Curator of the Metropolitan Police Historic Collection

Artwork by Peter Spells 

May’s blog sees the start of a new series of interviews intended to give you an insight into the captivating work of curators around the world. For the first instalment, I was privileged to share a (virtual) coffee with Dr Clare Smith, Historic Collection Curator at the Heritage Centre dedicated to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), London.

Formed in 1829, the MPS is one of the oldest police forces still in operation today. Famous cases it has investigated include the Whitechapel Murders and the 10, Rillington Place Murders. Further afield, the MPS also investigated the Road Hill House murder of 1860 that’s been immortalised by Kate Summerscale’s book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. With such a long and rich history, it’s unsurprising the MPS has produced a veritable mountain of documents and objects. All of which must be preserved to inform future generations about this most fascinating of institutions.  

Please tell us a little about the Metropolitan Police Historic Collection and your role as its curator
The historic collection consists of objects and archive including documents and photographs that tell the story of the Metropolitan Police Service since 1829. While many people have heard of the Crime Museum (formerly the Black Museum) which holds the collection of objects associated with infamous crimes fewer people realise the MPS also has a collection that focuses on the police officers. We hold uniforms, equipment, archive documents, photographs, medals, weapons, archive material including Divisional Ledgers and Police Orders. This is a very exciting time for us as we are about to start a 5 year project to fully catalogue the collection which has never been done before.

As the curator for the Historic Collection my role is to lead the team who document and care for the collection and to present the collection for our audience via displays, loans, talks and research.

My background is museums rather than police so I am learning the ways of the Met! My interest in the history of the police stems from my PhD on how the Whitechapel Murders are depicted on film. In this I considered how the police are shown on film and compared this with the reality of the officers’ work during the 1888 murders.

What sorts of documents are stored in the collection? For example, could I read criminal records from the nineteenth century?
We hold a wide variety of documents in the collection including Records of Service for officers, official manuals, Divisional Ledgers, Police Orders, Pocket Books, official memos, committee minutes, financial reports, programmes from sporting events, social dinners, theatrical performances to name just a few.

We work with researchers across many subjects; last year we helped a student with an MA dissertation on uniforms, a researcher who was looking into the funding of the MPS in the 19th Century and a writer who was writing a book on the history of women police amongst many others.

In terms of criminal records anything that can be released is with the National Archives at Kew. We do hold a collection of memoirs by Nineteenth Century officers where they talk about the cases they were involved in during their career. One of the most famous detectives of the 19th was Frederick Abberline who was part of the investigation into the Whitechapel Murders and the Cleveland Street Scandal. In the collection we have Abberline’s press cuttings scrapbook that he compiled and annotated with notes. Interestingly he doesn’t mention the Whitechapel Murders at all.

What is the collection’s oldest document and object?
The oldest object is an original peelers hat circa 1840. The iconic Bobbies helmet was not the original headgear for the MPS officers. The first hat was a black top hat which was reinforced by bamboo to strengthen it. The idea was that the top hat would make the officer visible over the heads of other people in a crowd. The reinforced bamboo was  to protect the officer’s head in case of attack and according to urban legend was strong enough for the officer to stand on to look over walls. Our hat is in a fragile condition so we are not going to put this legend to the test!

The oldest document we have catalogued so far is a volume of Police Orders from 1857. Police Orders are day by day records of the Metropolitan Police Service including transfers, commendations, reports from social and sporting clubs, reports on how major events such as Royal visits and protests were to be policed, and punishments. Our set of Police Orders runs from 1857-1990 and they are an invaluable primary source. The downside is that I find myself getting distracted when reading them, especially some of the more unusual acts the officers have been fined or dismissed for.  Misdemeanours include being caught milking a cow while on duty, fishing in the ornamental pond at Kew Gardens while on duty and improperly in possession of two fruit trees!

What is the collection’s strangest document and object?
For the historic collection I think the strangest object is probably our Anti Garrotting Collar. This is a metal collar with barbed hooks worn around the neck. The idea was that it would protect the wearer’s neck from strangulation either by hand or wire. This device emerged from the garrotting panic of the 1860s where it was reported that criminals were using this technique to rob people in the street. As with many such panics the actual number of assaults was much lower than the perceived danger.

We have a few strange documents in the collection! There is the 1933 article entitled ‘Identification by Means of Teeth.’ We have a 1947 pamphlet ‘The Policeman’s Tea’ with a forward by the Commissioner on how to make the perfect cup of tea. The strangest and oddly formal title of a document we have is a ledger from 1907 with the title ‘Register of Special Observation upon Suspected Brothels’.  We are very intrigued to see what else our documentation project reveals…

Which services are available to help visitors engage with the collection? For example, for crime fiction writers like me researching the history of the Metropolitan Police for their next book, or for genealogists researching their ancestors’ occupations?
The Historic Collection is an amazing resource for both crime writers and genealogists among others. The Museum team facilitate visits to the archive so we always try to get as much information from researchers about their area of interest so we can provide them with the best selection of material.

For crime writers we would suggest looking at Police Orders but also training manuals and also examination questions for promotion exams. These indicate the type of investigative and forensic techniques the MPS was using at a specific time. We would also suggest reading police officer’s memoirs as primary source material about investigations, police culture and infamous crimes. One of the sources I think you would be interested in is a charge book dating from 1870s which records the crimes people were charged with and the sentence that they received.

For Genealogists Police Orders are great as they track not only transfers and promotions but also the social side of the MPS such as sporting achievements and recognition from law courts and reward funds. The divisional ledgers which record the collar numbers issued to the officer are also a great family history resource as they record place of birth and former occupation. During the 1870s we see a lot of men moving to London to become police officers from rural areas as the economy changes. Sadly we do sometimes have to dispel family legends that Great Grandad stood next to Churchill at Sidney Street or almost arrested Jack the Ripper or in one case was dismissed for being drunk on multiple occasions but we always try to add to a families knowledge of their past.

Why is it so important to conserve these documents and objects?
The history of the Metropolitan Police is interconnected with the story of London and the people who call the city home. We can trace changes and developments in economics, politics, sexuality, equality, literature, art, the monarchy, crime, the geography of the city through the history of the MPS.  

The objects and archive we care for are essential for telling this story. As the museum for the Metropolitan Police Service we are here to share the collection and to ensure that it is preserved for generations to come.

When can I visit?
We are currently preparing to move from our current location and we will hope to be open for research visits by the end of the summer.  

A massive thank you to Dr Clare Smith for taking the time to answer my questions, I’m certain you found her answers as interesting as I did. If you’d like to get in touch with the Metropolitan Police Service Heritage Centre you can do so by email at HeritageCentre@met.police.uk or by following the centre on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MPSHeritage 

~ T.G. Campbell, May 2020 

​​Bow Street Society logo artwork by Heather Curtis: mouseink@gmail.com

Copyright 2017 Tahnee Campbell. All rights reserved.

​info@bowstreetsociety.com                                                                                    Privacy Notice