Orsam Books

The History That Never Is

A member of the Casebook forum called Phil Carter has been pressing me for some time to read a 2010 book by Alex Butterworth entitled The History That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents.  Apparently he wants me to read it in order to 'disembowel' it.  Thus, he told me on 18 September 2015:

 'I now FULLY expect you David to "disembowell" (sic) the efforts of... Alex Butterworth...'  (The Suckered! Trilogy thread, #430).

I don't think he really expects me to disembowel it because he seems to think it's one of the most wonderful books ever written. Back on 13 June 2010, for example, he posted:

'I recommend this book to anyone who really wants to get to know the happenings and involvement of Special Branch at street level.' (The Secret Special Branch Ledgers thread, #39).

At the same time, he claimed that the book is 'an impressive and extensive 482 page account of the underground workings of the Anarchists, Secret Agents, Special Branch Policemen, Politicians etc in the latter half of the LVP, much of which is centered around Whitechapel' and, more recently, has said that Alex Butterworth writes 'with great knowledge of the subject' (The Suckered! Trilogy thread, #430, 28 June 2015).

To me personally on 5 December 2016 he said:

'I humbly suggest you read Alex Butterworth's The World That Never Was from 2010'.

Apparently, he said, 'It will inform you that your "Life on Mars" p*sstaking comment makes you look rather silly'.

The 'Life on Mars' comment he was referring to had been made by me in a post telling him that a police officer who served in the Metropolitan Police Force in the 1970s would find going back in time and serving in the same force in the 1880s rather similar to the contemporary officer in the fictional TV series 'Life on Mars' who found himself magically serving in that force, under very different rules and procedure, a mere thirty years earlier.

So, at Phil's request and recommendation, I have taken a look at Butterworth's book. 

The first thing to say about it is that it is not, as Mr Carter claims, 'centered around Whitechapel'.  The majority of the book deals with secret police activity in continental Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, up to 1930s.  Very little of the book, perhaps five chapters out of a total of twenty-five, relates in any way to the work of the police in London and, of these chapters, a very small number of paragraphs relate to Whitechapel in any way.  Further, there is really only one chapter which deals with police in England in the late 1880s (i.e. Chapter 15, 'The Revolution is Postponed: London 1887-1890').  To the extent that the book does discuss the activities of the Special Branch in England, it focuses more on the 1890s and the work of Inspector William Melville.

Now, I would not wish to use the expression 'load of rubbish' about this book for fear that Mr Carter will be sent into a spasm of apoplexy due to my lack of respect for an actual living writer.  One would not want to hurt a living writer's feelings, obviously. As it happens, for all I know, the chapters about the secret police in continental Europe and the work of Rachkovsky, the chief of the Russian secret police, about which much of the book is concerned, are brilliantly researched, totally accurate and illuminating. 

I wouldn't know.  It's not a subject with which I am familiar.  All I can comment on are the chapters about the Special Branch in London.  As to that, I'm afraid to report that the book is far from 'impressive' and Mr Butterworth certainly does not show any 'great knowledge of the subject' as Mr Carter claims.  In fact, he gets just about all the major facts wrong.

He's not great on the minor facts either.  He spells James Monro's surname as 'Munro' throughout.  It's a common and understandable error but does not inspire confidence that here we have someone with a deep knowledge of the Special Branch.

And this is what Butterworth says about Edward Jenkinson (on p. 240): 

'Three years earlier [than the year of the Jubilee in 1887, i.e 1884], Jenkinson had been transferred to London, where Anderson, an Irishman by birth, was already working alongside Adolphus Williamson, the chief of the Metropolitan Police's counter-subversion division, Section D.' 

Let's leave aside that it's a bit of a stretch to say that Robert Anderson was 'working alongside' Adolpus Williamson in 1884 considering that they were in difficult locations in different departments: Williamson at Scotland Yard and Anderson at the Home Office.  It may be a little misleading for anyone who did not know anything about Anderson and Williamson but, okay, not entirely unreasonable considering that they were both assigned to secret anti-Fenian work in their respective departments. The certain fact, however, is that Mr Williamson was not the chief of Section D at that time, in 1884, because that section wasn't created until three years later, in March 1887.

For the same reason, the following sentence about Edward Jenkinson on page 240 is badly inaccurate.

'Expertly manipulating interdepartmental tensions, the newcomer had outflanked the heir apparent to claim Section D as his own fiefdom, with thirty agents at his disposal and a direct line of accountability to the Home Secretary.'  

