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.
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)
James 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).