The Criminals and the Police of London – I

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The Police and the Criminals of London – I

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, October 8, 1888)

The state of London is becoming serious, and the condition of the police is little less than alarming. There seems to be considerable reason to believe that unless a change is made, and that speedily, we may expect to suffer, first from a widespread panic as to the growing insecurity of life and property in the metropolis, and secondly from a strike in the ranks of the metropolitan police.

The following report of a recent unofficial investigation into the actual facts of the situation is necessarily more or less fragmentary and imperfect. The facts, however, speak for themselves.


Before beginning our account of the causes which have destroyed the confidence of the police in their chiefs and of the public in the police, the following brief summary from Sir Charles Warren’s official report for the year 1887, which only saw the light on Saturday, will be useful. The population of police London is 5,476,447. The number of the metropolitan police is 14,081, or one to every 389 of the inhabitants. This is considerably over the average for the rest of England: the average number of inhabitants per constable in English towns is 722, and in English counties 1,169. Last year there has been an addition of 177 to a force which was already in excess of the number allowed. But as there are 1,621 Metropolitan constables specially employed and paid for by the Government, public companies, and private individuals, the actual number of police available for police duty properly so called in London is 12,460, giving an average of one constable for every 439 inhabitants.

The effective force is still further diminished, as the following figures show:-

Gross total, nominal……………………………….. 14,081
Employed by Government or private firms…… 1,621
Off duty, one Sunday per fortnight……………. 791
Sick and on sick leave………………………. 408
Station and outside protection duty…………… 2,488
Total available for street duty………….. 8,773

The London in which street duty must be done by this force covers 688 square miles, with a rateable value of £34,346,596. How many miles of streets they have actually to patrol does not appear from the report, which only specifies the streets formed since 1849. Of these there are 1,834, containing 500,000 houses. Last year there were 12,478 new houses built in London, making 23½ miles of new streets. By comparison with the standard of police available for street duty in 1849 the Chief Commissioner arrives at the conclusion that he must have more men. His figures are as follows:-

  Population Police Available Population Per Constable
1849 2,473,758 5,288 1 per 468
1888 5,476,447 8,773 1 per 624

This, however, is not a fair comparison. Sir Charles Warren deducts from the police force in 1888, in order to arrive at his police available, all his sick, indoors-men, &c., whereas in 1849 these men are counted. The figures are as follows:-

  Authorized strength Available Not Available
1849 5,493 5,228 205
1888 12,460 8,773 3,6871

It is obvious that the comparison should be not between those who are solely available for street duty in 1884 and all available for any duty in 1849, but those which are available for any duty at both periods. In that case the figures will come out as follows:-

  Population Police Proportion
1849 2,473,758 5,288 1 per 468
1888 5,476,447 12,460 1 per 439

So that in reality so far from the numbers of the police having been outrun by the growth of London, the truth is the other way. We have more police per thousand of the population now than we had in 1849. We do not complain of this. Their numbers may still be inadequate owing to the new duties which have been thrust upon them by the legislation of the last forty years and the increasing complexity of modern civilization. But when it is stated that the rapid increase of buildings and population has outrun the increase made in the police force, it must at once be stated that this is not true.

After all the absentees and sick are deducted and allowance has been made for all employed in office duty, we have a balance of 8,773 constables available. Of these about 5,000 are on duty from ten o’clock till six. This is nearly four times the number on ordinary beat duty during the day. A constable’s day consists of two shifts of four hours each. Those who come on duty at six remain on duty till ten. They come on again at two and remain on duty till six. Others who come on duty at ten stay till two and come on again at six and leave at ten. Between six o’clock in the morning and ten o’clock at night there are 1,537 constables on their beats, and 464 standing at fixed points, while 79 are doing duty at the hackney carriage standings. London is divided into 22 divisions, over each of which is a superintendent. The area and importance of these divisions differ immensely. The largest is S, or Hampstead, which has an area of 79 square miles and a police force of 732. The smallest that of C, or St. James, with 7-10ths of a square mile of area and 440 police. Lambeth, with rather under two square miles, has 404 police. The force under the command of each superintendent varies from 400 to 800; only one, Whitehall, having more than 900 men. In each division there are from twenty to fifty inspectors and from forty to eighty sergeants. Excluding the dockyard divisions, the figures on December 31, 1887, were as follows:-