Jenkinson most certainly did not claim 'Section D' as his own fiefdom considering it wasn't formed until after he was removed from any involvement with secret policing, which occurred in January 1887. He was, therefore, not 'head of Section D' as Butterworth describes him later in the book (p. 293).  

We can, of course, work out what Butterworth means.  He is wrongly using 'Section D' when he only means to refer to the joint force of the fledgling Special Branch at Scotland Yard and the secret agents under his personal control but it shows that he has no real knowledge of the subject he is writing about.

Then we have this statement on page 241:

'Only after it was revealed that the ringleader of the conspiracy to import dynamite from America for the Jubilee Plot was in fact a veteran British agent operating out of Paris and New York, and now being run by Jenkinson, was action taken to remove him from his position.'  

Butterworth should know that Jenkinson's dismissal in late 1886 (with his formal removal in January 1887) had nothing to do with any 'revelation' that he was running the ringleader of a conspiracy to import dynamite into England for any kind of Jubilee Plot to take place in the summer of 1887.  One assumes that Butterworth is referring to General Millen but Jenkinson's dismissal as head of the secret police was not connected with his relationship with General Millen (who, as far as is known, had been run by him as an agent in late 1885, for a three month term, with the full knowledge and approval of the Foreign Office).

When it comes to the so-called Jubilee Plot, namely a plot to blow up Queen Victoria at Westminster Abbey on Jubilee Day in June 1887, Butterworth tells us without offering any supporting evidence at all (p.240) that:

'The plot [against Queen Victoria at Westminster Abbey] itself had been initiated and guided over a period of many months by agents of the British police, with the acquiescence of Lord Salisbury's Conservative government: the decision to allow it to progress so far was a risk calculated to heighten popular outrage when the danger was finally exposed. Furthermore, the indirect target of the provocation was Charles Parnell and the other moderate advocates of Home Rule, whose names it sought to blacken.'

I don't know how to put it politely but this is utter tosh. No doubt Butterworth is thinking of Christy Campbell's Fenian Fire but, despite the melodramatic and wholly unsupported sub-title on the front of the book which says: 'The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria' , one does not find any evidence of such a government initiated plot set out within the book. The best that the author manages to establish is that one branch of Government was using informers or spies who were unknown to another branch.  The idea that the 'British police' (or its agents) initiated and guided a plot against Queen Victoria is wholly unsubstantiated and Butterworth comes no closer to substantiating it by simply stating that it happened.  

Furthermore, far from trying to heighten popular outrage against Parnell and others, the Metropolitan Police made efforts to downplay the existence of any such plot during the Jubilee week. As I set out in my article Reconstructing Jack  it was a few newspapers and the Central News Agency that stirred up talk of a potential dynamite threat at Westminster Abbey in Jubilee week, a threat that was quickly rubbished by none other than Scotland Yard via the Press Association on 17 June 1887.

As I also demonstrated in that article, the possibility of a threat to Westminster Abbey was nevertheless taken seriously by the authorities with the police given permission to make a full inspection of the Abbey and the vaults under it, and of all the platforms and galleries erected in it, during the 24 hours preceding the ceremony at the Abbey on 21 June. 

In claiming that Parnell was a target of the plot, Butterworth presumably has in mind the claim that the two bombers, Moroney (a.k.a. Melville) and Harkins were introduced to a member of Parliament, Joseph Nolan, a Parnell supporter, in August 1887 (after the Jubilee itself) by way of letter from the British spy General Millen (albeit that Nolan denied receiving such a letter).  Was this a British inspired plot to smear Nolan? One can speculate and theorize but it has to be acknowledged that this is all it is. In any case, given the timing of the meetings, they were too late to be connected to any Westminster Abbey plot but, to the extent they were linked with any kind of plot, it must have been a separate (and genuine) plot later in 1887 directed at Windsor Castle.

Ultimately, whatever the truth of the theory set out in Christy Campbell's book, Butterworth does not advance our knowledge one iota by simply repeating that theory (in more elaborate form) as if it is the absolute confirmed truth.

Then we find this complete clanger (on page 241): 

For Anderson too had embarked on a simultaneous intrigue of his own, forging documents that supposedly revealed Parnell's links to terrorism and leaking them to the Times for its 'Parnell and Crime' exposé that had begun early in 1887.'  

