“‘To get to the very bottom of the social fabric’: Mid-Victorian Journalism and the Police Officer, c. 1856-1877”

Samuel Saunders

The mid-eighteenth century was a significant era for the development of crime journalism, and various kinds of writing focused on reporting criminal activity appeared in this period. Common execution pamphlets and prison chaplains’ accounts such as the Accounts of the Ordinary of Newgate, for example, provided readers with both sensational entertainment and moral instruction and became very popular (Gatrell 156-159). These, in turn, were collected into ‘compendiums of criminal careers’ such as the Newgate Calendars (Knelman 35). The first of these appeared in 1773, and they were so popular that they continued to be published throughout the nineteenth century, appearing as late as 1891 (Knight 9). The popularity of these kinds of crime reporting, combined with the steady easing of pressure from the “taxes on knowledge,” caused this journalistic form to be emulated in the pages of early-to-mid nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines, which dedicated significant column space to reporting criminal occurrences. Many publications regularly included these features, including (but not limited to) John Bull, the Sixpenny Magazine, Bell’s Life in London, the Lady’s Magazine, the Leader, the London Review, Once a Week, the Examiner and the Spectator.

Crucially however, these “crime round-ups” were almost completely disinterested in the concepts of policing or detection. This article therefore traces how mid-Victorian popular periodical journalism engaged with the concept of the police force outside of crime reporting. It explores interactions between periodical journalism and the police, and suggests that the way that the popular presses depicted the police was more varied, comprehensive and widespread than has been considered. These forms of journalism included politicised commentary where journalists utilised the police to promote various partisan agendas, and social journalism focused on commentators performing “urban exploration” where journalists depicted the police officer as a protective guide into urban spaces deemed to be criminalised and dangerous. These forms of writing, in turn, placed the police in a marginalised social space between “respectable” and “criminal” and, subsequently, police officers were also depicted in more creative writing, which made use of the police’s marginalised social presence. However, the precarious balance of the police occupying a space between respectability and criminality created by these journalistic discourses was finally shattered in the late-Victorian era, as various scandals engulfed the Metropolitan Police, and periodical journalism on the police dramatically shifted.

Ultimately, this article creates an image of the landscape of periodical criticism on policing between 1856 and 1877 and highlights its connection with various forms of popular fiction. It explores this specific period as the mid-1850s witnessed fundamental and simultaneous transformations for both the popular periodical press and the police. Across the early-nineteenth century, the periodical press had been stifled by the presence of the oppressive “taxes on knowledge,” but was liberated by their complete abolition between 1853 and 1861. The police underwent a simultaneous transformation in the form of the 1856 County and Borough Police Act. This was the final product of a long, slow progression towards the nationwide spread of law enforcement that had occurred between the late-eighteenth century (where the police had consisted of groups of volunteer constables and sporadic judicial processes (Shubert 25)), the seminal 1829 Metropolitan Police Act, and the mid-nineteenth century (Emsley, The Great British Bobby 8, The English Police 37-42). The article ends by highlighting how a similar shift occurred in the late-Victorian era, when it emerged that several detectives had been colluding with criminals, and were convicted on large corruption charges. This, alongside other catastrophic events that shook the police force to its core, would change wider perceptions of police officers well into the twentieth century.

As this article’s introduction mentioned, it is firstly important to point out that the police were almost completely absent from “crime reporting” across the mid-Victorian era. This was the case for two reasons; firstly, the police simply did not exist while these forms of crime writing were developing, and secondly, the felon was almost always already apprehended and established as guilty prior to the narrative being printed, and newspapers worked hard to smear the criminal in a “stream of vitriol” rather than to highlight how they were caught (Flanders 28). Consequently, crime-reporting evolved into its periodical form without including the presence of the police. As Stephen Knight suggests, law-enforcement in Britain’s pre-police force era had been characterised by the belief that society would police itself, and that criminal offenders were always caught though the vigilance of wider society (12).

