Scandal at Scotland Yard

In an older post I blogged about a policing scandal that led to the establishment of an official detective unit within the Metropolitan Police in 1842. Today, I thought I’d write about another policing scandal, called the Turf Fraud Scandal or the Trial of the Detectives. The fraud led to two trials in 1877 and harkened the end of this early era of detective policing at Scotland Yard. The first trial in April 1877 resulted in the conviction of four forgers. The second trial was the “Trial of the Detectives” where several senior officers were convicted of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.[1] This crisis highlighted corruption at the highest level. Once uncovered, it led to the reorganization of the Yard’s detectives into a more centralized investigative body called the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1878.

The Trial of the Detectives at the Old Bailey. The Graphic, 17 November 1877

The Trial of the Detectives at the Old Bailey. The Graphic, 17 November 1877

The Turf Fraud had begun in much the same way as many frauds in Victorian England did, with a newspaper advertisement. The fraudsters had created a fictitious betting periodical called The Sport and Racing Chronicle, parts of which they had translated into French and sent to France. The Sport indicated that a certain Mr. Montgomery had become so adept at betting on winning horses that bookies would no longer give him fair odds. As a result, he was searching for individuals to place bets for him. Interested parties would place bets on horses he endorsed with cheques provided by him and then send him the winnings (the horses invariably won) and he would repay them, again by cheques. The only problem was that although the money sent by victims of the swindle was legitimate tender, the cheques they received in payment were not.[2]

The swindlers made between £14,000 and £15,000 from the frauds before their capture, the biggest loser being a Parisian woman named Mme. de Goncourt. She had invested £10,000 with Mr. Montgomery and then asked her banker for further £30,000. The banker was suspicious, a good quality in a banker, and contacted Mme. de Goncourt’s solicitor in London. The solicitor made enquiries, quickly determined that the scheme was fraudulent and notified Scotland Yard.[3]

Two of the criminals, William Kurr and Harry Benson. The Illustrated Police News, 17 November 1877.

Two of the criminals, William Kurr and Harry Benson. The Illustrated Police News, 17 November 1877.

The men behind the fraud eluded capture because they were paying senior-ranking members of the Detective Department to keep them out of trouble. So when Mme. de Goncourt’s solicitor contacted the police, the case fell into the hands of men who already knew the fraudsters and protected them. The criminals’ luck eventually ran out in Rotterdam, where they were arrested and extradited back to England. Upon their return, they quickly began to talk about the corrupt detective officers who had protected them. Detective Chief Inspectors William Palmer and Nathaniel Druscovich as well as Inspector Meiklejohn (you can see the house that Meiklejohn bought with his hush money on the right) were all involved in this cover up. A fourth, Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke was acquitted but retired thereafter.[4]

The Turf Fraud Scandal, the subsequent Trial of the Detectives, and the Creation of the CID indicate that there were some profound issues of accountability within the Detective Department. Yet, Scotland Yard’s detective force withstood the embarrassment. Detective policing had proven a valuable part of London’s policing apparatus in the decades after 1842. Detectives were essential to the successful investigation and prosecution of felonies and were (to be discussed in a later post) also in great demand by the Home Office.

Although the creation of the CID ended the first era of detective policing in England, it did not mean the end of detectives. The ranks of the CID were 800 strong by 1884,[5] and after this the expansion of detective policing and political policing in England quickly accelerated.[6] Special Branch and MI5 owed their existence to the (mostly) professional and successful work of the Detective Department, which broke down public suspicion of detective policing. By the late 1870s, detective policing was no longer considered a threat to British liberties but indispensable to their maintenance.

[1] The trial of the forgers Harry Benson, William Kurr, Charles Bale, Frederick Kurr and Edwin Murray can be found here. The detectives’ trial can be found here.

[2] These were drawn against the non-existent Royal Bank of London. Chris Payne, The Chieftain: Victorian True Crime through the Eyes of a Scotland Yard Detective (Stroud: The History Press, 2011), 200-201.

[3] The Times, 20 July 1877.

[4] MEPO 21/14.

5] Martin Fido and Keith Skinner, The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard: Behind the Scenes at Scotland Yard (London: Virgin Publishing Limited, 2000), 457.

[6] For a discussion of the CID and Special Branch, see Bernard Porter, The Origins of the Vigilant State: The London Metropolitan Police Special Branch before the First World War (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987).

** This post is the result of independent academic work. 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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