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Authors: Andrew Cook

Tags: #M15’S First Spymaster

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Despite press scepticism, Vincent created the job through trial and error without experience, thanks largely to guidance from Sir Adolphus Liddell, a senior civil servant at the Home Office. Vincent, who was friendly with M. Lepine of the Sûreté, grasped from the start the international scope of crime, but had to create a frame within which everyone could work. A letter from the Home Secretary dated 14 September 1878 gently chides the new Director on the political niceties:

while direct communication between yourself and foreign police authorities for the
purposes of information
is unobjectionable, all demands for arrest, whether by telegram or otherwise, must be made through the diplomatic channel and the Foreign Office, and all demands for arrest on the part of the English police must be sent to the Secretary of State for transmission to the competent authorities abroad through the Foreign Office.

There was always pressure from abroad about London's refugees, and anarchists especially. Vincent was relaxed about social-democratic clubs, and thought they posed no threat whatsoever. And at first the Fenians were of no particular concern, for he discovered that there was a shadowy character called Anderson at the Home Office who monitored their activities. But anarchists were different. The anarchist movement was of course opposed to authority, but beyond that it split. While some simply wanted the freedom to do as they wished and expected that if everyone did so capitalism would just crumble away, others believed that this process would take too long unless given a helping hand. This ‘helping hand' was propaganda by deed; in other words, showing just how great life could be if you summarily got rid of the symbols of repressive order. Kings, seats of government, expensive restaurants and police headquarters were favourite targets chosen on the basis that ‘scum rises to the top'.

Vincent was aware that royal lives could be in danger from assassins, and also that continental governments believed the English dealt much too lightly with openly anarchist refugees. Certainly revolutionaries could meet and publish in London in a way they were not free to do anywhere else. It always irritated foreign countries when their home-grown anarchists fled across the Channel, wrote rallying cries to violent action, printed them and sent them home.

It was also politically awkward, as the Foreign Office for its own reasons would not, and would not be seen to, bow to political pressure to deal with foreign revolutionaries. Further, the British ruling classes claimed that a fundamental difference in political philosophy was involved: they claimed that the ‘safety valve' of social clubs, freedom of speech and movement and peaceful demonstration functioned well. Their relative liberality allowed them to keep an eye on potential troublemakers and defused revolutionary intentions in a cloud of hot air. So, with M. Lepine and others demanding action, and the Home Office and Foreign Office refusing to act, ‘Vincent... lived under a constant cross-fire of alternating censure'.
All he could do was visit socialist and anarchist clubs on the quiet, in disguise (which, according to his biographer, he did
), and make sure that there was strong but unobtrusive security around visitors like the Kaiser, who made a State visit in 1879. He also employed a single Scotland Yard inspector, Von Tornow, who quietly kept an eye on political insurgents from continental Europe.

The police force had some difficulty in accommodating itself to the new CID set-up. From the start in 1878 the uniformed men resented having a permanent plain-clothes branch in every division; they were seen as having a financial advantage, as one tradition carried over from the old detective force was that of rewarding them out of treasury funds. Over the years it had become a bounty system in all but name. They were not particularly well paid but could double their income if a senior officer recommended rewards by results in big cases.
Also, since there were fewer of them, they had the career advantage of being more noticeable in work, which by its nature required initiative.

Melville at least must have felt quite sanguine about his prospects in the force. Just seventeen days after his appearance at Southwark Magistrates' Court with his arm in a sling, on 20 February 1879 he got married. His bride was an Irish girl, Kate Reilly from a village in County Mayo, far north of Kerry but also way out along the west coast. She worked at Barratt's the drapers on the Westminster Bridge Road and they married just around the corner – in Southwark but still within a hundred yards of the Lambeth police accommodation – at St George's Roman Catholic Church.

Melville's confidence was justified. Four months after the wedding he was promoted from Constable to Detective Sergeant in the CID. He was now stationed in P Division, which abuts L Division and includes Camberwell, Walworth and Peckham, districts slightly further south of the river. He was still dealing with straightforward crime of the kind that is motivated by greed or jealousy rather than ideals, and still ending up in street brawls for his pains, according to
The Times.
An account of a case at Marylebone Police Court shows him making a difficult arrest in Clerkenwell.