Nay, nay and thrice nay!   Butterworth has got terribly confused here about what Anderson actually did for the Times in 1887.  I have written all about it elsewhere (see Part 1 of the Suckered! Plus Quadrilogy) but suffice to say that it wasn't forging documents and leaking them to the Times.  If Butterworth can go so badly wrong about such an important factual issue then how can he possibly be expected to understand Anderson's actions in the 1880s?

Now you may think I have played a cheap trick and picked out a few mistakes made by Butterworth in order to undermine the credibility of the rest of it.  But trust me, there isn't anything else in there about Special Branch during the 1880s.  That's basically it for our purposes (aside from the single issue mentioned below). 

When it comes to the topic of perhaps most interest to Casebook readers, the Jack the Ripper murders, Butterworth does something strange.  On page 245 he lists the murders of Nichols, Chapman, Stride and Eddowes but then stops.  He doesn't mention, or allude to, the murder of Mary Jane Kelly at all but says, on page 246, 'by early 1889, with no new murders to report, interest in the Ripper began to wane.'

One assumes that Butterworth is aware that Mary Jane Kelly was a victim of the Ripper so it's probably not important. It's just strange.  But does Butterworth tell us anything at all about the Jack the Ripper murders?  This is the only bit of interest (from page 245):

'Special Branch ledgers of the period have been construed to suggest...that the killings were carried out by the Branch itself, to cover up Jenkinson's employment of Catherine Kelly and her husband as agents,...'

Well, "construed" by whom, you may wonder.  It turns out to be someone called Felicity Lowde, referred to as 'Lowdes' by Butterworth in his source references.

It's a good way of getting in some dubious information without actually saying it oneself.  Blame it on 'Lowdes' if it's wrong.

Wrong it surely is.  The notion comes from a couple of entries in the now destroyed Special Branch ledgers which, as can be seen from a rather poor copy, state:

Kelly, John - file re., received from Mr Jenkinson

Kelly, Catherine - statement of, re murder of [unclear] 

Ms Lowdes deciphered the unclear murder victim as being someone called McDoughty. 

The appearance of John Kelly and Catherine Kelly together in the ledger has led some to think that Catherine Kelly was none other than Catherine Eddowes and that this proves that Eddowes was murdered because she was a Special Branch agent or informer.  As we have seen, Butterworth gives credence to the possibility that Eddowes was actually murdered by Special Branch officers.

We can safely ignore such a possibility.  The 'John Kelly' referred to in the ledger is probably John Moran, a.k.a. John Kelly, who was an informer for the police concerning the 1881 murder of Peter Doherty in Craughwell, County Galway.  He gave evidence for the Crown which resulted in two convictions for this murder in 1884, before being assisted by the British Government to relocate to San Francisco due to his life being in danger if he remained in Ireland.*  At the time of the Ripper murders he was in British Columbia, having been relocated again to Canada after his cover was blown in San Francisco (FO 5/1932; and see also The Case of the Craughwell Prisoners during the Land War in Co. Galway 1879-85 by Pat Finnegan).

When living in Ireland, John Moran had married a woman called Maria Kelly whose sister was one Catherine Kelly.  This Catherine Kelly, after having emigrated to the United States, gave a statement to the British Consul in San Francisco in December 1885 concerning the murders of Peter Dempsey and Constable James Linton in Galway some four years earlier about which she claimed to have information (FO 5/1932).  This statement was sent to London.  For that reason, the Catherine Kelly in the entry in the Special Branch ledger is probably the sister-in-law of John Kelly (i.e. John Moran) and, if this is correct, the statement referred to in the ledger probably relates to the murder of 'Mr Dempsey'.

Catherine Kelly was known to be alive and well in February 1889 and married to a man called Conley (FO 5/2359).

In any event, Kelly was a very common surname and there is no good reason to think that the John Kelly and Catherine Kelly referred to in the ledger are John Kelly and his murdered partner Catherine Eddowes.

In respect of the Ripper murders overall, Butterworth comments that, with the Ripper being depicted in the press as a Jewish man, Rachkovsky, the Okhrana head, 'could surely not have been more satisfied had he planned the whole gruesome sequence of murders himself.'  But does he say or suggest that Rachkovsky planned the the sequence of murders himself?  No he doesn't.  If he thinks he did, he keeps that view to himself.

