Police memoirs

It’s May Murder Month again! Last year I covered a host of infamous interwar murder cases in three posts which you can find here, here and here. This year we’ll take a step back and review some of the institutions and trends connected to interwar homicides.

The Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829 to provide a cohesive policing structure for the entirety of London.[1] Initially the focus of the force was on uniformed bobbies patrolling their respective beats. As Kate Summerscale has demonstrated, in mid-Victorian English society, plain-clothes investigators were treated with suspicion.[2] A permanent Criminal Investigation Department staffed by plain-clothes detectives was not formed until 1878.[3] By the interwar period, the notion of an established ‘Scotland Yard’ detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was still relatively novel, and there had only been a few generations of high-ranking police investigators.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the 1920s and 1930s saw the publication of a host of police memoirs. The establishment of crime detection as an accepted part of police activity coincided with the increased popularity of crime fiction; and a rise in literacy levels across the population. Police historian Paul Lawrence has noted that ‘There was a marked bias towards memoirs written by officers from large urban forces, particularly detectives, although as a rule books written by most types of officer can be found.’[4]

These police memoirs indicate that there was a popular appetite for ‘true crime’ histories as well as crime fiction. They also reveal to us how police officers wanted to position themselves and their work in the public consciousness. Some of the memoirs were written by senior officers who had become personally famous, such as Frederick Porter Wensley who was Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police from 1924 till his retirement in 1929.[5] Others were penned by detectives who reached mid-tier positions and whose names would not be familiar to the wider public.[6] Almost invariably, however, the memoirs primarily deal with murder cases, as these were clearly thought to hold the widest appeal for the readership.

Despite advances in forensic science, such as the use of fingerprinting to identify criminals, several officers insist throughout the interwar period that personal knowledge of habitual criminals is the most effective way of detecting and preventing crime. This is despite there having been some high-profile cases of mistaken identity in the Yard’s recent history.[7] Chief Constable Wensley confidently states early on in his book: ‘The only real method [to detect crime] is to employ detectives who know rogues by direct contact, know their habits, their ways of thought, their motives, and above all, know their friends and associates.’[8] CID Chief Inspector Frederick Sharpe similarly insists that a good detective has to know the local gangs and crooks in order to be able to solve crime.[9] This suggests that senior investigators were reluctant to let go of outdated methods; or that they sought to present a romanticised view of inner-city policing to their readership, favouring personal connections over anonymous forensic methods.

Another feature common across several memoirs is the author relating their start in the field in a particularly rough district of London. Tom Divall, another former head of the CID, started off in Southwark, which he claimed was the part of London that was most infected with vice.[10] Ex-superintendent G.W. Cornish had his start in Whitechapel, which he described as a ‘human rabbit warren’ housing ‘[e]very type of criminal, both men and women, from the meanest sneak thieves and pickpockets to the smart crooks who worked further “up West”.’[11] In all cases, poorer districts of London are described in emotive language, evoking images of dirt, squalor, and neglect. However, areas which were ‘rough’ at the turn of the century are described as much ‘cleaned up’ by the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to the unfailing efforts of the Metropolitan Police.

Unsurprisingly, these memoirs unfailingly present the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard as forces for good, keeping the public safe and apprehending criminals quickly and efficiently. Policing is described as a career which ‘will supply excitement, a good salary, sound companions, a healthy life and plenty of chances to make a mark’, although at this time generally open to men only.[12] Detection had come a long way since the days of Mr Whicher, who was derided in 1860 for his handling of the Road Hill House case but later proven correct in his deductions. By the interwar period, plain-clothes detectives were well-respected and could even be quite glamorous. The stream of police memoirs published in this period both attest to the popularity of real-life detectives and further strengthened their positive position in the public’s imagination.

[1] Except the City of London, which retained (and still retains) its own police force as part of its special administrative duties

[2] Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (London: Bloomsbury, 2008)

[3] Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 56-57

[4] Paul Lawrence, ‘‘Scoundrels and Scallywags, and some honest men….’ Memoirs and the self-image of French and English policemen, c. 1870-1939’ In Comparative Histories of Crime, eds. Barry Godfrey, Clive Emsley, Graeme Dunstall (Uffculme: Willan Publishing, 2003) 125-144 (p. 127)

[5] Frederick Porter Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 [1931]), p. xvi

[6] Herbert T. Fitch, Traitors Within: The Adventures of Detective Inspector Herbert T Fitch (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1933)

[7] Colin Beavan, Fingerprints: Murder and the race to uncover the science of identity (London: Fourth Estate, 2003), pp. 147-166

[8] Wensley, Forty Years of Scotland Yard, p. 12

[9] Frederick Sharpe, Sharpe of the Flying Squad (London: John Long, 1938), p. 11

[10] Tom Divall, Scoundrels and Scallywags (And Some Honest Men), (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), pp. 31-32

[11] G.W. Cornish, Cornish of the ‘Yard’: His reminiscences and cases (London: John Lane, 1935), pp. 2-3

[12] Fitch, Traitors Within, p. 249. The first female police inspector in the UK was Florence Mildred White, who rose to this rank in 1930 at Birmingham City Police.