Why Our Detectives Fail

The Whitechapel murders, which are now attributed to the criminal who became known as “Jack the Ripper”, certainly exposed some major shortcomings of the Detective Department of the Metropolitan Police.

However, for several years prior to the onslaught of the East End murders, the newspapers had been complaining of the lack of success being demonstrated by the detectives who were charged with hunting down London’s criminals, and solutions to the problem were being put forward.

In September, 1887, Echo published an interview with an “old member of the force” who had spoken to one of their reporters about the problems within the Detective Department, and he was more than happy to give his opinion on what lay behind the failure of detectives to detect crime.

The article was subsequently picked up by several newspapers across the country, the following version of it appearing in The Aberdeen Press and Journal on Saturday, 10th September, 1887:-


“I had been wondering why of late our detectives had so frequently failed, both in tracing murder and in discovering theft, when I came across an old member of the force, who gave the following interesting details:-

“Our detectives,” he said, “fail for several reasons.

One is, that we have not the right class of men in our ranks; another, that those we have are so readily distinguishable; and a third, that the law, as it stands, is very much in the way of crime detection.


I will try to explain.

Crimes are committed by ‘all sorts and conditions of men,’ all of them having their peculiar idiosyncrasies and modes of life. Educated men, partially educated people – persons without any education at all.


Now our detective force consists in the main of the middle-class that I have mentioned, the partially educated men. Why, I can remember, only a little while back, too, when we had only one man in the whole department who could speak French – Inspector Greenham, and only one (Von Tornow) who could talk German.

I need not tell you that a rough, ignorant man will attempt to escape from the consequences of crime in a different way from what one who is better instructed will try. Their modes of escaping from justice will be different as chalk from cheese.

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


I remember hearing a great general in the army say, at the time when we were looking for Lefroy:- “Why, if the fellow were only to disguise himself, and take a concertina, or tambourine, or banjo in his hand, he could walk all over the country and out of England without anybody saying a word to him.”

And that was a fact; only Lefroy did not know it.

We knew how to cope with him, because he was a man of our own calibre.


But what would have happened if he had been at all a superior person?

The truth is, that we come, all of us, too much from one grade

But what can you expect if you make all men entering the detective department wear uniform and march about the streets for three months before you employ them on plain-clothes work?

Besides, look at the ridiculous notion of the arrangement.

You dress the man like a policeman so that everybody shall get to know him as a constable first, and then, when his features can be easily recognised by those whose business it is to find out budding detectives, you send him on secret work.

Was anything sillier than that?


This brings me to my second point.

We are so easily distinguishable.

I’d give nothing for the intelligence of a man who could not spot an officer of the force in plain clothes directly he sees him.

As most of the men are taken from the force, they have acquired the stolid, solid way in walk and manner, which tells the policeman.

By the time they have risen sufficiently to dress well, they are too well known to the general public to be useful.

A cartoon showing a detective in disguise.
From Fun Magazine, March 4th 1885.


What we want is a selection from all ranks for the Criminal Investigation Department – gentlemen, retired officers, doctors, retired reporters, or other classes of newspaper men, as well as the class we now get.”


“And what about different laws?”

“Well, we ought to be sure that stolen property shall not be converted till after at least a day has elapsed since any robbery.

Pass a law like that proposed lately, to the effect that receivers of precious metal in any form shall not melt it down for twenty-four hours, and make them expose it soon as received in their windows, so that the police can see it, under penalty of even penal servitude if they fail to do so, and robberies would be much less frequent than now.

As the law now stands, the thief can run into a score of places that I personally know, and dispose of any metal substance, with the knowledge that it will instantly be sent up a spout to a melting room upstairs, and be utterly unrecognisable in less than a single minute after he reaches that counter.

How can policeman trace property like that?


“Then you think that if the detectives were drawn from several classes, instead of practically one, and the law you have described were passed, crime would materially decrease?”

“Yes; and I think that, in London particularly, the public would feel the benefit of such a new scheme before six months had passed.””