When the police were mentioned in crime reports, their presence usually constituted a couple of lines that described them as an implement used by society to track and apprehend the criminal, rather than objects of interest in themselves. They were rarely titled or named, instead dubbed only “a police-detective” or other similar term. For example, a feature in the Leader of 7 August 1858 mentioned the police as restraining a prisoner, yet made no mention of their involvement in the case itself (“Criminal Record” 767). The police officer’s diminished presence also (naturally) prevented any focus on the detection-process. “Crime round-up” features often made only passing mentions of officers’ methodologies, and they remained a tantalising aspect of these narratives that were rarely elaborated on. A feature from the Examiner of 7 January 1860, for example, recounted a criminal’s flight to Australia, yet to this the article devoted only a single mention despite a lengthy search:

J.Brett, city detective, deposed that a warrant for the apprehension of the prisoner was placed in his hands in April last, and he proceeded to Melbourne and found him at a place called South Yarrow. (“Law” 12)

In another example, in 1860 John Bull and Britannia wrote:

Charles Wilkes was charged at the Dudley Police Court, on Monday, with embezzling between £3,000 and £4,000 … The prisoner was very cleverly caught by a detective, just as he was about to take his departure for America. (“Law and Police” 61)

The fact that the prisoner was said to have been “cleverly” tracked down by a detective left the option open for the narrative to discuss exactly how this had occurred, but the article did not elaborate.

However the lack of mention of the police in these “crime round-ups” does reveal some ideological insights. For example, police officers who actually were present were often depicted as reliant on other members of society to assist them, which strengthens Knight’s argument that society was viewed as self-regulating from a law-enforcement perspective (Knight 12). In 1862, a commentator for John Bull wrote:

Holding told this to the Blackburn police on Saturday, and on Sunday the men were apprehended. (“Law and Police” 781)

Here, the police were shown to have worked swiftly, yet invisibly. A civilian had provided the authorities with information and within 24 hours the criminals were caught. In October 1862 the magazine also wrote:

She gave information to the police, but heard nothing of the prisoner until the night before, when she was taken to the station-house and identified her. (“Law and Police” 637)

Once more, the police were provided with information, and the criminal was quickly apprehended as a result. Additionally, within these “crime round-ups” the police were seen as an instrument whose sole purpose was to validate pre-established information. In January 1860, the Examiner wrote about how the lady of a house had apprehended a criminal herself, and the police were required only to validate their guilt:

The police proved [the thief to be guilty], finding the missing brooch, a wax taper, a jemmy, some skeleton keys, and lucifer matches on the prisoner’s person. (“Police” 28)

The officer responsible for apprehending the criminal was again squeezed into the end of this narrative, and was presented merely as an agent present only to “prove” the criminal’s guilt. In another example, in August 1859 the Leader wrote:

Subsequently upwards of 200 packets of the stolen property was discovered by the police, in the house of a man named Richard Tucker, a type-founder. (“Gatherings from Law and Police Courts” 954)

The police here were used in the article only to validate the property as matching that which had been stolen, and thus to identify the criminal. The article states that the police ‘discovered’ the stolen property, but the reader receives no detail as to how they were led there.

The most important point to note from the absence of the police in “crime round-ups” is that it largely meant that most journalistic criticism on the police came from outside of crime reporting. “Crime round-ups” were, first and foremost, news pieces designed to relate facts and chronological events to readers and were criminal-focused. Nevertheless, the police received extensive criticism elsewhere.

After the “taxes on knowledge” were abolished, the press began to embed itself more strongly as an influence on public opinion, and there was a consequent, dramatic politicisation of newspapers and periodicals. Stephen Koss suggests that, prior to the taxes’ abolition, newspapers had been “crude and transitory weapons for partisan combat” (2) and that newspapers aligned themselves to political ideologies almost immediately after the “taxes on knowledge” had been abolished (4). It is, however, worth noting that establishing exactly which publications can be ascribed which political label is often complicated. As Martin Hewitt argues, it is often difficult to get a picture of the political landscape of the periodical press as they frequently altered (or occasionally abandoned) political alignment as they evolved (10). However, as the police were heavily politicised from their inception, this is a worthwhile avenue to explore; politicised magazines and periodicals tended to use the police as a springboard in order to further promote their own socio-political ideologies.

