The cult of the fictional Victorian detective, including Sherlock Holmes, has tended to obscure the achievements of those publicly-employed detectives operating in the real world of Victorian London. Indeed Conan-Doyle and other authors, despite writing some hugely-enjoyable books, have wittingly or otherwise created an image of the Scotland Yard detectives of their day as somewhat bumbling, frequently unsuccessful, agents of the Crown. This has been further compounded by some non-fiction authors in the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries who have developed their own ‘true-crime’ parodies of Victorian crime-detection. To some extent one can almost forgive these latter authors as they had little or no access to contemporary Victorian crime reports (many of which had not been released into the public domain before the mid 1960s), or to decent archives of contemporary newspapers. However, some of the texts produced during this period (which almost invariably do not cite their sources) contain so much misinformation that they are little better in defining the reality of Victorian crime detection, than fictional accounts.
Since the mid 1960s, the release of contemporary Victorian documentation into national and regional archives and particularly, within the last 5 years, the increasing availability of digitised newspapers from the Victorian era, has transformed the accessibility of primary sources of research material. The first few books to emerge where authors have been able to benefit most from these resources, in my view, have started to convey a somewhat different perception of Victorian crime detection, and the leading protagonists. Thus, Kate Summerscale’s analysis of Inspector Jonathan Whicher, Kate Colquhoun’s assessment of the1864 investigation into the North London Railway murder, and my own analysis of the 1862-1878 detective investigations of Chief Inspector George Clarke (‘The Chieftain‘) convey a more positive perspective of the contributions of the early Scotland Yard detectives. OK, those detectives didn’t get everything right, and there was undoubtedly some corruption in the ranks, but they certainly lived challenging and interesting lives!
During my research I was particularly surprised to observe the very strong political influences on the Victorian Scotland Yard Detective Branch, as well as the international nature of many investigations. Much closer to modern policing issues than I had expected! Most of all, I was struck by the Victorian detective’s great attention to evidence-gathering and their often-central role in the preparation of the prosecution case, something that seems to receive too little attention in some of the generic analyses of the role of the Victorian detective. Of course, Sherlock Holmes and many other fictional detectives are rarely ‘seen’ in court. Their wizardry in locating and apprehending the villain is generally sufficiently satisfying to the readership that the story ends there. For the real Victorian detectives, once they had arrested the suspect, their work had only just started!