?

A very few of them have been rescued from their life of sin by our committee, and are now in decent families at service, and right down good servants they often make.

Am I to bring them forward to avow their old lives?


The bulk of my witnesses are probably dead – they don’t live long, poor wretches – and others have gone off on tramp for the summer.

If I had them they would not be likely to speak the truth to a Home Secretary or an inspector of police.


But I will bring forward a witness who ought to have some weight with the Home Secretary.

In the third chapter of the second volume of Serjeant Ballantine’s Experiences, these sentences and others like them may be read:-

“Not a great many years ago…a number of cases were investigated involving very serious charges against the police stationed in the district of the Marlborough-street police-court, and I am able myself to testify that to some extent, at all events, they were well founded.

Regent-street and the surrounding localities were frequented by women carrying on a miserable calling. The Quadrant was rendered almost impassable for decent people, the shopkeepers were up in arms, and bitter complaints were raised against the negligence of the officers.”


Could there be a better or more concise statement of the condition of public opinion awakened by this incident of Miss Cass’s arrest?

Serjeant Ballantine goes on:-

“The inquiries, however, set on foot fully explained the reason of this.

The constables upon the beat were in the pay of the worst and most troublesome of those who infested the streets, in consideration for which they allowed them to annoy the passengers with impunity; while those who were quiet and inoffensive had blackmail levied upon them by the most tyrannical and cruel means.

If they refused to pay, they were taken into custody, had to pass, the night in a wretched cell, were the next morning charged with annoying people and obstructing the footway, and although I know that Mr. Knox (the stipendiary magistrate at Marlborough-street), having grave suspicions of the motives of the officers, threw what protection he could over the accused, a fine was often imposed, and further imprisonment followed nonpayment.

The wretched victims learned prudence, and obtained the necessary licence to pursue their unhappy trade.

I have seen upon several occasions a female of the class alluded to place upon a post or window-sill a piece of money, and a policeman come up and remove it.

At last the scandal attained such large dimensions that it became necessary to transplant the entire division to some other district – they had probably to bemoan among the savages of the East the halcyon days they had enjoyed in the advanced civilization of their former service.

I have had many conversations with Mr. Knox on the subject I am dwelling upon, and I believe he fully shared the opinion I have expressed as to the necessity of great caution in dealing with police testimony.”


Sir, what existed then exists now, and I think I am safe in prophesying, that the inquiry which outraged public opinion has now made certain, will result in considerable changes in the disposition of the police force.

I respectfully add Serjeant Ballantine’s and Mr. Knox’s testimony to my own more humble witness, and once more declare my unshaken belief that in every district where prostitution prevails the police are largely in partnership with the prostitutes.”


On 29th July, 1887, Mr J. E. Ellis. Member of Parliament for Nottingham Rushcliffe, asked the Secretary of State for Home Department, Henry Matthews, whether:-

“In view of the following sentence in a Circular just issued to the Metropolitan Police by Sir Charles Warren:-  The Commissioner desires to any on the subject, that he will institute the fullest inquiry into the allegations made by the public on the subject of blackmailing, and is quite aware that the Police Force court the most open and complete investigation. He has to observe that the accusations have been hitherto made under assumed names, or by persons speaking from such positions that they cannot readily be required to show whether they have any foundations for their allegations, he will state whether any investigation has been made into the serious and definite allegations of blackmailing against the police on duty in the neighbourhood of Clapham Common; and, if so, with what result; and, if no investigation has yet been made, when such is proposed?”

Matthews replied that:-

“The allegations referred to in the question are serious indeed, but they are not very definite, and it is precisely because they are not very definite that it is extremely difficult to test them. I have, however, directed that the best investigation possible shall be made; and I am sure the hon. Member will feel that it will be better that I should not describe the steps which will be taken, as publicity would defeat any efforts to discover the truth. I will add that I will welcome information of any specific facts from any quarter that will give a basis to work upon.”

“Since the trial of Miss Cass and the subsequent charges of blackmailing made against the Metropolitan Police, inquiries have been made under the direction of Mr. Monro, Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Department.


Following an official enquiry into the allegations, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, reported the findings in its issue of Sunday 12th February 1888:-

“The inquiries have now been brought to a close, and a report has been made by the Commissioner to the Home Secretary, and the following order bearing on the subject has been promulgated by Sir Charles Warren:-

In July, 1887, Mr, Caine, M.P., in the House of Commons and the press, charged the police with the systematic levying of blackmail from prostitutes on Clapham-common.

The Commissioner expressed his readiness to institute the fullest inquiry into this grave charge on any definite information being furnished.

Mr. Caine failed to supply such information, but a careful and exhaustive inquiry was instituted in the interest of the public and the police.

The result of this inquiry, which was reported to the Secretary of State, was that the grave charge against the police was found to be unsupported by a tittle of proof, and the Commissioner expressed an opinion to that effect.

Mr. Caine, though asked to do so, failed to bring forward any proof whatever of the truth of the accusation preferred, and the charge was similarly unsupported by any evidence, either of interested or disinterested persons.

The opinion of the Commissioner has been endorsed by the Secretary of State in the following letter, which the Commissioner has satisfaction in communicating to the members of the police force:-

“With reference to the general question, I am to state that Mr. Matthews is glad to find that the result of the inquiry is that no evidence has been forthcoming against the police, and that the charges made against them have not in any manner been sustained.””