James Jacob Thomson and the Ottoman Connection

I’m off to Turkey tomorrow for a long-awaited vacation. Yes, I realize that no sane person heads to that part of the world in July, but as it’s already 35oC with the humidex in Ontario, it’s really just a lateral move at this point.

Glancing through my travel book this morning, I remembered that one of the cities I will be visiting, Izmir (formerly Smyrna) has a connection to Scotland Yard’s detective force: it was the birthplace of James Jacob Thomson.



Thomson, born on Valentine’s Day 1837 to an English merchant father and Italian mother, spent his early years in Smyrna and Paris until the family returned to England in 1844.[1] Thompson had been a policeman in the Metropolitan Police briefly in 1856, but left to serve in the Devonshire and Hampshire constabularies. When he returned to the Met in 1862, he reentered as a detective sergeant.

He rose quickly through the Detective Department, the result of his knack for undercover work and his facility for languages. During a time when the literacy of most police recruits was limited, Thomson was fluent in French, Italian and, unusually, Greek.[2] His talents were especially useful when the Home Office or police commissioners required correspondence translated; given the sensitive nature of police and diplomatic papers, translation was often entrusted to the several detectives who spoke foreign languages.[3]

Thomson was an active officer and his progress through the ranks was swift. Many of the cases he investigated were high-profile, which no doubt contributed to his success. In July 1863 Earl Spencer rewarded Thomson and his colleague detective sergeant Beard for helping to uncover and prosecute two extortionists. The two young felons had threatened to accuse Spencer of a crime if he did not pay them. One of the perpetrators was sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude, although his accomplice was acquitted. Thomson received £15 from the grateful Earl and a further £2.2.0 from the nobleman’s solicitors.[4]

Thomson was promoted to detective inspector fourteen months after his return to the force. This was record time by Metropolitan Police standards, meaning that by March 1864 he was one of the senior officers of the Detective Department. No slouch, he continued to earn his keep by heading up a team of sixteen men to investigate the Manchester Stamp Office burglary.



The burglary took place on May 26, 1863 when Charles Batt, Charles Leeson, William and Thomas Douglas stole £10,000 worth of stamps from a safe in the Manchester Stamp Office. After more than three months of investigation Thomson found two of the suspects in a betting ring in Doncaster and arrested them. He received an immense £70 reward, the lion’s share of £200 awarded by the Hon. R.E. Howard, Distributer of Stamps in Manchester, to the seventeen London policemen involved in the case.[5] At the end of the same year Thomson received another £10 gratuity for “gallant and courageous conduct in the apprehension of Richard Burke, charged with Treason Felony.”[6] It was a good year for the inspector, who was enjoying significant professional and pecuniary success as a London detective.

Thomson’s ascent continued over the next few years. Along with the rest of the Detective Department, he received commendation for his work detecting Fenian conspiracies in 1868. He also found time to help exonerate a man tried and convicted as a sheep stealer, earning a silver-plated tobacco case from friends of the vindicated man.[7] In May 1869, just seven years after entering the Detective Department as a sergeant, Thomson was promoted to detective chief inspector (the new senior detective rank created that year) and his annual salary increased to £250.[8]

Thomson’s meteoric rise culminated in his promotion to Superintendent in July 1869. He was given the stewardship of Holborn division, a post previously held by another former detective inspector, Nicolas Pearce. Holborn had recently been amalgamated with the now defunct “F” or Covent Garden Division, so Thomson’s new mandate was to police some of the most notorious turf in London. He never abandoned his detective instincts and still worked cases outside London when the Home Office or Commissioner required.[9] He remained Holborn’s superintendent until his retirement in 1887.

His story reveals much about the trajectory of talented men in the Detective Department during the mid-Victorian period. His tenacity and education combined to propel him swiftly through the ranks where he enjoyed significant professional success. His language skills helped expand a Detective Department increasingly relied upon to monitor foreigners in London. It also meant that when he retired in 1887 at the age of 50, he could rely on a generous annual pension of £283 to support himself and his wife.[10]


[1] Paul Begg and Keith Skinner, The Scotland Yard Files: 150 Years of the CID (London: Headline Publishing, 1992), 55.

