From Suffolk to Scotland Yard

The Life & Career of George Read,
a Victorian Thames River Policeman

In December 1888, Detective-Inspector George Read of the Metropolitan Police Thames Division (CID) retired after 33 years of service. So considerable was the respect for him in the local business community that a committee – which included everyone from shipping merchants to barge and tugboat owners (and some barristers and solictors to keep everything above board) organised a testimonial fund for him. When inviting voluntary contributions (not to exceed 1 guinea) the committee reminded people of the many times Inspector Read had been commended by judges, juries, and magistrates.

And yet, like so many early recruits to the Met, George Read had very humble origins.

According to his grandson, George’s father had died ‘a victim of liquor’ soon after he was born, and George had been sent to a farm, where he lived barefoot and illiterate, for an abusive master, until one day, he ran away and became a sailor. In truth, George’s father didn’t die when he was young, but his childhood was certainly not easy.

Born in the village of Bedfield, Suffolk on 1 September 1832, George was the seventh of ten children of James Read, an agricultural labourer, and Charlotte Brightan. When George was a few years old, his father was a husbandman, so must have farmed his own small plot of land to help feed his large family. However, by 1841 James was once again described as an Ag Lab, and times seem to have been really hard for the family. Although the eldest son, Fred, was apprenticed to a shoemaker, a skilled trade did not seem to be on the cards for the other children. Half of them were scattered around the village living with employers. Frances (16), a servant, and James (14), an Ag Lab, lived on a farm. John was the youngest to have left his family; at the age of just 11 (my daughter’s age now), he was an Ag Lab living at Bedfield Hall (pictured below). The lives of many of the family would continue to be gruelling. One still worked as a labourer at 80, while another died in the workhouse. After George’s father died, his mother became a pauper.

Bedfield Hall – an idyllic view, though life there in the 1840s was tough for the Reads
Photo by UltraPanavision on flickr

Whether there is any truth in the story that George was sent to work on a farm, like his brothers, and ill-treated by his boss, I don’t know. However, he did depart from his rural upbringing in Suffolk by 1851; that year he was working as a labourer in Dovercourt, Harwich, and living with his big brother Fred, now a skilled shoemaker with a wife and baby. Their next-door neighbours were the Death family (!), headed by Henry Death, a gardener. That same year, Martha Death, a widow and annuitant in St Nicholas, Harwich (about a mile away), had a domestic servant called Emma Elizabeth Pearl (born in Harwich to Henry Pearl, a baker from Suffolk). I imagine that Emma was accompanying Mrs Death on a visit to Henry Death, when she met George Read. The elderly Martha Death met her Death in June 1853, and George and Emma were married in Q3! 

Family stories and police registers state that George was a mariner before joining the force, and though I have no marine records for him I assume this to be true. His brother Fred’s wife was the daughter of a Coast Guard, and that may have created an opportunity for George. However, he can’t have spent many years at sea, because at the age of 22, two years after marrying, he applied for the position of Police Constable with the Metropolitan Police Force in London, and was recommended by three Harwich men, two of whom were grocers – one originally from Bedfield. His application was accepted and on 15 July 1855, George signed on at Scotland Yard, and was assigned to ‘M’ Division (Southwark). George was about to embark on a new and exciting career!

George Read’s referees, Alphabetical Registers of Joiners, MEPO 4/334, The National Archives, downloaded 25 June 2020

The Metropolitan Police had been established in 1829 by an Act of Parliament that recognised the need for a professional police force in London. Throughout the 1800s a large proportion of recruits came from rural locations and the majority had low-skilled backgrounds. Some had served with the Army or Navy. Candidates needed to be under 35, fit, and a minimum of 5’7 tall (George was 5′ 10). They had to be of ‘good character’ (hence the references). They were also expected to be able to read and write, so George must have had an elementary education (whereas his sisters, who could not sign their name on official documents, likely had none at all).

The job of Police Constable had many attractions, including the potential for long-term steady work, sick pay and medical care, and subsidised housing. Unlike most working class jobs at the time, it also offered the opportunity of career advancement and social mobility. George would have been provided with some training, a uniform – including a blue swallowtail coat and black stovepipe leather hat (all of which he had to wear at all times, including when off-duty), truncheon, rattle and a rule book.

