The Dark Side of Victorian Policing

By Cassie Watson; posted 31 March 2022.

Recent events have called unwelcome attention to the Metropolitan Police, whose approach to tackling police corruption has been found to be unfit for purpose, most notably in relation to the murder of Daniel Morgan in 1987 and the use by Wayne Couzens of police powers to kidnap and murder Sarah Everard in March 2021.

A key moment in the Met’s ongoing struggle against various forms of misconduct occurred in 1877 when four senior detectives were charged with perverting the course of justice. The famous Trial of the Detectives (aka the Turf Fraud Scandal) ensued after Scotland Yard was called in to investigate a confidence trick in which two Englishmen, Harry Benson and William Kurr, swindled gamblers out of thousands of pounds in a scam involving horse racing bets, called the De Goncourt frauds after the victim who had been most heavily fleeced, Madame de Goncourt. When Benson and Kurr proved difficult to arrest, it was discovered that Kurr was on friendly terms with Inspector John Meiklejohn, Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich and Chief Inspector William Palmer, and had paid them for information about the police investigation into the frauds.  

The three stood trial at the Old Bailey in October 1877 and were sentenced to two years in prison, together with a solicitor named Edward Froggatt. Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke (aka ‘The Chieftain‘) was acquitted but the pervasive stench of dishonesty had transformative implications for Scotland Yard. Following a committee of inquiry, the Detective Branch was reorganised into the Criminal Investigation Department in March 1878.[1]

Clive Emsley noted that “corruption and suspect behaviour was often a part of the popular image of the policeman”,[2] while more recently Graham Smith has investigated complaints made against officers serving with the Metropolitan Police, to identify the obstacles that victims faced when attempting to hold the police to account for assaults and other forms of misconduct.[3] While not part of a systematic study, the two cases recounted below offer additional insights into the dark side of Victorian policing.

William Fitchie: Edinburgh, 1856

On 1 July 1856 William Fitchie appeared before the Sheriff Substitute of Edinburghshire to answer to a charge of vitriol throwing, declaring that: “I am forty years of age. I was born in Forfarshire, I reside at South St James Street Edinburgh. I am a labourer. I am not married.”[4] He admitted throwing a liquid – claiming he did not know it was sulphuric acid – on the shawl of a woman named Elizabeth Clark, with whom he had “formerly cohabited.” In fact, he had thrown acid into her face, causing serious burns. Clark was a prostitute aged 34, and her witness statement paints a picture of a violent man: after living with him for two years she left in August 1855 because he treated her so badly.[5] But he would not leave her alone, declaring his intention to prevent her from getting “into any decent way of life”,[6] and by 30 June 1856 he was heard to threaten “that that night he would keep her from seeing any man, and any man from speaking to her.”[7]

This was a fairly typical case of vitriol throwing in its association with jealousy and domestic violence, and his trial was reported only briefly: “William Fitchie, for the offence of throwing sulphuric acid on a girl named Clark, while within a house in Edinburgh, with the intention of doing her bodily harm, was sentenced to four years’ penal servitude.”[8]

What the press failed to point out, perhaps because it was not mentioned in court, was the fact that Fitchie had once been a police constable, as a senior officer explained:

“The prisoner was at one time a constable of the Edinburgh police, ending about 2 September 1855. On that day some complaints were made by the neighbours of the place where he lodged (Bedford St), of some noisy conduct which had occurred early in the morning between him and the woman with whom he lodged. I caused enquiry to be made. Evidence was not found sufficient to bring a charge against him in court, but enough came out to make us think that he was not a very suitable person to be a policeman, and we dismissed him.”[9]

Elizabeth Clark provided more detail. Fitchie had arrived home at two in the morning and when she failed to answer his knock quickly he flew into a rage, beat and kicked her, then threw her into the street in her nightclothes. Her cries attracted the attention of the police, who took them both to the station. She was unwilling to give evidence and since no one had seen the assault, “the lieutenant seemed to think that the case could not be proved.” Fitchie was dismissed from the force that day or the next.[10]

Following his conviction William Fitchie was sent first to Wakefield Prison then to Portland Prison, before being transferred to Chatham in July 1858, classified as an invalid: he had lost half of the thumb on his right hand. Prison records reveal two other interesting details: he was tall, at 5 feet 11 inches, as befit a Victorian policeman; and he had a wife and two children![11] He had married Janet Tindal on 31 May 1846 at Forfar in Scotland,[12] and she was still living there when he was sent to prison.

