An Interview With Howard Vincent 1887

At the end of June, 1887, Police Constable Endacott arrested Miss Maria Cass on Regent Street, and accused her of soliciting for purposes of prostitution.

The case grabbed the public imagination and, in consequence, it received a huge amount of press coverage.

Ultimately, Miss Cass would be exonerated, and Constable Endacott would find himself charged with perjury.

An illustration showing PC Endacott arresting Miss Cass.
Police Constable Endacott Arrests Miss Cass. From The Illustrated Police News. Copyright, The British Library Board.


On Wednesday, 13th July, 1887, The Pall Mall Gazette published the following interview with Mr. Howard Vincent, the man who had reformed the Metropolitan Police’s Detective Department in the early 1880’s.


In view of the great interest excited by the Cass case, and the attention which has been drawn to his Manual to the Criminal Law, which Mr. Howard Vincent prepared for the use of the police when he presided over the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland-yard, a representative of the Pall Mall Gazette interviewed Mr. Vincent yesterday on the question of the powers of the police and the state of the streets.

We append a report of the interview, from which it will be seen that Mr. Vincent’s dominant idea is summed up in the formula, “Concentrate the houses, scatter the women.”

He also proposes to increase the discretion of the inspector in charge, whom he would constitute a judge of the first instance, with authority to hear in secret the evidence for and against any prisoner.

Mr. Davis, the legal adviser of Scotland-yard, whose sudden death at the post of duty we regret to see announced in the papers today, held that this was contrary to law. It has its conveniences, no doubt, but before we make our inspectors judges it may be well to remember who they are and what they have to do.


A correspondent who recently followed a woman arrested in Leicester-square to Vine-street police-station to hear the charge against her writes as follows concerning the inspector on duty:-

I found the head officer polite and intelligent, and I was asked to look over the books of the business transacted there.


I turned to the schedules of the last general annual report of the station, and found that it embraced 6,300 charges, upon a large proportion of which the inspector in charge had to decide as to depriving the persons of liberty, and as to bail and other particulars.

The lists comprised cases of all sorts and sizes, from murder downward. I examined the telegram book, and found that the inspector had to be an experienced telegraphist. Several other cases “came in” while I was there and were disposed of by him. I found that the head of the station, for all his office and outdoor work, having to go round and inspect the constables on their beats, received 36 shillings a week, and this after fifteen years’ service.

Surely so small a payment for such multifarious and responsible duties is inadequate, and even dangerous. It may not be safe, and neither does it seem to be just, to trade at these low prices.


But now, without further preface, here is the report of the interview with Mr. Vincent:-

Yes (said Mr. Vincent), I am of the same opinion which I held when I was examined before the Select Committee of the House of Lords in 1881.

I still maintain that the state of London is worse in this respect than that of any other capital in the civilized world.

Howard Vincent and his detectives.
Howard Vincent And The Detectives. From The Illustrated London News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


I was in Paris with my brother in May, on the eve of the Grand Prix, when Paris was full of giddy youth.

It was a night on which a saturnalia might possibly have been excusable.

But there was nothing whatever visible on the Boulevards approaching to the scene which we may witness any night in Regent-street, Piccadilly, and the Strand.

I was much struck by the total absence of anything approaching to impropriety.

I saw here and there a few single women who may have been of light character, but there was absolutely nothing to offend the eye, and as for solicitation, there was none at all. You could have taken your daughter or sister where you liked without the slightest scandal and without offending her modesty by any suggestion of evil.


As it was in Paris, so it is in Berlin, Brussels, Budapest, Vienna, and even Constantinople.

I have been to all these capitals recently, and in none of them is there any approach to that which is allowed to exist in London.

A distinguished and travelled Frenchman remarked to me the other night, as we passed St. James’s Hall about midnight, “It is an outrage on civilization that such scenes should be allowed to be seen in the chief thoroughfares of the capital of the British Empire.”

“Then would you advise the introduction of the Continental system in this country?”

By no means.

Whoever proposes such a thing must be an idiot. Our public would not stand it for one moment.

It is absolutely impossible, so that you need not discuss that point.

What I propose is quite a different thing.


The state of London contrasts not only badly with the state of Continental cities, but with that of every city in the United States.

I have been in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, and have never met, to my knowledge, a woman of bad character in the streets in any of these cities.

I cannot understand why we cannot have London made as decent for respectable young girls to be about in the streets as New York or Chicago.

American young ladies go to the theatre by themselves and return by themselves.

Here, if a respectable girl goes to a concert at St. James’s Hall, she is practically obliged to spend a shilling or two on a cab to get home again, a tax which tells seriously upon the middle classes, and, in the case of poorer girls, it is an absolute deterrent.