Everything else in the book about the Special Branch relates to the 1890s and, to the extent that Butterworth makes any point about it at all, it seems to be that Special Branch officers harassed anarchist emigrés in London, used informers inappropriately as agents provocateurs and had close relationships with foreign police forces, or at least William Melville supposedly did.  Butterworth doesn't really say much about any other officers.

Pretty much everything seems to come from secondary sources in respect of the Special Branch.  There is no indication that Butterworth has viewed any relevant primary sources or carried out any original research.  There is a lot of guesswork and speculation but even that doesn't produce any real food for thought.

Here's an example of a bit of speculation by Butterworth. Referring to the retirement of Chief Inspector Littlechild in April 1893 (on page 320) he says:

'Poor health was the explanation given for the forty-five-year old's departure, though he was well enough to establish himself promptly in a private detective practice. Perhaps he had simply seen which way the wind was blowing.'

Littlechild didn't actually need to give any kind of reason for his departure because he had, by April 1894, served in the Metropolitan Police for 26 years which, under the terms of the Police Act of 1890, entitled him to his full pension of two thirds of his salary.  It is clear from his evidence to the Metropolitan Police Superannuation Enquiry on 29 November 1889 that his health had recently been suffering. Thus he told the Enquiry:

 'I regret to say that I broke down myself two years ago; my nervous system broke down...I went off in my health for 18 months.' 

He even confessed that he would like to get out of the Special Branch (HO 45/9698/A50055). It must be obvious that the stress, long hours and multiple caseloads involved in being in charge of the Special Branch would have been very different to a life working for oneself as a private detective.  Not to mention the potential difference in salary. Not to mention the money which would have come to him from publishing his memoirs.  There is no reason, therefore, to speculate that Littlechild saw 'which way the wind was blowing' at Special Branch.  Although Butterworth points to the fact that he was only 45, this was the retirement age for someone who started in the force aged 19 and Littlechild took full advantage and retired.

A fairly basic but in many ways quite shocking error is made by Butterworth in the following passage (on page 294) when he appears to be talking about 1890:

'Already in the previous four years, Special Branch had lost a fifth of its staff, its numbers falling from thirty-one to twenty-five at a time when Britain’s foreign spy networks were also being scaled back. Investment in the apparatus of state security was falling across Europe…Further cuts in Special Branch funding were imminent, unless a pressing danger could be identified.  In the Britain of the early 1890s, the greatest risk of sedition appeared to lie in the gathering tide of strikes, but unless labour activism could be shown to entail some element of violent conspiracy, a force such as Special Branch had little legitimate role in its supervision.' 

On the same page he also comments that home grown socialism was 'hardly a compelling enough replacement to justify the cost of the Branch’s work to protect against subversion'.

What he seems to be saying (although not clearly) is that the cuts to the Special Branch would have induced people like Anderson and Melville to fabricate threats to the state, creating and planting evidence, using agents provocateurs, and falsely arresting individuals.   

The problem is that his figures are wrong.  He seems to be saying that in 1886 there were 31 Special Branch Officers but only 25 in 1890.  However, there never were 31 officers in the Special Branch. Butterworth doesn't give his sources so it is uncertain where he has got a figure of 31 from but it but it might have been page 196 of Clutterbuck's 'An Accident of History' thesis of 2002 where it is stated that 31 constables were posted to various ports (although this was what would become Section C, not Section B, or D and there were 39 officers in total in that section at the time any case).

As at 30 October 1886, there were 28 officers within the Irish Bureau (Memo of Monro: HO 144/133/A34848) although this fell to 26 before the end of the year after two constables were withdrawn (Warren letter dated 2 December 1886: HO 144/133/A34848).  The total of 26 officers was comprised of two inspectors, four sergeants and twenty constables.

When the new Special Branch was formed in 1887 the number of officers actually increased from 26 to 29. Within Section B there were 25 officers (1 inspector, 4 sergeants and 20 constables) and within Section D there were 4 officers (1 chief inspector and 3 inspectors).   This total was actually further increased to 33 officers in August 1888 when four additional constables in Section B were approved by the Home Office for patrol of Parliament Street and the surrounding area (although this was not a formal augmentation).

As of 1890, the numbers remained unchanged. 

A few pages later in the book (page 298), Butterworth, now referring to the period of December 1891, returns to the subject of police cuts, mentioning a Special Branch surveillance team who, he says, had to watch a suspect travel from Walsall to London without an expected 'infernal machine' which that suspect was supposed to collect. Butterworth then says:

'Their frustration must have been compounded by the announcement at the end of the month of a reduction in the unit's budget that would entail the loss of four constables' jobs.' 