Robert Moore: Birkenhead, 1872

In August 1872 newspapers all over the country reported a shocking case of police brutality and probable corruption, the following being one of the most succinct accounts:

“At the Cheshire Assizes, an ex-policeman named Robert Moore was indicted for murdering an old man named Henderson, at Birkenhead, after having committed a gross outrage upon his daughter. The case was, in all its circumstances, one of the most heinous that has ever been tried in a criminal court. The Jury, however, found the man guilty of manslaughter, and Chief Justice Bovill sentenced him to penal servitude for 20 years. Another member of the Birkenhead force was gravely implicated by the evidence, and the Judge requested the Chief Constable of the borough to inquire strictly into his conduct.”[13]

This case began on the evening of Monday 26 May when Jessie Henderson, aged 18, was out walking with her younger sister and a friend, 15-year-old Sarah Stanley, near the docks at Birkenhead. Moore was a policeman stationed at the docks and was then on duty, near a hut about 8 feet by 5 feet that he used for shelter. He stopped the girls, told them they were trespassing, demanded their names and addresses and threatened to lock them up. He then asked them to walk across a field with him but they refused and he caught hold of Sarah Stanley, who managed to get free and run away; Jessie Henderson was less fortunate. Moore pulled her into the hut, locked the door and began to rape her, but was interrupted when her parents – summoned by her sister – began pounding on the door. Moore then assaulted them; when James Henderson retreated, Moore ran after him and tripped him up. Henderson fell onto iron rails and hit his head; he never regained consciousness, dying on 6 June. Witnesses testified that Moore was the aggressor and was drunk, while the deceased man had no weapon and did not offer the constable any provocation beyond promising to report him. However, PC Alfred Villeret Brown claimed the victim had pulled out a knife.[14]

Upon hearing the main facts of the case, the jury took only five minutes to reach their verdict. In sentencing Moore, the judge said that it was one of the worst cases that had ever come into a court of justice: as a man whose duty it was to protect the public, Moore had turned the advantage of his position to his own “vicious propensities.”[15] Moreover, said the judge, “the prisoner pretended that the deceased had a knife, but no one saw it but Police Constable Brown, and he only said so because the prisoner told him to do so.”[16] He then told the Chief Constable, R. H. Kinchant, that both he and the jury thought the case of PC Brown “one deserving the strictest investigation, as there seemed strong ground for suspecting that he had altered his evidence and fabricated it for the purpose of screening his fellow-policeman.”[17]

Kinchant replied that the matter would be investigated thoroughly, but if Brown was dismissed, the fact was not reported publicly. On the same date that Moore was charged with rape another police officer, Thomas Garlock of the Railway Police at Tattenhall, was charged with perjury in a case where he was the defendant; he was later convicted and sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour.[18] Moore, meanwhile, who was 28 at the time he killed James Henderson, was described in his convict record as a ship’s steward and police officer. Like William Fitchie he too was a married father of two, 5 feet 8 inches tall; he was released on license in March 1883.[19]

In December 1875 Kinchant resigned to take up the post of Chief Constable of Warwickshire. He was succeeded in February 1876 by Major J. B. Barker, a strict disciplinarian who fined constables a day’s pay for each time they were late for duty, leading to a marked decrease in the number of constables being drunk on duty.[20]