Mid-Victorian conservative commentary often supported the police, and suggested that they were a manifestation of Governmental authority and a force of socio-economic protection against lawlessness. As the force was the brainchild of a Tory politician, Robert Peel, this view is, perhaps, hardly surprising. In 1870, the vehemently Tory magazine the Quarterly Review[1] made this clear:

For the same reason that the lawless classes arrayed against society are weak, the constabulary forces arrayed in defence of society are strong. The baton may be a very ineffective weapon of offence, but it is backed by the combined power of the Crown, the Government, and the Constituencies. … The mob quails before the simple baton of the police officer, and flies before it knowing the moral as well as the physical force of the Nation whose will, as embodied in law, it represents. (Smiles, “Judicial Statistics” 90)

Politically and socially conservative periodical commentators also focused on the economics of law enforcement. Some explored the expense of keeping criminals, and used this to justify the police’s taxpayer burden. In 1863, John Ruskin, writing for the broadly conservative Fraser’s Magazine, openly criticised the way that criminals were economically handled:

All criminals should at once be set to the most dangerous and painful forms of [manual labour], especially to work in mines and at furnaces, so as to relieve the innocent population. (“Essays on Political Economy” 442)

By today’s standards this seems extreme; however, it should be considered contextually. Transportation was abolished by the 1857 Penal Servitude Act, and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act had reduced the number of capital crimes to four. Consequently, the use of imprisonment skyrocketed and prisons rapidly became overcrowded. Increasing concern surrounding prisoners’ societal contributions led to the establishment of prison work-details such as bakeries and carpenter workshops, alongside treadmills and other menial tasks such as oakum-picking in an attempt to keep prisoners economically functional. As Carnochan argues, the mid-nineteenth century was a heyday for this kind of prison reform (155). Others, however, directly wrote about the expense of the police themselves. In 1868, Fraser’s published an article by reformer and politician Edwin Chadwick entitled “On the Consolidation of the Police Force and the Prevention of Crime.” Chadwick argued that further centralisation of the police into a national system would prove significantly more economically viable than a series of disjointed constabularies (15).

Liberal journalism had a stronger interest in criticising the police, as they were at the opposite end of the political spectrum from those responsible for its creation. This, coupled with anti-Tory rhetoric, caused liberal commentary to mistrust the police, which it regarded as expensive, inefficient and oppressive. In April 1870, the ‘cautiously liberal’ Saturday Review argued that areas of London were essentially lawless (Tilley 558):

[i]n the centre of civilization … society has almost returned to its primitive condition, in which men can find safety only in their own strength, and women can find safety nowhere. (“Inefficiency of the London Police” 575)

Equality issues aside, the article suggested that areas of London were “unsafe” as a direct result of the police force’s inability to catch criminals, and complained that “the ordinary policeman was not quick enough for the work” (575). A month later, it argued:

It is scarcely possible that the police should not have a very shrewd suspicion as to some of the people engaged [in criminal activity] … from which we may infer that they have been wanting in … energy and ingenuity. (“Variations in the Punishment of Crime” 640)

In May 1885, the Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review discussed the diminishment of crime and a potential reduction of severity in punishments. However, the author refused to accept the police as the reason for crime’s reduction, and suggested that the reduction in crime rates was actually a reason to reduce police numbers:

The only reason suggested for a general diminution in the severity of punishments is that there has been of late years a diminution of crime. I cannot myself follow the argument … the proposal to diminish its severity because it appears to be obtaining its object is to me unintelligible … A diminution in crime might be a good ground for reducing the number of the police. (“Variations in the Punishment of Crime” 756)

Other liberal commentators examined the treatment of criminals. In 1865, the historically Whig-aligned Edinburgh Review published “Our Convicts,” which explored the way that becoming a “criminal” affected those branded with this label and caused irreparable changes in their identities:

a man who has once transgressed the boundaries of the criminal law, is thenceforward a criminal, and in that term we seem, as it were, to drown many of the common attributes of human nature. (338, original emphasis)

Like their conservative counterparts, liberal journalism was also interested in the police’s expense. In May 1869, the Contemporary Review published a review of an anonymously-written pamphlet entitled The Police Force of the Metropolis in 1868. In this, the journalist summarised their opinion on the state of policing:

Our property is notoriously insecure, our persons by no means safe, and our police force certainly quite as large as the British payer of taxes is likely to tolerate. Crime is on the increase, and the vigilance of the police is notoriously inferior to the skill of our professional thieves. (“The Police Force of the Metropolis” 477)

These polarised, politically driven discussions helped raise awareness about the police’s socio-political position, purpose and remit. This, combined with the police’s daily exposure to criminals, meant that police officers came to occupy an awkward space in public attitudes. Some saw them as necessary protectors who upheld middle-class values (wealth, commerce, patriotism and governmental authority, and property), but they were also simultaneously seen as tarred by the company they were forced to keep professionally. Engaging with criminals, while not criminalising the police themselves, meant that they were part of that sphere and were therefore undesirable figures with which to associate. This attitude was visible in mid-Victorian journalism. In 1860, the Examiner published a good example of this:

