The lesser-known Sherlocks

The lesser-known Sherlocks

Nell Darby digs into the archives to find real detectives sharing a famous name

Dr Nell Darby, Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Dr Nell Darby

Writer who specialises in social and crime history

Some people have names that just cry out for them to do a certain type of job. I don’t mean occupational surnames – such as Smith, or Carpenter – but names that have become associated with a particular type of employment. I was wondering in particular about the name ‘Sherlock’. Since the end of the 19th century, this has become shorthand for a detective, a sleuth: Conan Doyle’s literary invention of course had the surname Holmes, but we have always preferred his unusual first name as the shorthand by which to denote an individual who finds clues and solves crimes or mysteries.

But are there any real-life Sherlocks? As a first name, no: the use of it in this way appears to be more of a 20th century development, and presumably several of these Sherlocks had parents inspired by Conan Doyle, or were named after a family surname. However, a look at census returns and the Metropolitan Police registers provides several historic examples of men with the surname Sherlock who were working in the field of crime detection and policing. The 1871 census details Patrick Sherlock, born in Tipperary in 1842, who was a police constable living in Hornsey, north London. Not much is known about Patrick’s career, although it may have been fairly short lived. He was living in London by 1866, when he married, and his three children’s birthplaces map their father’s travels – Wandsworth in 1867, Evesham in Worcestershire in 1869 and Pimlico in 1879. The 1871 census is the only one that records him as a policeman, and the only census in England where he can be listed. He was absent from the family home in 1881, and by 1891 his wife was describing herself as his widow, although there is no record of his death. His children certainly believed that he had worked primarily as a mason, suggesting that Patrick had not spent long in the police.

If Patrick Sherlock’s police career was a short one, then Henry Sherlock was his polar opposite. Henry was born on 4 July 1853 in Portsea, Hampshire. A brown-haired, brown-eyed man, he had joined the police at Great Scotland Yard on 25 January 1875, at the age of 22. However, he had not stayed in one place. He had worked for six months in the Thames division, before transferring back home to Portsea Dockyard for seven years (the Metropolitan Police had taken over duties at the dockyard in 1860, following perceived failures by the Dockyard Police Force – see for more about this). The 1881 census lists him as one of the many constables at the Metropolitan Police Official Residence at HM Dockyard; he then moved to work at the Chatham Dockyard for six months. Following that, he returned to London, and worked in the Hammersmith division for 17 years.

Henry was from a police family – his father, Charles, had been a police sergeant in Portsea. At the age of 16, Henry had been a pupil teacher for his local school, but he lived at the Dockyard Police Station in Portsea, along with the rest of his family and several other constables, so grew up surrounded by police talk. It was perhaps inevitable, in that case, that he himself became a constable. He finally retired, after 25 years, on 5 March 1900, and qualified for a pension of just under £52 per year, having been earning £1 12s a week. He had never been injured during the course of his long police employment, and was now able to enjoy a nice life with his Irish-born wife Mary Ann, who he had married while working at Hammersmith. Although he had been with the police for so long, he had never gained promotion, and at the time of his retirement, he was still a constable in the Hammersmith division. He had, however, moved home; at the time of his retirement, he had been living in Barnes, south-west London, but when he retired, he moved to the opposite side of the capital, to Chingford in the east, and was listed as living there in the 1901 census, recorded as being a retired police constable. Then as now, those who no longer worked often had a strong sense of identity based on their former career.

Henry Sherlock spent a period of his police career as a Metropolitan Police constable based at southern dockyard – both at Portsea, and at Chatham (pictured)

A fellow Met constable, born just before Henry joined the police, was Charles Henry Sherlock. He was a native of Merstham in Surrey, born there in October 1874. He joined the police on 26 February 1900, aged 25, and retired aged 50 on 8 March 1925, with a pension of £153 13s 5d, at which time, he was a constable in the Kilburn division. When he retired, his weekly pay was £4 15s, but he was also entitled to rent aid of a further 10s a week. I love the Metropolitan Police Pension Registers not just because they let you track an officer’s career, but also because of the information they provide about both the officer and his wife. In Charles’ case, the register tells us that his wife, Julia, was tall at 5 feet 8 inches – only an inch and a half shorter than her husband. She was also six months older than her husband, and they had married at Whitechapel on 3 February 1907, according to his police file (although a check of the marriage register entry shows that he actually married the previous year). So if you’re researching your family tree and have a London police officer among your ancestors, try the Met Police Pension Register to see if it has any information, but double-check that it’s all correct!

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Outside London
These were not the only policemen named Sherlock – outside of London there was, for example, a Derbyshire constable named George Alsop Sherlock, who was based at North Wingfield. In 1905, he was assaulted when he tried to evict a man named Edward Eyre from his mother’s house, after the man had caused a disturbance. Eyre had picked up a stick and whacked 32-year-old Sherlock – a constable based in the village of North Wingfield – on the head, ‘inflicting a serious wound on the temple’. The wound required medical attention, but the stalwart constable was only off work for a few days. George appears regularly as a witness in various crime cases reported in the local press. He had been working as a miller’s labourer in his late teens, and had then got a job as a collier, before joining the police. Once a constable, however, he continued for a substantial amount of time. He is listed as a constable in 1901, and both the 1911 census, and his son’s marriage register entry for the same year, records him as still being a police constable, based at the North Wingfield Police Station. By the time he retired, he was a police sergeant.

The Metropolitan Police pension registers
The Metropolitan Police pension registers record an individual’s career – here, the trajectory of James Sherlock, who joined as a constable in 1857 and retired in 1883 as Chief Inspector, is shown TNA

Elsewhere in England, John Sherlock, born in Preston in 1883, was a constable who, in 1911, was based at the Bispham police station near Blackpool. By the time of the 1939 Register, he was a retired police inspector. One of the less pleasant jobs undertaken by John during his career was in April 1910, when he was apprehended by a Blackpool fisherman who had found a body on the beach at Bispham. The constable had to convey the body to the mortuary, where it was found to be that of 29-year-old Ethel McConnell, who had been on holiday from Harrogate, but who had killed herself following the death of her father. The previous year, Sherlock had been called in following the discovery of a baby boy’s body tied up in a brown paper parcel – the child, it was alleged, had been suffocated by his mother.

Metropolitan Police officer in the late 19th century
Some police officers stayed only a short time, while others worked long enough to gain a pension. Pictured is a Metropolitan Police officer in the late 19th century Infinity Images/Alamy

Looking at the history of these police officers, it’s clear that joining the police offered opportunities to those from humbler backgrounds. Although Henry Sherlock came from a policing background, Charles Henry Sherlock was the son of a labourer who worked in the chalk pits around Merstham. His wife, Julia, had been married before, and Charles Henry appears to have moved into her former marital home in Whitechapel when he married her, working for the Met in Whitechapel before moving to the Kilburn division. John Sherlock, the Lancashire police inspector, had been a loom-twister in a Preston cotton mill in his youth, possibly working in the same mill as his father, who was a cotton spinner. James Sherlock, the Chief Inspector of Police, and an imposing figure at just under six feet all, did not have a dissimilar background. He had started life as a Cumbrian weaver’s son and had himself worked as a weaver in his teens before moving to London and joining the police at Scotland Yard in 1859, a week after his 22nd birthday.

These Sherlocks were disparate characters, but they had one thing in common – they were all working in the field of crime detection, and there were several in the field at around the time Sherlock Holmes started to appear in print and gain the public’s attention. The Sherlocks of the Metropolitan and provincial police would never, though, gain the fame or immortality of their literary namesake.

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