Conclusion  

Graham Smith found that at mid-century “the criminal prosecution services the police offered to members of the public did not fully extend to cases where the suspected offender was a police officer,” as 98.5% of prosecutions for unlawful use of violence by Met Police officers were brought privately.[21] The cases of William Fitchie and Robert Moore suggest that the situation in other parts of Britain was not so different to London. Even though Fitchie was dismissed immediately after his original assault on Elizabeth Clark, rather than retained following a disciplinary procedure, it is clear that other officers knew that he was pestering and verbally abusing her yet did nothing: many of the incidents she recounted occurred in the streets that the police and local prostitutes patrolled. And Moore might have avoided his fate if he had not been drinking on duty. It is obvious that PC Brown, who had the beat next to his, was willing to lie for him, but it is possible that Inspector Alexander Allison already suspected Moore’s unsuitability for the job: he arrived on the scene minutes after the assault on the Hendersons, having been on his way to the docks to ensure that Moore was actually on duty.[22]


Images

Main Image: “Trial of the Detectives: Scene in the Central Criminal Court,” Illustrated Police News, 3 November 1877, 4. Newspaper image ©The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

“Trial of the Detectives at the Old Bailey: Examination of the Convict Kurr,” Illustrated London News, 3 November 1877, 1. Newspaper image ©The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

Derelict building at Birkenhead docks, Merseyside, England, 9 August 2009. Image © User Rept0n1x at Wikimedia Commons.

A portrait of Sir William Bovill (1814-73), Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in England from 1866 to 1873, published as a visiting card in 1872. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.


References

[1] Haia Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 38-40.

[2] Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (London: Quercus, 2009), 9.

[3] Graham Smith, On the Wrong Side of The Law: Complaints Against Metropolitan Police, 1829–1964 (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[4] National Records of Scotland [hereafter NRS], JC26/1856/380, Trial papers relating to William Fitchie, Declaration of William Fitchie, 1 July 1856.

[5] NRS, AD14/56/292, Precognition against William Fitchie, statement of Elizabeth Clark, 3 July 1856.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] NRS, AD14/56/292, Precognition against William Fitchie, statement of PC James Carroll, 28 July 1856.

[8] Glasgow Herald, 7 November 1856, 4. See also Dundee Courier, 12 November 1856, 4 and Edinburgh News and Literary Chronicle, 8 November 1856, 7.

[9] NRS, AD14/56/292, Precognition against William Fitchie, statement of Lieutenant John Milligan, 29 July 1856.

[10] NRS, AD14/56/292, Precognition against William Fitchie, statement of Elizabeth Clark, 3 July 1856, 2.

[11] The National Archives [hereafter TNA], PCOM 2 1770-1951 Home Office and Prison Commission. Register of Prisoners, Chatham Prison 17 December 1857, no. 398. Accessed at Ancestry.co.uk, 27 March 2022.

[12] Ancestry.com. Scotland, Select Marriages, 1561-1910. Accessed at Ancestry.co.uk, 27 March 2022.

[13] Leamington Spa Courier, 10 August 1872, 8.

[14] TNA, ASSI 65/8, Regina v Robert Moore, depositions for rape, 3 June 1872 and for murder, 10 June 1872.

[15] Liverpool Mail, 10 August 1872, 15.

[16] The Manchester Guardian, 8 August 1872, 7. See also The Crewe Guardian, 10 August 1872, 6.

[17] Ibid.

[18] TNA, HO 140/17, Home Office: Calendar of Prisoners 1872 Anglesey – Gloucestershire; In Chester Castle. Accessed at Ancestry.co.uk, 27 March 2022.

[19] TNA, PCOM3, Home Office and Prison Commission: Male Licences, no. 612. Accessed at Findmypast.co.uk, 31 March 2022.

[20] Brian Starkey, “Birkenhead Borough Police”, https://www.liverpoolcitypolice.co.uk/memories/birkenhead-borough-police/, accessed 27 March 2022.

[21] Smith, On the Wrong Side of The Law,42.

[22] TNA, ASSI 65/8, Regina v Robert Moore, depositions for rape, 3 June 1872.

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