Mr. Bevan, solicitor … having obtained the services of Spittle, the city detective, went in search of the prisoner Gilson, whom they found at a small coffee-house in Brewer street, Golden square. (“Law” 4 February 1860 76)

Spittle’s lack of title, authority or investigative input signified his position here. Neither detective nor prisoner was titled, which associated them with each other, and distanced them from the elevated solicitor. However, Spittle’s presence was nonetheless necessary as the solicitor was required to seek him out to accompany him and to validate the criminal’s apprehension.

The police’s marginal status was also reflected in the way that police officers were spatially positioned. In 1883, the National Review described how one of their journalists was warned away from a potentially ‘criminal’ location by an officer:

I therefore determined to … make my home in a street in the East End, which I knew by repute as having the best claim to the title of the worst street in London. I had only twice walked through the street, and the first time I was warned by a policeman, as I turned down into it, to “look out where I was going to.” (“Homes of the Criminal Classes” 224)

This characteristic naturally had implications for journalists writing about inner-city areas. “Social exploration” journalism was a popular feature in many periodicals, and many included police officers accompanying journalists into “dangerous” criminalised areas, as if they were a necessary presence.

This form of journalism had its roots in earlier narratives such as Pierce Egan’s popular Life in London, which had appeared in 1821 and depicted its protagonists paying a memorable visit to Newgate’s Condemned-Yard (Flanders 27). Charles Dickens was also interested in this kind of writing, and echoed Egan’s work by producing a similar account of the scenes inside Newgate Prison and inside a criminal court in Sketches by Boz (1833-6). Dickens himself argued that he had “long desired” to “project” the interior of Newgate to readers, so that they may view inside it (Collins 1962). In the early 1850s, Dickens also famously accompanied police officers on their nightly rounds and published his accounts in Household Words, in articles titled, “A Detective Police Party” (1850), “Three Detective Anecdotes” (1850) and “On Duty with Inspector Field” (1851) (Worthington 164). These, again, provided readers with “internal” views of the police and their criminal haunts (“On Duty with Inspector Field” 265). In 1869, the Ragged School Union Magazine also described a journalist’s “exploration” of urban spaces where the criminal class was known to frequent, and described how a detective officer was always present:

In company with detectives, he has visited beershops, lodging-houses for travellers, and dolly shops in Tiger Bay, Kent Street, the Mint, and the other favourite haunts of our criminal classes. (“Haunts of Crime” 104)

In a final example, a police officer provided escort to a group of journalists who wished to witness the “criminal underworld,” giving a clear insight into how people viewed the police as both separate from the criminal classes, but also a part of them:

… we were anxious to get to the very bottom of the social fabric … Without the protection of the police such an enterprise would of course have been impossible; but on presenting a letter … we were intrusted [sic] to … an officer of the detective force. (“The Low Haunts of London” 200)

Police officers therefore acted as both guides and protectors for journalists, and the presence of the police officer was required for “respectable” people to enter criminalised spaces. The officer thus kept “respectable” people separate from these “low haunts,” which they perceived criminals inhabited. This had extensive ramifications for the police officer as separated from the rigid Victorian class-system. Those who considered themselves “respectable” accompanied officers into the areas they would not frequent, yet they also saw them as, at least on some level, a part of those spaces.

This use of the police officer in “social exploration” journalism was reflected in fiction. Fiction, as Jessica Valdez suggests, meant that authors no longer needed to constrain themselves to presenting at least a thinly-veiled illusion of truth, and thus they could present much more targeted social commentary in their writing (308). Charles Dickens’s exploits in following inspectors Field and Whicher, for example, famously became the inspiration for the caricatured Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1853) (Rzepka 90). Like Field, Bucket occupies this marginal space between criminal and respectable, thus opening criminal areas up for those that accompanied him:

Time and place cannot bind Mr Bucket. Like man in the abstract, he is here today and gone tomorrow. (Dickens 769)

Bucket thus moves in and out of criminalised areas, and by extension, the novel’s narrator, Esther Summerson, is imbued with the same ability and ends up exploring places that she would ordinarily never have entered alone:

I was far from sure that I was not in a dream. We rattled with great rapidity through such a labyrinth of streets, that I soon lost all idea where we were; except that we had crossed and re-crossed the river… (827)

Other authors also created detectives who operated within this marginal space. Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff is often lambasted for his failure to solve the mystery of the missing diamond in The Moonstone (1868), and Anthea Trodd suggests that this is because Cuff is not truly a part of the middle-class domestic sphere (447). R. P. Ashley also argues that Cuff never truly achieves “detective status” (52-3). Cuff is, indeed, unable to solve the mystery, as the principle characters of the story withhold key information. However, his social position is marginal, which means that there are actually elements of the mystery which only he can solve. Cuff dramatically resurfaces at the end of the novel, and reveals that Godfrey Abelwhite is the true antagonist. In doing so, he uncovers a second, more entrenched “domestic secret” (Trodd 435):

He looked at me closer …“Open the sealed letter first…”… I read the name that he had written. It was – Godfrey Abelwhite. …“Now,” said the Sergeant, “come with me, and look at the man on the bed.”… I went with him, and looked at the man on the bed…. GODFREY ABELWHITE! (Collins 447-8)

Here, it is Cuff’s marginal position that allows him to prove Abelwhite to be the true criminal, and fully exonerate Franklin Blake from suspicion. The precise fact that Cuff operates outside of the class-system allows him to assess the situation without any form of attachment to any other character. By contrast, Rachel Verinder would have been able to, at least partially, resolve the mystery as to who had stolen the diamond immediately, as she witnessed Franklin Blake’s theft.

This use of the marginalised position of the police as a way of helping interested authors and readers experience criminality was emulated by other, less memorable authors. Numerous “police memoirs” emerged in the 1850s and 1860s; fictional tales marketed as the true accounts of officers. The journalist William Russell was perhaps the most prolific author of these, though he is often dismissed as a “hack” and unworthy of study (Ousby 34). However, Martin Kayman argues Russell’s detective, “Waters,” was designed to help allay social anxieties surrounding the police officer’s interfering presence in society (42). However, he was also designed to allow readers the opportunity to experience the criminal underworld so frequently inhabited by police officers (Saunders 84-5). In 1856, Russell directly explained that his memoirs were designed to perform a similar function to social-exploration periodical journalism – to help the reader experience the criminal:

I, therefore, offer no apology, for placing these rough sketches of the police experience before the reader. (Recollections of a Detective Police Officer vi)

Russell published prolifically; his police-memoirs included “Experiences of a Barrister” (1849) and “Recollections of a Police Officer” (1849), both published in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. “Recollections of a Police Officer” was novelised in 1856, re-titled Recollections of a Detective Police Officer, and a “second series” of stories from it appeared in 1859 (“Recollections of a Detective Police Officer … (Review)” 150). The popularity of Recollections of a Detective Police Officer spawned Leaves from the Diary of a Law Clerk (1857), marketed as a “new set” of stories (3). This was followed by The Experiences of a French Detective Officer (1861) and “Experiences of a Real Detective” (1862), published in the Sixpenny Magazine. Finally, Autobiography of an English Detective was published in two volumes in 1863. In addition to Russell’s work, a number of other police-memoirs appeared in periodicals, including “Recollections of a New York Detective” in Twice a Week (1862), “An Australian Detective’s Story” in Once a Week (1864), “From a Detective’s Note-Book” in the Argosy (1872), “Scraps from the Diary of a Detective” in Judy, or, the London Serio-Comic Journal (1881), and “My Detective Experiences” in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal in 1886. Nevertheless, a fundamental change was to take place as the mid-Victorian era faded into the late-Victorian years. As the era approached the 1870s, estimation of police officers in periodicals began to deteriorate (Rzepka 111). This largely marks the end of this article’s study into mid-Victorian journalistic attitudes towards the police and how this was transposed into fiction.