He adds that: 'Assistant Commissioner Anderson expressed the view that further cuts would be rash, but needed evidence.' 

The reason why Butterworth is so interested in the dull subject of police funding, and specifically funding cuts, is that he wants to provide a motive for Inspector Melville to have used an agent provocateur to create a fabricated story of an anarchist bomb plot.  If Special Branch's budget was threatened, so the argument goes, certain Special Branch officers might have taken extreme measures to spread fear and pretend that the threat of terrorism was very high in order to keep the government money flowing into its department.  In this fancy, he has been led astray by Bernard Porter who set this particular hare running in Origins of a Vigilant State.

In his 1987 book, Porter noted that on 15 December 1891, the Home Secretary asked Commissioner Bradford if there was scope for reducing the numbers of men employed in Section B of the 'Special Irish Branch'.  In his reply of 24 December 1891 (MEPO 1/54), Commissioner Bradford said:

'I have the honour to acquaint you, for the information of the Secretary of State that the question raised in your letter is one which I have been considering with Mr Anderson, the Assistant Commissioner, for some time past, and the following observations will show the conclusion at which we have arrived.

The information which reaches us from all quarters tends to indicate that the more advanced section of the Irish forces of disorder are likely to renew the outrage campaign after the next General Election.  Whether dynamite and the knife will in fact be resorted to cannot of course be predicted; but of the present intention of this section there is no doubt whatever. The moment therefore seems inopportune for weakening in any way the ‘Special’ Branch of the Department.  This view of the matter is quite endorsed by those who have greater facilities than we have for arriving at a definite conclusion; and were this advice to be strictly followed the promise already given to reduce Section by four constables could not be carried into effect.

Having regard however to the lull now prevailing, and to the facilities we possess for strengthening our office at Head quarters upon short notice, a further gradual reduction of four constables might be made, if the Secretary of State will allow a relaxation for the present of the inspection of passengers luggage on arrival in London. The present authorized strength of Section B is, as the Secretary of State is aware, 1 Inspector, 4 Sergeants and 20 Constables: the promised reduction of the 4 Constables appointed for special patrol duty in Parliament Street, and of the 4 Constables referred to above will effect a reduction of Section B by about one third of its strength for the next financial year, or at all event until next winter.'  

What will be noted here is that the entire focus of the Commissioner's letter of 24 December 1891 is on the Fenian threat.  Nothing whatsoever is said about Socialists or Anarchists. Indeed, without any mention of possible anarchist plots (in Walsall or anywhere else), it is stated that the moment is 'inopportune' to weaken the Special Branch (not 'rash' as Butterworth attributes to Anderson for some reason). The Commissioner, however, agrees that four constables could be removed from the Special Branch but only on the basis that there would be a relaxation of luggage searches for those entering the country, thus enabling those four officers to be spared. Melville clearly wasn't going to be able to reinstate these officers on the basis of a plot to build a bomb in Walsall.

There are two other important points.  Firstly, the evidence in the Walsall case showed that plans to build a bomb in that town commenced in October 1891 and Special Branch officers from London were carrying out observations of suspects there on 5 December 1891, ten days before the Home Secretary's proposal for budget cuts. If Melville had been using an agent provocateur to work up a false bomb scare in Walsall in order to increase Special Branch funding, the plan must have begun well before there was any actual discussion of funding cuts.

Bernard Porter must have realized this problem because he says in Origins of the Vigilant State (page 88):

'There may have been other hints of proposed cuts; or a feeling amongst those who made up the Special Branch that the lull in terrorism might tempt a parsimonious government to lower its guard. They countered this by insisting on the continuing danger from Fenian extremists, both generally, and in the form of specific plots.' 

The idea that Special Branch officers might have been taking pre-emptive (and illegal) action to block anticipated government funding cuts is pure speculation on Porter's part.  There is no evidence for it all.  The suggestion is rather beneath him.

Further, despite the fact that four of the men charged with the Walsall bomb plot were convicted, there was no change in the reduction in Special Branch constables agreed by the Commissioner in 1891.  That reduction, which was expressly stated to be 'a gradual reduction' , was agreed by the Home Secretary by way of letter dated 31 December 1891 and implemented by way of Police Order dated 3 August 1892, on the basis that there was indeed a relaxation of luggage searches.  There was no sudden argument put forward by Robert Anderson that the Walsall convictions showed that more Special Branch officers were needed to combat a growth in Anarchist terrorist activity. In fact, it was not until December 1894, with a revival of the Irish threat, that four constables were added back into Section B (See The Untold History of the Special Branch).