I do not see why that should be.


What is the American system?

As far as I have been able to discover, it is accurately described by the Chairman of the Boston Police Commissioners in a letter which I received from him some six years ago.

The Boston Police aim at concentrating houses of ill repute in certain localities, and then arrest male and female persons of ill-fame who are found plying their vocation in the streets.

As it is in Boston, so it is in San Francisco, and in the latter city there are, I understand, two streets tenanted by no respectable persons. If the inmates of these streets go out into the rest of the city they are not distinguishable from the general public. They have no regular beats, nor are they allowed to ply their vocation in the public thoroughfares. If they do, they are promptly run in.

In Massachusetts, on the third conviction, any common night-walker can be sent to a house of correction for five years.

An account of the laws in Massachusetts can be found in the appendix to the Report of the Lords’ Committee.


“Then do I understand that you would make a raid upon all girls in the streets tonight and lock them all up, let us say 30,000, in one fell swoop?”

I trust that there are not 30,000 prostitutes, or anything like that number, in all England.

But whatever the statistics, I would first caution offenders; I would caution them many times; but if after, say, the third or fourth caution they continued to ply their vocation in the Quadrant or Regent-circus, or other respectable and necessarily frequented place, I would take them to the station.

I would not swell the charge-sheet more than I could possibly help. It is unnecessary. I think there would be very few found who would need locking up after they were cautioned.


By this means the streets could be cleared and a duchess might walk down Regent-street without inconvenience.

“I think it would do a duchess good to go down now.”

Perhaps; but I am more anxious for honest working girls, poor milliners, who have to use the streets in going to and from work, than for duchesses.

It is difficult to think how this great agglomeration of prostitutes should be scattered.


“Then would you proceed in relation to women exactly on opposite principles to that on which you deal with houses? You think the plan works well in America of concentrating houses of ill-fame, whereas your great idea in relation to women is to disperse them as widely as possible over the whole of London?”


I don’t think that any scandal would arise if the unfortunate women were submerged in the general public in the streets. That which creates scandal and makes Regent-street and its neighbourhood a reproach to the capital is the aggregation within a comparatively small area of the women of the whole of the West-end.


“Then you would not sweep the streets. You would only distribute the evil more evenly over a greater area. Would you ask for any additional legal powers?”

No, I think not.

If the public co-operates actively with the police, existing powers are ample.

But, without that co-operation, nothing can be done.

If I were to draft a bill I would empower the police to apprehend any person, male or female, who is in any street or public place for purposes of prostitution or other immoral purposes.

I would even go further.

I would empower a constable to apprehend a person who after being cautioned causes any obstruction by constantly passing and repassing.


“So that if I wished to keep observation on you, and patrol one side of Grosvenor-square for the purpose, you would have the power to run me in?”

Yes; and a very good thing too.

Are you not aware that the lives of some of the greatest heiresses in London have been and are made miserable by this persistent following by men who want to possess their money, or who wish to get hold of them in some way or other?

That, however, is by the way.

The main point is that I would break up the regular beats of these women, and compel them, if they want to go abroad, to take a longer stroll than backward and forwards on the north side of Leicester-square, or between Waterloo Bridge and Charing-cross.

Until that is done, no modest girl will be able to go safely about the streets at night as they do in America, and as they have a right to do here.


“But, surely, what makes the streets unsafe for a modest girl is not her fallen sister, but the immoral man. No decent woman is ever molested by these poor girls. What our wives and sisters and daughters dread is not the gills hut the scoundrels who haunt the streets and annoy them by their insulting attentions. These wretches are the people to be punished if the streets are to be made safe.”

It is very difficult (said Mr. Vincent) to make a man liable to arrest for addressing a woman; and what an opening would be afforded to blackmail!

Why, even now blackmailing is a profession which flourishes amain.

On the Underground Railway there are, or at least were, women who live by it.


I have been told that some men consider it not safe to be in a compartment alone with a woman; “10 shillings. or £1,” has been said, “or I will accuse you of an indecent assault;” and what can you do? Refuse to pay, and your name is in every newspaper as a man accused of a disgraceful offence.

It does not matter if the case is dismissed; the stigma remains.

It would be most dangerous to increase the power to ruin which the unprecedented publicity of our time has given to those who bring false accusations.


“But is it not the case, as Mr. Newton said the other day, that there are men perfectly well known to the police who habitually and persistently haunt our streets for the purpose of accosting decent women?”

Probably (said Mr. Vincent) there are.

“Then why not run them in? The solicitation of a man by a woman is nothing compared with the offence of the solicitation of a woman by a man.”