A number of different events, such as the actions of the Reform League across the 1860s and the Clerkenwell Prison bombing in 1867, began to call the police’s ability to prevent such “outrages” into question (“Detectives and their Work” 135). A series of unsolved murders, including the 1876 Charles Bravo murder, also captured the public’s imagination (Rzepka 111). The drop in estimation of the police that Rzepka highlights was reflected in periodical commentary. The satirical press, perhaps naturally, was particularly vindictive, and magazines like Punch, Fun or Judy began to depict police officers as hapless, idiotic and incompetent. Fun, for example, produced a comic-strip entitled “The Idiot Detective, or, the Track! The Trial!! and The Triumph!!!,” in January 1869, which depicted a hapless officer following incorrect scents after a criminal, and arresting an innocent child (13). In March 1873, it also published an article entitled “Police!,” which described a police officer insisting that residents of a street clear their doorways of snow – in the middle of a blizzard (“Police!” 106). In July 1877, a scandal engulfed the “Detective Department” of the Metropolitan Police. Three Detective Inspectors, as well as a solicitor, were convicted of corruption and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour, whilst a fourth Inspector was acquitted. Their crime was connected to the “Turf Fraud” scandal, in which several convicted felons had obtained £10,000 from a French noblewoman by convincing her to invest money in fraudulent races. The criminals bribed the corrupted Inspectors to warn them, and as a result evaded capture. Newspapers and periodicals immediately seized the case, using it as a springboard to further present political, economic or social views on the police and thus both the details of the crime and the trial were recounted to readers.

The case was closely followed by interested commentators across both the Bow-Street inquiry and the trial at the Old Bailey. The Manchester Guardian, for example, ran a regular, daily feature following the case. Other publications followed suit and devoted significant column space to the case. In November 1877, for example, John Bull published an article that spanned over three columns that told the story of the embezzled funds, the bribes and the detectives’ apprehension (“The Charge Against Detectives” 748). The scandal also reignited the debate surrounding the socio-political positions of police officers and criminals. As many commentators argued, the revelations brought about by the trial shook the public’s confidence in the police. Punch pointed out that the court audience’s support for the criminals as “lovable rogues” stemmed not only from the fact that they were criminals, but from the fact that they were also party to convicting police officers (“Crowds and Criminals” 53), and in November 1877 John Bull wrote that “convict hero-worship” was “unwholesome” (“The Detectives and Mr. Froggatt” 753).

As the details of the case permeated, periodical commentators began to realise that the reputation of the detective department had been damaged permanently, and they questioned the integrity of the detective department itself. In the aftermath of the trial, John Bull suggested that, whilst it may be unfair to question the integrity of all detectives, the damage to the public’s confidence in the system was difficult to ignore (“The Detectives and Mr. Froggatt” 753). Additionally, the Saturday Review argued that this case may only have been the tip of the corruption-iceberg, and that there was no way to know whether any other detectives had been compromised at any point (“The Detectives” 650). The Saturday Review also lamented the fact that the department had suffered a severe blow to its public image as a result, incurring damage from which it may never recover (“The Detectives” 650). This seemed to ring true, as a year later the Saturday Review was still discussing the case as a reason for detectives’ poor media image:

it must be said that distrust has now to a great extent replaced the confidence which was once felt in this branch of the police. Of course this is in part due to the the effect produced by the trial and conviction of the three men who are now undergoing punishment for aiding criminals… Policemen are not now habitually spoken of as “skilful,” or as “active and intelligent,” and this is a sad proof of the extent to which they have fallen in popular estimation. (“Detectives” 780-1)

A series of further incidents meant that the police did not have a chance to recover their reputation in the public’s estimation. These included the “outrages” of 1878, the Fenian bombing campaign, consisting of explosions at Whitehall and the London Underground in 1883, at Trafalgar Square in 1884, and attempts on Parliament, the Tower of London and London Bridge in 1885. These did not help the police force improve its image, and the situation was to deteriorate even further with the Bloody Sunday riots of 1886, as well as the embarrassingly-handled 1888 Ripper murders in Whitechapel.

As a result of these incidents, the most obvious change that took place in periodical fiction was both a decrease in the depiction of police officers as trustworthy guides and protectors to help interested authors and readers experience criminality and a corresponding substantial increase in the fictional use of private detectives. This is most obviously manifested by the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade, who first appeared in A Study in Scarlet in 1887, however, some authors had picked up on this even before the ‘turf fraud’ scandal. A story titled ‘From a Detective’s Note-Book’ from the Argosy in 1872 argued:

It was not the first time that I, a private detective, had been summoned by the authorities at Scotland Yard to inquire into matters they had not themselves succeeded in unravelling. (“From a Detective’s Note-Book” 116)

