Charlie Payne at the Battle of Cambrai, November 1917

Charlie and Ida Payne, September 1918

Charlie and Ida Payne, September 1918

My grandfather, Private Charlie Payne was a Lewis gunner in B Company, Number 7 Platoon, of the 2/5th battalion, Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment.  In November 1917 the battalion was involved as part of 62nd Division in the Third Army operations in the Battle of Cambrai.  The following account is based on my research on the battalion’s specific involvement in the Battle, and contains a couple of extracts from letters that Charlie wrote home to his wife Ida at that time.

The Battle of Cambrai has been described as the beginning of the ‘Modern Style of Warfare’.  Its essential elements were a surprise attack that, unlike the Battles of the Somme and Third Ypres  (Passchendaele), included no preliminary artillery barrage, but involved the sophisticated targeting of enemy artillery positions by reconnaissance, sound-ranging and flash-spotting technology. The attack demanded close co-operation between artillery, tanks, and infantry with a lifting artillery barrage followed closely by tanks.  The tanks were deployed to flatten and create gaps in the extensive wire defences of the German defensive position, the Hindenburg line, allowing the infantry to follow through. The attack was also supported by considerable numbers of aircraft to provide intelligence, air-cover, and to attack enemy infantry and artillery positions.  In its ‘All-Arms’ approach, it became the form of warfare that conscripts such as Charlie encountered for much of the rest of the war.

On 8th November, Charlie and his battalion trained alongside tanks at the training ground at Wailly, just west of Arras. Further training took place over the next two days involving tanks, aeroplanes, and practice attacks through gas.  On 13 November the 2/5th Dukes started their march towards the battle zone, arriving three days later after marching only at night to avoid detection by enemy aircraft. On the night of the 19th November they moved into position in Havrincourt Wood, together with tanks and artillery, ready for the attack the following day.

Havrincourt village was just North of the wood in which Charlie’s Division was waiting. It was one of the most-strongly defended sections of the Hindenburg line (which ran through the village and slightly to the west) with the trenches well-protected by very substantial barbed wire defences. About 800-1500 yards behind the German front line was a second series of trenches, the Support Line. In addition to the trench systems, the German defences included a number of well-defended strong-points.

At 6.20 a.m. on 20 November the British attack started with an intensive artillery barrage, lifting at a pre-determined rate, so that the tanks and the following infantry could quickly start moving forward.  Havrincourt village, was the first objective for 62nd Division. The initial attack was led by other Brigades, with Charlie’s Brigade, the 186th, being held in reserve. With the tanks successfully flattening the barbed wire defences, the infantry were able to follow through quickly. The Germans were completely unprepared for what was happening and substantial numbers of Germans and weapons were quickly captured. The progress made was so positive that Charlie’s battalion were ordered to advance much earlier than planned. They advanced west of Havrincourt, supported by surviving tanks from the earlier attack.  Their final objective was North of the Bapaume-Cambrai road. As they approached Havrincourt they immediately encountered heavy machine gun and sniper fire from a German strong-point that had not been adequately dealt with earlier. The Battalion’s Commanding Officer, and several others were killed. Belatedly, the strong-point was successfully dealt with, and 59 Germans and 2 machine guns were captured. Despite these early problems, the Battalion’s objective for the day was nonetheless achieved when Charlie’s Company moved through to capture a German trench north of the Bapaume-Cambrai road, an advance of four and a half miles from the British Front Line; and at that time a record advance in a single day.

The following day was less successful, without the element of surprise and with many tanks out of action. The original plan was for tanks to lead a further thrust through the German defences towards Bourlon Wood. However, no tanks arrived to assist Charlie’s battalion, and that attack was cancelled. New orders were issued for the battalion to use grenades to clear Germans from the Hindenburg support line trenches.  B Company was charged with mopping up the rear support trenches. Problems were soon encountered, including an enemy strong-point, and strong German reinforcements that were moving down the trenches from the North West. However, one tank eventually arrived and helped to halt a German counter-attack. At midnight the Battalion was relieved. Charlie reported back to Ida two days later:

November 24 1917: Well, my darling, you will see from the papers we have been in some heavy fighting and some good pals of mine have made the great sacrifice.  I thank God I am safe and sound.  Our C.O. was killed.  I must not say more, but I know the Germans have gone back a long way.  At the moment we are out of the line, but for how long I don’t know. Glad to learn the boys are well. Please excuse this short letter, dear, but I am very tired and we have to get to “kip”. God bless you, dear and keep you in good health, is my constant prayer as I know what a fight you are making for me and the boys.

By now the Battle of Cambrai had lost its momentum, with German reinforcements arriving and the fighting changing from rapidly-moving open warfare to a more familiar attritional confrontation. But Haig was determined not to lose the strategic opportunity to gain high ground overlooking Cambrai.

62nd Division were thrown once more into battle to complete the capture of Bourlon Wood and Bourlon. By this stage, the situation was very confused. Bourlon Wood had been partly captured by 40th Division. It had been heavily shelled by the Germans, and gas had been used which was lingering in the woodland. It was also snowing, and the conditions were awful. At 6.20 am on 27th November, in pitch dark, Charlie’s battalion were ordered to attack, aided by a small number of tanks, in an attempt to force the Germans out of the Wood, and move the British front line to the railway at the northern edge of the wood, overlooking Cambrai.  Almost immediately, the entire wood came under a heavy enemy artillery barrage. In addition, B and A Companies had only advanced 50 yards when they came under heavy machine gun fire from an enemy strong-point, and further advance proved impossible.  C and D Companies were also unable to reach their objectives. The battalion was relieved at 11pm by the 47th (London) Division, which unbeknown to Charlie contained his brother-in law, Bill Payne (23rd Battalion, London Regiment) who apparently spotted Charlie in the distance during the Relief. Overall, Charlie’s battalion had not given ground to the Germans, but neither had it been able to achieve a significant advance.

Ultimately, the Battle of Cambrai failed to deliver its objectives for a number of reasons, including inadequate reserves of infantry Divisions and tanks. However, having learnt the lessons of Cambrai, adequate momentum in attack was delivered in the allied advances that ended the war.  In the meantime, Charlie and his Division moved into reserve, west of Arras, and were transferred to First Army. Over Christmas, Charlie and others were deployed on working parties.  In Charlie’s case he was briefly moved to the 63rd Sanitary Section where he spent a happy few days as a carpenter, producing ablution benches!

He also had a good feed, as evidenced by his letter to Ida written on Christmas Day 1917:

“My dear “little woman”

Now for a long letter to you, dear.  I duly recvd. yrs. of the 17th on the 22nd so that the boys Xmas cards came in good time & tell the little chaps I was very pleased with them.  You will be pleased to hear, dear, that I have been very lucky and for a time at least am in comparative comfort with plenty of good rations.  I had retired to “kip” as usual on the 23rd when about 10 oc, I was warned to be ready in full marching order the next morning at 5oc.  That meant rising at 4-30 on a raw frosty morning & I wondered where we were off to.  Well I got up all right, got a drink of tea at the cooks & then with 3 others set out on a 6 mile march to a village.  There we were fortunate enough to get some porridge & a limber took our packs & rifles – then off again to another village 8 miles away.  This was our destination & for the time being I am attached to the 63rd Sanitary Section.  I am a Carpenter’s mate & have to make myself generally useful making tables, benches etc. It is a big village & 9 of us sleep in a nice warm outhouse & have a brazier going night & day with plenty of coke to burn. Last night we were treated like heroes – given a good cigar to smoke, plenty of bread, ham, & even custard & fruit.  Then we had “a sail round the bay” & tried some French wine & altogether spent a most enjoyable Xmas Eve.  After sleeping in broken down barns with no fires & poor rations you will understand, dearest, what it means to be warm & well fed again & I thank God for it. I went to bed happy thinking of you & the little chaps hanging up their stockings. Now I will tell you, dear, how we have spent today.

Bacon for breakfast 8oc.

9 to 10-30 Sawing some wood etc.

11oc Church Parade.

12 – Dinner Stewed Beef with plenty of “spuds” & bread.  Raisin Duff. Tea

4oc Tea, Toast, Cheese, Jam & Jam Tart

Of course we had the afternoon off & I don’t suppose we shall be overworked while we are here.  I shall be glad if we can stop here for duration – anyway it is fine to be able to spend a nice peaceful Xmas.”

I am in the process of writing a book based on Charlie’s letters, which has the working title ‘Charlie Payne’s Hatbox’.  For more information on Charlie Payne’s experiences in the First World War (and beforehand) please see my website and sign up to receive notice of my future Blog posts.


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World War One Images; Help Required with Identification, Please!

I am currently writing my next book which has the working title ‘Charlie Payne’s Hatbox‘. It will be based on the experiences of my grandfather, Charlie Payne, during his wartime service (1916-1919).

