Victorian London - Police and Policing - Metropolitan Police - New Scotland Yard

[- Vol.2 -]

[-p.3 -] 



    Protection is the keynote of the London police system. To secure the comfort and safety of the people, to shield and safeguard personal liberty, to protect property, to watch over public manners and public health - such are the aims and objects of the vast organisation which has its heart and centre in New Scotland Yard.
    The work of a police began, as its name implies, when men gathered together to live in a polis or city, and an essential part of good government was to empower a few to shield and defend the many. Despots used the weapon of the police to enslave and oppress; in these latter days a fussy and too paternal authority, moved by the best intentions, may tend to lessen the self-relianceof law-abiding citizens, but the latter are taught, and they have learnt the lesson, that the policeman, according to our modern methods, is their best friend. His more serious functions, coercion, repression, vindication, are, as a rule, kept in the background; most people rely upon him rather than fear him. It be his painful duty to arrest you and lock you up if you offend, but he must prefers to be your guide and champion, to help and stand by you at every turn. His eager and unremitting guardianship is everywhere constantly on view : at the crowded street crossing, when with uplifted finger he stays the multitudinous thunder of the traffic; in the lonely night watches, when he tries every door and window and, if needs be, rouses the careless householder to look to his fastenings, or, later, risks his valuable life against the murderous burglar. See the trustfulness with which the lost child trots beside him, hand in hand, securely confident of the kindness of this great man, who has babies of his own at home; see him against amidst the turbulent East-Enders, giving short shrift to the ruffianly wife-beater, or in Hyde Park at a stormy Sunday meeting, or at a fire, or after an accident. With gentle or rough, he is always the same civil-spoken, well-mannered, long-suffering but sturdy and uncompromising servant of the public.
    The constable on his beat, with the law at his back, possessing and exercising power and responsibility, is the outward and [-4-] visible sign of the ruling authority. He stands at one end, the Chief Commissioner, who only wear uniform on State occasions, at the other. The former is in actual contact with people and things; the latter inspires and directs him, acting through him as the unit that distributes the current, so to speak, of concentrated authority through all the ramification of the colossal machine. The Chief Commissioner is subject to the Home Secretary as his superior, and in that sense is not supreme, but within certain limits he is practically an independent autocratic ruler. He has great statutory powers, and it would take pages to give them in any detail. He really holds all London in the hollow of his hand. The streets and thoroughfares, the routes and arteries through the town, are subject to his regulations, so is every driver of any kind of vehicle, from the state coach of an ambassador to the automobile car. The 'busmen and the cabmen come to him for their licences, and to be tested in their skill in driving and knowledge of the streets; and one of the most curious sights is to see the police examiner at work, seated with his pupil on the box of a prehistoric 'bus, or old-fashioned waggonette, starting on the test journey, when practical proof of competence must be given.
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    The Chief Commissioner rules, too, at all times of rejoicing and equally of disturbance, preventing obstructions and maintaining order both on shore and on the Thames; the abatement of public nuisances is entrusted to him, the muzzling of dogs, the precautions against contagious diseases; he has the right to check gambling, and may send his myrmidons into a house to break up any coterie collected to play games of pure hazard. Crime, its prevention, pursuit, and detection are, of course, primary duties devolving upon the chief of police, and he has at command the personnel of the force, a magnificent body of men, a fine corps d'élite than any army has ever owned or any general has ever been privileged to handle in the field.
    All this and much more appertaining thereto would be beyond the personal ken of a single individual, and the chief has three principal assistants at this elbow to relieve him by a judicious division of the great mass of business that must be transacted day after day. These, the heads of the police hierarchy, are men of mark, having very distinctive qualities and gifts, and all of them public servants of approved value.
