The Metropolitan Police force was founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. Initially, there was a great deal of distrust of these new Bobbies on the beat as people were worried that they would become a surveillance, military force who would spy on honest, hard-working citizens on behalf of the British Government.
Consequently, it was decided that they would be dressed in blue, as opposed to red, uniforms as red, at the time, was the favoured colour for the military.
This led to them being dubbed “unboiled lobsters” by the citizenry at large, who still viewed them as a tool of government, whereas their founder was adamant that they would be a force for crime prevention.
THE DETECTIVE BRANCH FORMED 1842
Because their focus was on crime prevention, and emphatically not crime detection, it was seen as unnecessary for them to have a detective department and, therefore, it wasn’t until 1842 that an investigative team was formed and the “Detective Branch,” consisting of two Inspectors, six Sergeants and a number of Constables, came into being.
This new department was viewed with a great deal of curiosity by the newspapers of the age, and some of those early detectives became famous in their own right, some of them even achieving the status afforded modern day celebrities.
DETECTIVES IN THE SPOTLIGHT
There is no doubt that some of them enjoyed the limelight that the newspapers shone onto them and their labours as journalists began to make a discovery that has been one of the bedrocks of journalism and television news – and drama for that matter (!) – crime sells.
One writer, who was enamoured by and fascinated by the Detective Branch was Charles Dickens who, as well as being the leading novelist of the age, was a devoted journalist and magazine publisher. He ran several stories about the Detective Department in his journal Household Words and, as a result, he became close friends with many of the detectives, and a very close friend of one member of the branch’s staff in particular.
INSPECTOR CHARLES FREDERICK FIELD
The man in question was Inspector Charles Frederick Field (1805–1874) and, thanks largely to Dickens Lionising him in Household Words, he became, perhaps the most famous of the early Victorian Detectives.
Field had originally wanted to become an actor but, due to his impoverished circumstance, he opted instead to join the Metropolitan Police as a Sergeant with E division. In 1846 he joined the Detective Department, retiring as its chief in 1852.
A VERY THEATRICAL DETECTIVE!
Throughout his career, probably due to his original stage calling, Field enjoyed wearing disguises in his detective work – many times, and even Dickens commented on this, when it wasn’t actually necessary to do so!
During those years he met with and became friends with Dickens who published several articles about him.
In one article he referred to him as Inspector Wield and described him thus:- “…a middle-aged man of a portly presence, with a large, moist, knowing eye, a husky voice, and a habit of emphasising his conversation by the air of a corpulent fore-finger, which is constantly in juxta-position with his eyes or nose.”
He devoted an entire essay to him in 1851 entitled On Duty With Inspector Field.
In May of that year Dickens, who was himself a keen actor, had agreed to take a role in the play Not So Bad As We seem, written by one of his closest friends Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803 – 1873), the aristocratic owner of Knebworth House.
The play was to be staged in order to raise funds for the Guild of Literature and Art, a charitable organisation which had been founded by Dickens and Lytton to assist impoverished writers and artists.
A POTENTIAL EMBARRASMENT
At the time, however, Bulwer Lytton was going through a particularly messy divorce from his wife Rosina and, since Queen Victoria would be attending the play – which was to be staged at the home of the Duke of Devonshire on Piccadilly, Dickens was anxious that nothing would disrupt his performance.
So, you can imagine his feelings of misgiving when a letter was handed to him from Rosina Lytton in which she stated:-
“It is my intention to attend the foolery at Devonshire House on the 16th – to disseminate not indeed Bills of the Play – but a true bill of its Ruffianly, Blackguardly author and also to suggest that in consideration of the disreputable set who are to act it, the title of this farce be changed to We’re Even Worse Than We Seem, or The Real Side of Our Character, and that instead of the Guild of Literature and Art, the assurance swindle be called “The Guilt” for verily, no one has contributed more blackly to the Guilt of Literature than Sir Liar Coward Bulwer Lytton…”
FIELD SAVES THE PLAY
Dickens, who was himself producing and directing, as well as acting in the play, took this very seriously and evidently turned to Inspector Field to ensure that the play would not be disrupted by Lytton’s estranged wife.
Several letters that he wrote around this time are worth quoting from, as they illustrate Dickens relationship with and closeness to the Scotland Yard Detectives of the time.
One letter, written to the Duke of Devonshire on 9th May 1851, reads thus:-
“Will you kindly let me know which of your people will have charge of the admissions on both nights? It is important that Mr Wills and I should have a little talk with him. I have spoken to Inspector Field of the Detective police (one of my Night Guides and wholly devoted) and have requested him to attend Mr Wills on both nights in plain clothes. He is discretion itself and accustomed to the most delicate missions. Upon the least hint from Mr Wills, he would shew our fair correspondent the wrong way to the theatre, and not say a word until he had her out of hearing – when he would be most polite and considerate…”
On the same day he wrote to Bulwer Lytton himself and was a little more expansive on his relationship with the men of the Detective Department:- “I have already sent to Inspector Field of the Detective Police (who is used to all sorts of delicate matters, and is quite devoted to me) and have told him that I shall wish him to come in plain clothes, and remain in the hall all night…Any of the Detective men will do anything for me, and, with your approval, I would have one or two more outside, to see that the people in carriages were not interfered with…”
DICKENS PRIVATE POLICE FORCE
These letters shine an intriguing light on Dickens relations with the police, as it is more than apparent that they are acting more as Dickens private security force rather than as serving police officers.
Furthermore, Dickens openly states that Inspector Field is his “Night Guide” a reference to the fact that Dickens – who was a notorious insomniac and who therefore liked nothing better than wandering into the most crime infested and poverty stricken parts of London in the dead of night – was able to call upon Field to escort him on his nocturnal perambulations to ensure that he came to no harm.
IMMORTALIZED AS INSPECTOR BUCKET
Field was undoubtedly the inspiration for the fictional Inspector Bucket in Bleak House, the novel in which Dickens launches his most scathing attack on the English Legal system as well as on the very fabric of Victorian society.
Bucket is one of the earliest fictional detectives and Victorian readers came to see his colourless but skilful and decent methods as the standards by which to judge all policemen. It is he who solves the murder of Tulkinghorn – another wonderful Dickensian creation.
DID DICKENS PAY THE POLICE?
Of course, this begs an intriguing question, did he ever pay those detectives for exclusives and information?
Naturally, the evidence as to whether he did pay for stories is somewhat scant.
A surviving letter to his sub editor at Household Words, written in April 1851 is a little more forthcoming on the subject.
Proposing his plan to feature an article about the Metropolitan Police he asked his sub editor to approach a detective commenting that:- “Any of the Scotland Yard people will do it, I should think; if our friend by any accident should not be there, I will go into it… of course we will pay any man and do as they recommend.”
So there is evidence to suggest that he did make discreet payments to favoured officers on the force.
What is certain is that he did, by his own admission, invite them to parties and dinners at his offices in Wellington Street, near Covent Garden. And, depending on your view of the matter, one man’s vol-au-vant is another man’s bribe!
And, in truth, it was, technically, not illegal at the time since payments to policemen only became comprehensively illegal with the passing of the Prevention of Corruption Act in 1901, when it was made an offence for a police officer to receive payment and for someone to make one.
What is certain, however, is that Charles Dickens knew and was friends with many of those early Scotland Yard detectives, and chief amongst them was the man whom many regard as the inspiration for, possibly, the very first fictional detective in English literature – Inspector Charles Frederick Field.
Copyright Notice. The image from Household Words is reproduced from the splendid Dickens Journals Online resource, provided by the University of Buckingham. It remains their copyright.