I have a small number of photographs where it would be of great help if I could identify more of the individuals shown and obtain any further background information (context, translation etc).  Please check the photos out, add any comments, and  also alert any contacts that you have who may be able to help out.  Thanks, in anticipation, for your comments! Each photo can be enlarged by clicking on the image.

The photographs fall into three main categories:

1. Three photos taken during Charlie’s training (1916-1917) in the Clacton-on-Sea area, Essex, UK , as part of the 24th Provisional Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards).

2. Several photos of German origin, which I believe to have come into Charlie’s possession as battlefield souvenirs, or from German Prisoners of War during the last few months of 1918. At this time, Charlie was a Lewis gunner with the 5th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment; 62nd Division (Third Army).

3. Finally, there is a single pre-war photograph taken in Genoa in 1907 showing Charlie with two friends; all worked in the American Express Company offices in Genoa at that time.  I would like to obtain any information on these two friends.

Photographs taken in the Clacton area 1916-1917

1. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day 1916, the following photo was taken of Charlie’s billet group. Charlie Payne is shown in the front row far right. I believe that the soldier on the far left, front row, was known as ‘Bill Adams’. The other two front row soldiers may have had the surnames ‘Jarvis’ (next to ‘Adams’; ‘Jarvis’ may have served previously in the Boer War as he has a medal ribbon), and ‘Jones’ (next to Charlie).  The soldier at the back, far left may have had the surname ‘Kitson’).

Billet Group

2. Training group at Jay Wick ‘Supports’ (Rifle ranges etc) taken in March/April 1917.  Charlie is in the second row from the front, third in from the left. Behind his left shoulder is ‘Kitson’, with the moustachioed ‘Jarvis’ sat next to Kitson. ‘Bill Adams’ is seated, far right, front row. The two men in white tops are the PT instructors or, as Charlie preferred to call them, the ‘Physical Torturers’.  Information on these, or any of the individuals in the photograph, would be very welcome

Jay Wick group(My thanks to Neville Sisson for greatly improving the image quality of the original photograph, as he has also done with the next photograph)

3. The Cookhouse team at Jay Wick ‘Supports’, March/April 1917.  My favorite photograph; so full of character.  ‘Kitson’ is probably third from left, back row. Can anybody name any of the others?

Cookhouse group, Jay Wick
Images of German Origin, 1918

4. Postcard taken at Easter 1918 of men serving on the German battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz.   Can anyone help provide a partial or complete translation of the text? [See below: Translation provided via Jim Johnson; with my thanks to all involved] Does anybody know the identity of any of these men? According to the translated text, all the crew members shown on the postcard were from Binzengrund, and the writer of the card was known as ‘Joe’ to his friends.

SMS Seydlitz postcard; photoSMS Seydlitz postcard; text

Draft translation of text; showing German and English versions. Click on image to enlarge.

Draft translation of text; showing German and English versions. Click on image to enlarge.


5. German cartoon postcard. Does anyone have information of its context, or is it simply an amusing illustration that German soldiers may have sent home to their families. Is there any information about the postcard’s illustrator, ‘Hoffmann’?

Cartoon postcard of German soldiers crossing a river on a pontoon bridge

6. Unknown German Officer. Does anyone recognise the individual, or can provide some information on the uniform that may help identify the officer’s Unit, and the possible location of the photograph?

Unknown German Officer

Photograph taken in Genoa, spring/summer 1907

7. The photo shows Charlie Payne (standing), Ernest Bambridge (left) and Köth (centre; believed to be German; first name unknown but may  have been ‘Helmut’). Bambridge was born in West Ham, London and probably died in 1972, aged 89. Both Bambridge and Köth were working as Clerks at the American Express offices in Genoa,  Later in 1907 Bambridge was transferred to Naples. Köth may have later worked in the USA. Any information about Köth and Bambridge would be most welcome.

Charlie Payne with Ernest Bambridge and Koth

Even if you have no information to offer, I hope that you have enjoyed the photographs.  If you have friends or contacts who you think might possibly be able to provide some information of value, please alert them to this blog post. You may also be interested in other posts on this Blog or at my Website.





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The Senior Detectives at Scotland Yard, 1869; Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich

This is the last of my short-series of blog posts on the subject of the senior detectives based at Scotland Yard in  mid-Victorian London.  The series ends with one of the most charismatic yet puzzling characters: Nathaniel Druscovich.

Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich (1877)

Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich (1877)

Nathaniel Druscovich was born in the early 1840s in St Georges in the East, a parish in the Tower Hamlets area of London.  His father, Matthew, was a carpenter, from Moldavia, and Nathaniel spent some of his youth in the  Eastern European areas of Moldavia and Wallachia (which later united to create the state of Romania). After his return to England, he decided to join the London Metropolitan Police and spent a short period in C Division (St James) as a uniformed Constable. By October 1863, aged 22, he had shown sufficient promise to be appointed to the Sergeant position in the Scotland Yard Detective Department that had been vacated by the promotion of Richard Tanner to Inspector.

Because of Druscovich’s overseas experience, he was fluent in several languages, albeit not in English, and his appointment caused a flutter in the Scotland Yard dovecote.  Speaking in 1877 with the benefit of some hindsight, Druscovich’s senior colleague, James Thomson commented on the appointment:

“My individual opinion is that it is unwise to let foreigners have anything to do with our police. They think a great deal of themselves, they take too much upon themselves and they get into difficulties.  I was strongly opposed to Druscovich coming to Scotland Yard and I advised them at the time not to have him….I thought there was a good deal of the foreigner in him, because when he first came to Scotland Yard….his English was almost broken English” (The National Archives, Crown Copyright; Document 45/9442/66692 Minutes of Evidence paragraphs 542-3)

Despite Thomson’s critical perspective, Druscovich’s ‘foreignness’ became one of his principal assets to the Detective Department.  During the re-emergence of Irish Republicanism between 1865 and 1868 (the ‘Fenian Conspiracy’), Druscovich’s linguistic skills were used in covert monitoring operations in Paris, of Fenians who were using the French capital as a bolt-hole in 1867. Druscovich, and his fellow Scotland Yard colleague Detective Sergeant John Mulvany, were extensively used in this role, supplemented by occasional visits by Chief-Inspector Williamson. However, it seems that their surveillance was soon spotted by the Fenians in Paris, including one of the ex-American Civil War mercenaries, Octave Fariola, who had attached himself to the Fenian cause.  As early as January 1867  Fariola, commented that “the English detectives were soon on the scent” (‘The Chieftain‘ p. 85). Possibly the fact that the detectives appear to have stayed in the Hotel d’Angleterre was a bit of a give-away, despite Druscovich’s fluent French!?  [As covert operations were new to the Scotland Yard force at this time it is perhaps unsurprising that mistakes were made.]

Druscovich did not spend all his time in Paris, finding time in the spring of 1867  to marry Elvina le Capelain (from St Helier, Jersey) at St James’, Westminster. By 1871 the couple lived in Vincent Square, Westminster, later moving to Lambeth. They had no children.

Like all the Scotland Yard detectives, Druscovich was expected to be involved in helping to police horse-racing events at the leading racetracks such as Epsom, Sandown, Ascot and Goodwood. This could be a rough-and-tumble business, and would have brought him in contact with members of the illegal-betting fraternity.  However, there were plenty of other investigations that drew on his language skills.  London was already a multi-cultural community and, in 1868, when there was an outbreak of burglaries at properties owned by the rich and famous, it was natural to team Sergeant Druscovich up with Inspector George Clarke,  when it was realised that the villains were predominantly from continental Europe.  Both men were applauded and rewarded for their successful investigations. In May 1869, at the age of 27 he was promoted to Inspector. In October 1870 he reached the rank of Chief Inspector and was clearly acknowledged as a rising star in the Department.  By comparison, George Clarke was 51 years old before he became a Chief Inspector.

In 1869-70, Druscovich was involved in inquiries on ‘baby-farming’ and infanticide (again, alongside Clarke).  This appears not to have been the best use of his skills and his case-notes display some frustration with the difficulty of gaining sufficient evidence for prosecution in this area of criminal activity. However, there was plenty more for him to do.  He played a very significant role in  dealing with cases involving foreign nationals.  Thus, he was frequently commended in Police Orders for his work on extradition, and also received complimentary comments and financial rewards for his work on suppressing illegal foreign lotteries and frauds (The National Archives; MEPO 7). In addition, he was a leading figure in at least two murder cases involving foreigners; arresting Marguerite Dixblanc in 1872 for the murder of Marie Riel; a case that led to a guilty verdict and death sentence at Dixblanc’s Old Bailey trial.  Druscovich’s work was acknowledged by a financial reward. In 1876, he worked with his boss, Superintendent Williamson, on the mutiny and murder that had occurred on the British-registered sailing ship Lennie, which led to the arrest, trial, conviction and hanging, for murder on the high seas, of four of the crew, Matteo Cargalis (‘French Peter’), Giovanni Cacaris (‘Joe the Cook’), Pascales Caludis (‘Big Harry’) and George Kaida (‘Lips’).

