The London Detective Force 1880

By 1880 the Detective Force of the Metropolitan Police at New Scotland Yard had been completely overhauled as a result of a scandal that had embroiled it in the late 1870’s.

In 1877 three senior detective – Inspector John Meiklejohn, Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich and Chief Inspector Palmer had been found to have accepted bribes from a gang of swindlers and, following their trial at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), had been sentenced to two years hard labour. (See the Further Information at the foot of the page for the full details.)

An illustration showing the detectives on trial at the Old Bailey.
The Detectives On Trial. From The Illustrated Police News, 3rd November, 1877. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Following this major embarrassment for the Force, the Detective Branch at Scotland Yard was reorganised and became the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

However, if there was one effect that the “trial of the detectives” had had on the Metropolitan Police, it was that the newspapers began to take a close interest in their activities and methods of solving crimes.

As a consequence, newspaper articles began to appear which scrutinised the set up and effectiveness on this new and reformed CID, as is demonstrated by the following article that appeared in The Graphic on July the 3rd 1880:-


“The London Detective Force are a fair illustration of the truth of a familiar proverb. Whatever is unknown, we are willing to assume is magnificent. It is the necessity of their existence that they should be kept secret.

We speak of Scotland Yard with bated breath, and delight to imagine the whole map of London spread out and parcelled off into districts with one of these vigilant but unknown protectors on the watch.

We endow them with a kind of omniscience, and believe they shield us from all sorts of mishaps.

Such faith is often blindly entertained in the face of very strong evidence to the contrary.


Mr. Agnew has never regained his Gainsborough [this is a reference to the theft in 1876 of the Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Georgina, The Duchess of Devonshire, from the London art gallery of Thomas Agnew and Sons], and Lady Dudley is still without her jewels [this refers to the theft of Lady Dudley’s jewels on 12 December 1874 at Paddington Station].

In both cases money would be no object compared with the recovery of the stolen property.

And yet, with all the aids of modern science and enlightened administration, with the telegraph annihilating distance, and extradition treaties depriving criminals of all sanctuary, the thieves have been more than a match for the thief-catchers.


The omniscience of the London detective is a popular delusion, and Charles Dickens has done more than any one else to foster it.

Mr. Bucket moves through the pages of “Bleak House” like a magician in an Eastern tale, and is sketched with so much skill and realism that we accept him as a reality.

An image of Inspector Bucket from Charles Dickens Bleak House.
Inspector Bucket From Bleak House


It is only when the Londoner finds his house broken into, or his property purloined, that he realises that Scotland Yard can do very little to help him.

And, indeed, it would be strange if it were otherwise.

For the police are by no means so clever as the pickpockets, and the thieves are probably better paid than the thief-catchers.

Besides this, the whole tendency of modern life and of English feeling is against the detective.

The criminal has never heard of Dr. Johnson, but he would probably appreciate his praises of the capital as being a place where a man was always near his lair.

It is not very difficult to steal, and it has become very easy to let your identity be merged amongst the millions that inhabit London.

Thus, while secrecy favours the thief, publicity paralyses the detective.

It is impossible to keep things from the newspapers, and the criminal is as well informed as the authorities.


But, beyond all these considerations, we have to remember that the Detective Department was never a favourite institution in England, – that is, it never was organised.

It belongs to a comparatively recent time.

The Bow Street Runners, as they are called, would probably have been the original detectives, and some of these men had a great celebrity in their day.


It seems strange to read that, not so very long ago, the number of detectives in England was only fifteen, and for many years afterwards the force was kept low.

It included the two Forresters, who seem to have been really clever thief-catchers, and had a dramatic way of doing business.

One of the Northern lines of the railway was the scene of constant thefts. Inoffensive passengers had their pockets picked, and people almost shunned the train.

Forrester ascertained that one man was suspected, and had himself made up as an invalid and lifted into the carriage opposite the supposed culprit.

Then he fell asleep with a newspaper over his head, while the other got into conversation with a lady whose pocket he leisurely and adroitly emptied.

The snoring detective was watching him through a tear in his Times, and the pickpocket spent a night in a police cell.

These two Forresters got quite to have a name, but such celebrity is easily earned.


Druscovitch was famous in London some years ago, before he became infamous, and indeed the trial of the detectives for the first time revealed to the public what a poor show Scotland Yard made, even when it was best represented.

There was no doubt that three of the convicts were the ablest detectives in England, and yet, seen in the dock, they were utterly commonplace and stupid-looking.

One thought of Fouche, or Vidocq, or of Inspector Field as glorified by Charles Dickens into Inspector Bucket, and these eminent members of our secret police looked like common constables in plain clothes.


Still in thief-catching, as in any other occupation, practice makes perfect, and it would be monstrous to deny that constant pursuit of clever criminals does not, in the end, give sharpness and facility.

The present writer remembers a robbery in his own house, which illustrated for him this kind of shrewdness.

The thieves had been in and out of nearly all the rooms, and had stolen, amongst other things, a silver sugar-basin from the drawing-room.

A detective was sent for, who at once asked whether there was any reason to suspect the servants. He was told not, very decidedly.

And yet he very decidedly stuck to his own opinion.

When questioned privately he gave his reasons.

On coming into the room he found that the contents of the sugar-basin had been emptied upon a sheet of music-paper, and had remained piled upon it on the piano.

That one bit of evidence was enough.

He concluded that a common burglar would have tossed all the sugar on the carpet, and that it was a domestic instinct that interposed the music paper.

And the detective was right.

The thieves were eventually discovered, and one of them was proved to have been originally a servant.


A better illustration of the detective quality was shown in the trial of a housebreaker a few years ago.

The burglary was effected – as most burglaries are – by the aid of a neighbouring uninhabited house. The thieves crossed along the roof, and made their descent through a skylight. They robbed the premises at their leisure, and decamped successfully with the stolen property.

There was one clue left – only one.

A hat was found on the roof.

The hat was sent to Scotland Yard, and the Force were invited to inspect it.

One policeman immediately said that he knew who was the owner.

In the event it was found he was as good as his word. The owner was discovered, and, being unable to give a satisfactory account of how he spent the evening of the burglary, and moreover being, awkwardly for him, in the possession of the stolen property, the jury came to the conclusion that he was guilty, and found their verdict accordingly.

A more interesting question remained.


How did the policeman know the exact head on which to fit that very unlucky hat?

The constable told the story himself.

He had been on duty in the gallery of the Old Bailey during the trial of a well-known burglar. He sat on a back bench, and wore plain clothes, and he noticed in front of him a young man with a highly criminal type of face, who seemed to take the greatest interest in the trial.

Our constable accordingly took the greatest interest in him, and in all his belongings, and, as the unconscious spectator held his hat in his hand, looked into it, and, as Inspector Bucket would say, ” totted it up.”

The result of this little sum in addition was the registering in his memory of a peculiarly-shaped grease mark on the lining that crossed the maker’s name.

The constable never forgot that hat, and the professional career of its owner soon rendered him more and more interesting. Thus he was able at a moment to restore to the burglar the property he had been so unfortunate as to leave behind him on the roof.”


You can read the full transcript of the so-called “trial of the detectives” on the Old Bailey Online website here.