By Ruby Vitorino
“Look! There’s the Tower of London!” Frogg Moody exclaimed, as if he were surprised to find it suddenly plonked down on Tower Hill. It was just after lunch, and we are wheeling our cases through the throngs of tourists in the direction of the Minories, and the Whitechapel Society’s new venue: the
Chamberlain Hotel. “There won’t be any people at the meeting, of course,” he said, “no-one will be able to find the blinking place”. And this about a group of people, I reassured him, that could happily navigate from Mitre Square to Goulston Street in all sorts of creative ways.
He looked suitably impressed, however, when he saw the outside of the Chamberlain. I have seen it described on Trip Advisor by foreign guests as “this historic hotel”, and the blurb calls it “an hotel above a traditional pub”, but that is not strictly true. The Chamberlain is the flagship hotel of the Fullers brewery who are opening a chain of hotels “each with a classic British pub at its heart”, and this one was created from a converted office block in 2001. And it’s very well done.
I know that the top floors were added onto the building when it became a hotel, but it doesn’t look modern, and it has found the right balance between looking a bit posh, but still looking cosily welcoming. It might appear fake, but not overwhelmingly so.
It has a huge bar, with deep red carpet and comfortable chairs – “no more numb bums!” as one member put it. The ceilings are a tasteful pale grey with a classical frieze, and lots of traditional pictures have been hung on the walls. The loos are clean and luxurious, which is a welcome change from Dirty Dick’s. The best thing was the warmth; I don’t share the nostalgia of some members for the Aldgate Exchange, as I remember having to wrap up for winter or freeze to death. On the other hand, it wasn’t the atmospheric little East End dive bars that the Whitechapel Society have been used to in recent times, and which have somehow knit us together.
After the committee meeting (I was very happy to see our new assistant editor, Samantha Hulass again), Frogg and I went over to the Shaad Hotel to check in. It used to be called the Shiraz, and was once The Frying Pan pub, where Polly Nichols was seen drinking on the night of her death. I wish I could have be able to afford to stay at the Chamberlain Hotel, but it was lovely sharing a fresh pizza after we checked in, over a tea light, and gazing out into the black night of Spitalfields….so lovely in fact, that we almost forgot that the meeting was no longer just 5 minutes away, and we had to leg it. And then we promptly hared off down the wrong street and got lost!
Contrary to Frogg’s words, the meeting had an excellent turnout. The room was packed with members, when we arrived. “Just don’t go telling people that we couldn’t find the Hotel” I made Frogg promise.
The meeting was held in the restaurant which normally opens onto the end of the bar, but it was screened off and it wasn’t affected by noise, despite England getting thrashed at Rugby and the two TVs in the bar. We used a large screen, which everybody could see, and big speakers at the back, so everybody could hear. Thanks to Steve Rattey for that. The room was a better shape too. Phil Hutchinson was back as MC, and as usual warmed us up with a knowledgeable and witty introduction.
“I know that Angela Buckley will be a good speaker”, whispered Frogg, “you can hear her ‘voice’ when she writes”.
I hadn’t seen any photos of Angela, but she turned out to be a little bubbly blonde, with big glasses, a cheeky grin and a slight Mancunian accent. She looked completely at ease and she won over the audience before she started.
She started her talk, entitled ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada’with a large black and white wedding portrait of her
grandparents circa 1940 and the words “my life in crime began with my own family, who lived in the slums of Manchester and behind this picture of respectability, lurks a shocking secret”.
It was a great way to grab her audience’s attention from the get-go, and it was clear that Angela had a lot of experience in public speaking and had put a great deal of work into her presentation and wording. It seemed entirely incongruous when a beaming and bouncy Angela announced that her great-great-great-grandfather had been a beer seller and brothel keeper in Manchester’s most infamous rookery, and had shared his house with a wife, 8 children, and 5 prostitutes according to the 1861 census. And that his Bawdy House was on the beat of Jerome Caminada – the real subject of her lecture.
Angela’s Talk was very well structured, easy to follow, and illustrated with plenty of slides. She started ‘at the beginning’ with a preamble about 19th century Manchester and pointed out the fact that the crime rate was four times higher in Manchester than in London -‘a very hot-bed of social iniquity and vice’, she said, quoting Jerome.
She then moved on to his poverty-stricken childhood, where he, as one of four surviving children, lived with his widowed mother in one of the worst slums of Manchester. Caminada appears to have had a poor relationship with his mother (she died in the Workhouse, after he had become comfortably off), and Angela gave us some clues early on as to, perhaps, why this might have been the case. His mother, Mary, had two illegitimate offspring after her husband’s death. Both died as babies, and the cause of death for the second one was tertiary syphilis. One of Jerome’s sisters died soon after, in the Workhouse, of ‘idiocy’, and her mental state might well have been due to congenital syphilis, too and Jerome was the informant on her death certificate at the tender age of 14. One of the members of his family confessed to having syphilis too, but I won’t divulge which one.
All this talk of crime and syphilis made me think that Robert Anderson would have been right at home here! Good job that the bar was noisy with people enjoying the Rugby, or the Chamberlain Hotel might have wondered just what sort of Society it was welcoming to its salubrious rooms. If only the other patrons could have overheard snippets of our meeting!