Superintendents ……………………… 26
Inspectors ……………………………. 786
Sergeants …………………………….. 1,259
Constables ……………………………. 11,244
Total …………………….. 13,315

Their pay, including the dockyard divisions, is &pound1,096,277, of which a 5d. rate on the inhabitants produces £727,351, while the Treasury subvention of &pound575,141 makes up the balance.


The duties of the police are multifarious. Besides their unusual task of looking after the criminal classes, they have to perform a host of other duties, such as the control and inspection of 959 registered lodging-houses, the enforcement of the Smoke Abatement Act, and the recovery of lost property. The following is an attempt to present in simple but telling fashion the average day’s work of the London police. To-day, for instance, 1,500 men in two relays will be patrolling from six o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock at night, while 464 constables will be standing at fixed points. To-night at ten o’clock 5,000 policemen will turn out to take eight hours’ night duty, while five millions of us are asleep. In the course of to-day 61 articles will be brought into the lost property branch of the Cab department. Twenty letters will arrive, making inquiries, and thirteen verbal communications, all of which will be answered and attended to. Under their inspection there will be 7,219 hansoms, 4,027 cabs plying for hire, which, if placed end to end would be 45 miles long, 1,783 stage carriages, and 937 tramcars. All these vehicles, 13,966, are licensed by the police, and 27,507 drivers and conductors are also holders of police licences. About three of these will be convicted of drunkenness in the course of to-day, while one will be convicted of either for wanton driving, cruelty, abuse, or overcharge. The number convicted of the last offence was only twelve last year. They will apply for eleven summonses against stage and hackney carriages and for two or three against carts and wagons. This is more than half the summonses they will take out, all their other summonses only averaging ten to eleven a day. Summonses against drink shops do not average two a week, the total per annum being only eighty-seven. The police will take to the hospital on an ordinary day nine persons suffering from accident and about six suffering from other causes. In the course of the twenty-four hours they will take into custody 181 persons, of whom 40 will be drunk and disorderly, 16 simply drunk, 10 will be disorderly persons, 8 will be disorderly prostitutes, while about 4 will be arrested merely as suspicious characters, and 12 as vagrants. One-half of the arrests will be for offences against order, the other half will be criminal. Taking one day with another the police run in every twenty-four hours about 30 thieves, 18 persons guilty of assault (common or indecent, a most scandalous confounding of different offences), while there are nearly half-a-dozen persons locked up for assaults on the police nearly every day all the year round. It is worth while noting that the magistrates rarely or never fail to convict prisoners accused of assaulting the police. The following figures are significant:-

  Arrests Convicted or Commuted Discharged
Common Assaults ….. 6,798 …………. 4,369 ……… 2,129
Assaults on Police …. 2,094 …………. 2,032 ……… 42

A burglar gets caught about every other day, but there are two or three attempted suicides every day, of which at least one is successful. They used to arrest 6,000 prostitutes every year, but thanks to the scandal occasioned by St. Endacott they only arrested 3,766 last year, and will probably arrest still fewer this year, for the effect of the Endacott case did not make itself felt until half of 1887 was gone. Before the day is over, sixty-six policemen will have been summoned to assist in extinguishing at least three fires which break out every day in this great city. About twelve persons, 3 per cent of whom will die, will be maimed or injured by being ridden or driven over in the streets, all of whom will be assisted by the police. About fifty-six felonies will be reported in the course of the day, or about one to every 100,000 of the population. In the courts there will be over two hundred cases going on, in all of which policemen will be giving evidence, bringing in prisoners, removing them. About ten cases will be going on at the Old Bailey or at the Sessions, and there also policemen will be busy. Policemen also will be driving Black Maria, conveying no fewer than 60 to 100 persons backwards and forwards to gaol. An indefinite number will be attending inquests of which no precise return is made up by the Commissioner. A certain number will be patrolling on horseback, but how many the official report does not say. The number of sick horses treated in the horse hospital is given, and the deaths, but no return is given of the number of horses, vans, despatch carts, &c., in the use of the force. Over 200 summonses will be applied for to-day by private individuals, all of which the police will serve. About fifty persons-men, women, and children-will be reported lost; if this is an average day, of whom from twenty-five to thirty will be found by the police and restored to their friends. The others will restore themselves. The number of stray dogs whom the police will catch cannot be estimated from the returns which are very fragmentary. Neither is there any complete record of the other manifold activities of the force, such as the issuing of certificates of sweeps and pedlars, the enforcement of the provisions of the Gun Licence and the Wild Birds Act, and the billeting of soldiers. But sufficient has been said to show that they do a very good day’s work every twenty-four hours.