William Kurr on the front cover of the Police News coverage of the Trial of the Detectives

William Kurr on the front cover of the Police News, 1877

Later that year, it was logical that Williamson should give Druscovich the responsibility for investigating another case with foreign links.  This was a turf fraud case initiated in London by two clever fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr. The object of the fraudsters was to lure naive French punters, unfamiliar with the UK horse-racing scene, into believing that there was such a thing as a ‘sure bet’.  As a consequence, one lady, the Comtesse de Goncourt took a while to realise that the £10,000  that she had invested in the scheme (about £400,000 in today’s money), was likely to have gone for good. However, once she realised her mistake, and being a determined soul, she soon had her legal representatives banging on the door of the Scotland Yard Detective Department.

Although George Clarke was the acknowledged Scotland Yard expert on betting crime, he was busy with two other important cases.  In addition, much of the correspondence relating to the case was written in French; hence the natural choice to lead the investigations was Nathaniel Druscovich. Starting in September 1876, it took until the end of December to run down the Turf Fraud gang.  But Druscovich was not directly responsible for any of the arrests. Ironically it was George Clarke who made the first arrest, of a minor member of the gang in November.  Alerted by a ‘wanted’ poster issued by Williamson, it was Dutch Police who arrested Benson and two other gang members in Rotterdam in December. Kurr’s arrest in London was made under Williamson’s direction in late December, at a time when Druscovich had been sent to Rotterdam to arrange for the extradition of Benson and his colleagues.

There were signs at the time that Druscovich was getting ‘edgy’ during the investigations. A Scotland Yard colleague reported that, in late November, Druscovich had sworn “Damn the turf swindle! I wish I had never heard anything of it” (‘The Chieftain‘ p. 211). At Christmas, having been told by Williamson to remain in Rotterdam, Druscovich granted himself some leave and returned to the UK; an action that incurred the displeasure of Williamson (who promptly sent him back to Rotterdam), and a censure from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Edmund Henderson. Later, Druscovich received a caution for irregular conduct in June 1877, when he was judged to have been at fault in ‘failing to differentiate clearly between charges made and legally proved’ when giving evidence at a magistrate’s court. One imagines that his mind was on other things, but he had started to blot his copybook.

A cartoon of William Palmer (right), Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) and John Meiklejohn (left) in teh dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, "The Trial of the Detectives", 1928)

A cartoon of  Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) with John Meiklejohn (left) and William Palmer (right) in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, “The Trial of the Detectives”, 1928)

By early 1877, evidence had emerged that two of Druscovich’s senior colleagues, Chief Inspector William Palmer and Inspector John Meiklejohn had corruptly co-operated with William Kurr and Harry Benson to prevent their arrest. Some pieces of evidence had also started to emerge that Druscovich had sought to protect Meiklejohn by ignoring the increasing evidence of Meiklejohn’s collusion with Benson and Kurr; in the process delaying or potentially preventing the arrest of the Turf Fraud gang. Nonetheless, the arrest of Druscovich and his two colleagues on corruption charges  on 12th July 1877, caused a public sensation, as did the subsequent Bow Street Magistrate’s hearing and Old Bailey trial.

The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

So, how did the outstandingly promising young detective find himself in this position? Ultimately, the case made against Druscovich was that he had fallen under the influence of Kurr in April 1876 when he had needed money to meet a debt that he had incurred on his brother’s behalf and, at Meiklejohn’s recommendation, had accepted a £60 loan from Kurr (c. £2400 in today’s money).  As a consequence, the prosecution concluded that, from the day he was given responsibility for the turf fraud investigation,  Druscovich had conducted his investigations in a manner that had given the fraudsters every opportunity to evade arrest, receiving from the fraudsters some additional money and jewellery (that had been found in his house) in the process.  The Old Bailey jury found him guilty of perverting justice, though recommended mercy, a view which was not shared by the Judge who sentenced Druscovich and his convicted colleagues, Meiklejohn and Palmer, to the maximum term permitted for the offence: two years hard labour.

When he was released from prison, Druscovich returned to his wife Elvina at their house at 64 South Lambeth Road and established himself as a private inquiry agent; one of his jobs involved investigations into bribery in the Oxford parliamentary constituency in the May 1880 election.  He did not survive long, dying in December 1881 at the age of 39 from tuberculosis, which he had probably acquired while in prison. Pensionless after his conviction, he left £448 7 shillings in his Will; enough money, it would seem, to have found other ways of covering his brother’s debt of £60 in 1877?

Most of the information relayed in this blog post, particularly the Great Turf Fraud and the Trial of the Detectives is covered in more detail in my recent book ‘The Chieftain‘. I have also found “The Great Detective Case; A Study in Victorian Police Corruption” (2000, by Richard F Stewart) to be a very readable account though I do not share all its conclusions!

[My research on the cases that Druscovich investigated during his  Scotland Yard career is incomplete, and a more focused study of  newspaper archives, and MEPO (Metropolitan Police) and HO (Home Office) records within the National Archives, would be timely and, I think, productive.  His distinctive surname should ease the task, though it is not surprising that it is not always spelt or transcribed accurately (the worst example I’ve encountered being one transcription of ‘Druscovich’ as “Densccoirche”!).]




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The Senior Detectives at Scotland Yard, 1869; Inspector William Palmer

The former location of Old Scotland Yard (Whitehall Place, London)

The former location of Old Scotland Yard, including the Detective Department (Whitehall Place, London)

This article is the penultimate one in the short series of blog posts that I have written about the senior detectives based at Scotland Yard on 12 May 1869. At that time, the first significant increase  was made to the number of detectives since the Scotland Yard Detective Department had been founded in 1842. (See also my earlier posts dealing with Superintendent Adolphus Williamson and Chief Inspectors James Thomson and George Clarke.)

On 12th May 1869, Detective Sergeant William Palmer was promoted to the rank of Detective-Inspector and, on 17th October 1870, to Detective Chief-Inspector. He was to become infamous because of his conviction for corruption in the sensational ‘Trial of the Detectives’ in November 1877. In my view, his career deserves further study, and the following incomplete and brief analysis is a small contribution to that.

Chief Inspector William Palmer, 1877

Chief Inspector William Palmer, 1877

William Palmer is probably the least well-known of the Detective Chief Inspectors based at Scotland Yard in the 1870s. Born about 1835, in Carshalton, Surrey he is recorded in the 1851 census as a labourer, living at home with his parents (his father, also a ‘William’, was a carpenter).

By 1861 Palmer had joined the police, married and become a father, and was working as a Detective Sergeant in the Naval Dockyards and lived in Minster on the Isle of Sheppey. In January 1862 he transferred to the Detective Department at Scotland Yard, a few months before Sergeant George Clarke also joined the Detective team. It seems likely that the two men became friends as well as colleagues. In 1871, census records reveal that the two men and their families (by then Palmer had at least four children) lived in the same short street in central Westminster; Great College Street.  As later events were to reveal, they also became members of the same Lodge of Freemasons, Domatic Lodge No. 77, which met regularly at Anderton’s Hotel, Fleet Street, where they were also joined by former-Detective Inspector Richard Tanner, a well-regarded Acting-Secretary of the Lodge until his premature death in 1873.

I have not conducted a detailed search to identify the cases that Palmer was associated with.  As he shared the same name as The Rugeley Poisoner , references to ‘William Palmer’ in the criminal literature tend to be dominated by his more murderous namesake. However, from my superficial analysis,  it does appear that Chief-Inspector Palmer’s contribution to crime-detection was lower-profile than that of his senior colleagues, particularly George Clarke and Nathaniel Druscovich.

Like all the Scotland Yard detectives, Palmer was involved in helping to police the Fenian Conspiracy (1865-1868). His Christmas Day in 1867 was spent transferring the Fenian, Henry Shaw (aka Mullady) from Kilmainham Prison, Dublin to London where Shaw later faced trial at the Old Bailey in which he was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. In 1869, Palmer worked with George Clarke on some of the early betting prosecutions prompted by a Home Office crack-down to reduce illegal betting.  This included the Deptford Spec illegal lottery (see ‘The Chieftain‘ pages 121-122). In July 1872 he was leading the investigation of the ‘Regent’s Canal’ or ‘Hoxton‘ murders of Sarah and Christiana Squires,  crimes that appear not to have been solved (The National Archives; document MEPO 3/105).

