The Detective Police

When studying newspaper accounts of the Jack the Ripper crimes – and, for that matter, of other crimes that took place in London during the 1880’s – one often comes across references to police procedure and how an investigation was handled and conducted by detectives.

Indeed, to understand how the investigation into the atrocities was conducted it helps to understand something of the structure of the Metropolitan Police Authority as it was in the 1880’s.


At the time of the Whitechapel murders, the Detective Department at Scotland Yard was, more or less, in its infancy, or at least in its new incarnation, having been totally reorganised and reformed, following a scandal in the 1870’s when several of the detectives had been convicted of taking bribes from a gang of fraudsters.

Throughout the early 1880’s this new department was finding its feet and, on September 29th 1883, The Illustrated London News decided to enlighten its readers as to the inner workings of the Metropolitan Police force in general, and of the Detective Department in particular.

Here is the article in full:-


“The London Custom of whole families “going out of town,” for several weeks together, in the latter summer and autumn months, leaves so many households of the upper and middle classes exposed to nocturnal depredations, that this period of the year has been called “the Burglary Season.”

It is to be feared that the frequent reports of such deplorable outrages may have occasioned great uneasiness in the minds of excellent people while seeking repose and recreation at the seaside and in other places of holiday resort.

Those who venture to depart from home, simply locking up their houses and abandoning them, without even the care of the servants, to the risk of forcible entry, commit an act of obvious imprudence.

But the misfortune which they are likely to suffer is a sufficient reproof; though it is scarcely fair to their neighbours, or to society in general, that such an opportunity should be afforded to the practice of crime.


We have thought it worth while, however, upon this occasion, to give some Illustrations of the Metropolitan Police system, which provides for the ordinary protection of persons and property; and likewise of the special Detective organisation, which has of late years been greatly improved, together with some incidental arrangements which will be interesting to our readers.

The able “Director of Criminal Investigations,” Mr. C. E. Howard Vincent, in a volume published two years ago entitled “The Police Code” (to be had of Messrs. Cassell, Petter, and Galpin), and in his official communications to the Chief Constables of counties and boroughs, has furnished a precise account of these matters, with a complete manual of those parts of the criminal law which regulate the conduct of the police, and the administration of the police magistrates.

We can here only notice a few particulars bearing upon the subjects of our Sketches, which were made, by permission of the Metropolitan Police Authorities, at the head offices in Great Scotland-yard, Whitehall.


The Metropolitan Police District (which does not include the City of London) extends in every direction fifteen miles from Charing-cross, in Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, Essex, and Hertfordshire, having an area of more than 700 square miles, containing nearly five million inhabitants.

It is under the charge of a Commissioner, Sir Edmund Henderson, K.C.B., and two Assistant-Commissioners, whose office is at 4, Whitehall-place.

The force consisted in April, 1881, of twenty-five Superintendents, 605 Inspectors, 935 Sergeants, and 9659 constables, 185 being mounted police, but has since been augmented to 1008 Sergeants and 10,790 constables.

There are two Districts and nineteen Divisions, each under a Superintendent, besides the River Thames division and five Dockyard divisions.

The force of constables is permanently distributed between these divisions, which are denoted by letters of the alphabet.


Candidates for admission to serve in this force have to pass an examination at Scotland-yard, some incidents of which are represented in our Illustrations.

The Chief Surgeon, in the same manner as with recruits for the Army, examines the soundness of the man’s bodily constitution; his height is measured, the minimum standard ranging from 5 ft. 7in. to 5 ft. 10.; his weight and strength are ascertained, and his eyesight is tested, for each of the eyes.

Police recruits undergoing their medical checks.
Police Recruits Undergoing The Necessary Tests. From The Illustrated London News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


He mast be under thirty-five years of age, and, if married, with not more than two children to keep; and he must be able to read and write.

Having been accepted and sworn in, every man undergoes vaccination, and then enters the preparatory class.


They are first instructed in elementary drill, at the Wellington Barracks, St. James’s Park, as shown in the Sketch entitled “Right turn,” which is most necessary instruction to enable them, acting in a body, to move with disciplined regularity, so that they may be able to cope with a mob of superior numbers.

The constable’s weapon, the simple truncheon, worn in a leather case at his belt, may only be used in extreme cases, to protect himself if violently attacked, or when a prisoner is likely to escape by the aid of an overpowering force.

The constable should, in such cases, never strike at the head, but at the arms and legs.

Police recruits doing the right turn drill.
The Right Turn Drill. From The Illustrated London News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


We need not, however, dwell on the rules of ordinary police duty.

Everyone sees the policeman “on his beat,” as he paces, all day long, or all night long, the appointed line of streets, walking at the rate of two miles and a half the hour.

A section of constables on their beats is under the control of the Sergeant, who patrols the whole ground constantly, and looks after each constable, to see that he keeps his beat punctually; there are some Inspectors also on patrol, while other Inspectors remain on duty at the different police stations, and the Sergeants have to make their reports to the Inspectors at the appointed hours.