The eyes of the world are upon London. There is not a capital in the civilized world where men do not read every morning in the papers about “the London murders”- they do not understand Whitechapel abroad, and every day, all around this planet, when the sun wakes up people in the morning, one of the first things they ask is whether or not the police have caught the London murderer. All kinds of explanations, excuses, apologies, are made for the failure-a failure which seems to some extent to reflect upon civilization itself, of the London police to discover the mysterious murderer, who seems to come and go and murder as he passes, with an impunity only less marvellous than the uninterrupted leisure he possesses for the mutilation of his victims. London is the greatest city in the world. Yet her detectives are at fault, utterly and apparently, hopelessly, at fault, because of this, because of that, because of the other, for there are as many explanations as there are explainers. It does not seem to have occurred to any one to suggest the very obvious and simple explanation, that the detectives may have failed because the Criminal Investigation Department to which they belong has no longer a head. Such, however, is the fact. Strange, almost incredible, though it appears, it was in the very midst of the series of murders at Whitechapel that the internal disputes which for some time past paralyzed the efficiency of the Metropolitan police came to a head, and in so doing decapitated the Criminal Investigation Department. Mr. Monro, who for the last four years has acted as the chief of the detective force, resigned at the end of August, finding his position intolerable. His successor is Dr. Robert Anderson: a millenarian and writer of religious books was appointed in his place. But although Dr. Anderson is nominally at the head of the C.I.D. he is only there in spirit. At a time when all the world is ringing with outcries against the officials who allow murder to stalk unchecked through the most densely crowded quarter of the metropolis, the chief official who is responsible for the detection of the murderer is as invisible to Londoners as the murderer himself. You may seek for Dr. Anderson in Scotland-yard, you may look for him in Whitehall-place, but you will not find him, for he is not there. Dr. Anderson, with all the arduous duties of his office still to learn, is preparing himself for his apprenticeship by taking a pleasant holiday in Switzerland! No one grudges him this holiday. But just at present it does strike the uninstructed observer as a trifle off that the chief of London’s intelligence department in the battle, the losing battle which the police are waging against crime, should find it possible to be idling in the Alps.

The direction of the detectives of London in the absence of the late head, resigned, and of the new head not yet fitted upon its shoulders, has devolved upon Mr. Williamson, the Chief Superintendent, and Mr. Shore, his assistant; but there is too much ground to believe that their authority is in every way curtailed and their action hampered by the interference of every Tom, Dick, or Harry above them in rank. There seems to be a strange fatuity about Scotland-yard, by which its veterans are always thrust to the front in great emergencies which call for the energies of youth. It was poor old District Superintendent Walker who was to the front at the Trafalgar-square riot of February, 1885, and now it is another aged veteran who has had to stand in the breach in another crisis of an altogether different nature. Two years ago Mr. Williamson was described in these columns as “one of the veterans of the service, under whose grey hairs are stowed the fruits of nearly half a century of experience. Faithful, diligent, and unsparing, Mr. Williamson was on the track of crime before the majority of Londoners of the present generation were born.” Mr. Williamson has not grown younger since these lines were written. The exact date when he joined the force is lost in the mists of antiquity. He is a kind of Melchizedec of Scotland-yard, and may probably claim with justice to be the grandfather of the force. His second in command, Mr. Shore, a rough diamond from Gloucestershire, would have been a useful inspector where rough work is required to be done by a vigorous instrument; but even Mr. Williamson himself, amiable and generous though he is, must often marvel at the irony of circumstances which give him so strange an assistant. But these two men, one superannuated and both practically handcuffed by jealousy and red tape, have at this juncture to fulfil the duties of a Vidocq in a capital containing five millions inhabitants.