But (said Mr, Vincent) if any woman is so annoyed by a man that it may lead to a breach of the peace, she can give her tormentor in charge.


“Would the police take the charge?”

They are entitled to do so.

But the difficulty is not so much in the law as in the reluctance of decent people to expose themselves to the terrible glare of publicity. There would be no difficulty if the press were not allowed to report these cases. As it is, the privilege of publicity is a tremendous deterrent to prosecution.

“How? In this way. You are demanding that no woman shall be convicted except the man accosted attends to accuse her. What will be the effect of that?”

Simply this, that no prostitute will be interfered with, and the streets will become more disreputable than ever, to the damage of trade and the degradation of populous neighbourboods. That was the old practice.

The magistrates’ efforts to meet Public demand is being condemned.

What man is there, and much more what woman, who would be fool enough to waste one day and possibly two by dancing attendance in the police courts to punish some poor wretch, to be rewarded for their pains by having their name publicly bracketed with one of the vilest of the other sex?

People forget details, they only remember that you were in the police court, whether as prosecutor I or prisoner in a case of this kind does not much matter. They either accuse you of being harsh in punishing a poor woman, or they say you had no business to be out of bed so late.”There must be something wrong behind and no doubt you were a good deal to blame.” As for a woman, the case is still worse.

“And yet you would give this absolute power to attach an indelible stigma for life to a single constable?”

Only in aggravated cases. You must trust somebody (said Mr. Vincent), otherwise, you cannot clear the streets.


“But I would not clear the streets. The women must go somewhere, and I would prefer that their existence should be thrust upon our attention than that it should be hidden away out of sight.”

That is a matter of opinion. I do not think morality is improved by the gross parade of vice before the young and the innocent.

But one thing is certain, and that is that poor Miss Cass’s case has put a stop to any attempt to do anything in the matter. I sympathize very deeply with her, But as a searching inquiry is, I am glad to say, proceeding, I will not speak of her unfortunate case.

The police are terrified out of their lives. There is not an old hand in the force who, if asked by a young constable what should be done in such cases, will not reply, “Leave them alone.”

There is great joy I expect, in the foreign colony of Regent-street, for they now believe they are going to be free to do as they like.


Look at Endacott. There is a ruined man. Even if he is perfectly innocent, he is done for. He is suspended – that means that his wages are stopped, and he has a wife and three children.

He has instructed Mr. St. John Wontner to defend him; that means that the whole of his savings will go in lawyer’s expenses, although I am sure that Mr. St. John Wontner will do it as cheaply and as well foi him as any one.

Even if he clears himself, he will always be looked al askance.

It is sometimes worse to be unlucky than to be wicked.

How can you expect men to be zealous in dangerous work where such a tremendous penalty is liable to be exacted at any moment?

It is impossible.

The police are plucky enough, but still, like most sensible people, they are inclined to fight shy of dirty water.


“Do you think things are better or worse now?”


Old men who remember what existed thirty years ago tell me that things are immeasurably better.

From my own observation during the last fourteen years, I should say that they have improved.

For one thing, women do not catch hold of you in the street as they used to do; there has been a great improvement in that respect.

The closing of the night houses was an improvement, and the action of the vestries has done much to remove nuisances.


“But can you trust the police with such powers over women?”

I think you can, on the whole.

You must risk the smaller evil for the sake of the greater good.

There are 14,000 men in the force, and it is inevitable that there should be some black sheep among so large a flock.

If you cannot get 670 perfectly wise men as the elect of the three kingdoms in the House, how can you expect to get 14,o00 Solons in the policeman’s uniform?

Mr. Caine, I think, is heedlessly unjust.

How could the police clear Clapham-common of women when they have no power to do any such thing; and why should he adduce as the only named witnesses in support of his sweeping charges of wholesale bribery two dead men, Serjeant Ballantine and Mr. Knox?


“Then how would you guard against such scandals as the Cass case?”

By entrusting a larger discretion to the inspector who receives charges to refuse to enter them, and insisting on his responsibility.


“But that (I objected) is to create your inspector a judge of the first instance, who sits in secret without the safeguards of publicity?”

Publicity is the one thing any one accused, no matter how unjustly, most wishes to avoid.

If he is arrested wrongfully he can appeal to the Commissioner, he wants no legal redress, for legal redress means publicity, and publicity means ruin.

There are many private and effective channels by which any policeman can be made amenable.


The Metropolitan force compares favourably with any force in the world, and it is less corrupt.

“Because its power is more limited?”

Perhaps so.

But surely you need not dread the power which the police possess in America.

America is at least as free as England, and with that liberty they contrive to suppress licence.”