Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Beau Brummell of the Yard

John McCarthy, 1863-1927

My great-grandfather, John McCarthy (1863-1927) was a detective with the Metropolitan Police. Starting as a constable on the beat in Islington in 1881, by 1912 he had worked his way up to be Superintendent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. Along the way, he had some fascinating jobs and cases.

He joined CID in 1887 as a founder member of the newly reformed Special Branch. All Irishmen, they were responsible for secret political work at home and abroad, tackling the growing threat from anarchists and Fenians. In the early 1890s he spent a year in Le Havre in this capacity, watching for suspicious activity at the Channel ports and liaising with the French authorities.

Back in England he was sent to Bow Street as a uniformed Detective Sergeant, distinguishing himself in a famous murder case, the Muswell Hill murder. In 1896 he returned to CID and Special Branch and was  promoted to Inspector in 1901. During this time he regularly acted as a bodyguard for the Prince and Princess of Wales, Edward and Alexandra. With Edward’s accession to the throne in 1901, John McCarthy took over protection of the new Prince and Princess of Wales, later to be King George V and Queen Mary.

King Edward VII, Queen Alexandra and the Princess of Wales, later Queen Mary, are seated from right to left. The Prince of Wales, later King George V, is standing between his wife and mother.

In 1906 John became a Chief Inspector. He joined a special section focused on the violent activity of the suffragettes and also monitored the activities of exiled anarchists and revolutionaries such as Lenin. In January 1911, a series of anarchist murders culminated in the siege of Sidney Street. John  McCarthy was one of the senior Special Branch officers who advised the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, on the conduct of the siege.  After several hours the house caught fire and the anarchists stopped shooting. No one was sure if they were dead so the unarmed John McCarthy decided to investigate:

Accompanied by two fellow plain-clothes officers and keeping close in to the wall ... the burly McCarthy picked his way through the debris to the scarred front door … lifting his foot high, [he] kicked it open. As it swung back a great belch of flame roared out.

Only then did it become clear that nobody could still be alive inside. Scotland Yard later  commended his cool courage.

John McCarthy conferring with other senior officers during the Sidney Street siege

By all accounts he was a popular head of the CID. Contemporaries described him as "urbane and courteous" and he was so well dressed that he earned the nickname “Beau Brummell of the Yard". He also knew how to enjoy himself. In June 1914 he presided at the annual CID dinner. One of the guests was a former Special Branch officer who had joined the Russian Secret Service – the Okhrana. The programme for the evening's entertainment bizarrely found its way into their archives, where it survives to this day. We learn that, after an eight course meal,  John McCarthy and his men enjoyed a cabaret which included a ventriloquist, a highland dancer, a "Growing Man" and a song called "Willie took his Flo below".

His period in charge of CID included the First World War, with controversy over internment of enemy aliens and fears about the effects of war and air raids on civilian morale and loyalty. Special Branch expanded from 114 to 700 men and new departments were created to censor mail. In 1916 came the Easter Rising and from then on Ireland was at the top of Special Branch's agenda.

In March 1918 John McCarthy retired and was immediately reappointed as liaison officer between Special Branch and MI5, with a special suite of offices in Scotland Yard.  His role involved "an intimate knowledge of the movements of the various political sects in Ireland" and Scotland Yard said that "his services were of the greatest assistance to the authorities in this country". In recognition of those services, John McCarthy was awarded the OBE in the King's Birthday Honours List in June 1923.

John McCarthy leaving Buckingham Palace after collecting his MBE, 1923

Because of his undercover work, John McCarthy was on the IRA's death list and Scotland Yard took out an insurance policy on his life. In the event, he died of spinal cancer in September 1927. In the last weeks of his illness he had ordered his daughter to burn his diaries and other papers relating to his police career. Other Scotland Yard officers had published memoirs about their involvement in famous murder cases or anecdotes about their work as royal bodyguards.  John McCarthy's dying concern was not for his own reputation but for those ex-offenders who, having served their sentences, were trying to rebuild their lives and would be harmed if his account of their crimes were to be published.

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