The Real PIs of Victorian London

Private DetectiveAfter a month’s hiatus from the blogosphere/Twitterverse I have returned to the land of the living with a little post about private investigators (or PIs). I came across private investigators during the early stages of my research. They were one of the groups who popped up among the (many) results of my keyword search for detectives in the Old Bailey Sessions Papers. I put their references in a separate file for a rainy day and, it seems, that day (it did rain in little London today!) has come.

The English criminal justice system relied on victims to prosecute. The state intervened to prosecute high profile felonies, such as sedition or, occasionally, murder. [1] Victims, however, remained a significant part of the prosecutorial system, although the expansion of summary jurisdiction allowed the state more power to prosecute summary offences in the absence of a victim.[2] Alongside the creation of police forces and the expansion of summary justice, another group of individuals emerged: private investigators. These investigators were entrepreneurs who expected to be paid for their time, but they were also interested in helping victims to gather information. In many cases, PIs were drawn from the pool of retired police officers with experience collecting evidence. In other instances, PIs were simply individuals with the time or inclination to take up this line of work. The examples that follow are from the period between 1855 and 1875.

Charles Frederick Field

Charles Frederick Field

Charles Frederick Field, a veteran of the Met’s Detective Department, began his own “private Inquiry Office” in the City following his retirement in 1852. He even hired a “superintendent” to oversee the work of the office. Field did not always wait for clients to come to him. In 1856 he visited the well-to-do family of John Parsons Cook, the victim of a fatal poisoning. Cook’s stepfather told the trial jury that Field visited him but that he had not retained his services. I can only assume that Cook’s £12,000 legacy may have influenced Field’s attempt to involve himself.[3]

Other regular beat constables also tried their hand a private investigatory work. Alfred Mitchell and Joseph Lambert, both former officers, were employed by a firm of solicitors to gather information on a conspiracy brief. Their former superintendent at St. James’s division had put them in contact with the firm, presumably after being asked to recommend discreet men to gather information.[4] Such skills clearly made an impression on solicitors. In December 1855 the firm of Gray and Berry employed former police sergeant Stephen Taylor to help track down a young man accused of kidnapping a young woman. It turned out the girl had willingly run away with her beau to be married but, she being under sixteen, both he and his father (who aided their unsuccessful elopement) were found guilty of kidnapping.[5]

On the amateur side, William Henry Burgess and William Robinson both described themselves as private detectives. Burgess even had printed business cards advertising his ability “to get up evidence in divorce, bigamy, county court, and other cases.”[6] Clearly there was a market for information gathering on unfaithful spouses. William Robinson seems to have acted as an intermediary between the public and the police. When Thomas Hormsley was accused of coining in October 1875, the manager of the bar where Hormsely passed the coin called on Robinson to apprehend the prisoner. Only after were the prisoner and the offensive coin passed over to the local police constable. Both Robinson and the policeman testified at Hormsley’s trial.[7]

Although this is only a small sliver of the PI world, it is a tantalizing glimpse. The men – and they were undoubtedly men – who worked as PIs probably ran the gamut from honest retired policemen looking to supplement their income to shady characters excited by the prospect of catching someone’s spouse in flagrante. In sum, I think these are neat little nuggets and I hope to be able to devote more time to private investigatory work in the future.


[1] Those who had enough money could hire a solicitor, who would gather information and prepare the case for trial. If the case made it to trial, the solicitor would then hand the brief off to a barrister who would represent the prosecutor in court J. M. Beattie Policing and Punishment in London, 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 384.

[2] Bruce P. Smith has also highlighted how the expansion of summary jurisdiction in many cases supplanted the need for victims to prosecute summary offences. Smith, Bruce P. “The Emergence of Public Prosecution in London, 1790-1850.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 29 (2006): 29-62.

[3] OBSP t18560514-490, 14 May 1856.

[4] OBSP t18670819-774, 19 August 1867.

[5] OBSP t18551217-142, 17 December 1855.

[6] OBSP t18690503-459, 3 May 1869.

[7] OBSP t18751025-581, 25 October, 1875.

** 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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