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’ .
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).
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.
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.
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).
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‘.
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!