    There is little at first sight to associate the Chief Commissioner with the police officer and the stern duties he is called upon to discharge. Gentle, unobtrusive in manner, soft-voiced, of polished courtesy, he seems more fitted to shine in society than as the strict disciplinarian, the master of many legions, the great prefect of the greatest city [-5-] in the world. Yet he is a leader of men, strong and purposeful, ready to take a decided line and never weaken in it under pressure either from above or below. The old saying that the nation is happiest which has no history applies to the Metropolitan police, which after some periods of discontent and unrest, has long been quietly and peacably governed. The three Assistant Commissioners for general duties are long-tried officials, constantly engaged; and in addition there are four Chief Constables. India has always been a favourite recruiting-ground for our police officials, and many of the best have been obtained from there.ncy2.gif (44764 bytes)        Even if armed with the best credentials, it is not an easy matter to gain access to these chiefs. Constable-messengers meet all visitors to New Scotland Yard, subjecting them to strict inquiry and detention before ushering them in. Not only must the superior officers be spared interruption in the midst of business, which is incessant - for all matters, those even of minor importance, come before the department heads - but there may be danger, certainly inconvenience, in admitting strangers. In the worst days of the dynamite terror a daring ruffian got some way inside with an infernal machine, and irresponsible persons come who may be mischievous as well as importunate. The police are worried to death with callers on all errands, and on none more foolish than the desire to make spurious confession of some notable crime. One day a lady arrived in a cab with several children and a heap of baggage, clamorous to see the Chief Commissioner, and determined to go straight to gaol with all her belongings as the murderess of a soldier whom she declared she had killed, cut up, and buried. It was all nonsense, of course, but she was only got rid of by an ingenious ruse. Her chief terror was lest she should be separated from her children, and she was told this would not happen and she might remain at large if she would sign a paper promising to appear when called upon.
    Divide et impera. To parcel out authority and pass it on through various branches is an essential condition of a great public office. Decentralisation is constantly kept in view at police headquarters, and executive business is done for the most part locally at the twenty-two "divisions" or units of administration into which the Metropolis is divided. But the lines all centre, the threads are all held in New Scotland Yard, from which all orders issue, to which all reports are made, to which all difficulties are referred. This gives supreme importance to the telegraph-room department, the great department with its army of operators continually manipulating innumerable machines. Every division is in direct communication with headquarters; and the Chief has his fingers at all times upon every subordinate in every part of London. The unity of direction thus conferred is obviously most valuable: New Scotland Yard knows all that is going on, and can utilise at will and almost instantaneously its whole wide-reaching machinery. On one occasion this was amusingly illustrated when [-6-] the French police appealed for help in the arrest of a certain fugitive. The emissary came over with a photograph and full description, and the latter was at one disseminated through London. That same afternoon a constable stopped the very individual in Regent Street, and at a second call in the afternoon the prisoner was handed over to the French police officer. There was good luck in this, of course, but some good management, and it serves to show how extensive is police control. It may be added here that our police are by no means despised by their French confrères, although our peculiar ideas, by exalting the liberty of the subject, greatly limit the powers of our authorities.ncy3.gif (46754 bytes) 
   New Scotland Yard is kept constantly informed of the state of crime in the Metropolis. Every morning a full report of all criminal occurrences during the previous twenty-four hours is laid before the third Assistant Commissioner, the Director of Criminal Investigation. He sees at a glance what has happened, and decides at once what should be done. He has many expert subordinates and specialists within reach - men who have handled detective matters for many years with unerring skill. The best advisers are called into council when serious and mysterious crime is afoot, local knowledge also, the divisional detectives being sent for to assist those at headquarters. From the Director's office, after anxious conference, the hunt begins, any clue is seized and the scent cleverly followed until, as a rule, the game is run to ground.
