Johnny Upright

Many police officers were involved in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, and many of them, for us today, are little more than names on a page, about whom we know virtually nothing, other than for their involvement in trying to solve the Whitechapel murders.

However, occasionally we do get to glimpse these officers when their names turn up in the newspapers of the day in cases or to do with subjects aside from their ripper hunting activities.

One officer, whose name featured extensively in newspaper reports on the crimes, was Sergeant William Thicke (1845 – 1930), an officer who spent virtually his entire police career in the East End of London.


Sergeant Thicke was universally known in the area as “Johnny Upright”, a nickname reputedly bestowed upon him by a prisoner in the dock who once stated that Thick was the “only upright witness” in the case he [the prisoner] was being tried for. Subsequently, the judge, Mr Justice Kerr, was heard to refer to Thick as “Upright John.”

According to fellow officer Walter Dew (1863 – 1947), the “Johnny Upright” sobriquet was extremely apt, as Thick was known to be “…very upright, both in his walk and his manners.”

Dew also noted that his colleague had been “an unholy terror to the local law breakers“.

So, if you were a stranger to the Whitechapel district, and you wanted to experience the nightlife in some of its most criminally active areas, then Sergeant William Thicke was just the man to escort you on a tour of the area in order to ensure that you came to no harm.


On the 29th of October, 1891, The Pall Mall Gazette, published the following article, written by a journalist who had enlisted Thicke as his guide to take him around the night haunts of Whitechapel.

Although, for some reason, the reporter chose to disguise Thicke’s identity by referring to him as “Sergeant Quick”, he had no such qualms about using his “Johnny Upright” moniker; so, in reality, there is no doubt at all, about the actual identity of the detective who acted as tour guide for this particular night excursion into the Victorian low life haunts of the East End of London.

The article is of interest on several levels.

Firstly, we get a glimpse of Sergeant Thicke amongst the members of the community that he policed for so many years; and we are, therefore, able to see how he was thought of in the district.

Secondly, we get to see some of the people of the East End as they let their hair down and enjoy themselves – plus we get to learn what Sergeant Thicke actually thought of them.

So, come with us on a journey back to a long-ago night in 1891, as the journalist, and an accompanying artist, arrive at Leman Street Police Station to meet with the detective who will guide them around some of the Victorian East End’s notorious night spots and haunts.

A portrait of Sergeant Thicke.
Detective Sergeant Thicke. From The Illustrated Police news, 22nd September, 1888.


“In quest of some few outlines of London criminal life and character, an artist and I made our way down to Whitechapel the other evening, armed with a valuable introduction to the authorities at Leman-street police. station.

We chose this favoured playground of West-end philanthropists, hobbyists, statisticians, University settlers, and the rest, because, though there may be other individual slums in London – at Westminster, or Lambeth, or Canning Town, for example – of very similar character, there does not seem to be any other district of anything like the same extent which can boast the uniform distinction that the criminal and semi-criminal classes form an absolute majority of the population.


We reached the headquarters of the H Division about half-past eight o’clock, and our credentials most luckily secured us the services of one of the best-knows detectives in London, a man who has spent four-and-twenty years working in this division, and who, as may well be imagined, possesses a marvellously intimate acquaintance with most things and people worth knowing, or knowing about, between Wapping and Bethnal-green.


Sergeant Quick (if he will pardon our so rechristening him) was busy in his office over an extradition report to the Home Office; so we were given the photograph album to amuse ourselves with while he finished his foolscaps. And a most engrossing volume it proved – unlike its gilded brethren of ordinary drawing-room tables; for it contained some three or four hundred portraits, full-face and profile, of criminals of every grade, from “attempted murder” to “petty larceny,” with a damning record of their identification marks and characteristics.


Before we had half completed our study of this most instructive portrait gallery, our sergeant was ready to take us for our ramble.

We began with a tour of the station itself, which is one of the latest built and best planned in London; and after glimpses of a library and a billiard, table, a mess-room and a gleaming kitchen, cosy dormitories and well-planned offices, we doubted if, after all, “the policeman’s lot” (in the H Division at any rate) could be anything but a happy one.


Then we went to the cells, and were much amused by the lady occupant of one of them, who recognised Sergeant Quick through the little grid before ever the door of her cell was opened, and announced her discovery in a shout which was echoed with universal interest from cell to cell – “Why, ** me if it ain’t Johnny Upright!”

This charming sobriquet, which we were destined to hear constantly during our later walk, is one of which Sergeant Quick is very justly proud, as it indicates a generous appreciation of the fair and square dealing which has been his motto all through his long years of detective work, and by which he has gained a perfectly unique status in Whitechapel, a fact of which we had ample evidence at every turn.