It was not until 1877, that Palmer’s name hit the headlines, and in a truly sensational manner. In August 1876, a criminal betting scheme that became known as the Great Turf Fraud was implemented by two clever and determined fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr. Chief Inspector Druscovich was put in charge of the inquiries, and progress was slow, but in early November, Druscovich received information that the fraudsters had been seen in Bridge of Allan, Scotland, in company with Inspector Meiklejohn ( a Scotland Yard colleague ) . By the time Druscovich arrived, Kurr and Benson had fled but at their hotel, he located some correspondence addressed to a ‘Mr Gifford’ (a known alias for William Kurr) that included a telegram  sent from Fleet Street on the night of 10th November 1876 when Palmer and Clarke were attending a masonic dinner at Anderton’s Hotel, Fleet Street. The communication warned ‘Gifford’ that the fraudsters’ location had been identified and it prompted them to depart quickly. Further investigations revealed that Kurr had replied to the telegram, and had addressed his reply to Palmer’s home address. The handwriting of an incriminating letter written by a ‘W. Brown’ (also in the correspondence collected at the Bridge of Allan hotel) was recognised by Superintendent ‘Dolly’ Williamson, as that of Chief Inspector Palmer

Though it took some considerable time for this information to be acted on (and only after the Turf Fraud gang were safely behind bars), in May 1877 a confidential memo from the Treasury Solicitor to the Home Secretary stated that “there is no doubt of the complicity of Meiklejohn and Palmer” but expressed uncertainty whether the men had committed an indictable offence or whether they should be dismissed without attempting to prosecute them. On 12th July 1877 the decision had finally been reached, as Palmer was arrested that day.

A cartoon of William Palmer (right), Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) and John Meiklejohn (left) in teh dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, "The Trial of the Detectives", 1928)

A cartoon of William Palmer (right), Nathaniel Druscovich (centre) and John Meiklejohn (left) in the dock at Bow Street Magistrates court, July 1877 (from George Dilnot, “The Trial of the Detectives”, 1928)

With others he faced a prolonged Bow Street magistrate’s hearing followed by an Old Bailey trial. Although he protested his innocence and sought actively to be granted bail, he and two of his Scotland Yard colleagues (Meiklejohn and Druscovich) were ultimately convicted of corruption and sentenced to 2 years hard labour. His friend and colleague Chief Inspector George Clarke who was arrested later in the proceedings was the only one of the accused detectives to be acquitted.

In Palmer’s case, unlike his convicted colleagues, there was no evidence that he had accepted money or other bribes from the fraudsters.  So, his reasons for writing to warn Kurr appear not to have been mercenary.  What other reason may he have had?

One of the defence barristers in the trial was Sir Edward Clarke (acting for George Clarke).  In his autobiography (1918; “The Story of My Life” pp.147-148) Edward Clarke made the following comments:

“Palmer was more sinned against than sinning.  He knew nothing of Kurr or Benson, and had received no bribe from any one.  He had been persuaded by some one more astute than himself to write the telegram and letter whose production convicted him, and in loyalty to his fellow prisoners he kept silence. After his term of imprisonment had expired he was allowed by the Surrey magistrates, partly at my instance, to become the holder of a public-house licence, and I believe he did well.”

So had Druscovich,  Meiklejohn, or even George Clarke persuaded Palmer to help Kurr and Benson evade arrest?  We shall probably never know for sure.

Edward Clarke’s recollection that Palmer later ran a pub was correct. He became manager of The Cock public house at 340 Kennington Road, Lambeth where he lived with his wife and family.  He died from pneumonia, aged 53, on 8 January 1888, leaving £283 in his Will.

A much fuller description of the Great Fraud Case and the Trial of the Detectives can be found in my biography of Chief Inspector George Clarke, ‘The Chieftain






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The Senior Detectives at Scotland Yard, 1869; Chief Inspector George Clarke

Today, I continue my short reviews of the senior detectives at Scotland Yard during the mid-Victorian era. George Clarke was one of my great-great grandfathers and is the principal reason why I became interested in Victorian crime detection. In May 1869, seven years after his initial transfer to Scotland Yard,  Clarke had just been promoted to Detective Chief Inspector, alongside Detective Chief Inspector Thomson. A more detailed analysis of Clarke’s contribution to crime detection is available in my 2011 biography of him ‘The Chieftain’ .

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

George Clarke was born in July 1818 in the small village of Therfield, Hertfordshire, set on the chalk downland south of Royston. He was the fifth child in a family of at least 10 children; his father, Robert, was an agricultural labourer. During the agricultural depression that followed the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, times were hard for those, like Clarke’s family, who worked on the land. Poverty may well have contributed to the fact that two of George Clarke’s uncles were sentenced to terms of transportation for theft, and his mother, Catherine Clarke, received a fine for a ‘weights and measures’ offence. So George, by proxy at least, had some familiarity with the law (or the wrong side of it) at a young age.

He appears to have been the first of his family to head to London to find work.  One possibility is that he was initially employed as a groom at Kingston House, London, which, in the late 1830s was rented by Richard Wellesley, the elder brother of Arthur Wellesley (the First Duke of Wellington) and of Gerald Wellesley, who had been rector of Therfield during Clarke’s adolescence. However, in 1840, at the age of 21, Clarke decided to join the Metropolitan Police, formally becoming Police Constable George Clarke, warrant number 16834, on 6th April 1840. At 5 feet 7 and a half inches, he just exceeded the minimum height requirement at that time. P.C. Clarke was allocated to S Division (Hampstead) , one of the larger Metropolitan Police Divisions in terms of area and, at the time, relatively rural. He was to stay in S Division until 1862, being promoted to Sergeant on 27 May 1853.  On the promotion front he was outshone by his younger brother John Clark(e) who followed his brother into the Police and achieved promotion to Sergeant at Enfield Lock (in N Division; Islington) within 5 years, but advanced no further.

Details of George Clarke’s career as a uniformed officer are hard to find, compounded by the fact that ‘George Clark(e)’ is quite a common name, and there were several PCs of that name in the Metropolitan Police during Clarke’s career. However, those records involving P.C. or Sergeant Clark(e) of S Division, that reached the newspapers and court reports (and which probably involved him) can be found on my website (see: The Constipated Thief?The Dangers of Staying Out Late; A Police Officer’s Retirement; The Silk Thieves).

The reason for Clarke’s transfer in 1862 to the small Detective Department of Scotland Yard, after 22 years as a uniformed officer, is unclear but may have occurred through the recommendation of his Divisional Superintendent and/or his apparent acquaintance with a long-standing friend and colleague, ‘Dolly’ Williamson (later Head of the Detective Department).

George Clarke's signature

George Clarke’s signature

Once a  Detective Sergeant, Clarke’s investigations are much easier to track down, helped by the fact that he was the only ‘George Clark(e)’ in the small team of nine Scotland Yard detectives (in 1862), and by the fact that his reports are recognisable by the presence of his distinctive signature on many documents that have survived at the National Archives, Kew. In addition there are  numerous  references  to cases in which he was involved, in the newspapers of the day and in trial transcripts from the Old Bailey.

Once he became a Detective-Sergeant, Clarke’s first major case was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller on the North London Railway in July 1864. He was the Scotland Yard officer who arrested Muller in America, on board the sailing ship Victoria in New York harbour. In November that year he was also busy assembling evidence that led to the conviction of Ferdinand Kohl (a sugar-baker of German origin, based in London’s East End) for the murder of a fellow German. This also involved overseas travel, with Clarke spending Christmas Day 1864 collecting evidence in Germany. Both Muller and Kohl were found guilty and hanged in public, as was the custom in those days.

Michael Davitt, arrested by Clarke in 1870

Michael Davitt, arrested by Clarke in 1870 (Wikipedia)

Between 1865-1868 and extending into 1870, a resurgence of Irish Republicanism (referred to as the ‘Fenian Conspiracy’)  spilled over into England and occupied much of the time of Scotland Yard’s detective department.  Amongst many other related activities, in July 1867, Clarke arrested  the organiser of the Fenian insurrectionary force in Ireland,  Octave Fariola, a Swiss-born radical , and veteran of Garibaldi’s campaign in Italy and of the American Civil War. Later, in 1870, he arrested the Fenian arms -organiser, Michael Davitt (who, after serving a sentence of penal servitude, became an MP and notable social reformer). Clarke was also sent on an undercover mission to France during the Franco-Prussian war to obtain evidence relating to the Fenian recruitment of men to fight for France, which was being conducted under the humanitarian guise of an ‘Irish Ambulance Corps’.

In 1867, Clarke’s suitability as a detective was recognised by his promotion to Inspector and only two years later, in May 1869 to Chief Inspector. From 1869 onwards he effectively became second-in-command of the department, frequently deputising for his younger boss, Superintendent Williamson.

Arthur Orton aka The Tichborne Claimant Penny Illustrated Newspaper)

Arthur Orton aka The Tichborne Claimant
(Penny Illustrated Newspaper)

From about 1869, the principal emphasis of Clarke’s work re-focussed on London-based crime, including tracking down a gang of foreign burglars and bringing to justice William Anthony who, in 1871, appeared to have been responsible for a high proportion of the arson attacks in London. Also (in a Home Office-motivated decision to pursue betting crime), Clarke led police investigations into the reduction of illegal betting and  ‘turf frauds’, a task that was ultimately to provide his nemesis. However, he still tackled other significant cases, the most important in the early-mid 1870s, being the trial for perjury of The Tichborne Claimant, Arthur Orton. Here, the collection by Clarke of evidence that completely destroyed the credibility of a pro-Claimant witness (Jean Luie aka Carl Lundgren) and critically exposed The Claimant’s fraudulent case, contributed significantly to Orton’s conviction for perjury.

In 1876, Clarke tackled two major cases of suspicious death.  In one case, (the public sensation of the year), a young lawyer, Charles Bravo, died of poisoning by antimony (tartar emetic). Clarke’s investigations were hampered by the fact that the police were only asked to investigate the case some 12 days after Bravo’s death, after an inquest jury had returned an open verdict. A second inquest jury later in the year returned a verdict of ‘murder by a person or persons unknown’.   Ultimately, Clarke failed to find sufficient evidence to implicate any of the leading suspects or, indeed, to confirm that a murder had been committed.  My personal suspicion is that Bravo himself inadvertently swallowed the poison in mistake for Epsom Salts, an hypothesis put forward by Yseult Bridges in her book How Charles Bravo Died (1956). The second suspicious death case was referred to in the press as ‘The Austrian Tragedy” when a rich Englishwoman was found dead on the Stelvio Pass (then in Austria). Clarke arrested her French-borne husband, Henri de Tourville for her murder. In the process he confirmed that de Tourville was probably a serial killer, having almost certainly murdered a previous mother-in-law in 1868. Clarke gave important evidence at  de Tourville’s trial in Austria, during which he pulled out from his bag part of the skull of the murdered mother-in-law to illustrate his point! De Tourville was found guilty, and received a death sentence, later commuted to a lengthy prison term (during which de Tourville  died).

Harry Benson, fraudster; aka Mr G. H. Yonge (by which alias he was first encountered by Ge Clarke in 1875)

Harry Benson, fraudster; aka Mr G. H. Yonge (by which alias he was first encountered by George Clarke in 1875)

Highly-regarded by his superiors, and well-known by press and  public, Clarke’s career and reputation was destroyed in 1877, and it was his involvement with the policing of betting crime that was the cause. In 1876, two plausible and clever fraudsters, Harry Benson and William Kurr established a fraudulent betting scheme, historically referred to as the ‘Great Turf Fraud’.  Having extracted at least £10,000 (worth about £400,000 today)  from one unsuspecting French punter, the scam was reported to Scotland Yard and, because Clarke was busy with the de Tourville inquiry, the case was handed to Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich to investigate. Although the fraudsters were eventually captured and convicted (Clarke himself making the first arrest), suspicions emerged that some Scotland Yard detectives had been receiving corrupt payments from the fraudsters. In July 1877, Druscovich , together with his colleagues Chief Inspector William Palmer and Inspector John Meiklejohn were arrested. During the subsequent Bow Street Magistrate’s hearing, Benson and Kurr gave evidence that also implicated Clarke  in the apparent police corruption, and Clarke was arrested by his friend and colleague, Williamson, on 8th September. Despite vigorously protesting his innocence, Clarke joined his three other colleagues and a ‘dodgy’ solicitor, Edward Froggatt, in the dock at a sensational trial at the Old Bailey, which is usually referred to as ‘The Trial of the Detectives‘.

The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

The main participants in the Trial of the Detectives and the principal prosecution witnesses, Benson and Kurr

Clarke was the only one of the accused who was acquitted;  to considerable cheering in the court according to contemporary newspaper accounts. However, whether innocent or guilty he was regarded by the Home Secretary as a political liability and was retired from the Metropolitan Police Force on 4 January 1878.  He became a publican for a few years before setting up in business as a Private Inquiry Agent with his son, Harry, a business which continued beyond George Clarke’s death in 1891.

In most historical accounts, Clarke is only remembered in the context of the Trial of the Detectives and his possible or probable involvement in corruption (depending on the  points of view of different authors). My biography ‘The Chieftain’ contains a detailed (and fully referenced) assessment of all the major cases in which George Clarke was involved.  If you want to explore whether he was innocent or simply lucky to be acquitted, you’ll have to read my book and make up your own mind!


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The Senior Detectives at Scotland Yard, 1869; Chief Inspector James J. Thomson

In a recent blog post I mentioned that I would provide pen-pictures of the senior detectives in post at Scotland Yard in 1869, a time of considerable change in the structure of the Detective Department and in the number of detectives operating within the London Metropolitan Police force.  In May 1869, under the leadership of Superintendent Williamson, there were three Detective Chief Inspector posts in the Scotland Yard Detective Department, one of which was temporarily vacant; the two others being filled by James Thomson and George Clarke . Thomson is the subject of my blog post today.

James Jacob Thomson, was an interesting and unusual appointment to the Scotland Yard Detective Department. Born on the 14th February 1837, in Smyrna, Turkey, he was the son of a British merchant operating in the Ottoman Levant.  His good education and life overseas equipped him with the ability to speak several languages. He probably first joined the London Metropolitan Police in 1856, originally being posted to C Division (St James’s) but in less than a year he had left the force, moving first to the Devon constabulary before joining the Hampshire police. Later deciding to rejoin the London Metropolitan Police, he made a special application to the Commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, and was appointed as a constable in the Detective Department in February 1862, the next day being promoted to Sergeant. This was quite a different career progression to that of the majority of Scotland Yard’s detectives at that time and illustrative of the way in which Mayne was prepared to adapt the recruitment procedures when it came to appointing detectives, creating an eclectic mix of experience and skills in the process.

Thomson received quite rapid promotion, being appointed Inspector in March 1864, a promotion that coincided with the retirement of Inspector ‘Jack’ Whicher.  In 1869, Thomson occupied one of the three Chief Inspector posts when the small Scotland Yard detective department was almost doubled in size (from 15 to 27 detectives) under a new Commissioner, Edmund Henderson.

Ricard O'Sullivan Burke, Fenian Arms Organiser; Arrested by James Thomson, 1867

Ricard O’Sullivan Burke, Fenian Arms Organiser; Arrested by James Thomson, November 1867

Some historians have commented that Thomson was “one of the Yard’s most accomplished detectives” and he certainly dealt with several high profile cases; however he only remained in the Detective Department for about 7 years. During 1865 he was in charge of an investigation into the forgery of Russian bank notes, a case that led to the conviction of a substantial gang of forgers.  The years between 1865 and 1868 were notable for an upsurge of Irish Republicanism (usually referred to as the Fenian Conspiracy) that spilled over from Ireland to the British mainland. With his linguistic skills, Thomson was amongst the Scotland Yard detectives that were sent to France, undercover, to maintain surveillance of those Fenian leaders (including James Stephens and Thomas Kelly) who were known to use Paris as a bolt-hole. In addition, suitably armed with a revolver, Thomson was one of two police officers responsible for the arrest in London of the Fenian arms organiser, Ricard Burke, whose incarceration in Clerkenwell House of Detention in November 1867 led to a failed rescue attempt by Fenian supporters that killed several civilians in the ‘Clerkenwell Explosion‘.

Very soon after his promotion to Detective Chief Inspector in 1869, Thomson moved from Scotland Yard into a uniformed post, as Superintendent of E Division (Holborn). Whether this was his own choice or not is unclear but, from a comment he made in 1877 when giving evidence to a Home Office Commission on the Detective Force, I suspect that he may have become disillusioned with the daily grind of detective work, and saw the Superintendent post as an opportunity to move on, and perhaps to escape from the large shadow cast by his boss, the head of Scotland Yard’s Detective Department, ‘Dolly’ Williamson.  Thomson’s specific comments to the 1877 Commission were:

“Many people read about detectives, and they see things upon the stage about detectives, and they think it is a very good sort of life; but when they come to try it they find it is earning your livelihood, like lifting bricks and everything else, and they get tired of it”

As a Divisional Superintendent he had more flexibility to ‘run his own ship’, at a time when Divisions were allocated a small number of detectives, that (until 1878) were managed by the divisional Superintendent rather than from Scotland Yard. Thomson remained as Superintendent of E Division until he retired at the relatively young age of 50, in May 1887, on an annual pension of £283. By this time, there had been a resurgence of Irish terrorism on the British mainland (which had been renewed in March 1883 with a bomb explosion in London), and it seems that , after his ‘retirement’ Thomson was employed privately  by the Home Office and by James Monro (then Head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department) on investigations relevant to the discovery and suppression of Fenian plots (see Christy Campbell (2002) Fenian Fire)

Chieftain front coverJames Thomson married Richmond-born Anna Martha Baker at Bosmere, Suffolk in 1868.  The couple  had no children.  Thomson died at his home at Mill-Hill near Hendon, on 26th June 1902,  leaving £394 3s 5d in his will.  For further information and references about James Thomson (and his police colleagues) please see my book ‘The Chieftain‘, and Christy Campbell’s  2002 book ‘Fenian Fire: The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria‘ (Harper Collins).

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On this Day: 12th May 1869; The Rise of ‘Dolly’ Williamson and the Scotland Yard Detectives

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

On 12th May 1869, Chief Inspector Adolphus (‘Dolly’) Williamson was promoted to Superintendent and head of an expanded Detective Department at Scotland Yard. At the same time, the man who was to become Williamson’s deputy, Inspector George Clarke, was promoted to Chief Inspector during the most radical changes to the  detective force in London since 1842.

When the London Metropolitan Police Force was established in 1829, its principal role was crime prevention. Crime detection was given a lower priority, and the delay in establishing  a plain clothes detective force was also attributable to concerns that this would lead to a civilian-spy system similar to those found in some European countries. There were additional fears that men in plain clothes would also be more susceptible to corruption. Nonetheless, by 1842 the over-riding need for a detective force in London had become apparent and a small Detective Department  containing 8 men was established. The strong interest and support that the author and social reformer, Charles Dickens, displayed towards the new detectives probably helped offset some, though not all, of the initial public concerns.  Writing in Household Words (1850), Dickens commented:

Charles Dickens, 1868 (Wikipedia)

Charles Dickens, 1868; a fan of the Scotland Yard Detective Department (Wikipedia)

The Detective Force….is so well chosen and trained, proceeds so systematically and quietly, does its business in such a workmanlike manner, and is always so calmly and steadily engaged in the service of the public, that the public really do not know enough of it, to know a tithe of its usefulness.”

By 1862, when my great-great-grandfather George Clarke first joined the department as a Sergeant, there were 10 detectives at Scotland Yard. In November 1867, a further modest increase to 15 detectives had been approved by the Home Office at the time of the Fenian Conspiracy  but  was  not acted on until the long-serving Police Commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, died in December 1868 and was replaced by a new broom, Colonel Edmund Henderson.

Colonel Edmund Henderson, Metropolitan Police Commissioner 1869-1886 (Wikipedia)

Colonel Edmund Henderson, Metropolitan Police Commissioner 1869-1886 (Wikipedia)

It seems that Henderson had fewer reservations about increasing the number of detectives in London and, on the same day that Williamson and  Clarke were promoted, Henderson announced that the Scotland Yard Detective Department would be increased to 27 staff including a Superintendent (Williamson), 3 Chief Inspectors, 3 Inspectors and 20 Sergeants.  In addition, a few days later, approval was given for a total of  180 new detectives (Sergeants and Constables) to be appointed across the Metropolitan Police’s Divisions.  As a consequence, the number of detectives in the Force had, on paper, increased from 15 to 207.  The team of 27 at Scotland Yard  reported direct to the Police Commissioner, and the remaining 180 to their relevant Divisional Superintendents.  This divergence in line-management was to remain a bone of contention until the later establishment of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) in 1878.

An interest in matters criminal has thrived across several centuries.  The ‘Detective Story’ has become a very popular and entertaining part of modern literature; however, within this literature, it is the fictional detective that has predominated.  This contrasts somewhat with the Victorian age where news of the exploits of the real detectives fascinated not only Charles Dickens but, increasingly a high proportion of the population, through newspaper reports and word-of-mouth.

'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

The Chieftain‘ a biography of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

The recent ‘resurrection’ of Inspectors Richard Tanner, and Jonathan Whicher, by the authors Kate Colquhoun (“Mr Briggs’ Hat”) and Kate Summerscale (“The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”), respectively, has provided a  fresh look at some of the realities of life for the Victorian Scotland Yard detective. My personal interest in Victorian detectives has been in unearthing the story behind George Clarke’s detective career, now published in my biography of him, ‘The Chieftain’.  However, I’m sure that further investigation of his colleagues in the burgeoning mid-Victorian Scotland Yard Detective Department would prove of equal merit.  By mid-1869, Tanner and Whicher were no longer at Scotland Yard, but ‘Dolly’ Williamson and  his senior colleagues were an interesting bunch and, in my view, worthy of further research in their own right. For that reason I’ve decided to provide brief pen-pictures of the men occupying these positions  in the hope of sparking further interest in them; starting today with Superintendent ‘Dolly’ Williamson. In future blog posts I intend to add similar pen-pictures of those men filling the ranks of Chief Inspector and Inspector at Scotland Yard during the 1870s.

Superintendent Adolphus Frederick Williamson

Superintendent Adolphus Frederick Williamson

Superintendent Adolphus  Frederick Williamson

Known to friends and colleagues as ‘Dolly’, Adolphus Williamson was a Scot whose father had been Superintendent of T Division (Hammersmith). His first job was as a temporary clerk in the War Department before he decided to follow his father into the Metropolitan Police in 1850.  Initially working as an assistant clerk in P Division (Camberwell), he gained promotion and joined the detective department as a Sergeant in 1852.  He later went on to become the Head of Scotland Yard’s Detective Department, achieving the ranks of Chief Inspector, Superintendent and District Superintendent/Chief Constable en route.

During his long 36-year career at Scotland Yard Williamson was involved in many of the high profile criminal investigations of his day.  This included his early work with Inspector Whicher on the initially ‘unsolved’ case of the Road Hill House murder.  Once Constance Kent confessed to the crime several years after the initial investigation had failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion, it was Williamson as Head of Department who concluded the case. He was at the forefront of the Detectives’ involvement in investigations of  Irish Terrorism on the British mainland, during the Fenian Conspiracy (1865-1868) and in the 1880s when a bomb explosion in London in March 1883 marked the start of another Fenian campaign. A ‘Special Irish Branch’ (the forerunner of Special Branch) was established under his leadership a month later. Well-liked and respected by his colleagues, Williamson’s reputation was nonetheless fortunate to survive (apparently unscathed) when, in 1877, his Department’s three Chief Inspectors (Clarke, Nathaniel Druscovich and William Palmer) were arrested and tried for corruption in the now notorious ‘Trial of the Detectives‘.

St John Evangelist Church, Smith Square. Location of Williamson's funeral

St John Evangelist Church, Smith Square. Location of Williamson’s funeral

Williamson is said to have had a great capacity for hard work, combining it with a dry sense of humour.  As a young man he was a powerful sculler and a devotee of the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, but like Wilkie Collins’ ‘Sergeant Cuff’, his principal relaxation was gardening.  He died on 9th December 1889, still in post, though for some months prior to his death his health had failed. The Home Secretary expressed his “…deep regret with which he hears of Mr. Williamson’s death, and of his sense of the great loss which the Police and Public have sustained in being deprived of an Officer distinguished for his skill, prudence and experience and whose life has been unsparingly devoted to the Public Service.” The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) expressed similar sentiments. Williamson’s well-attended funeral service was held at St John Evangelist church in London’s Smith Square (now a popular concert venue).


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“The Little Digger”; William Morris (Billy) Hughes: A Family Connection

I apologise for the shortage of new blog posts in the last six to seven weeks.  However, don’t blame me, blame Billy Hughes.

This year I somewhat over-enthusiastically committed myself to preparing two new talks within a month.  One of these was on the topic of “The Little Digger; The impact of William Morris Hughes (Australian Prime Minister) on the Great War and its Aftermath”. It was a lot more fun to do than the title suggests, but it has taken up a considerable amount of time in the last few weeks .

I first came across Billy Hughes when reading some of my Grandfather’s letters written while he was serving in the British Army during the Great War.  On the 4th May 1918 he wrote to my grandmother: “I note Bill Hughes has been wounded and is at Bristol.  Do you know if his father will come from Australia this year? Last Sunday our padre opened his sermon with a reference to one of Mr Hughes’ speeches in London – I well remember the speech – it was the one he made at the Queen’s Hall in June 1916”.

Charlie Payne's (my grandfather) letter of 4th May 1918 from the Western Front, mentioning 'Bill Hughes' and 'Mr. Hughes'

Charlie Payne’s (my grandfather) letter of 4th May 1918 from the Western Front, mentioning ‘Bill Hughes’ and ‘Mr. Hughes’

At that time, I hadn’t a clue who Bill Hughes or his father were.  However, ‘Mr Hughes’ sounded a rather newsworthy person and I  decided to Google the words “Hughes, Australia” though I expected little success.  Instead, I found gold straight away. My search highlighted a Wikipedia article on ‘Billy Hughes’ the Prime Minister of Australia, between 1915 and 1923.  That led me to the website of the National Library of Australia which holds his archive, and that contained some correspondence from a ‘George Payne’.  Knowing that my great-grandfather was called George Payne, I sent for copies of the letters, which gave me all the proof I needed as they had been written from my great-grandfather’s home address. Billy Hughes and George Payne had, for some serendipitous reason, been the best of friends. I was now hooked: wanting to find out how the two men might have become friends, how Hughes had become Prime Minister of Australia and what part he played in Australia’s considerable contribution to the First World War. That is  the basis of my new talk.

