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.
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.
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‘