The comment of the Whitechapel costermonger, “The police can’t find nothink,” was unduly severe. Even a bloodhound must have a trail, and the detective cannot be blamed for failure when he has no clue. But it is worth while asking whether the rules and regulations of the detective service are such as are calculated to conduce to the efficiency of its members. The first sine qua non of the detective is that he must be a man. No woman is tolerated at the Criminal Investigation Department. It is exclusively male, except in the Convict Supervision Branch. Only men are supposed to be able to detect crime. The second indispensable condition, only dispensed with in two instances, is that the man must stand 5 ft. 9 in. high in his stockings. That is a somewhat mysterious regulation, but it cannot be evaded. The cleverest detective whom even Gaberiau [?] ever imagined would be rejected by the Criminal Investigation Department if he did not stand at least 5 ft. 9 in. high. There is no room for clever little ferrets of men among the London detectives. Another extraordinary rule in a service the efficiency of which depends upon its secrecy and the ability of its members to move unknown among the criminal classes is that which forbids any one to be a detective who has not been on show, as it were, in a policeman’s uniform, moving up and down eight hours a day thirteen days every fortnight for three long years in the presence of the criminal classes. By the end of that time, when it may be supposed every habitual thief and receiver of stolen goods in London knows his face and voice, he is allowed to become a detective. These three years also, it is reckoned, stamp upon him ineffaceably the image and superscription of Scotland-yard. He acquires the gait, the manners, and the little character-betraying habits of the constable; so that he can be identified at a glance by any experienced cracksman. In Paris there exists a school for the training of detectives. This is unnecessary in London. Three years in regulating traffic, in patrolling duty, and in crying “Pass along gentlemen; pass along,” amply furnishes forth the average countryman who enters the force with the shrewdness and capacity necessary for hunting down the vermin of society who possess the cunning of the fox and the nimbleness of the rat.

After having entered the Criminal Investigation Department, his native wits are sharpened not only by his daily warfare against the predatory classes, but by the much more irritating struggle against the red-tape regulations by which the Chief Commissioner and the Receiver between them do their best to reduce him to a condition of motionless paralysis. In old days, before Sir Charles Warren centralized all power in his own person, it was possible for the head of the Criminal Investigation Department to send a detective down to Edinburgh or to Newcastle and otherwise act on his own responsibility. Now, however, the new Chief Commissioner has changed all that. Before a detective can be sent so far into the country, the Chief Commissioner must be satisfied that it is necessary, and that the expenditure is justifiable. As the Chief Commissioner is usually busy, and often preoccupied, the detective will often be unable to get permission until after the train has started. If this leads to the escape of a criminal, it has compensation in preventing the diminution of the detective force in London; and of course it keeps down expenses. Then, again, the detective must be of a frugal mind. If he sees that a timely gift of a sovereign would enable him to land a murderer, he must not spend it unless the sanction of the Home Office has been first previously obtained. It is true that days may pass before the sanction is obtained, and that in the meantime the chance of capture may disappear. These are but small things. The chief end of a detective is not to detect criminals, but to abide by the regulations. If he spends a sixpence in excess of his allowance, he is worried, surcharged, and in every way taught the lesson that he had better let any chance slip rather than get out of the official groove. Formerly the detectives used to be allowed a large latitude, at the direction of their chief, Mr. Howard Vincent or Mr. Monro. Now the Assistant Commissioner is powerless. These excesses of expenditure must be sanctioned by the Chief Commissioner, with most admirable results in two directions-the culture of patience and judgement on the part of the Criminal Investigation Department, and the widening of the margin of impunity enjoyed by the classes which are at war with society.