Similarly, in September 1882, a story published in Every Week described how a detective’s case had “defied the utmost skill of the police,” and thus had been referred to him in his private capacity (“A Detective’s Story” 180). Private detectives were also seen as figures that could be called in to solve crimes where the official police force had (naturally) failed. In 1886, Chambers’s Journal published “The Great Jewel Robbery,” where the author suggested that, as a private detective, he was free from the kind of administrative difficulties that the police had to cope with:

These robberies defied [official police] detection. A clue in one case was upset by the facts in another. When my aid as private detective was called in, I resolved to confine my attention to three distinct cases, though, of course, if useful information came in my way concerning other matters, I should know how to take advantage of it. (“The Great Jewel Robbery” 188)

Private detectives could thus opt to accept only those cases which they felt confident they could successfully solve. This also meant that they could opt to be more discreet in terms of the discovery and punishment of offenders. Whilst official police detectives had an obligation to prosecute those they apprehended, a private detective did not have to emulate this. As John Greenfield argues:

sometimes these resolutions vary from standard “Scotland Yard” solutions in which the perpetrator is caught and punished. Such resolutions, which are most likely to occur in cases of justified revenge, place the detective in a position of being a dispenser of justice that seems right to readers, even though it is not strictly legal. (19)

Greenfield refers to the “Martin Hewitt” stories, a series published in the Strand, intended as Holmes’s replacement after his “death.” However, this idea that private detectives were free to dispense their own justice is evidenced in earlier fiction. A story attributed to F. G. Walters titled “A Private Detective’s Story” published in Belgravia in September 1886 gives us an example. In this, an investigator is called to solve the mystery of the theft of money from a bank’s night-safe. The thief proves to be the bank-manager’s wife, who stole the money to fund her brother’s hidden gambling habit. However, far from reporting her to the police, the detective instead chooses to let her go:

I left husband and wife together. […] No one knew the secret but myself, and I didn’t need his entreaties, when he gave me my handsome fee, to respect it. And he and she sailed for Australia. (Walters 353-354)

To conclude, mid-Victorian periodicals and newspapers were well-established in their interest in reporting crime, thanks to much earlier journalistic influences. However “crime round-up” features were less oriented towards policing and more focused on criminality, as they had evolved without a nationwide police presence and had no requirement for the inclusion of a police officer. As a result, crime journalism and police writing evolved in the mass media separately, and in the years after the 1856 County and Borough Police Act, the figure of the police officer was inserted into a diverse variety of other forms of mid-Victorian periodical journalism that helped to both shape and reflect public views on the police. These forms included politicised commentary on the police itself, where partisan magazines used the police to further their own political commentary.

Less political magazines, however, identified the police as a figure that occupied a marginal space between “respectable” and “criminal.” This became useful for journalists interested in social exploration, as the police officer could become both guide and protector for the journalist as they penetrated usually-inaccessible “criminal” areas. This in turn resulted in more creative representations of police officers, such as cheap fiction that marketed itself as “true recollections” of the experiences of detectives, purporting to allow readers to also accompany police officers into criminalised, inaccessible or dangerous spaces from a place of complete safety. These included William Russell’s famous “Recollections of a Police Officer,” Recollections of a Detective Police Officer and “Experiences of a Real Detective,” as well as Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864), William Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864), Charles Martel’s Diary of an Ex-Detective (1860) and various other examples of fiction written in this way and published anonymously in numerous periodicals. In addition, other genres of mid-Victorian popular fiction made use of this characteristic of the police, such as Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Three Times Dead (1860), and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. The marginal position of the police officer can also be ascribed to literary characters who were not police officers, but who perform the same function, such as Collins’s Walter Hartright from The Woman in White (1861) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Robert Audley from Lady Audley’s Secret (1862).

However, the declining public estimation of the police, coupled with the 1877 “turf-fraud” scandal, significantly changed the perceptions of police officers as trustworthy guides into the criminal underworld, and somewhat unified the journalistic representations of the police. Late-Victorian journalists seized the case and used it to severely damage the reputation of the police and detectives, causing the public to lose confidence in the force – an effect that can be seen through the rise of the use of the “private detective” in popular detective fiction. The way that the media reported the 1877 crisis also brought the hitherto widely misunderstood distinctions between “police officers” and “detectives” more firmly into the public consciousness, which paved the way for the meteoric rise of private detectives in popular periodical fiction across the late-Victorian era, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes.

 

Notes

[1] For more information on the variety of publications and figures mentioned in this article, consult wider resources such as Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor’s excellent Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism (2009).

 

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