George Payne c 1895

George Payne c 1895

Billy Hughes emerged during my research as a character who, when you start reading about him, you simply can’t put him down. Born in London in 1862 to Welsh parents he spent some of his early years in Llandudno before returning to the Westminster area of London when he was about 12 years old. There he attended St Stephen’s School near Rochester Row, and it is at that school that he must have first met my great grandfather, George Payne, whose father ran a Cutler’s business in that street. The two boys remained lifelong friends, with George Payne and his wife Louisa, helping to pay Billy Hughes’ fare when he decided in 1884 to emigrate to Australia on an assisted passage. Struggling to make ends meet, Billy Hughes was employed for several years in a number of seasonal and labouring jobs in the bush and towns of Queensland, before arriving in Sydney as a galley hand on a coastal steamer.

After settling in Sydney he became involved in socialist politics in New South Wales, becoming an elected Member of the NSW State assembly in 1894, and a Member of the House of Representatives (MHR) of the first Australian Federal Parliament in 1901. In October 1915 he became Prime Minister of Australia at a critical time during the First World War. As a great patriot and supporter of the British Empire he remained Prime Minister until 1923, and continued as a MHR until his death in 1952. However, he remains one of the most historically controversial of Australian politicians for his pragmatic style of politics and, in particular, the decisions he took in 1916 which led to a major split in the parliamentary Labor Party.  It seems that even to this day, he is regarded as a ‘Rat’ by Labor for  his actions then.

US President, Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)

US President, Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)

I may be biased for familial reasons, but it seems to me that Billy Hughes was a wartime Prime Minister of great physical and intellectual courage. He is also a source of some of the most wonderful anecdotes:  my favorite anecdote being when he was in the role of enfant terrible as a member of the British Empire Delegation to the Peace Conference in 1919, and was striving to secure German New Guinea as a mandated territory of Australia, in a bid to help improve the security of Australia’s northern seaboard. His dialogue with the US President Woodrow Wilson ( the two men did not get on) is believed to have taken the following format, with David Lloyd George attempting to referee the confrontation:

Wilson:“Do I understand that Australia in the face of the wishes of the world would insist upon having her own way?” Hughes: “That’s about the size of it, Mr. President.”

Wilson continued: “Do you think 5 million Australians should hold to ransom the 1,200 million represented by the Conference”. Hughes: “I speak for sixty thousand (war) dead. For how many do you speak?” which as everyone knew was more than Wilson did.   Trying to defuse the situation, Lloyd George only sent it further into the depths of farce, asking:

“Would you allow missionaries free access to New Guinea?” Hughes responded: “Of course, I understand these poor people are very short of food, and for some time past they have not had enough missionaries.”  Little wonder perhaps that Wilson described Hughes as a “pestiferous varmint”.

Billy Hughes (right) pictured with Louisa and George Payne (centre and left), July 1919

Billy Hughes (right) pictured with Louisa and George Payne (centre and left), July 1919

My family, however, will remember Billy Hughes for the lifelong friendship he maintained with his old boyhood friend George Payne and George’s wife Louisa.  Apart from the letters from George Payne to Billy Hughes in the National Library of Australia archive, there appear to be only two complete surviving letters written byBilly Hughes to the Payne family (my thanks to my second cousin Mariya Ward for access to these)

The first of these letters was written shortly after Hughes had become Prime Minister. The fact that it was written on Christmas Day 1915, just as the Gallipoli campaign was ending, perhaps highlights the strength of the friendship. The second letter was written in 1934 to Dorothy Brauer [nee Payne; George and Louisa’s daughter] following the death of Louisa Payne.

“25th December 1915

My dear George and Lou

I hope that all is well with you on this day. Peace which the hurt and wickedness of man has changed into a life and death struggle. The sun shines here in all its glory and it is indeed a typical Australian summer’s day.  Here all seems peaceful  and the blasts of war as far removed as Heaven from Hell.  But they are just posting up the 39th casualty list and that is enough and more than enough to remind all Australians that all is not Peace.

I’ve not seen Fred [Fred Payne, George Payne’s younger brother who emigrated to Australia in 1883] for years, yet he works in the same street as I do; Such is life!  I’m going to try and dig him out during the next few days. All being well  I shall probably be in London early in March and of course will see you.  Mrs Hughes and the baby will come with me (DV).

With best wishes from all here to you all.

W. M. Hughes”

Dorothy Brauer (nee Payne) and her Australian husband Leo, 1918

Dorothy Brauer (nee Payne) and her Australian husband Leo, 1918

“14 December 1934

Dear Mrs Brauer

Your letter conveying the sad news of your mother’s death has just reached me and I am very sorry.  I know what a blow this must be to you: for she was a lovable woman and the kindest and best of mothers. I can hardly bring myself to think of her as dead!   I recall her as she was when I first met her years and years ago: the very incarnation of womanhood on the threshold of maturity.  I treasured her friendship and that of your dear father as one of my most precious  possessions; and through the long years of absence my thoughts turned again and again to them as I had known them when they and I were young and care-free. My dear Dorothy believe me, I deeply sympathise with your sorrow, and am yours most sincerely

W M Hughes

P.S. You must write me from time to time and if in trouble don’t forget to let me know.”

Louisa Payne (nee Burgess) c 1895

Louisa Payne (nee Burgess) c 1895

So, if you are interested in hearing my talk on Billy Hughes, I shall be presenting it at 7.30 pm on Tuesday 7th May 2013, at the North Lancs Branch meeting of the Western Front Association at the Kings Own Royal Regiment Museum, Lancaster, UK. On the other hand,  I could be persuaded to deliver it again at a venue near you with suitable enticement, including  travel expenses, particularly if you live outside the UK! See the ‘Talks‘ page on my website for further details.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Billy Hughes, I would recommend the following books;

“William Hughes, Australia” by Carl Bridge (2011) published by Haus Histories in the “Makers of the Modern World” series. An excellent modern evaluation of Hughes’s political contribution.  Concentrates on Hughes’s role in the 1919 Peace Conference

“Billy Hughes” by Aneurin Hughes (2005) published by John Wiley, Australia.  A short biography, strong on anecdotes and Hughes’s family relationships .

“That Fiery Particle” (1964) and “The Little Digger” (1979) by L F Fitzhardinge,  published by Angus and Robertson, Australia. A two-volume, and very comprehensive, political biography.

“The Billy Book” (1918) by David Low. Gloriously funny and razor-sharp satirical cartoons. Available as a free-download  at

I shall leave you with a few of my favorite quotations about, and by, Billy Hughes.

The Billiwog, from 'The Billy Book' of satirical cartoons by David Low

The Billiwog, from ‘The Billy Book’ of satirical cartoons by David Low

Said about Hughes:

“…arguably, the most formidable, most amusing, most Australian of our prime ministers.” [Jill Kitson]

“I didn’t agree with his politics but I’ll not hear a word against him.” [An old ‘Digger’]

“I’ll never work for [him] again.  I’d rather go to bed with a sabre-toothed tiger. As cold as sea-ice, vain as a peacock, cruel as a butcher bird, sly as a weasel and mean as cat shit”  [a former secretary]

Said by Hughes:

“They might go to the dogs and bet on ponies but they had enough sense to keep me in Parliament” [about the Australian electorate]

“They say I eat my secretaries.  It’s a lie. I’m on a strict medical diet.”

“Better to have fewer cleverer men and more ordinary ones. You’d get more done.”

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Posted in The Great War | 5 Comments

An Englishman goes abroad; March 1907

Charlie Payne c. 1903. Charlie was the grandson of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke of Scotland Yard, the subject of my book 'The Chieftain'

Charlie Payne c. 1903. Charlie was the grandson of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke of Scotland Yard, the subject of my book ‘The Chieftain’

My paternal grandfather, Charlie Payne, is the subject of a book that I am currently writing on the First World War (working title: ‘Charlie Payne’s Hatbox‘).  In addition to his wartime correspondence, Charlie left a number of diaries, one of the fullest and most entertaining of which is an account of time that he spent in Genoa while working for the American Express Company in 1907; he was 23 years old.  (At the time, Genoa was probably Italy’s most important port and finance centre.) Charlie’s diary  captures the spirit of youthful optimism and opportunity that existed for some in the Edwardian period, before the dark shadows of the Great War descended. The following description of his journey to Italy is the first entry in  ‘My Italian Diary’,  to which I have added some contemporaneous postcards and photographs that were amongst Charlie’s documents .

Monday 4th March 1907.

Genoa Harbour and City c. 1907

Genoa Harbour and City c. 1907. Click on this and the other images to obtain enlarged versions

“What a crowd to see me off at Victoria.  I shall never forget it.  I had a very comfortable journey down to Newhaven, with only a young gentleman apprentice as a companion, who began telling me all about himself and family (Ma and Pa etc.).  It was a lovely sunny day and I thought the English meadowland looked glorius [sic].  I was soon on the boat, SS “Arundel” and about 12 o.c. (noon) we steamed out of the Harbour.  The sea was rather rough and we rocked a bit and the wind was very cold, but the sun was shining brightly.  There were not more than 30 passengers on board – mostly women, some of whom were soon very sick and bad, but I myself never felt so much as a qualm – so was very pleased with myself.  I eat [sic] my biscuits and drank some whisky in the stern of the boat with my eyes fixed to Beachy Head as long as possible and then at last that died away in the mist and that was the last I saw of old England.  The boat was rocking badly now, the spray swamping the bow until the passengers had to go below, but I stuck in the stern chatting with one of the crew.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and felt very happy – I think I ought to have been a sailor after all.