    Detection and pursuit are greatly aided by other branches at New Scotland Yard. There is first the "convict office," at which all ex-prisoners discharged from penal servitude are obliged to report themselves, and, if sentenced to police supervision, to record their intended place of residence and proposed way of life. The conditions upon which release has been accorded before the expiring of sentence are plainly stated on the "licence" or document which is issued to all as their credentials or permission to be at large, and it must be produced at all times when called for. Often enough, the perpetrator of a new crime is to be found among these old hands. ncy4.gif (32149 bytes) The predatory habit is strong, and the shrewd detective on the hunt almost always looks first among the [-7-] licence-holders or ticket-of-leave men who are known practitioners in a particular line or "lay." It is no uncommon thing to take a man for a small matter and find he is the very one wanted for a greater. The chance "stop" or pick up of a suspicious-looking character leads to his identification as the author of a big job not yet brought home.
    When an arrest has been made, it is usual to pass the prisoner with as little delay as possible to Holloway Prison; but now and again a person suspected of mysterious or political crimes is taken to New Scotland Yard for examination of a special kind. There are many aids to identification, to stimulating recollection, at police headquarters. The stored archives, the records and registers and photographic albums are most useful. The search may be long and tedious, for there is a strong family likeness in the dangerous classes, the criminal brand brings features to one dead level, but many a dark horse has been revealed by his portrait in police hands. There are, however, more prompt and infallible methods of identification coming into force - for instance, the system of measurements after the plan of M. Bertillon for recording unchanging personal characteristics; and now the record of "finger prints" is to be more largely applied to all who come within the grip of the law. It was long since discovered in India that every human being carries a distinctive mark in the impression of his five finger tips on a white surface after they have been duly blackened. All we need now is a greater accumulation of these records, the extension of the system to all criminals in custody, and the legal power to enforce the "printing off" on all arrested persons. Comparison can then be instituted between the new and the old as classified in the central office, and certain identification must follow. At present, photographs, tattoo marks, and recognition, the latter carried out at Holloway and applied to all under suspicion, are still the chief guides.ncy5.gif (60453 bytes)
   The detective police officer, anxious to improve himself professionally, will find much [-8-] useful information in another branch at New Scotland Yard, the well-known Black Museum. This more than a collection of grim and ghastly curiosities, the relics of celebrated crimes, such as those pictured on the two preceding pages. It is a school wherein the intelligent student may learn lessons to serve him in the conduct of his business. The methods of criminals are revealed to him here; he may judge from the implements and tools of the craft how top-sawyers succeeded in it. Here are the "jemmy," the screw-jack, the rope ladder (Peace's), light and easy of carriage under an overcoat, the neat dark lantern made out of a tin matchbox, the melting pot and ladle of the coiners, with mould and other apparatus used by them; together with relics that reveal the more elaborate processes of the banknote forgers, such as copper plates, burins, lithographic stones, and so on. There are many deeply interesting relics in the Black Museum, such as the chisel, on which the syllable "rock" was scratched, that led to the detection of Orrock, the Dalston murderer; the rope with which Marguerite Dixblanc dragged the corpse of her murdered mistresses into the scullery; and others.
    There is another museum at Scotland Yard of a less gruesome kind, in which the exhibits are constantly changing. The Lost Property Office is an institution which has its humorous side, bearing witness to the carelessness of the public, and at the same time to the general honesty of its servants. Some forty thousand articles are about the average annual crop of things dropped or forgotten in cabs and public carriages, or mislaid, and the harvest is a strange one. All manner of property is passed across the police counter, brought in by cabmen and others, and handed back to its owners on proof and payment of the necessary fees; and among these are found such diverse articles as bicycles and perambulators, rabbits, cats, jewellery, umbrellas and sewing-machines.
    The Metropolitan Police is a mighty engine worked, happily, for good. It has been so admirably built up, so slowly and completely perfected, exercises such far-reaching and extensive functions, that it is well for the people of London it is ever devoted to their good, and acts primarily in their best interests. An organisation so powerful in the hands of despotic authority would make life a daily burden, and the word "liberty" would be an empty sound. But it is - as we may congratulate ourselves - the servant, not the master, of the public, and we need only blame ourselves if it should ever become the latter.

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902