Remembering the heroes of the Yard
Detectives didn't always have lots of cutting-edge technology at their beck and call, but they still got the job done. A new book honours top policemen from the past. STEVEN RUSSELL reports.
Dick Kirby has an enduring love of policing – and particularly for Scotland Yard's Serious Crime Squad and the Flying Squad — the Sweeney — of old, with whom he spent half his 26 years as a Metropolitan Police officer.
Alongside him walked the ghosts of great detectives from the past: men who had generally enjoyed basic formal educations, and obviously lacked modern tools such as DNA science and computer databases.
What they did have was intuition, an intimate knowledge of their 'manor' and a tireless work ethic – and that took them a long way. They pumped their informants, pursued their hunches and sunk their teeth into investigations – shaking them hard until every last piece of evidence fell out.
These men were the true Guv'nors – the highest unofficial accolade bestowed upon an officer in the Met, of the rank of inspector or above, by his team.
Dick Kirby, an East Ender who joined the Met in 1967 and now enjoys retirement in East Anglia, honours 10 of Scotland Yard's finest detectives in his latest book.
Such a group of intrepid crime-busters will never exist again, he reckons. Among them is Fred 'Nutty' Sharpe, 12 years on the Flying Squad and latterly its chief, who would single-handedly confront 40 of the worst racetrack gangsters and tell them to sling their hook. Anyone who failed to take his advice would collect a punch on the jaw.
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There's Bob Fabian, immortalised as Fabian of the Yard, who was awarded the King's Police Medal for dismantling an IRA bomb in Piccadilly in 1939. The story is also told of Bert Wickstead, 'The Gangbuster', who terrorised the thugs trying to fill the void in the East End left by the Krays.
Arguably the greatest of them all, however, was Fred Wensley – a policeman who once nailed strips of bicycle tyre to the soles of his boots while looking for Jack the Ripper and went on to form the Flying Squad of crack detectives.
Born in Somerset in 1865, Wensley travelled to London to join the Met. Posted to Lambeth as a constable, he had a rough baptism, being thrown through a pub's plate-glass window while trying to halt a drunken fight.
The Jack the Ripper murders gripped the capital during his first year and he was among hundreds of officers drafted in to patrol the mean streets of Whitechapel.
The East End was then a filthy melting pot of violent crime, and Wensley could hardly wait to return to the green pastures of Lambeth, says Dick. Two-and-a-half years later he was back in the East End, however – staying for 25 years and growing to love the area.
He proved a fine policeman. 'Wensley's commendations spiralled into the hundreds and set a record which has never been broken.' Off duty, he would regularly change into plain clothes before going out again to meet informants, conduct surveillance and make arrests.
Dick gives a gripping summary of some of Wensley's successes in apprehending violent criminals and thieves as well as dealing with was gang warfare between rival groups of Russian immigrants: the Bessarabians and the Odessians.
Then, almost exactly a century ago, three City of London officers were shot dead and two wounded by a gang of Latvian criminals.
Wensley and his men had traced the killers to a flat in Stepney, beginning what came to be known as the Siege of Sidney Street.
The gang opened fire and Det Sgt Ben Leeson was shot in the chest. 'The only way to get him to hospital was across a roof,' explains Dick. 'Wensley supervised his evacuation and remained on the roof until the stretcher party was clear, while he was pinned down by a hail of bullets.'
Some 500 officers cordoned off the streets and marksmen from the Scots Guards were summoned. 'Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary in the Liberal government and never one to miss out on some well-timed publicity, turned up and directed operations.'
Two gang members were killed and others arrested.
In 1912 Wensley was promoted to the rank of detective chief inspector and in 1916 moved to Scotland Yard and the murder squad. There he worked out the details to make reality the assistant commissioner's idea of a streamlined and flexible body of detectives.
He called together 12 crack detectives to work anywhere in London they were needed.
In 1924 Wensley was appointed chief constable of the CID, overseeing the continued growth and reputation of the Flying Squad before he retired. Dick calls him the founding father of the Flying Squad.
Dick says Scotland Yard's reputation was forged by the hard work and dedication of its CID and the commitment of its officers. 'When a particular crime resulted in screaming headlines and extensive publicity, these detectives used their extensive experience, powers of leadership and natural abilities to achieve the necessary results. They were heroes at a time when heroes were needed.'
The former detective superintendent asserts: 'One thing is for sure: their like will never be seen again.'
t The Guv'nors: Ten of Scotland Yard's Greatest Detectives is published by Pen & Sword Books, priced at �19.99