Next was an account of Jerome Caminada’s early career as a PC on the very streets where he had been raised as a child. I imagine that he was placed there because he must have been a toughie who knew the local milieu well. However, Caminada stood out because he was gifted at detection, and so he was promoted to the detective department at the Town Hall. And thus began his ascent to Detective
Like Sherlock Holmes, Caminada was ‘a master of disguises’ (Victorian policemen in disguise, was the subject of much mirth in the White Hart, later on.) He carried his disguise kit in a big Gladstone bag, ready to become someone else at the drop of a hat, with false facial hair and wigs. His favourite episode of being in disguise involved hiding behind a chimney stack to spy through the window of the Temperance Hall at a fancy dress ball, where half the guests were cross dressing. Satisfied that crimes of an immoral nature were taking place, the police raided the ball during the Can-Can.The prosecuting barrister called it ‘one of the foulest and most disgraceful orgies that ever reproached a town’.
The middle of Angela’s Talk was devoted to Jerome’s own ‘Moriarty’, Bob Horridge, who was a burglar of similar age and background to Jerome. Horridge was sent down for seven years due to Caminada and swore that he would kill the detective when he was released. Horridge spent the next ten years burgling shops and warehouses, and became adept at daring escapes. He was eventually caught again, and, after another stretch in jail, and more crimes, Caminada tracked him down to Liverpool and arrested him – in disguise! – at gunpoint. Horridge later died in Parkhurst prison.
We then heard about Caminada’s most famous case – and the one for which he became known as Manchester’s answer to Sherlock Holmes. (Please note: Conan Doyle’s first story on the fictional detective had already been published by this time). The case was dubbed the Manchester Cab Mystery, and involved a man called John Fletcher, who was found dead in a cab with no marks of violence upon his body. Despite the fact that the hospital’s report said that he had died of alcohol poisoning, Caminada discovered that he had entered the cab with a young man, and because had no money nor valuables on his body, Caminada deduced that Fletcher had been robbed. An autopsy discovered that the alcohol was mixed with chloral hydrate (although he might have taken this himself), which could be a lethal combination. Caminada knew that the drug was used to subdue opponents in illegal prize fighting, and he compared the description of the mysterious young man with likely suspects. He focussed his attention on Charlie Parton, an 18 year old boy whose father hosted illegal fights in his pub, where chloral hydrate had been used in the past. When he discovered that a druggist had been robbed of chloral hydrate, near to Parton’s home, and that other people had claimed to have been drugged and then robbed, he had Parton arrested for murder. Parton was found guilty (possibly on false evidence!), but had his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The next story was the one which, I personally, found the most interesting: the tale of the ‘Scuttlers’, and Billy Willan.
The ‘Scuttlers’ was the name given to organised, territorial, gangs of youths (of both sexes), who were responsible for a good deal of violence in Manchester in the late 19th century. They took their names from the streets where they lived, and wore distinctive ‘gang’ clothing – wide bottomed trousers, brass tipped clogs, scarves and cloth caps. They armed themselves with any weapon or projectile to hand, but wore thick leather belts with a heavy brass buckle which they could whirl around their
heads to hit opponents in the head or face. They held ‘West Side Story’ type ‘rumbles’, but violence could erupt at any time.
Sounds familiar ? It put me in mind of the violent gangs in London today, and in the past (and Sarah Anne Ward, the street fighter of Old Ford whom we met on Ed Stow’s walk was surely an example), Gangs of New York, football hooligans, etc ad nauseum…
In 1892, a 16 year old ‘Scuttler’ called Billy Willan stabbed another 16 year old called Peter Kennedy to death in a spontaneous gang fight. Willan was condemned to death for murder (something that sends a chill to the mother of young boys), but sent for Caminada whilst in jail and successfully pleaded for his life. He got out in 8 years and married Caminada’s niece.
I found that story rather revealing about Caminada (and if ever a film were to be made about his life, it should surely be a starting point). Caminada wasn’t involved in this case, Angela told us, but Willans still sent for him from Strangeways, and Caminada went, and then campaigned for him. Surely they must have known each other? Or was it a case of ‘there but for the grace of God, go I’ ?
Caminada (given his start in life) might well have felt more affinity with the young Scuttler, than the middle classes that he mixed with as he found success and celebrity.
And Caminada was very successful. He often came to London, we heard, and he worked with the Metropolitan police on some cases. He also revealed in his memoirs that he had worked undercover for the British Government for more than 20 years, tracking Fenians across Europe and America.
Angela summed up Jerome Caminada’s life first by telling us a bit about his marriage, and the fact that his first three children died early from congenital heart disease. Happily, the last two were healthy and lived long lives. He was financially successful and let out property to tenants. His family were able to live in a good area, and he became a private detective, and served on the city council.
So could Caminada have been an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes? Conan Doyle did not cite him amongst his sources, Angela said, but Caminada was a high profile detective who used disguises, logical deduction, had informants, had a good deal of knowledge, and travelled the city in a handsome cab, and Conan Doyle would have known of him.
I think that Caminada also has a lot in common with some of our modern day fictional detectives – a tough man, from the underbelly of a tough city, who was, perhaps, not above bending the rules to nail his man.
It was fabulous to hear Angela Buckley talk about such an interesting character, but if you want to read her book and find out a lot more about Jerome Caminada, then it is called ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada’