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A Detective Police Party [i]

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Report i
Subjects Crime; Criminals; Punishment; Capital Punishment; Prisons; Penal Transportation; Penal Colonies
Police; Detectives; Mystery and Detective Stories; Mystery; Mystery Fiction; Forensic Sciences
Other Details
Printed : 27/7/1850
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume I
Magazine : No. 18
Office Book Notes
Memointerview with Scotland Yard police
Views : 6882

The Detective Branch of the Police was established in 1842 with two detectives attached to each division of the force and two inspectors and six sergeants at headquarters in Scotland Yard. Their role was primarily to prevent crime happening rather than to detect criminals after the event, and their necessary contacts with the criminal world made them initially the object of much public suspicion. A series of successful cases of tracking down perpetrators of crime, culminating in the celebrated Manning murder case referred to here by Dickens (a case in which nearly all the officers he is entertaining were directly involved), led to a change in the public's attitude and this is reflected in the intensely admiring series of articles Dickens published in HW. The first of these, by Wills, entitled 'The Modern Science of Thief-taking', appeared on 13 July and compared the detective to a connoisseur of paintings â€“ he 'at once pounces upon the authors of the work of art under consideration, by the style of performance'. Wills also asserts that detectives are 'so thoroughly well acquainted' with the kind of criminals known as 'swell mobsmen' (clever confidence tricksters, superior pickpockets, etc.) that 'they frequently tell what they have been about by the expression of their eyes and their general manner' (HW, Vol. 1, pp. 369, 371). 

      In this follow-up article Dickens describes his entertainment at the journal's office opposite the Lyceum Theatre of a group of detectives from the Yard, giving them transparently fictitious names. Joan Lock points out in her Dreadful Deeds and Awful Murders: Scotland Yard's First Detectives 1829–1878 (1990, p. 121) that Robert Walker (Dickens's 'Stalker') was not, in fact, a detective inspector but a member of Scotland Yard's Executive Branch. Three of the sergeants, 'Dornton' (Thornton), 'Witchem' (Whicher) and 'Straw' (Shaw) and 'Fendall' (Kendall), were later recruits. 'Inspector Wield' was Charles Frederick Field, whom Dickens greatly admired and on whom he famously modelled Inspector Bucket in Bleak House (1852–4), 'corpulent forefinger' and all. For more on Field, see p. 356f., and for an excellent general discussion of Dickens and his hero-worship of the detective police, see Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime (1962), Ch. 9. Dickens's admiration was apparently reciprocated: he wrote to Bulwer Lytton on 9 May 1851 that Field was 'quite devoted' to him and that 'Any of the Detective men will do anything for me' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 380). 
      Field's story about 'Fikey, the man accused of forcing the Sou'Western Railway debentures,' refers to a case that was sub judice when the article was published (William Eicke was eventually found guilty and transported for seven years) and Wills had to make some alterations to Dickens's manuscript because of this – see Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 130, n. 1. For more on this case and on Field's further dealings with the Eicke family, see W. Long, 'The "Singler Stories" of Inspector Field', The Dickensian, Vol. 83 (1987), pp. 141–3. 
      With regard to Dickens's contemptuous remarks about the old Bow Street Runners, we should note Collins's comment (op. cit., p. 202) that in portraying Blathers and Duff in Oliver Twist (1837) Dickens showed himself 'impressed by their professional pride, expertise and patter' and that 'the tones and the relish' of the detective anecdote they relate closely anticipate his presentation of the detectives' tales in this piece. 

Literary allusions

  • 'Our hearts leaping up when we beheld this rainbow...': Wordsworth, 'My heart leaps up when I behold...'
Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume II: 'The Amusements of the People' and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews, 1834-51 (1996). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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