Discipline is strictly enforced; and one of our Artist’s Sketches shows the Commissioner engaged in the investigation of a charge, which the Sergeant is explaining, against a constable who has been guilty of some fault.

A Constable appears before the Police Commissioner.
A Constable Before The Commissioner. From The Illustrated London News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Detective establishment is comprised in the Criminal Investigation Department.

Its strength consists of a Chief Superintendent, three Chief Inspectors, one Chief Inspector of the Convict Office, three first-class Inspectors, fourteen local Inspectors, seventeen Inspectors of the second class, 167 Sergeants, in three classes, and eighty-five patrol detectives, wearing plain clothes.

In the winter months the strength is increased by adding ten Sergeants and 150 constables.

Some Detectives are attached to each Metropolitan Police Division.

They are, however, all under the immediate direction of Mr. Howard Vincent, who appears, in one of our Illustrations, to be giving special instructions to a number of these officers assembled in his room.

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


He frequently holds similar conferences with the experienced Superintendents and Detective Inspectors from all the Police Divisions of the Metropolis, to take account of the state of crime and the results of their operations.

In the Conference scene represented [above] by our Artist, Chief Superintendent Williamson, with a paper in his hand, appears standing close to the desk, at the Director’s left hand; while the Inspectors stand at the right hand side, in the foreground of the scene; the one farthest to the right is Chief Inspector Shore.


The interior of the Central Police Telegraph Office, which is kept open day and night, and which has wires to all the Divisional stations, to the Home Office, and to the residences of the Commissioners and Director, is also shown in one of our Artist’s Sketches.

All the Inspectors and Sergeants are taught how to use the telegraph, and this is the scene which our Artist has drawn.

The telegraph is frequently used for sending particular information to the Chief Constables of counties and boroughs throughout the United Kingdom, or getting from them news of what has happened in their localities.

The Police Code says, “If the arrest of any person is sought, of whom a good and recognisable description can be given, a multiple telegram should be sent to every adjacent force on the route he may possibly have taken, so as to block his escape.”

Again, “When serious burglaries occur in provincial districts, the fact should be notified by telegram to all the neighbouring towns. It is sometimes assumed that the thieves have betaken themselves to London, whereas the probability is quite as great of their seeking refuge in nearer and more unsuspected places.

Nevertheless, a telegram should be sent to the Director of Criminal Investigations as soon as possible; and a superior officer is always on duty at the Central Office to take immediate steps, and to convey the information to all quarters of the Metropolitan and City Police Districts by means of the telegraph, printed papers, and the pawnbrokers’ lists.”

The interior of the police telegraph office.
The Police Telegraph Office. From The Illustrated London News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The remaining subjects of our Illustrations published this week belong to the arrangements for the supervision and identification of persons who have already been convicted of crime.

There is a Convict Office at Scotland-yard, consisting of eight officers under Chief Inspector Neame, at which registers and records are kept, with photographs in classified albums, of all persons in England who are convicts liberated on license, or who are under sentence of police supervision.

There is a corresponding Registry of Habitual Criminals in the Prisons’ Department of the Home Office.

Our Artist has very effectively illustrated the serviceableness of the Convict Office, by drawing the portrait of a known “trainer of young thieves,” in the same Engraving which represents the scene in the Office, when that identical malefactor, who is a ticket-of-leave man, comes at the appointed time to report himself; while one of the assistants, directed by another reading from the paper, is reaching down from the shelves a volume of the register, containing photographs, one of which will be found to be his likeness.

An illustration of the convict office at the Metropolitan Police Headquarters.
The Convict Office At Scotland Yard. From The Illustrated Police News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.

The practice of taking photographs of prisoners was formerly restricted to convicts and habitual criminals; but since 1879 the police authorities have been enabled to apply for photographs of any prisoners in jail; though, of course, prisoners who are under remand, or awaiting trial, can only be photographed by their own consent.

“The photographs should be taken,” is observed by the Director, “as near the convict’s or prisoner’s liberation as possible, and in ordinary dress; and the face should be placed in half-profile, so that the shape of the nose may appear.”

We may add that it is also considered desirable to make the men hold their hands up so as to be shown in their photographs; for the police are wont to scrutinise the hands very attentively, finding their shape and condition extremely significant; and the hand of any person, if properly studied, will be found to have a strong character of individuality.

Images of habitual criminals.
The Record Of Habitual Criminals. From The Illustrated London News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


These photographs are daily made available for inspection by any police officer who may have arrested a person, and who needs to identify him, or by witnesses of any crime when the perpetrator is not in custody, and is suspected to be one under police supervision.

Our Artist has copied the portraits of eight habitual criminals, showing the position in which they were photographed.

In the register books, each photograph is accompanied by the name of the man, the letter and number assigned to him during his imprisonment, and the date, in figures, at which the photograph was taken.”


If you would like to study this important historical resource, Howard Vincent’s The Police Code is now available from Mango Books. Click here for full details.