A Mr Tufts, of Westbourne Park near Paddington, was first into the witness box, and described how he and his wife had gone out the previous Saturday evening at 7.00 p.m. and returned around midnight. They were still up at 1.00 a.m. when they heard a lot of noise upstairs and their two servants (who had been with them for years) rushed down terrified. The police were called. They found the attic skylight open and all in confusion, and a thousand pounds' worth of gold, jewellery and clothing gone from three bedrooms over two floors.

Melville explained to the court how the following Tuesday evening at 5.00 p.m. he, along with Inspector Peel and two sergeants of G Division, went to Clerkenwell and waited two hours for one of the suspected men, a twenty-seven-year-old ‘general dealer' called Armstrong, to come out of his house in Bowling Green Lane. He made the arrest, but Armstrong refused to go quietly and put up a furious fight. Quite a crowd gathered. It was probably not a crowd supportive of the police. Melville, by his own account (one detects an underlying bitterness) had just about reached the limit of his endurance when Inspector Peel finally broke it up.

At the police station, and at the houses of Armstrong and his co-accused, cash, revolvers, cartridges, diamonds and skeleton keys were discovered. One of the men was seen by Melville surreptitiously passing his ill-gotten gains to the wife of the other and, as in the earlier Lambeth case, both couples were charged. Detectives like Melville were aware of the usefulness not only of informants (for this arrest clearly depended upon information received) but of burglars' womenfolk to the breaking-and-entering trade. Women wore such a lot of clothes. At dead of night, a woman wearing a bonnet and cape over a voluminous dress could conceal the booty about her person and depart innocently arm in arm with her lover from the scene of the crime. If the fellow had to make a run for it, the police would pass her by and even if they didn't, they couldn't search her without taking her to the police station; there were no women police.

While stationed at P Division Melville probably worked out of Walworth Road Police Station. No.44 Liverpool Street, the house where he and Kate and their eighteen-month-old baby Margaret were living at the time of the 1881 census, would have been conveniently close. The street name was later changed to Liverpool Grove but the house is still there, one of a pretty, three storey terrace with Gothic windows opposite a leafy churchyard. It was a tranquil backwater, convenient for East Street market and omnibuses to the Elephant and Castle just half a mile away.

The Elephant and Castle was the major commercial centre for inner South London and its huge department store, Tarn's. At six storeys high with associated factories and accommodation for nearly three hundred staff, Tarn's was a magnet for eager ladies from nearby Blackheath and Dulwich, Clapham and Stockwell who could not resist – straight from Paris! – its parasols, hats, furs, dress materials (‘New Shades in French Beiges, Summer Serges, Indian Cachemires, and Merinos, Alpacas and Russell Cords'
), bedsteads, Davenports and Canterburies, overmantels and dressing sets, bamboo whatnots, and on, and on. No doubt Kate Melville spent a few rapturous hours gazing into its plate glass windows.

One woman who was quite a lot richer was also distracted by the delights of the Elephant and Castle in August of 1880. She took £400 in cash from her bank there: three £100 notes, one £50, four £10 notes and the rest in gold and silver. She put the cash in a purse inside a bag before setting off for an absorbing shopping trip with her little girl and her sister-in-law. When at last they caught a tramcar home to Clapham, she asked her sister-in-law for the money and was told the little girl had it; but the bag was open and the money gone. She asked the conductor urgently to stop the tram, insisting that she must return to the bank and get the notes stopped. He ignored her and rang the bell, but she grabbed her skirts, jumped off and hurried to the bank as her sister-in-law and daughter rode away.

Within weeks, Detective Sergeant Melville had traced some of the notes. The tram conductor had ordered a new suit from a Clapham tailor and changed a £10 note to pay for a gold watch and chain for his girlfriend. At Lambeth Police Court he was remanded week after week, but continued to insist that he had not only ‘found' the original cash, but ‘thrown away' the other £280. To help him remember where he had thrown it, he was remanded until November; and there
The Times,
infuriatingly, ends its tale.