1850s ‘Peeler’ (not a portrait of George Read)

George did not take his wife Emma with him to London, perhaps because she was heavily pregnant. It must have been a wrench for him to leave her behind in Harwich. Just a month later, his daughter Emma was born in Harwich, but tragically, soon after the birth, new mother Emma developed rheumatic fever, and after two weeks of fever she died on 5th September, aged 25, with her father by her side. For George, in a new job, far from home and any family, this must have been a huge blow. I wonder if he was able to take leave to return to Harwich for his wife’s funeral, and to see his infant daughter. Certainly, it would have been impossible for him to work and also care for a child, so I assume that baby Emma stayed in Harwich with her grandparents.

Later that month, George was transferred to the Thames Division, commonly known by the name of its predecessor, the Thames River Police. The River Police had been formed in 1798 to combat theft and smuggling, and had been incorporated into the Met as the Thames Division in 1839. The division’s jurisdiction was primarily the tidal section of the river, from Teddington in the West to the Dartford Creek in the East, with a moored cutter as a station at the latter. This translated to more than 50 miles of river and navigable creeks, though Edward Smith of the MPS Heritage Centre tells me that ‘the westernmost Thames Division station in Read’s time was a naval hulk anchored by Waterloo Bridge, meaning that in practice they would have limited range on the western Thames’ and that ‘their range [at that time] would effectively be dictated by how far they could row’. Throughout this region of the Thames they were responsible for policing ‘below the high water mark’. Rob Jeffries of the Thames River Police Museum gave me an example: ‘If a dead body is reported at the Victoria Embankment … If the body is floating in the river or discovered on the foreshore Thames Division would be responsible for dealing with it. If the body was discovered on the pavement of Victoria Embankment, then it would be dealt with by the City Police or ‘A’ Dist. Officers depending on its location.’ As a Met policeman, George had the same powers of arrest as an officer in any other division, but he was primarily dealing with crimes unique to the river. His grandson later wrote: ‘In those days the Thames police had rowing boats rowed by 3 or 4 pairs of oars. They dealt with pirates and smugglers in the riverside warehouses which frequently held valuable cargo such as ivory.’ Most officers in the division had a maritime background, and the experience would have prepared George well for the physical effort and skills needed to navigate the Thames, though he could not have been prepared for the many crimes and criminals he would encounter.

The Investigator, a Thames Police floating police station 1836-1856
Image from London Docklands Museum

Charles Dickens spent an evening with Thames Division, and published an account of his experience in 1853, Down With the Tide. He writes:

We were in a four-oared Thames Police Galley, lying on our oars in the deep shadow of Southwark Bridge – under the corner arch on the Surrey side – having come down with the tide from Vauxhall. We were fain to hold on pretty tight, though close in shore, for the river was swollen and the tide running down very strong. We were watching certain water-rats of human growth, and lay in the deep shade as quiet as mice; our light hidden and our scraps of conversation carried on in whispers. Above us, the massive iron girders of the arch were faintly visible, and below us its ponderous shadow seemed to sink down to the bottom of the stream. We had been lying here some half an hour. With our backs to the wind, it is true; but the wind being in a determined temper blew straight through us, and would not take the trouble to go round. I would have boarded a fireship to get into action, and mildly suggested as much to my friend Pea. ‘No doubt,’ says he as patiently as possible; ‘but shore-going tactics wouldn’t do with us. River-thieves can always get rid of stolen property in a moment by dropping it overboard. We want to take them WITH the property, so we lurk about and come out upon ’em sharp. If they see us or hear us, over it goes.’

Dickens’ policeman companion, who he nicknames ‘Pea’, explains that they dealt with four kinds of water-thieves: tier-rangers – who board vessels in the night and steal personal possessions, lumpers – who conceal goods in extra-large pockets ‘like clowns in pantomimes’, truckers – who smuggled larger volumes, and dredgermen, who sank stolen items into the river for retrieval later. It’s a very atmospheric piece and well worth a read (though, trigger warning: there’s a very descriptive section about suicides).

In 1858, George remarried to his cousin, Mary Ann Knights, daughter of a Mile End grocer, who came from Hoxne, just eight miles from Bedfield. He now had a mother for his young daughter, and would have been eligible for a married officer’s lodging allowance. The marriage certificate said that George was a ‘Waterman’ rather than a police officer. Perhaps that is how he saw his job at the time. However, after five years of service he was evidently an experienced and capable policeman. The first insight I have into his work is an 1860 newspaper report about a robbery. Two Scottish soldiers, William Beattie and William Reid, newly discharged from service in India, had arrived in London and were staying there en route to Scotland. After an afternoon of heavy drinking, Beattie went to bed rather ill, and while he was sleeping, Reid stole his money. The following night …

‘the prosecutor and a Police Constable named George Read, 190H, went on board a steam-ship bound to Leith and found the prisoner on board. He had provided for his passage to Scotland. The prosecutor asked the prisoner for his money, on which he assumed a bold air, and said, “I have got no money, I have been robbed myself.” The police constable said, “Come, no nonsense; you have got your comrade’s money.” The prisoner insisted he had not got a farthing. The constable immediately searched him, and found upon him 15 sovereigns, and among them one of the reign of George the Fourth, which Beattie had previously described to the policeman, a rupee, a quarter rupee, and some silver English coin.’ (Morning Advertiser, 27 Jan 1860)

Later that year, George and Mary Ann had their first child, Agnes. In 1861 the family (including George’s five-year-old daughter Emma) lived in Tower Hamlets. Mary Ann, though caring for a baby, was supplementing the family’s income with work as a bookbinder. Sadly, baby Agnes, nine months old, died just 10 days after the census. She had been suffering from hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain) for three weeks, so she was already seriously ill when the census was taken. Their neighbour Mary Ann Smith was present at Agnes’s death. She was a Derbyshire shoemaker and the wife of another Thames police officer, Thomas Smith.

In 1863, the year in which George would have replaced his top hat with the iconic policeman’s helmet, George & Mary Ann had another child, George James. They would go on to have five more children after that, and two of their sons, including George Jr., would also become Metropolitan policemen.

Thames Police HQ, a sketch by Whistler, 1859

At this time, the MPF had still not developed into a thoroughly professional, disciplined force, and large numbers of PCs were dismissed for drunkenness; in 1863, 215 officers were arrested for being intoxicated while on duty! Mary Ann supposedly helped George turn away from drink, and his career progression indicates that he was performing his duties effectively. In 1865, George became one of the minority of policemen during this period to progress beyond Constable, when he was promoted to Inspector (Third Class), a position he held for eight years. This rank was unique to Thames Division, and was equivalent to the Station Sergeant (the senior sergeant) in other divisions. It was created rather sneakily to give Thames policemen more power to search and detain. All Thames Division inspectors were also Customs and Excise Officers, so the more inspectors there were on the river, the more warrants could be carried.

The first trial in which ‘Inspector Read’ appears in the news came soon after his promotion, but was rather mundane; From George’s police galley off Battersea he witnessed a 16-year-old throwing rubbish from a barge into the river. He even brought samples of the rubbish to court – saying it was ‘very bad stuff’! The littering onto the mud was prosecutable under the ‘Thames Conservancy Act’. (London Evening Standard, 6 Oct 1865)

Although much of Inspector Read’s work was undramatic, the river police and the emerging field of detective work captured the imagination of writers such as Dickens and Conan Doyle. Like Dickens, Conan Doyle knew Thames police officers personally, and either of them may have met George Read! From 1864-1865, Dickens serialised Our Mutual Friend, which featured a calm, authoritative and analytical Thames inspector, simply called ‘Mr Inspector’. His character has been described as ‘imperturbable, omnicompetent, firm but genial’. (Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime) In one scene, he shows his strength and technical skill when recovering a boat containing ‘Gaffer’ Hexam’s body. If you’re not familiar with the story, Gaffer makes a dubious living out of robbing items from bodies he fishes out of the river. Now, it is Mr. Inspector’s turn to retrieve Gaffer’s remains: ‘It was an awful sort of fishing, but it no more disconcerted Mr. Inspector than if he has been fishing in a punt on a summer evening by some soothing weir high up the peaceful river.’ He then examines the body, making insightful observations about Gaffer’s appearance and cause of death – by the very rope he had used to pull corpses from the river. I haven’t found any evidence that George Read recovered any bodies, or investigated any deaths, but I believe he must have encountered cases of accidental drowning, suicide, and even murder in his long career. Parliamentary Returns for 1882 record that 544 corpses were found in the Thames that year, and the London Times opined that ‘the facilities afforded by the river for the perpetration of secret murders’ was an issue that needed to be urgently addressed.