To stimulate the energy and encourage the zeal of the detectives after they have been duly harassed by official inquisitions concerning three-halfpence excess fare, or a sixpenny telegram, there is provided an ingenious arrangement for blocking promotion. It is the natural ambition of every competent officer to rise to the rank of a superintendent. But when he has distinguished himself in the C. I. D., so that he might fairly claim to be considered for the next vacant superintendency, he is informed that he must go back into uniform and serve at a much lower rate of pay before he can be considered eligible. Promotion to a superintendentship direct from the Criminal Investigation Department is forbidden. But to step from the Inspectorship of the Criminal Investigation Department back into the ranks of the uniformed men involves a loss of salary of nearly £70 per annum. That is the penalty inflicted on a man for being a competent detective. At present there are two officers of the Criminal Investigation Department who have gone back to uniform in the hope of becoming superintendents. It has entailed upon each a sacrifice of that sum per annum. The flow of promotion must not be too rapid. Nor would it do to dispense with any of the discouragements by which detectives are taught patience, meekness, and content.

Under these circumstances it is not very surprising that our detectives do not detect. Detection of crime under these conditions resembles a game of blind man’s buff, in which the detective, with his hands tied and his eyes bandaged with red tape, is turned loose to hunt a murderer through the slums of this great city.


The result of this system is exactly what might have been anticipated. As long as there was at the head of the detective department an official who had sufficient authority and independence to secure something like a free hand, the system worked fairly well. But as the authority of its head was gradually being undermined by the encroaching centralization of the Chief Commissioner, the mischief of the system made itself felt. It is no blame to the detectives themselves that when they were suddenly left without a leader they failed to show that enterprise, that initiative, which can only be expected when such a force is intelligently directed by an able chief who can stimulate energy and reward success.

The practical result of the decapitation of the Criminal Investigation Department is that the direction of the campaign against the Whitechapel murderer has gravitated into the hands of the Chief Commissioner. The high character and conspicuous dualities of Sir Charles Warren are universally recognized. But he is much less qualified to undertake the duties of chief detective than he is to command the Channel fleet. He knows absolutely nothing about the science of criminal catching. The consequence is that Scotland-yard has become a laughing-stock, and those who go to see the Chief Commissioner about the Whitechapel tragedy come away with a painful sense of his utter ineptitude.

No one can blame Sir Charles Warren for the absence of clues as to the identity of the mysterious murderer. But the want of the guiding brain is in nothing so clearly shown as in the fact that the police themselves in their blundering way seem to have destroyed whatever clues might have existed. Almost the only clue to the identity of the man was obtained by a private detective, who, with great trouble and considerable difficulty, fished it up from the sink down which it had been washed by the inconsiderate constable. One of the few expedients which Sir Charles has adopted for the discovery of the murderer has been to double the heavy-footed patrols whose approach can be heard at the length of a street-that is to say, he doubled the sound which warned the murderer of the approach of the police.

Sir Charles Warren is trying his ‘prentice hand on the discovery of the Whitechapel fiend, and, although every one must admire his courage, no one can very much congratulate him upon the result. The assumption of duties to which he is unaccustomed, and for the due discharge of which he is constitutionally unfitted, is the Nemesis which attends upon his determination to centralize all authority in his own hands. For that is the reason why the detective department is without a head-that is the cause of Mr. Monro’s resignation. Sir Charles Warren would interfere, over-rule, and dictate in matters which had heretofore been regarded as the legitimate province of the Assistant Commissioner. Mr. Monro stood it for a long time, and then, finding that it had at last become intolerable, he departed, leaving Sir Charles Warren to face the situation which his overbearing and tactless interference had created. Hence it is that at this important moment there is anarchy and panic at Whitehall-place, the natural and inevitable consequence of the breakdown of the over-centralization which has been the weakness of the Chief Commissioner’s administration. To be continued.