Today, I’m thrilled to be hosting a guest post from Angela Buckley, a crime history author, who is researching detective history for a PhD at Oxford Brookes University. This post explores the daily lives of detectives in Liverpool Borough Police in the Victorian era.
Since the emergence of Sherlock Holmes in the 1880s, there has been an ongoing fascination with detective adventures. The iconic consulting detective often collaborated with his colleagues at Scotland Yard, about whom he was less than complimentary, but by the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his legendary stories, there were efficient crime-busting police detectives in other English cities outside the capital, including Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.
Liverpool Borough Police, one of the earliest ‘new’ police forces, was established in 1836. There were two divisions: North and South, covering the docks and the city streets which, in Victorian times, were teeming with inebriated sailors, sex-workers, notorious thieves and violent gangsters. From the very beginning of the Liverpool force’s history, plain clothes police officers were deployed, especially for investigating burglaries in the suburbs.
The first documented reference to a formal detective department was in 1845, when a detective superintendent was appointed to oversee the management of the team and its dedicated office at the police headquarters. (This is contemporaneous with the creation of Scotland Yard, at the Metropolitan Police.) By this time, there were eleven Liverpool police detectives investigating crime in the northern city. A major sea port, Liverpool had a high level of crime throughout the nineteenth century and was particularly infamous for its sex trade. In 1836, there were some 300 brothels, with 1,200 sex workers, who mixed with more than a thousand known male thieves throughout the city. More than 1,200 street children were also engaged in pilfering. Regular offences included brutal assaults, rioting and sectarian clashes, robberies from warehouses, shops and private residences, and disorderly behaviour, especially at night. The police had their work cut out.
From the very beginning, the detective officers were required to keep a daily record of their investigations. This was acknowledged in the first Inspectors of Constabulary report in 1857, in which it was noted that individual detective officers in Liverpool kept ‘a journal of his duties’. In fact the detective superintendent had implemented a strict daily régime. When information about felonies was received into the detective office, via the uniformed constables, the chief constable, or members of the public, the details were entered into a series of thirteen different log books, each relating to specific crimes, such as the Borough Robbery Book. The superintendent then selected a detective officer with the relevant experience to each case. The detectives started work at 9 a.m., when they received their instructions for the day. They usually began by interviewing the informant and following any leads. Individual officers were out on assignments all day and when they returned to the office in the evening, they entered their findings back into the relevant log book. If they moved outside the force’s jurisdiction, they had to remain in contact whilst they were away by telegraph.
In addition to tackling crime, Liverpool detective officers were involved in a wide range of duties, including conducting prosecutions in court, racecourse surveillance, protecting warehouses, and checking ships moored at the docks. They supervised royal visits, travelled overseas to apprehend suspects and undertook covert missions to track Irish nationalists. Detective Inspector William Cozens, one of the longest-serving and most experienced members of the detective team, summed up his duties: ‘They consist of investigating important cases, such as burglary, robbery on the high seas, cotton robberies, murders, and suspected cases of arson.’ During the Victorian period, high profile crime investigations included the prosecution of Florence Maybrick for murdering her husband, in 1887, which was followed with great interest throughout the nation.
Charles Dickens, a stalwart supporter of the police, who had famously interviewed Scotland Yard officers in 1850, visited Liverpool a decade later. After signing up as a special constable, the intrepid writer accompanied Superintendent Benjamin Ride on his nightly patrol into one of the most dangerous quarters of the city’s criminal underworld. When he recounted his experiences in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, he praised the Liverpool police force as ‘an admirable force…it is composed, without favour, of the best men that can be picked, it is directed by an unusual intelligence’.
A big thank you to Angela for sharing her research and insight into the intrepid detectives of Liverpool. You can find out more about her sleuthing work at victorian-supersleuth.com