Mr Inspector examining the body of Gaffer Hexam (the ‘bird of prey’); illustration by Marcus Stone (my own copy).

In the 1860s, George’s youngest brother Alfred also left work as a labourer and joined the Metropolitan Police, working as a Constable in ‘K’ (Stepney) Division. Sadly, Alfred died of TB in 1874 and his son was admitted to the Metropolitan Police Orphanage. Read my post about this.

In 1867, George dealt with a coal theft from a barge by three boys. He stated in court that ‘the banks of the river were infested with young thieves, who plundered the coal barges to a great extent.’ Two of the boys had been convicted before and were ‘most notorious young thieves.’ The judge said they ought to have been at school, and that if they were brought before him again, and convicted, ‘he should send them to a reformatory’. He clearly felt that a warning alone wasn’t enough, however, and sentenced all the boys to hard labour. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 27 Jun 1867)

George’s cases in 1870 included a conviction for selling beer and liquor without a license, which showcased George’s growing skills as a detective. Two Thames constables were accosted after midnight by two prostitutes who said they knew where they could get a drink (outside legal hours), and took them to Ann Gilligan’s house (which the judge called ‘a nursery of crime and dissipation’), where gin and beer was available. Later, George Read entered the property and seized beer, rum, and gin. An Inspector from another division explained how George Read had cracked the case:

Inspector Rouse, of the K Division, said the prisoner had been in custody for every offence on the statute-book, not even excepting murder, and had been convicted many times. She had recently come out of prison after a nine months’ sentence, for an offence under the Habitual Criminals Act. He had received innumerable complaints of the prisoner carrying on an illegal traffic in beer and spirits, but could not detect her. Sailors had been inveigled into her infamous house made drunk, and stripped of all they had. At last, he had consulted with the Thames police, and a ruse suggested by Inspector Read proved successful. (Morning Advertiser, 13 Sep 1870)

Inspector Read was also involved in a dramatic and dangerous smuggling case that year, as reported in the Morning Advertiser on 5 Sep 1870, and even in the Glasgow Evening Post!

Smuggling On the River

John Smith and John Fleet, Belgian labourers, were brought before Mr Paget, charged with obstructing George Read, a Thames police inspector and Custom house officer. The inspector and his boat’s crew were on duty in a police galley that morning at eight o’ clock off St Katharine’s Dock wharf, and saw the prisoners leave the Belgian steamship Baron Osy, trading between London and Antwerp, and get into a boat. They had not rowed far when Inspector Read and his men boarded the boat, and demanded the tobacco they had about them. Smith immediately took two parcels of tobacco from under his waistcoat, and threw them overboard. Fleet took four large parcels of tobacco from under his dress, and threw them overboard. The Thames police endeavoured in vain to save the tobacco, but could not succeed, in consequence of Smith taking up a large boat-hook and breaking the parcels as they floated down the river. All the tobacco sank. A violent struggle took place in the boat, and all the parties were immersed in the water, and narrowly escaped being drowned.

Thames Division rowing galley in the Upper Pool, below Tower Bridge.

Throughout the 1870s, Inspector Read appeared in newspapers numerous times. At Thames Police Court (where almost all of his cases were heard), in 1871, he reported having seen the prisoner ‘landing some sugar in Wapping’. As well as the unlawful possession of 4 cwt 1 qt raw sugar, the prisoner had 5 cwt copper, a tarpaulin, an elephant’s tusk, 5 sling chains, 24 lbs of rapeseed, dog and cow hides [dog?!], a large quantity of old iron, and other property belonging to persons known and unknown. That year he also worked on cases of theft of apparel, silk, French ladies’ boots, rope, brandy, shells, and the ‘extensive robbery of wool’ – in which it was ‘Inspector Read, an active officer of the Thames Police, who has had charge of the case throughout, and by whose exertions the prisoners have been brought to justice’. (Morning Advertiser, 25 Dec 1871) The following year, George caught two men in unlawful possession of tobacco (5 lbs and 28 lbs) and apprehended a principal member of the ‘Long Firm’ – ‘a notorious gang of swindlers’ that ‘infest London and prey on credulous tradespeople.’ (East London Observer, 22 Jun 1872)

