On this day: 4 January 1878; Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke Retires from Scotland Yard

Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, the subject of my 2011 book 'The Chieftain'

Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, the subject of my 2011 book ‘The Chieftain

A very happy New Year to the readers of this blog.

Some of my earlier blog posts have highlighted aspects of the career of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke who, between 1862 and 1878, served in the small team of London Metropolitan Police detectives based at Scotland Yard. By 1869, Clarke had become second-in-command of the detective branch, and was one of the best-known and trusted detectives in the force. His career is described in my recent biography ‘The Chieftain‘.

However, 1877 was a particularly challenging year for Clarke, following his arrest in September on a charge of corruption which resulted in his trial at the Old Bailey, together with three of his police colleagues. The events became known as ‘The Trial of the Detectives’.   Unlike his colleagues, Clarke was acquitted on 20 November 1877, and reinstated in his post by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Edmund Henderson.

Vanity Fair Caricature of Commissioner Edmund Henderson

Vanity Fair Caricature of Commissioner Edmund Henderson

But within days, Clarke retired and left the force, on 4th January 1878. By that stage he was 59 years old. Having served in the Metropolitan Police for 37 years, he was probably not too sorry to leave.  Despite his acquittal, his departure from Scotland Yard was driven through by the Home Secretary of that period, Sir Richard Assheton Cross, who appears from the documented archives to have deemed that the political embarrassment of the Trial of the Detectives was so great that Clarke had to be sacrificed, innocent or guilty. Like the Trial of the Detectives itself, Clarke’s retirement became one of the main news items of the day.

Richard Assheton Cross; Home Secretary 1877

Richard Assheton Cross; Home Secretary 1877 (Wikipedia)

The digitised newspaper resources available today (e.g. at the British Newspaper Archive) make it clear that virtually every newspaper in the land covered, in great detail, the Trial and its subsequent political fallout, including Clarke’s retirement. So for those members of the population who could afford newspapers, could read, or  listened to others talking about the case in the pubs and music halls, it was a major topic of conversation in polite (and impolite) society!

According to Haia Shpayer-Makov, in her recent book “The Ascent of the Detective”(p.237) there was a boost in fictional detective writing in Britain from 1878 onwards.  It seems to me that this is unlikely to have been a coincidence.  Could it be  that the corruption exposed in the Scotland Yard Detective force during 1877 meant that readers (and writers) needed to console themselves with fictional detectives now that their faith in the ‘real’ article had been sullied?  If so, what detective models did these writers (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who produced his first Sherlock Holmes story in  1887) use to  flesh-out their police characters (such as the fictional Inspector Lestrade)?  I’ll have to do some more reading, to see if I can detect any of the attributes of Chief Inspector George Clarke in their creations!

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