About 3 o’clock we caught a first glimpse of the French coast and very black and gloomy it looked and very rocky.  At about 3-15 we steamed into Dieppe Harbour.  Very similar to Newhaven, only smaller.  I soon skipped ashore and evading all the porters, beggars etc. made my way to the Customs House, but went straight thro’ without having my bag examined.  Dieppe as I saw it was very old and very quaint.

Dieppe 1907

Dieppe c. 1907

I secured a corner seat in the train which left for Paris at 3-37 and got in a carriage marked “Fumeurs” (Smoking) and fell into conversation with two young Englishmen.  A Froggie got in, and I believe we nearly stifled him with our pipes – he kept on choking and looking fierce, but I appeased him by offering him a match for his cigarettes.  The scenery between Dieppe and Paris was rather fine, but oh so quaint, funny little cottages and farmhouses, churchyards, churches, villages, factories – all quaint and new to me.  I could fill pages in description if I had the time.  We stopped only once – a few minutes at Rouen and then on to Paris (St Lazare) which we reached at 7-15 p.m. and it was quite dark.

Paris Station. Oh my, what a glamour and a gabble.  I said good bye to one of my companions, and then with the other one changed some money (10/- for 12 francs) found a [Thomas] Cook’s interpreter, who took us to a hotel, where we had a wash and brush up, café au lait, ham and eggs etc., which cost me about 2/-.  Feeling much better and leaving my bag at the hotel, went for a walk about Paris. I was accompanied by one of Cook’s interpreters (a Frenchman named Rowe) to whom I paid 2 francs.  I got on a horse bus with my bag and had a ride through Paris to the Gare du Lyon.  Paris was full of life and light.

Paris cabs in the Rue Royale and Madeleine area c. 1907

Paris cabs in the Rue Royale and Madeleine area c. 1907

The sights that caught my eye most were the cabs (small four wheeled things drawn by an apology for a horse, London cab horses are as thoroughbreds in comparison, the people sitting drinking and smoking in the boulevards outside the cafés and the funny looking electric cars.  I was a bit disappointed with my first view of Paris.  It is nothing like London and different to what I had expected, and the jabber enough to drive one silly. The American Express Company  Office was closed so I could not call.

Reaching Gare du Lyon about 9 o.c. [p.m.] I had 1½ hours to wait, which I employed in walking about the station.  At 10-30 I got in my train (“fumeurs” carriage of course) and my companions were 2 Italian ladies and one gentleman and one Froggie in a big fur coat.  All thro’ the night we travelled on and all went to to sleep except me.  Try as I would I could not get off, so settled down and read “Tit-Bits” and smoked.  The carriages were nicely heated and quite comfortable.  As daylight came on, I could see what glorius mountain scenery we were passing through.  Mountains whose summits were covered in snow and again others whose tops disappeared in the clouds.  Beautiful lakes and rivers (I do not know their names yet).  It was glorius scenery and far more imposing than ever I thought for.  Our first stop was about 7 o.c. a.m. at Aix-les-Bains, where I secured a café au lait for 50 cents, and then on again.  Cottages and farmhouses built right on the side of the mountains looked very nice but very dangerous.

Modane c 1907

Modane c 1907

All thro’ the day we raced on until Modane was reached and the C[ustoms] H[ouse] officials came aboard, but I again escaped being examined.  About 3 o.c. p.m. we reached Turin and from there on to Genoa was more or less flat scenery – not half so pretty as England.  I was cold and very hungry when Genoa was reached at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

1907 photograph of the Hotel Victoria, Genoa (with a commentary from Charlie)

1907 photograph of the Hotel Victoria, Genoa (with a commentary from Charlie)

I was met by Mr Wyeth, who conducted me to the Hotel Victoria (as my lodging was not ready) and engaged a room for 3 francs per night, and then paid my first visit to the Office, 17 Piazza della Nugiata, a very old building – formerly a palace – with old fashioned stairs and lofty painted ceilings and pictures on the walls.  A much superior place to 84 Queen Street, London [the American Express Office in London].

"Three Gentlemen of Genoa". Charlie Payne (right) with two work colleagues in the 'Giardino', 1907

“Three Gentlemen of Genoa”. Charlie Payne (right) with Bambridge and Koth in the ‘Giardino’, 1907

Then I went to a café with an Englishman named Bambridge and a German named Koth (both my own age and very nice fellows) for dinner, which consisted of:- Macaroni soup, steak (very small piece) and potatoes, cheese, nuts and fruit, washed down with claret.  I was famished so did very well. Then a walk round Genoa and back to the Hotel Victoria.  It was a very old fashioned room where I slept, but the bed was clean and soft so after taking a dose of Eno’s, and being tired out I was soon asleep.”

The next time that Charlie travelled from England to continental Europe was on 1st August 1917 in a troopship, facing German submarines lurking in the English Channel , and the prospect of service in the British Expeditionary Force  as a Private in the 2/5th Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment on the Western Front. Certainly not as enjoyable as his 1907 experiences…..


Posted in Other Thoughts | 2 Comments

‘Murder on the Victorian Railway’; A very personal perspective.

Having other commitments last night, I have only just been able to watch a recording of BBC2’s “Murder on the Victorian Railway”.  If I had known nothing about the case, I think I would have enjoyed it enormously.  It was wonderfully atmospheric, beautifully scripted and well-acted entertainment but I wish that the programme could have been longer, and the production team provided with a larger budget.  Why do I take that view? Essentially,  because I would have liked to have seen the moment portrayed on film when my great-great-Grandfather, Detective-Sergeant George Clarke, arrested Franz Muller in New York harbour on board the sailing ship Victoria.

Franz Muller, 1864

Franz Muller, 1864

Detective-Sergeant ‘who’ I hear you ask; surely it was Inspector Tanner who made the arrest? Not so, as the court transcript (and Kate Colquhoun’s book on which the programme was based) reveal. The arrest, and its description in court was undertaken by Tanner’s sergeant who had travelled with him to New York.  Tanner only arrived on the Victoria some hours later, accompanied by the witness John Death, to conduct an ‘identification parade’.

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’

It is perhaps natural that my greatest interest in this case centres around the involvement of my ancestor, Detective-Sergeant George Clarke.  Undoubtedly, it was Inspector Tanner who led the murder investigation. But as we all know from ‘Ripper Street’ and ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ all Detective-Inspectors are accompanied by a faithful Sergeant!

What is certain, is that the Thomas Briggs’ murder investigation was  the high water mark in Tanner’s detective career. In contrast, it proved to be the launching pad for Clarke’s even though he was already some 12 years older than Tanner. By the time that Franz Muller was hanged for Briggs’ murder, Clarke had already been put onto his next murder inquiry, the Plaistow Marshes murder.  In 1867, during his investigations into the Fenian Conspiracy, Clarke was promoted to Inspector and then in May 1869, at the age of 51, to Chief Inspector.  The outranked and younger Inspector Tanner retired a few weeks later in 1869 on grounds of ‘bodily infirmity’ and it does seem that poor health may have inhibited to some extent his progression within the Detective Department.  Nonetheless, Tanner still had sufficient energy in ‘retirement’ to run a pub in Winchester and to act as Secretary for his Fleet Street-based Lodge of Freemasons until his premature death in 1873.

Between 1869 and 1877, Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke was second-in-command of the Scotland Yard Detective Department, and tackled many of the major criminal investigations in that period, including several murders, serious thefts, arson, frauds and betting offences, the Tichborne Claimant case and the ‘Balham Mystery’ (the unresolved poisoning of Charles Bravo). Then, in October 1877 he found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey charged with corruption, alongside three of his Scotland Yard colleagues.  Though he was acquitted, there is little doubt that the notoriety surrounding the ‘Trial of the Detectives‘ has placed Clarke’s career in the historical shadows, or even (as in last night’s programme) completely off the cast-list.

'The Chieftain' a biography of Detective Chief inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

‘The Chieftain’ a biography of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, published by The History Press, 2011

Nonetheless, despite my personal niggle, last night’s production team produced an entertaining programme of high quality.  I would like to see more of the same please, but an extended running time and a bigger budget for a larger cast, to ensure that the ‘Sergeants’ in this world (who may ultimately prove to be particularly interesting) also get a look-in.  In the meantime you might like to read Kate Colquhoun’s excellent book ‘Mr Briggs’ Hat’ to flesh out last night’s progamme and, of course, my recent biography of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke, ‘The Chieftain‘.

Posted in Victorian Detectives | 6 Comments