[2] Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England (New York: Oxford, 2011), 69; Minutes of Evidence for the Committee to inquire into the System of Police (1868), 302.

[3] MEPO 2/23, 29 July 1862.

[4] This was a significant sum, given that detective inspectors’ salaries were around £200 annually, over three times the average adult man’s wage in the 1860s. Shpayer-Makov, The Ascent of the Detective, 111. MEPO 7/24, 17 July 1863. Trial is at the Old Bailey Online at t18630713-858.

[5] MEPO 7/29, 25 March 1867.

[6] MEPO 7/29, 9 December 1867.

[7] MEPO 7/30, 21 December 1868.

[8] HO 65/8, 12 May 1869.

[9] In the winter of 1871, for example, Thomson was “on duty in the country” for a lengthy period, requiring one of his subordinates to temporarily run E division in his absence. MEPO 7/33, 25 February 1871.

[10] MEPO 21/18.

** 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. 


5 thoughts on “James Jacob Thomson and the Ottoman Connection

  1. Hi Rachael. Very interested to read your blog on Thomson. Not sure if you have seen my blog posts about him at http://chrispaynebooks.com/blog/the-senior-detectives-at-scotland-yard-1869-chief-inspector-james-j-thomson/ , http://chrispaynebooks.com/blog/the-london-metropolitan-police-and-the-congress-of-berlin-1878-some-unanswered-questions/ and http://chrispaynebooks.com/blog/scotland-yard-detectives-in-the-victorian-era-online-and-other-digitised-resources/

    I don’t know if you are continuing to research and write about Thomson, but if so, I would be very happy to share my own research information with you. In particular, I have been fortunate to receive a contact from an ancestor of Thomson’s youngest sister, Clementine Thomson, whose family (in France) have a ‘scrapbook’ assembled by Thomson from about 1856 to 1880, which includes newspaper cuttings, photographs, and other relevant documentation about his career and his cases as well as his religious attitudes (he appears to have been a staunch Roman Catholic). In addition, because I am preparing a talk on Thomson for the Police History Society Conference in UK in September this year, I am assembling a draft chronology of his personal and professional life (with references), which I would be very happy to send you if you are interested; that document as it currently stands is very much ‘work in progress’ but you might find it useful.

    My personal perception of Thomson is that he was a resourceful and brave policeman with good social contacts which stood him in good stead, but he did fail to gain ‘successful’ conclusions in a number of major cases; e.g. the murder of Emma Jackson (1864; MEPO 3/70), the murder of Harriet Buswell (1872; MEPO 3/109-3/115 inclusive) and the sensational arrest and trial of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park for sodomy (1870-1871; DPP 4/6 and the recent book on the case by Neil McKenna ” Fanny and Stella; The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England”). I also think that there are some good insights to Thomson’s somewhat dogmatic attitudes to policing in the evidence he gave to a Home Office Commission in late 1877 (HO45/9442/66692; evidence he gave on 6 December 1877).

  2. Pingback: Scotland Yard Detectives in the Victorian Era; Online and other Digitised Resources | Chris Payne's Blog

  3. Hi Chris, thanks for the note. I’m focusing less on biographies of individual officers and more on their work and relationship with the Home Office and the public, but would appreciate a peek at your information on Thomson. I have most of his career information gleaned from the MEPO files, but am always looking to plug holes. I actually received an e-mail from one of Thomson’s French relatives at the same time as your note, and he attached some images of the book you mentioned. Best of luck with your talk in September!

      • Hi Rachel. For some reason I only received your July 2 2014 comment today (8 January 2018). I’ve no idea what happened in the intervening 3.5 years!! If you would like to contact me by email I’ll send you the Thomson material that I have assembled. Regards. Chris Payne

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