Epilogue. The Weasel
You recall Detective Inspector Frederick Porter Wensley who played such an important role in the detection of the Houndsditch Murders and the subsequent Siege of Sidney St. Throughout his long and spectacularly successful career, he kept an album now preserved in the archive at Bishopsgate Institute where he pasted all his press reports conscientiously and labelled them with beautiful hand drawn lettering.
It was a labour undertaken with such consideration and care that it must have become an important solace for the great crimefighter to repair to his study with scissors and a pot of glue, and spend countless hours innocently engaged in arranging his cuttings. Many aspire to become the hero of the their own life story, but Wensley read it in the newspapers. It was a story that began in Spitalfields when he joined the police at the time of the Whitechapel Murders in 1887 and ended when he died in the era of the Krays in 1949. Just like a movie star contemplating his rave reviews, Wensley took pleasure in his write-ups, as witnessed by the attention he lavished upon collecting and preserving them, and it fascinates me to turn the pages of his precious album and appreciate something of the enigma of the man they knew as “the weasel.”
A year after the violent shootout on Sidney St, Inspector Frederick Porter Wensley was promoted to Chief Inspector of the Detective Department at Scotland Yard, though crucially he remained in charge of the Whitechapel District where he made his reputation. Prior to the Houndsditch case, Wensley was frustrated that he had not been appointed to the role of detective because it would mean a transfer out of Whitechapel, when his local knowledge proved invaluable to the local constabulary. As well as this promotion, Wensley was awarded a medal by the King and this recognition was the first step in his rise to become the pre-eminent London detective of the day, the man later described by the Sunday Express as, “Sherlock Homes in real life.”
Yet while the papers where quick to celebrate Wensley’s triumphs in crimefighting, they did not quite idealise the man – reading between the lines – as these character descriptions attest,“Frederick Wensley is not a talkative man. He speaks with blunt vigour and stops when he has finished. And his mind works in something of this direct fashion. He goes straight to the heart of the matter. He disregards the non-essentials so completely that I am inclined to think he does not notice them. So far as he is concerned they do not exist. One bludgeon stroke and they are gone.”
“He was a rare physical fighter when criminals showed fight. In his active outdoor days, a fight, if forced upon him, was all in a day’s work.”
“A burglar wrote: ‘Of all the police I have known in my life, he was easily the sternest.’”
In the years following the Houndsditch case, Wensley arrested the notorious Stinie Morrison who murdered Leo Beron on Clapham Common, and then convicted Voisin the Butcher who murdered Madame Gerard in Bloomsbury. Later, he brought Edith Thompson & Frederick Bywaters to justice, the perpetrators of the Ilford Tragedy, and took charge of the investigation into the case of the poisoned chocolates sent to Sir William Horwood. However the laughs were not all on Wensley’s side, because one night burglars broke into his house in Palmer’s Green whilst he and his wife were sleeping peacefully in their beds and stripped the house of everything of value including his Police Medal presented by the King. Wensley gamely told the press, “Whoever was responsible for the burglary, I am obliged for the sporting way they have behaved.”
Upon retirement, Wensley wrote ‘Detective Days,’ his bestselling biography with accounts of crimes to outstrip any work of fiction. And when the newspapers no longer had new heroic exploits of Wensley to report, he wrote his own for the press, retelling the tales of crimes long ago for a whole new generation, and rounding out his life story nicely.
When I consider Wensley’s involvement in the investigation of the Houndsditch murders, although I grant that he went bravely under gunfire to rescue Sergeant Leeson who had been shot in Sidney St, there is another detail that sticks in my mind. Entering the house in Grove St after the tip-off that a body was there, he was concerned lest gunmen be lying in wait, as his colleagues had discovered to their cost in Houndsditch a few days earlier. Ever the pragmatist, Wensley boasts in his autobiography, how, to remedy this eventuality, he pushed the fat landlady upstairs ahead of him, thus creating a human shield.
As the portrait above suggests, with its strange expression that is simultaneously half-serious and half-smiling, there were different sides to Wensley’s personality. May I remind you of origin of the word ‘”weasel,” and you can decide upon its suitability or otherwise as a nickname for Wensley? - because “weasel” derives from the Anglo-Saxon root “weatsop” meaning “a bloodthirsty animal.”
Detective Inspector Wensley disguised as a soldier raids an East End gambling den.
Wensley’s album with his personal collection of villains’ mugshots that he carried in his wallet.
Images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute
You can read the full pitiful story of the Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney St here