There is clearly an unwritten (and not always adopted) code of honour in this most difficult and trying work; a belt below which one must not hit; an accepted set of rules by which the best players agree to make their game.

And to these “Mr. Upright” has stuck staunchly, with the result that he can walk, with his hands in his pockets, into the lowest and roughest dens in the district without a thought of precaution, and can be sure that if some ill-starred ruffian should attack him the very men against whom he plays with all his energies – but with unloaded dice – would be the first to protect him.

That is much indeed to boast of; but from many little things we saw and heard later on, it seemed not too much by any means.

A portrait of Sergeant Thick.
Detective Sergeant Thick


We strolled on, while our guide yarned to us in his pleasant, easygoing fashion, up Petticoat-lane (now Middlesex-street), through Wentworth -street, and across Commercial-street, and so up by Thrawl-street into Flower-and-Dean-street  – names which were familiar enough in the papers a couple of years ago.

Here we turned into a well-known lodging-house, a long, low room with benches and tables down either side, and a magnificent fire at the further end – a feature common to all these institutions and to all times and seasons – being in constant demand for a variety of promiscuous and potently-savoured cookery.

There was nothing very remarkable to be seen among the groups of sallow, unwholesome-faced men who were sitting about at the tables or leaning out of the open windows, and who scowled at us intruders with pardonable lack of hospitality.

Turning down a narrow bye-street, we came upon a small tavern doing a thriving trade. Lounging against a partition inside was a big, brazen-faced woman in a gorgeous red shirt, and with some remains of good looks, obscured by two black eyes, recently acquired.

“An old friend of mine,” said our guide. “And a handsome girl she was a few years back. Our last little rencontre was rather a funny one. I saw her late one night – or rather early one morning – last autumn, walking down the road with a smartish man – gold watch and chain and the rest of it, and I made a mental note of the pair. Sure enough next morning comes in word from the police to our office of a gentleman having been robbed by a woman somewhere in this district. I put my hat on and walked straight off to Sally’s room. She was in bed – scant ceremony on these occasions, you see – and expressed much virtuous indignation as I took my walk round the room with my eyes open, talking to her. No signs of what I’d come for, and Sally getting more and more obstreperous, when, by some inspiration, I stuck a finger in the earth of a flower-pot on the window-sill and struck right on a gold watch, neatly buried, and ticking away merrily. Sally quieted down and came along like a lamb.”


We left her to her half-quartern, and, emerging from the stifling atmosphere of the lodging-houses, turned our faces southward towards the river and the docks, and made our way in to a new region, the abode chiefly of sailors and dockers.

The names of the streets bespoke the change at once. From Petticoat Lane and Fashion Street and the Dutch Market, the metropolis of costers and hucksters and their not too particular buyers, who are euphemistically known as “general dealers,” we found ourselves in Dock Street, Neptune Street, Cable Street, Virginia Street, and Breezers Hill.

Turning in at a brightly lit doorway we pushed open a glass portal with “Ball Room” on it, and. climbing upstairs to the first floor, we found ourselves in one of the class of dancing-halls which has, of late, been attracting the attention of the London County Council.


It was a long, narrow room, well lighted, and evidently lately “restored” to the glories of new paint, well-ventilated skylights, and a smart bar at one end.

A couple of musicians – cornet and piccolo, I think – stood in a corner and made an amount of melody which was highly creditable to their lung capacities, at any rate.

Round the sides of the room at its upper end stood narrow tables with benches against the walls behind them, and three or four white-aproned barmen worked busily between the dances.

There were perhaps fifty or sixty visitors, belonging almost exclusively to two classes – sailors and “unfortunates.”

At another saloon which we visited later on there was a framed notice at the entrance to the effect that, “Ladies would not be admitted unless accompanied by gentleman and decently attired;” but I don’t think the rule was enforced here as the “ladies” seemed to be rather in a majority, and to be largely “unattached.”

Having been duly supplied with drinks (there is no admission charge) and having been induced to purchase some cigarette holders, which our waiter was good enough to let us have at “less than half their honest value,” we were at liberty to take stock of the dancers.

Dancers inside an East End dancing hall.
From The Pall Mall Gazette, October 29th, 1891. Copyright. The British Library Board.


The first thing that struck one was the absolute propriety and decorum of the whole affair.

It was between eleven and midnight of a fine Saturday evening, and we naturally expected that hilarity might break bounds a little before closing time. Not a bit of it. The dancing was often extremely good, bumping and cannoning very rare, and tumbles unheard of. Now and then a couple of the ladies took a vigorous whirl together, but two youths who attempted to do likewise were promptly parted by a potman M.C., such ungallantry being considered most reprehensible.

At the end of the dance – polkas and mazurkas seemed more popular than waltzes – there was a good deal of high-pitched shouting for “drinks for two,” and a stampede towards the bar. But there was not a single drunken person in the room, or even anyone seriously “boozed,” and manners were really unexceptionable!

One tall German fellow, in a big rimmed wideawake and a baggy brown coat, did, it is true, pull his girl on to his knee as he sat down after a vigorous gallop; but the omnipresent potman instantly rectified this little irregularity, and his decisions were obviously accepted as final in all cases.


The dresses were a real study, and deserve a chapter to themselves, which I dare not attempt.

They were invariably clean and “as good as new,” high and tight-fitting, and smart beyond description. Satin of outspoken colours seemed a universally favourite material, and slashings and pleatings were thrown in with regardless extravagance.

And the hats!

The tortured brims, the dashing bows and velvets, the bunches of roses; above all, the mighty ostrich plumes!


Many of the girls smoked cigarettes, and smoked as if they did it for the enjoyment and not for the look of the thing.

We had a chat with several of them, drinks being, of course, provided at the outset.

It is a pity that, in these days of sham prudery and eye-blinking, such conversations cannot be reproduced.

Miss Decima, no doubt, would find them, “Oh, shocking, shocking!” but they would bring much enlightenment to many worthy people; and the curiously-clinging survivals of self-respect – of a quaint sort  – were full of pitiful-comical interest.


Later on we turned into a second saloon not far off.

It was exactly of the same character, the only differences being that the orchestra had a quaint little raised box of their own at one end, and that a small opening in the opposite wall communicated directly with the bar of the public house to which it belonged, and served for the distribution of liquors, of which “lager” seemed much the most popular.

The men were chiefly Germans or Swedes, but the girls were, with one or two exceptions, genuine Whitechapellers.

The features were just the same; the general good management and good behaviour just as noticeable.

A visitor who came in somewhat “top-heavy” was promptly ejected, neck and crop; some excitable sailors who stamped their feet to the time were dropped on and brought to order at once. A tall “coloured” gentleman, resplendent in a tight billy-cock and a long tail coat, was among the most stately and solemn of the dancers. Others were rough and vigorous enough, and there was a certain amount of table-jogging and spilling of liquors.

These things come of the sailor lurch, and are speedily mopped away by a waiter with a flat nose.

Occasionally a stalwart Jack would swing his Jill high off her feet in the air as the finale of a terrific whirligig, but she came down to terra firma and her pot of lager safely enough.

There was one very pretty face, and several of the girls were handsome after their type,  but the majority would hardly have been found attractive outside the dock radius, and most of them bore tell-tale signs of a life which ages at five-and-twenty and seldom survives for ten years longer – oftener not for five – and one of the worst features of which is the substitution of constant drinking (sometimes almost entirely) in place of food of any kind.


But it was time to end our ramble; and, turning out into the quiet precincts of Wellclose-square and the once famed Mahogany House, we made our way up to the flare and bustle of Commercial-street again.


“Let’s look in here for a moment, before you go,” said Mr. Upright, leading the way into the private bar of the largest public in the district.

And it was worthwhile, as a character study.

The private counter overlooked at right angles the main bar, and we watched, from its comparative seclusion, a perfect sea of humanity, seething, swaying, pushing and shoving, shouting and gesticulating, in front of the long, pewter-topped barrier.

It was within a few minutes of closing time, and there must have been at least a couple of hundred “souls” in that indescribable throng.

Pots and glasses were stretched with yells over the shoulders of those in front of the barmen for a final “tonic,” and men and women, wrinkled old hags and pale-cheeked girls, roughs and dockers, Jews and Gentiles, Germans and Poles, Polls with their pals, and wives with their baby or their Sunday dinner in their arms, literally fought their way in towards the long white handles that were forever bending forward over the pewter.

We finished our glasses of “special ” – Sergeant Quick’s friends fare well in these quarters – and, passing out, bade our guide good-night.


“Stop a minute and watch,” said he, as we reached the pavement, indicating with a jerk of his head a group of eight or ten men who were standing in quiet converse a few paces off.

“Those men are all street pickpockets, and six of them I know well.”

We stood still and had a good look at them, while the sergeant’s merry eye twinkled blithely.

“Don’t it make ’em uncomfortable!” quoth he; and, indeed, their uneasiness at our attention was very humorous.

They shifted about, they faced round, they moved under the shadow of the wall; then, one by one, they slipped silently away, and before the minute was up their rendezvous knew them no more.”