Who is a detective?: A Lesson in Keyword Searching

One of the difficult things about studying detectives is that they can be difficult to define. What is a detective? Is it someone who does what we in the 21st century would call ‘detective work’? Is it someone who self-identifies as a one? Or is it someone who is officially labelled a detective? As I researched my dissertation this was one of the concepts I had to grapple with. I had assumed that my definition of detective, an officially titled member of a police force doing investigative work out of uniform, was the definition. I was quickly disabused of this notion.

Detective search

I first encountered a problem when searching the Old Bailey Sessions Papers. My keyword was ‘detective’ and I had hoped to quickly and easily isolate the members of the London Metropolitan Police Detective Department (1842-78) and their work on felony cases. What I found were hundreds upon hundreds of hits. After sorting out the cases where the word hadn’t been used in the context I was thinking of, I had to get down to the business of sorting out the ‘real’ detectives from the remaining two-thousand results.

What I defined as a ‘real’ detective was someone who I knew had been hired to the Detective Department at Scotland Yard (quite a small group of between 8 and 29) during the existence of the Department. What I found were a litany of individuals describing themselves or others as detectives, official, private or otherwise. I did find many cases where my official detectives used the word to describe themselves, but they often – especially in the 1840s – eschewed such characterization. What was I to make of this? I knew that these men were part of the small cadre of official detectives, but they either did not feel the need to make the distinction in court, or this fact was simply not recorded.

On the other hand, sometimes members of the public referred to a regular, that is uniformed beat policeman, as a detective. This could have been for two reasons. The first (which I will write about in an upcoming post) was that they were investigating crime out of uniform. Although not officially sanctioned, this type of activity did occur, and it can be no surprise that the public assumed that doing detective duties made one a detective. Charles Dickens wrote about the Metropolitan Police detectives in Household Words and both he and Wilkie Collins used Met detectives as the inspiration for characters in their crime novels. With such publicity, it is hardly shocking that members of the public used the word detective to describe those who investigated crimes, whether the individual had the official stamp or not.Bleak House Cover

In other instances, I came into contact with the City of London police force. Here, too, were policemen describing themselves at detectives, and I had to sort them out from Met officers. It of course made sense that City officers would be witnesses in felony cases at the Old Bailey, considering it was the central criminal court for the City of London as well as Middlesex. Lesson learned.

After completing my OBSP research I realized that I had to conceptualize of detectives in different ways. I had taken my definition for granted and had to accommodate fluidity in the nineteenth-century definition of the term. Luckily, my mistake helped me identify a new area of inquiry: plainclothes policemen. These regular police officers did occasional detective work and increasingly began to think of themselves as specialized investigators. Since their work was so pervasive, they have merited a chapter of their own in my dissertation! I will be blogging about them in the future because their work is an important – yet under researched – part of policing Victorian London.

** This post is the result of independent academic work and is intended for future publication by the author. Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author (reblogs excepted). Any questions or concerns can be directed to Rachael Griffin via the Feedback page


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