The Guv’nors: heroes when heroes were needed

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 adores his wife and family, but there’s also room in his heart for his enduring love of policing – and particularly for Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Squad and the Flying Squad 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 west Suffolk, 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.

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Wensley was born in Somerset in 1865 and nurtured the dream of becoming a detective. In 1887 he travelled to London to join the Metropolitan Police. 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.

Wensley became a CID officer in 1895. There was no forensic science service in those days, with officers relying on information gleaned, observation and pure detective skills. Six months after joining CID he arrested a murderer while off duty; the killer hanged in London’s last triple execution.

Dick gives a gripping summary of some of Wensley’s successes in apprehending violent criminals and thieves. It includes running to ground robbers who tied up a 71-year-old jeweller, bringing to book a gang of burglars that targeted wealthy suburbs and thwarting protection racketeers whose methods in intimidating those who declined to pay included shooting, stabbing and arson.

Also having to be dealt with was gang warfare between rival groups of Russian immigrants: the Bessarabians and the Odessians. One of the Bessarabians was a man called Max Moses, who boxed under the name Kid McCoy. Further trouble came in the shape of Russian and Romanian conmen who tried a “gold brick” swindle on an East End businessman.

Wensley’s performance saw him promoted to detective sergeant and detective inspector.

Then, almost exactly 100 years ago, three City of London officers were shot dead and two wounded by a gang of Latvian criminals. By the new year, Wensley and his men had traced the killers to a flat in Stepney, and on January 3 began 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.”

Five-hundred 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.

For Wensley, there was little time to rest. He was asked by another division to help trace the killer of an East End receiver of stolen goods, whose body had been found by Clapham Common. “Five days after the siege at Sidney Street had ended, Wensley had identified and arrested the murderer.” Steinie Morrison was a hardened criminal who had served sentences totalling 12 years – his latest stretch five years in Dartmoor for housebreaking. He’d attacked a fellow prisoner and a warder – receiving 20 strokes of the cat o’nine tails and three months in chains on a diet of bread and water. Morrison had been out of prison only six weeks before committing the murder.

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. Drawn from different divisions, they would range widely and fight major crime. In the autumn of 1919 the police commissioner adopted Wensley’s plan and the officer was made one of four detective superintendents on special duty.

He called together 12 crack detectives to work anywhere in London they were needed. Before they were given the use of motor vehicles, the team had two horse-drawn wagons with spy holes – and slots where boards painted with the names of firms could be inserted so the wagons blended into the neighbourhood. Basic, yes, to the modern eye, but mightily successful in surveillance terms. Numerous criminals were caught in the act. A newspaper report in September, 1920 – following the arrests of a violent gang of shopbreakers – coined the phrase “flying squad” and it stuck, though it would be a year before it was adopted by the hierarchy at Scotland Yard, writes Dick.

In 1924 Wensley was appointed chief constable of the CID. The reputation and effectiveness of the Flying Squad continued to grow. In 1929 it made more than 500 arrests and in August of that year its manpower was raised to 40.

Wensley – who was made an MBE in 1920, with the OBE following – retired after more than 40 years’ service. An entry in Police Orders saisd: “The secretary of state has expressed his appreciation of Mr Wensley’s long and exceptionally distinguished service . . .”

On a pension of �600 a year, the detective retired to his home in Palmers Green with wife Laura “and his remaining years were spent quietly, tending his beautiful garden and amassing a large collection of exquisite Goss china. . .” Fred died in early December, 1949, at the age of 84. Dick calls him the founding father of the Flying Squad. He quotes Lilian Wyles, the Met’s 23rd policewoman: “Because he solved so many famous crimes by finding clues a lesser man might overlook, Frederick Wensley will always remain Scotland Yard’s greatest detective.”

The book’s foreword is written by Leonard “Nipper” Read, the detective who led the team that put away East End villains Ronnie and Reggie Kray.

He says Scotland Yard’s reputation was not created by its use of new policing methods or the introduction of imaginative road management schemes. Rather, it 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.”

They were unlike modern-day equivalents portrayed on TV. “It should be remembered that times were different when they were young policemen. It may have been fortuitous to settle some matters with their fists in those days or to disrupt the expectations of a trainload of pickpockets by warning them off the turf. That was the way the law was expected to be enforced in those days.”

The former detective superintendent asserts: “One thing is for sure: their like will never be seen again. The opposition to the personality culture which sought to play down the achievements of officers who began to distinguish themselves, the abolition of the career detective and the change in police procedures with regard to the investigation of major crimes have taken care of that.”

n The Guv’nors: Ten of Scotland Yard’s Greatest Detectives is published by Pen & Sword Books at �19.99

Suffolk’s Sweeney

Dick Kirby was born in the East End of London and joined the Metropolitan Police in 1967

Half his 26 years’ service was spent with Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Squad and the Flying Squad

Dick was commended 40 times for his work in catching criminals

He’s married to Ann and has four children and five grandchildren

The couple moved to a home near Bury St Edmunds after he retired

Dick has written many books about the police, including Rough Justice, The Real Sweeney, You’re Nicked! and Villains

He also gives talks on ‘The Golden Age of Policing’

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