On 12 June 1873 Police Orders stated ‘Inspector Reed [sic] is appointed Divisional Detective [on Thames Division] with the rank of Serjeant … with pay from 4th [June]’. George’s pension record also shows that his rank was changed from Third Class Inspector to Detective Sergeant. Per Edward Smith of the MPS Heritage Centre, ‘though 3rd Class Inspector to Detective Sergeant would nominally be a demotion, it’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. Indeed, there may even have been a requirement or expectation to work one’s way up through CID ranks rather than simply leapfrog across from one uniform rank to its CID equivalent, albeit without dropping all the way back down from (for instance) Station Sergeant to Detective Constable.’ My take on this unusual change of title is that at this time George Read became a plain-clothes detective. According to the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre’s website, only three detectives were attached to Thames Division in 1875, and I like to think this means George was one of them. George continues to be referred to as ‘Inspector Read’ in newspapers throughout this period.

In 1874, George dealt with another coal theft from a barge, and this time, the defendants were a man and a little boy. ‘Inspector Read said there was a vast quantity of coal stolen from craft on the river, and no less than five or six tons had been stolen from the barge Mary alone.’ The judge said that the prisoner ‘not only only stole the coal, but was bringing the boy up to be a thief.’ The boy was discharged but the adult was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour. The article doesn’t say whether the boy was his son, or what was to become of him while the adult served time. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 2 Feb 1874)

In 1877, George was still on the beat, and while on duty on the High St, Wapping, he caught a thief red-handed when he noticed someone whose clothing was ‘rather bulky.’ The man turned out to be concealing ’16lb lump sugar’. He was one of the ‘lumpers’ described by Dickens. (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 6 Feb 1877)

George had more than earned his stripes when he was promoted for the final time. The Detective Branch was reorganised into the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on 8 April 1878, and that very same day George was made an Inspector CID attached to the Thames Division.

A few months after his promotion, the Princess Alice paddle steamer sank in the Thames at Gallions Reach near Woolwich with the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident. Up to 700 people were drowned or died later from the noxious water. Thames policemen were deployed to control crowds and deal with remains and belongings from the disaster. One outcome of the resulting inquest was the replacement of the rowing boats used by river police with steam launches, the first two boats coming into service in the 1880s. These powered launches inspired a storyline in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of Four, set in 1888, in which Holmes pursues a criminal from a police launch.

However, it seems that as a Detective Inspector, George now spent much more time on land, and could instruct constables to board a suspicious vessel rather than doing it himself. For example, in 1878, working on one of several cases of tobacco smuggling and illicit liquor sales, he ‘issued instructions to two Thames constables, who went on board the Bruce’. It seems that only after being certain of illegal operations, he boarded the vessel himself.

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 9 Nov 1878,

George’s last child was born at the end of 1878. Unfortunately baby Frederick only lived for 23 days. He died of atrophy, with his father present. An archaeological study of a Victorian East End cemetery found that ‘young infants were dying from convulsions, pneumonia, diarrhoea and atrophy. These deaths may have been related to underlying nutritional deficiencies as vitamin C and D deficiencies were noted on skeletons within this age group.’ One particular child, aged 17 months, who reportedly died from atrophy in 1851, was found to have had the bones of a 1-3-month-old due to vitamin D deficiency and rickets. For a newborn to be deficient in vitamins, of course, his mother would have had to have been as well. It indicates that in spite of George’s senior position in the police force, his family suffered from the poor living conditions of the East End.

In 1879, George’s detective skills enabled him to gather evidence against Mr Stitch, who had stolen 54 cans of lobster from Mr Pink! (How Dickensian!)