In January of 1882 Melville's name appeared again when he was one of the officers investigating a couple of shoplifters;
and at the end of that year, he bore witness against a light-fingered, twenty-four-year-old assistant to a milk roundsman, who was accused of stealing from funds received, which he was supposed to deposit twice daily. He had been employed by the roundsman for four months. ‘Detective Melville in answer to the magistrate said he believed the prisoner had been living at a rather high rate, and on Sunday week had entertained some sixteen persons at dinner.'

Melville had now been a policeman for over a decade. The little family was growing. This year Kate had given birth to a baby girl also called Kate. Perhaps Melville expected to carry on indefinitely outwitting the burglars and embezzlers of South London until he retired; but the opportunity soon arose to become part of something altogether more exciting.


In March of 1883, when Kate was six months pregnant with their third child, Melville was offered a position within a new covert branch of the CID based at Scotland Yard. Headed by Superintendent ‘Dolly' Williamson, it would be called the Special Irish Branch (SIB).

Although the Special Irish Branch was new, its approach was not. It had developed out of existing efforts to contain Irish discontent. It was established in response to a Fenian bombing campaign which had begun in 1881 and was causing increasing alarm.

Since the Clerkenwell bomb of 1867 (an attempt to blow up the Middlesex House of Detention to release a Fenian prisoner), the British Government had employed Robert Anderson, an Anglo-Irish barrister, on Irish matters – that is, spying and counter-terrorism. At first he worked out of Dublin Castle where his brother occupied a senior position. The Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) relied on a network of clandestine agents all over Ireland (publicans, butchers, ordinary people in ordinary towns) to warn them of anti-British feeling. In other words they operated as an internal Secret Service. In England, this pro-active attitude to detection even of ordinary criminal cases had been considered too morally reprehensible to acknowledge as a police tactic until Howard Vincent took over the CID in 1877 and legitimised such cunning continental ways for use in criminal cases.

From 1868 onwards Robert Anderson was based at the Home Office in Whitehall, but he was not associated with the police. His position was anomalous for the next decade or so. From the start his most important agent was Henri Le Caron. Le Caron had been born Thomas Miller Beach in Suffolk. After four years working in Paris, at the age of twenty-one he emigrated to America and served in the Civil War, adopting a new French name and rising to become a Major. Afterwards he studied medicine. His contacts with Fenians during the war intrigued Anderson and on a visit to England in the autumn of 1867, they met at 50 Harley Street, where Le Caron – as he put it – ‘entered British service'. He would faithfully report the mood and intentions of those Irishmen in America who busied themselves raising money to drive the British out of Ireland.

In 1870, therefore, Anderson was able to take credit for gathering the evidence against Michael Davitt. Davitt, a Lancashire man originally from County Mayo who spent time in America and later became a Member of Parliament, was jailed for running guns into Ireland. And yet, Anderson fumed forty years later in his autobiography ‘this very time was chosen by the War Office to sell off stores of discarded rifles'.
Departments of state did not communicate with each other about security. The armed services had not yet confronted the realities of espionage, counter-espionage or terrorism. But if the success of a counter-terrorist effort is to be judged by the ability of a populace to go about its business unafraid, then Anderson and Le Caron between them successfully kept any Fenian threat largely out of the public's sight and mind throughout the 1870s. In this they were assisted by the Irish Americans' incompetence, in-fighting and dishonesty – as well as by betrayal from within.

In 1880 there was a change of Government and the Liberals came in. Anderson went on a six-month holiday, and had barely returned when Fenian intelligence spectacularly failed. In January of 1881 the United Irishmen of America blew a hole in Salford Infantry Barracks and their bomb killed the garrison butcher's seven-year-old son. In the Queen's Speech a few days later, Victoria declared her Government's intention to pass a Coercion Act for Ireland. Gladstone, now Prime Minister, had been drawn into this against his will. In Anderson's view, stated in his biography of 1910, a Coercion Act – which if passed would permit detention without trial, trial
in camera
or without a jury, curfews and other essential weapons of a police state – was entirely necessary in London as in Ireland; neither place could be governed without one.

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