Butterworth is quite wrong, therefore, when he comments (on pages 298-299) that 'It was clear who gained' from the exposure of the Walsall plot because, 'Special Branch's funding was restored...' . There was no restoration of Special Branch's funding.  The agreement to remove four constables from Special Branch in December 1891 continued after the arrests were made in Walsall in January 1892 and the convictions were obtained in April 1892.  The Walsall Plot changed nothing.

Butterworth, naturally, only copied his argument from Porter who said (p.88) 'Bradford gave in to Home Office pressure on that occasion to reduce Section B’s strength by four constables. From which fate it was temporarily rescued very shortly afterwards, however, by a brand new crisis, real or ‘provoked’. That must in a way have relieved the champions of the Special Branch' .

I can only assume that Porter thinks that Special Branch was 'temporarily rescued' because the constables were not removed from Special Branch until August but, as stated above, and as Porter himself notes, it was always supposed to be a gradual reduction.  Here is what Lushington of the Home Office wrote to Commissioner Bradford on 31 December 1891 (underlining added):

'I am to acquaint you in reply that Mr Matthews sanctions the reduction you propose in the “Special” Branch viz a gradual reduction of four constables.

The Secretary of State will not object to the relaxation for the present of the inspection of passengers luggage on arrival in London as suggested in your letter.' 

There was no expectation, therefore, on 31 December 1891 that the four constables would be immediately removed from luggage inspection duties and thus from the Special Branch.

On or about 11 August 1892, Lushington wrote to the Commissioner in response to a letter (not extant) sent to the Commissioner shortly before this in which it was stated:

'I am directed by the Secretary of State to acknowledge the receipt of your letter and to convey to you his approval of the reduction of four constables which you have effected in the Special Irish Branch of the Central Office, Section B'. (HO 151/5)

To the Secretary of the Board of Customs on 13 August 1892, Lushington wrote:

‘..in consequence of the present peaceful state of affairs and the facilities which now exist for strengthening on short notice the Police Office at headquarters the Commissioner has recommended that the number of the Metropolitan Police employed in the Special Irish Branch of the Central Office be reduced by four constables. This reduction which has received the approval of the Secretary of State, has involved a relaxation for the present of the inspection of passengers’ luggage on their arrival in London..’  (HO 151/5) 

It will be noted that Lushington correctly stated that the reduction was on the Commissioner's recommendation and had not been forced upon the police. 

As for the Walsall Plot itself, I'm tempted to pass over it completely because it is dealt with very superficially by Butterworth, undoubtedly borrowing from other writers, but Phil Carter mentioned it in his post to me on 5 December 2016, when he said in the thread 'Is Jack Someone we have never heard of':

'The Walsall bomb plot on I believe 1897 demonstrates the lengths Special Branch and C.I.D. went to.' 

Well, he is only five years out in saying the plot was in 1897 and doesn't seem to know too much about it but, as he seems to think it is an important point, and the next thing he is doing is telling me to read Butterworth's book, I mention it very briefly here.

The allegation in short is that Inspector Melville employed an agent provocateur, Auguste Coulon, who lived in Fitzroy Street in London, to instruct some anarchists in Walsall to build a bomb for him, thus entrapping them in a plot of his creation.  When Melville was asked in the witness box if he knew Coulson, he rather floundered and, while not actually denying it, was reluctant to admit to anything. 

Given that the now destroyed Special Branch ledgers contain evidence of payments to Coulon over many years it all seems like an open and shut case against Melville.

But it's not as simple as it seems.

In the first place, having examined the ledgers, Lindsay Clutterbuck says of Coulon: 'Unfortunately, in the absence of primary evidence either way, any contemporaneous attempt to define his exact role must still remain conjecture.'  In other words, the ledgers do not assist us in establishing whether Coulon was an agent provocateur or simply an informer in the Walsall case.

In his 1978 book, The Slow Burning Fuse: the lost history of the British anarchists, which devotes a chapter to the Walsall Plot, and deals with the subject in much more detail than Butterworth's superficial attempt, the author, John Quail, quotes Inspector Melville as saying that he was not responsible for Coulon acting as an agent provocateur and that, 'If a man comes to me with information what can I do?'.  

Even if Coulon deliberately entrapped any of the anarchists into the plot, this does not mean that Melville knew that he had done so. It's always a danger for any police officer that an informer is providing information of crimes for which that informer is responsible and planting evidence against innocent people and we cannot automatically assume that Melville was involved in any illegal action.

Don't believe me?  Let's see what Porter has to say about the Walsall plot (pp.141-2):

'The actual evidence for provocateuring is circumstantial in the extreme: little more than innuendo, hearsay and a few odd coincidences. None of it is inconsistent with the much more straightforward explanation; which is that the Special Branch was told of a plot by an informer, probably Coulon, and then when it had enough evidence went in and put a stop to it.'

Whatever was going on, it seems to have been a one off 'scandal' rather than evidence of anything systematic within Special Branch.  Butterworth's approach is to simply assume that there was something untoward going on without any analysis or discussion of the subject.

I suggest it is not good enough because if your starting point is that the police were up to no good then that is obviously going to be your conclusion.  What is needed is evidence.  But the real point that I want to draw attention to is that Butterworth is simply wrong in saying (or, more accurately, repeating what Porter said) that the context of the Walsall arrests was funding cuts to the Special Branch budget.  At the time the arrests were made in January 1892, there had been no reduction of numbers of Special Branch since its formation in 1887 and the recently planned reduction of four constables, due to a relaxing of rules in respect of searching of luggage, was not prevented from going ahead by the arrests.  Consequently, there are no reasonable grounds to say that Inspector Melville was motivated by a desire to prevent (further) cuts.  Sure, one can argue that he was after personal glory and wanted to arrest some innocent men to boost his arrest rate but evidence is still required for this and Butterworth fails to provide any. 

Let's finish with an example of the most utterly dreadful research by Butterworth regarding Robert Anderson. Butterworth tells us that Chief Inspector Melville had to be cautious during the late 1890s due to something that had been said to Sir Robert Anderson at some point in 1894.  Thus says Butterworth (page 337):

'For shortly after the Greenwich bomb explosion, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, had been overheard in the lobby of the House of Commons reprimanding the assistant commissioner, Sir Robert Anderson, whose responsibility it was to supervise Special Branch. 'All that's very well,' he had said, 'but your idea of secrecy over there seems to consist of keeping the Home Secretary in the dark.'

Butterworth then makes the point that, 'Ten years before, during his previous tenure at the Home Office, Harcourt had adamantly opposed the use of agents provocateurs...'.  So the implication is clear.  Anderson was keeping the Home Secretary in the dark because he knew he would disapprove of his supposed methods of using agents provocateurs within Special Branch.

It's hard to know where to start in dismantling this but the first thing to note is that at the time of the Greenwich bomb explosion in 1894, Sir William Harcourt was Chancellor of the Exchequer, not Home Secretary.  He had left the Home Office in 1885 and never returned to that department again.

When we look at the origin of the quote attributed to Harcourt, we find that its source was none other than Robert Anderson himself, in his 1906 book, Sidelines of the Home Rule Movement. Only the words are not quite the same as those used by Butterworth.  Here is what Anderson tells us in his book:

'My methods of dealing with informants was always a sore point with Sir William Harcourt. "Anderson's idea of secrecy is not to tell the Secretary of State," he once said to one of his colleagues, fixing his eyes on me as he spoke. And it was quite true.'  

Anderson then explains the reason for this secrecy:

'The first Fenian who ever gave me information was murdered on his arrival in New York . I had given his name to no-one but Lord Mayo; and he informed me that he had mentioned it only to the Lord Lieutenant when siting alone with him after dinner at the Viceregal Lodge. But there happened to be a servant behind the screen, and through him it was, as the Dublin police ascertained, that the information reach the Fenians. Never again would I give an informant's name to any one, and no man who afterwards gave me information was betrayed.'

So when Anderson quoted the Home Secretary's comment about his idea of secrecy being not to tell the Home Secretary everything, he was referring specifically and exclusively to the protection of the lives of informants, and explaining to his readers that it had been his policy not to reveal the names of his informants to the Home Secretary, or anyone else. Furthermore, as the context of the book makes clear, Anderson was referring to a period when he was carrying out secret service work at the Home Office during Harcourt's terms of office between 1880 and 1885.  It had nothing, in other words, to do with Anderson's period of office as Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard, under different Secretaries of State, from 1888 onwards and thus nothing to do with his supervision of the Special Branch.

So how did Butterworth get it so badly wrong?

Well the answer can be found in a 1920 note by Joseph Conrad explaining how he came to write his 1907 novel, The Secret Agent.  In his note, Conrad explained that he recalled an old story of an attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory and discussed it with a friend. 'Then' , he says:

'about a week later, I came upon a book which as far as I know had never attained any prominence, the rather summary recollections of an Assistant Commissioner of Police, an obviously able man with a strong religious strain in his character who was appointed to his post at the time of the dynamite outrages in London, away back in the eighties. The book was fairly interesting, very discreet of course; and I have by now forgotten the bulk of its contents. It contained no revelations, it ran over the surface agreeably, and that was all. I won't even try to explain why I should have been arrested by a little passage of about seven lines, in which the author (I believe his name was Anderson) reproduced a short dialogue held in the Lobby of the House of Commons after some unexpected anarchist outrage, with the Home Secretary. I think it was Sir William Harcourt then. He was very much irritated and the official was very apologetic. The phrase, amongst the three which passed between them, that struck me most was Sir W. Harcourt's angry sally: "All that's very well. But your idea of secrecy over there seems to consist of keeping the Home Secretary in the dark." Characteristic enough of Sir W. Harcourt's temper but not much in itself. There must have been, however, some sort of atmosphere in the whole incident because all of a sudden I felt myself stimulated.' (my underlining)

A number of things will be seen immediately.  Conrad's source was Anderson's book but he was relying totally on his memory when reproducing Harcourt's quote about Anderson from it and, not surprisingly, he got it wrong. According to Anderson, Harcourt had been speaking to someone else when he said 'Anderson's idea of secrecy is not to tell the Secretary of State' whereas Conrad changed this to the Home Secretary accusing Anderson directly, and angrily, of keeping him, the Home Secretary, 'in the dark' (words which the Home Secretary did not use). While Anderson did not reveal where he and Harcourt were at the time, Conrad has imagined the accusation to have taken place in the lobby of the House of Commons in somewhat emotional circumstances following an anarchist outrage (but clearly not, in Conrad's mind, the bombing of the Greenwich Observatory otherwise he would have said so, considering that it was the inspiration for his book, and that would have been the wrong decade for Harcourt anyway).

Yet, it is this version of the Harcourt quote - one misremembered by Conrad some thirteen or fourteen years after he read Anderson's book - which Butterworth, who, according to Phil Carter, is supposed to have 'great knowledge' of his subject, decides to use in his own book in order to make it look like Robert Anderson kept Home Secretaries in the dark so that he and Special Branch could employ agents provocateurs without the knowledge of the Home Office.

Since 1920, Conrad's version has been repeated blindly by a number of other writers who simply didn't bother to check what Anderson actually said in his book and Butterworth has clearly copied it from one of them, without checking it himself.  It's not impressive and it does not show the 'happenings and involvement of Special Branch at street level'.


I honestly have no idea what Phil Carter thought I would find of any use or importance in this book. I can certainly say with great confidence that it doesn't inform me that anything I have said about the Metropolitan Police makes me look 'silly' as Mr Carter predicted.  If there truly is anything of any significance in the book which I have missed then someone needs to point it out to me. I couldn't find it.  

History?  It never is!


David Barrat
18 December 2016 


*Trevor Marriott in his Jack the Ripper - The Secret Police Files (2015 updated version) identified the John Kelly in the ledger as John Moran although he doesn't seem to know who he was, considering that he says he was working as an informant for the British and Irish governments in 1886 which isn't true - his role as informant ended when he left England for the U.S. in 1885. He is evidently also not aware that Moran's sister-in-law was Catherine Kelly. Marriot's claim that 'it is normal practice that when murders occur witnesses are seen and interviewed and any statements they make in relation to that enquiry are documented before being filed' may be true of the types of murders that he is personally familiar with, from his time in the force, but one has to wonder if it is applicable to the agrarian murders that took place in County Galway in 1881 where making a statement to the police would be to sign one's death warrant should that fact become known.  Consequently, the fact that Kelly is recorded in the ledger has having made a statement is of potential significance but, with Kelly being a common name, and probably the known informer identified above, there is no obvious significance to it with respect to the Jack the Ripper murders.