“In consequence of information which reached Inspector George Read, of the Criminal Investigation Department, he watched Stitch for several days, and he found that he had been systematically robbing his employer. He traced a portion of the stolen goods to the possession of the other prisoner …” (Aldershot Military Gazette – 1 February 1879)

Another interesting case from 1879 involved Mary Jones, a ‘tall, masculine-looking woman’ of 50, who was charged with carrying and conveying a type of foreign compressed tobacco that was subject to duty. Her clothing had caught the attention of some policemen, though she ‘professed to be very indignant’ at their questioning. She had hidden the cakes of tobacco in ‘a heavy quilted petticoat she was wearing’, which ‘had evidently been made for the purpose of conveying smuggled goods’. Inspector Read gave evidence that he knew the prisoner as a ‘regular old smuggler’. She was fined, with the default if not paid – a month in gaol. She ‘said she would not pay it, and was removed.’ She sounds like quite a character! (Morning Post, 30 Aug 1879)

Another woman prisoner charged with smuggling that year was Miss Marguerite Schmythe, a popular tobacconist with a business on West India Dock Rd. Detective-Inspector Read visited her premises, in company with Detective-Sergeant Horlock, and found foreign tobacco and cigars. A report of the trial shows his extensive expertise in his field, and could certainly provide inspiration for Sherlock Holmes!

Mr Young cross-examined Inspector Read at considerable length, especially with regard to the fact of the tobacco being of foreign manufacture. – The Inspector said he had no doubt at all about the matter. The tobacco he seized had the “knotty” appearance which tobacco that had been compressed and packed in small parcels always had; besides, when he seized it, the tobacco was moist and warm, this evidently being due to the fact of its having been “steamed”, a process that tobacco of that class was generally subjected to, so as to loosen it after packing, before it was sold.

Miss Schmythe’s defense pleaded that as she was German, she was probably unfamiliar with English laws. Furthermore, she was a ‘femme sole, and merely in a small way of business.’ His advocacy paid off and she was ‘merely’ fined £25 (about £1700 today). (East London Observer, 17 May 1879)

George’s partner on that case, Detective-Sergeant Horlock, was also his brother in law. William Horlock, who came from Dover, had joined the Thames Division six months after George. He left the force in 1881 after 24 years in the Thames Division, and later worked as an Estate Agent and a Caretaker. In 1890 he remarried to George’s daughter Emma. It seems that policing could be a close-knit family business.

In spite of George’s senior status, he was still in direct danger in the line of duty. In August 1879, a prisoner was charged with robbery of apparel and attempting to stab Inspector Read! George tried to apprehend him, but he ‘resisted most violently, bit Read’s finger and wrist, drew a knife, and attempted to stab him in the stomach.’ Thankfully, a constable and watchman came to help and ‘with their assistance the prisoner was taken to the station’.

Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 23 Apr 1879,

As George Read reached the zenith of his career, was he aware that two of his cousins back in the Suffolk countryside were frequently getting into trouble with the law for their thuggish behaviour? In January 1879, David Read, a miller, quarrelled and fought with another miller until Read ‘struck [him] on the head with his whipstalk and cut his skull open.’ In 1890, David’s brother John was charged with ‘furious driving’ and David was convicted, for the 11th time, for being ‘drunk, stripped, his face covered in blood, and in a fighting attitude’. Perhaps if George had stayed in Bedfield, he would have ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Inspector Read appeared in the papers five times in the first half of 1883. In January, several papers reported on ‘Alleged Cruelty to a Lad at Sea’. The ‘lad’ was one of three men on a ship from Hull to Woolwich, and the ship’s mate had robbed and beaten him several times. The master simply said that ‘it served him right’! At one point, the mate had beaten him with a rope until he was ‘nearly insensible’. Eventually, the lad jumped ship and was rescued by a passing vessel and taken to hospital. The mate was brought to court on a warrant from Inspector Read, but the judge was not convinced of one man’s word over the other, and requested evidence from the captain. (Illustrated Police News, 27 Jan 1883)

The same month, William Colmey, a 30-year-old labourer, was indicted for the theft of tobacco from a barge. Inspector Read succeeded in tracing the stolen property to Colmey’s house. The prisoner’s defense called the prisoner’s daughter, ‘an intelligent little girl, about ten years old’, who claimed that someone else had brought the tobacco to the house. But the judge was not falling for it, and in passing the sentence he said the prisoner had ‘greatly aggravated his offence by causing his daughter – a child of such tender years – to be brought forward to give false testimony on his behalf. Such conduct was most disgraceful, and after the bad character he had received, the Court had but one course, and that was to sentence him to a term of five year’s penal servitude.’ The judge was sympathetic towards this girl, but it would have been extremely hard on her and her family to have her father incarcerated. (London Evening Standard, 6 Jan 1883). Although George is my focus, I’ve been drawn to learn more about some of the criminals he encountered as well. For example, William Colmey features in a number of criminal records, and I know from census records that his little girl was probably Helena. By 1891, they were living together again in a family of ten, but Colmey later went into the workhouse.

