The Secret Special Branch Ledgers
By way of introduction—
"Since Bernard Porter’s book "The Origins of the Vigilant State" was published in 1987 the U.K.’s ‘Open Government Initiative’ has led to the opening of some secret files relevant to the early history of the Special Branch – most notably the memoir of Superintendent William Melville.
"However, more than a century after the height of the anarchist scare, a substantial amount of documentation concerning it is still held by the Special Branch and classified as secret. A serving officer in today’s Special Branch, Lindsay Clutterbuck, has recently completed a Ph.D. thesis based in part on research in documents retained by the Branch and accessible to him only because of his status . . . This information would seem to contradict what police officials told Porter about the Branch’s records: ‘Scotland Yard . . . claims that all its Special Branch files were pulped to furnish recycled paper during the last war’ (The Origins of the Vigilant State, p. xi)."
E. Thomas Wood [July 2002]
What follows is covered by Section 21 paragraph 53 in a 29-page Freedom of Information Act 2000 [Section 50] Decision Notice dated 20th August 2008. It reads in part—
"To the limited extent that information from the Ledgers and the Register is cited in the [Clutterbuck] thesis and, where it is clear that they are from that source, the Commissioner is satisfied that that material is reasonably accessible to the complainant by other means. Therefore in relation to that material the exemption was appropriately claimed."
The new information discovered in 2000/1 by Lindsay Clutterbuck, then a serving Special Branch officer, is described thus:-
"Three 'Special Account' books, each measuring 160mm by 200mm, and printed into five columns per page. They detail, amongst other items, what appears to be the cash amounts paid out to individual informants. In all, approximately six thousand individual entries span a total of the twenty four years from 1888 to 1912.
"Book One is headed 'Special Account' and runs from February 1st 1888 to December 5th 1894.
"Book Two, with no heading, commences on December 12th 1894 and finishes on December 25th, 1901.
"Book Three, again with no heading, covers the years from January 1st 1902 to March 27th 1912.
"Whilst they do not provide any operational information directly appertaining to the policing of extreme Irish nationalism during the period of 1881-1885 when Irish activities were at a peak, they do give a unique insight into the workings of the MPSB [Metropolitan Police Special Branch] from shortly after its formal inception in February, 1887 (Metropolitan Police Orders, February 3rd, 1887) until well beyond the turn of the century. It is likely that there had been substantial change in the years leading up to the period covered by the first volume. They also show that, whatever the public protestations of senior police officers and politicians concerning their apparent distaste at the use of "spies", such individuals were actively recruited by the police who then paid them with the money provided for that purpose by the government.
"This published material ranges from the earliest examples in the 1798 rebellion, through to the Fenians of the 1860s and beyond into the 1880s. It identifies many people who acted as informants on behalf of the British government.
"As well as the Account Books, a further, larger book has come to light. It measures 20cm by 33cm and is headed 'Special Branch Records of Service- 27.11.86 to 2.1.1917'.
"It seems to have performed several functions related to personnel. The volume is divided into various sections. The first of these is extracts from Metropolitan Police Orders relating to the transfers into, within and out of Special Branch. This is invaluable as trying to reconstruct today such movements by relying on the Police Orders published at the time is virtually
impossible due to the difficulties in disentangling which CID postings actually referred to Special Branch. Another section refers to each individual officer's postings, transfers, promotion and retirement dates. The final part of the book details officers postings to coastal ports, both in Britain and abroad.
"The last book to be discovered is a bound ledger. It is a massive tome, measuring 27cms by 38cms by 6cms and weighing 4 kilograms. The front cover is embossed with the words "Crime Department Special Branch" and the first page bears a stamp "Criminal Investigation Dept. - Chief Constables Office - SPECIAL", with the hand written date of "20.4.88" inserted into its centre.
"It appears to serve several functions and each page is divided into four columns, each headed respectively: -
"Name (briefly) Subject Reference to Correspondence Folio in Correspondence Register
"At the rear of the book, two pages detail anonymous letters sent to the Branch. A further six pages contain references to extracts from the press, ranging from the radical to the establishment, both from within Great Britain and abroad. However, it is the remainder of the book that contains the most significant research material.
"It is organised into alphabetical cuts, with each letter further divided into sub-cuts headed A, E, I, O, U. At thirty five lines a page there is a minimum of one thousand entries per letter of the alphabet, plus "Mc" and the use of the spare capacity at the back for overflow. Very few pages are not filled completely, giving a total of up to thirty thousand, one line entries.
"A number in the "Reference to Correspondence" column, always in the format of a fraction [e.g. 3622/2], accompanies each one line entry. Another number, usually between one and four hundred e.g . 294 appears in the "Folio in Correspondence Register" column.
"Overall, the ledger appears designed to operate on three levels:-
"i) As a register of correspondence sent to Special Branch by the rest of the Metropolitan Police, other Police Forces, the Home Office, other government departments and members of the
"ii) As an index to the reports submitted by its own officers.
"iii) As a nominal and subject index of people and topics mentioned at i) and ii) above.
"Specific dates are rarely given but by taking an archaeological approach to what entries lie before or after a dated entry, a rough estimate of the possible date of the others can sometimes be inferred."
And what of Jack the Ripper in all of this?
Clutterbuck states that "The Chief Constable's Register contains several intriguing references to at least support the contention that 'Special' had more that a passing interest in 'Jack the Ripper' but none to corroborate the particular suspect that they put forward."
Clutterbuck also cites John Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, whose comments appeared in "Irish Conspiracies", a book of his reminiscences written by journalist and writer Frederick Moir Bussey, published by Everett & Co, 1910.
Anderson's "most authoritative critic is probably Bussey (1910), who, using his association with Superintendent John Mallon of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, a man with first hand knowledge of many of the events, paints a picture of Anderson as a man who "talks a good job", irrespective of his personal involvement in it. Consequently, caution must be exercised in using Anderson as a source."
Although we shall never get to see the details contained in these ledgers, I hope the foregoing gives some idea of the lengths to which the authorities will go to preserve the secret history of the LVP.