The same month we learn that George intercepted another tobacco smuggling, in which he recognised the packages to have come from Hamburg, and in March he investigated the theft of a large amount of wool from the barge Petrel – a case that involved horses and the railway as well as the Thames. A search of the thieves’ premises revealed other stolen goods including four American cheeses! A more exotic case followed in June – ‘The Serious Charge of Receiving at Poplar’. Two men were ‘charged on remand with feloniously receiving a quantity of ivory, well knowing it to have been stolen’. Since the first charge of receiving, Inspector Read had also intercepted a parcel sent by the prisoner, which contained ‘a quantity of French silk boots – very expensive articles.’ (East London Observer, 16 Jun 1883)

In 1884, George and Mary Ann’s son George James Read joined the Met, beginning in the Thames Division and then moving to ‘A’ (Whitehall – which included Scotland Yard and Westminster) in 1887. He was only 5’ 6 ¼, and the requirement for Thames Division was 5’7 (5’8 for other divisions) – so perhaps his dad helped him circumvent the height requirement. Constable George Read married Margaret (Maggie) Hills in 1886. She was the daughter of Thomas, a stevedore and former mariner, and Margaret, the caretaker of Whitechapel’s Salvation Army Mission Hall.

A case of 1886 seems at first glance very run of the mill: two mates of vessels were charged at the Thames police court with stealing rope and brass bearings from steamers. However, George’s involvement illustrates his deep familiarity with the usual goings-on of his beat, and his ability to spot something fishy. One of the rope thieves had taken his stolen goods to a dealer on Brewhouse Lane, but when George Read passed by that morning and saw him there with a quantity of rope, he was immediately suspicious, returned to the station, and sent a group of officers to investigate.

In the autumn of 1888, George and Mary Ann were living at St Ann’s Rd, Mile End, when ‘Jack the Ripper’ was terrifying East Enders. The murders were primarily investigated by Metropolitan Police ‘H’ Division (Whitechapel). Coincidentally, the head of H’s CID and lead investigator into the Ripper murders was the highly respected Detective Inspector Reid, whose name was sometimes mispelled as Read in news cuttings. During George Read’s last months of service, the river police were briefly involved in the Ripper investigation, searching boats. George would also have been very aware of another series of gruesome murders that took place between 1887-1889, known at the time as the ‘Thames Mysteries’ or ‘Embankment Murders’. Four dismembered female bodies were discovered, some of them in the river. Only one victim was identified. Like the far more infamous ‘Ripper’, the perpetrator of the ‘Thames Torso’ murders was never brought to justice.

One of George’s last reported cases, in September 1888, showcased the range of exotic imports coming into London. A man was charged with removing what he claimed were mere ‘sweepings’ of sago, gum, tapioca, ivory nuts and coffee from the floor of a business and taking them away for resale (Morning Post, 10 Sep 1888).

On 28 December 1888, Inspector George Read retired at the age of 56. His pension record shows that he was 5’10 with hazel eyes and a fresh complexion, and fair hair, turning grey. The fingers of both his hands were contracted and he had a birth mark on the knuckles of his left hand. 

I don’t know how much money was donated to his testimonial fund, but from Christmas Day, 1888, George was entitled to a pension of £130 per annum – about £10K in today’s money. It was a comfortable allowance – equivalent to a full year’s wages for a skilled tradesman. 

Between 1891 and 1901 George and Mary Ann left Mile End and moved to the Essex seaside, living in Home Leigh, Hadleigh, near Southend-on-Sea. Almost every home there had an individual name, and the Reads’ home was sandwiched by properties both called ‘Sea View’. In the 1891 census they had a visitor – their grandson Frederick – whose father George James was still a policeman living in West Ham. Perhaps Frederick was there for the health benefits of the fresh air.

George and Mary Ann were photographed on 10 December 1898 surrounded by family. It was the wedding day of their son James and his wife Edith, pictured on the left, who married in Tooting but spent their honeymoon in Hadleigh. The couple on the right are their daughter Jennie and her husband James – my husband’s great grandparents (holding their baby daughter Edith). In the centre is policeman Will Read.
(And I recently learned from a cousin that the dog was called Bolan, and belonged to James Read!).

After 1901, George purchased two new houses next door to each other in nearby Prittlewell. He named his own house ‘Alpha Villa’. I can imagine him surveying his new property and nodding his head in satisfaction at his achievement. He had left behind extreme poverty in Suffolk, had a distinguished policing career, and could now enjoy his golden years by the sea, perhaps spending more time with his 22 grandchildren. However, he never forgot his Suffolk roots; he named the house next door, which was home to his daughter Jennie’s family, ‘Saxted Villa’, after a village near Bedfield and Hoxne (the reasons for ‘Saxted’, in particular, are a mystery, but Jennie took the name with her to her next house, where she lived until her death in 1959 – keeping the family’s origins front of mind for generations to come).

Alpha Villa and Saxted were at number 51 and 53 Bournemouth Park Road – and here they are today (from Google Maps).

In 1898, George & Mary Ann’s youngest son, William (Will), also joined the ‘family business’, becoming an Inspector in ‘C’ (St James’). Unfortunately, I have found out very little about George James & Will’s careers. However, in 1894, Detective-Sergeant George Read of K Division gave evidence at the trial of John Hardie, a carriage cleaner, who was indicted for stealing and receiving from his employers, the Great Eastern Railway Company (GER). The stolen property was traced by the GER’s own Detective-Inspector C.R. Campbell by a few grains of sawdust left at the crime scene! Hardie was found guilty but received a lenient sentence. ‘Mr Elliott, for the defence, said that he could not do otherwise than compliment both Campbell and Read upon the fair manner in which they had conducted the case and given their evidence.’ (East Anglian Daily Times, 16 Jun 1894)

George James and Will both retired from the Met in 1912, after serving for 27 and 26 years respectively. George’s pension record reveals that he had a blue tattoo on his right forearm.

Although George has been the focus of this post, I have no doubt that Mary Ann, of whom very few records survive, played a critical role in supporting George and their family throughout his career, and I hope that after George’s retirement they enjoyed some peaceful time together. In their older years, George & Mary Ann apparently became very religious, and this may explain why they were photographed with what I assume to be a bible on their laps (whether their own or a studio prop).

In 1919, George and Mary Ann Read died at home in Alpha Villa exactly one week apart from each other, Mary Ann on the 19th (aged 82) and George on the 26th (aged 86). I had suspected the Spanish Flu, but according to their death certificates they both died of ‘Senile Decay’ and ‘Cardiac failure no P.M.’ with their children at their side. They were interred six days apart in the same grave in Sutton Road Cemetery, Southend-on-Sea.

Note: The relationships between the letters and areas for MPF divisions changed over time and differ in various online sources; I have included the letters from original records, and referred to this TNA Guide for corresponding locations.

Learn More:

Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre

Thames River Police Museum

I’m very grateful to Rob Jeffries (Hon. Curator., Thames Police Museum, Wapping) and Edward Smith (Curatorial Assistant, MPS Heritage Centre) for helping me make sense of some of the records and articles about George Read’s life, and for putting his service into a broader context.

The Thames River Police (Canal & River Trust)

Victorian Crime & Punishment (Pharos Course)

Note: Newspaper sources have been provided where I have included any quote(s) from the article. All have been referenced via Updated 5 Sep 2020 to include additional information from the MPS Heritage Centre.

Updated 24 Apr 2021 with new information about the family photograph at Hadleigh, from George and Mary Ann’s descendant Alison Hughes, and information on the Hills family.

5 thoughts on “From Suffolk to Scotland Yard

  1. Move over Sherlock Holmes and make way for Inspector George Read! I very much enjoyed reading about Inspector Read’s police career. It sounds as if he had a very exciting life catching criminals, even though it must have been perilous at times. Great research too! It’s fortunate that there is so much information available in police employment records and in newspaper reports.


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