Today (September 13) in London History – Fingerprints!

The first British conviction based on fingerprint evidence happened on September 13th, 1902. At the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Let’s be as precise and as exacting about this as the police have to be when they’re introducing them as evidence.

So to start with, what is effectively a dictionary definition. It’s actually taken from a lengthy 1909 series of articles in The Times on the Metropolitan Police. The piece in question is the sixth in the series. Its subject is: Identification.

Here’s what the article says about fingerprints. And worth bearing in mind here, that the science of fingerprint identification was very new. The first conviction of a British criminal based on fingerprint evidence had happened only six years previously, on this day, September 13th, 1902.

Here’s said precise and exacting definition. 

“A finger-print” – interestingly the article hyphenates the word and puts it in inverted commas, orthography and punctuation that in itself is a reminder of how very new the discipline was – anyway, “a finger-print”, the article tells us, is the impression of the bulb of a finger or thumb upon a surface which reproduces the pattern of the ridges of the skin which stand out in relief on all digits. It has been found that the pattern of these ridges or lines never changes throughout life – those on a baby’s thumb or finger, for instance, being recognisable in the impression of the same thumb when it has become that of an old man. Moreover, these patterns differ in some particular in every human hand. No prints of all the digits of a hand have been found to correspond to those of another, though since the system has been at work hundreds of thousands of prints have been taken and compared for classification. 

The same claim to certainty of identity is made for anthropometry, and is justified where the measurements have been correctly made on each occasion.”

Two points here. 1.) most of the above is common knowledge today. But in the early 20th century it was necessary to spell it all out to the general public. It was necessary because it was brand new, virgin territory.

And 2.) that mention of anthropometry – now that’s an instance Darwinian natural selection at work. Anthropometry was an identification system based on elaborate and time-consuming measurements of a convict. 18 in total. Three of the length of his head, three of its width, three of the length of his left arm, three of the length of his left foot, three of the length of his little finger, and three of his height, as well as a search for any deformities, scars, or tattoo marks he may have upon his body. 

It was a lengthy process. It could take an hour. The instruments required careful and delicate adjustments – so its accuracy was very dependent on the deftness or otherwise of the operator. And then there was the problem of the measurements only being reliable if they were taken when the criminal was full grown. And finally, the system was only of any use when the perpetrator was caught. It had no value whatsoever as a means of tracing a robber or murderer who had escaped unseen. 

Whereas fingerprints – in marked contrast – well, the gentleman wearing the mask and clad in a black and white striped shirt and carrying a bag of breaking and entering tools – said gentleman might have escaped unseen, but if he left a fingerprint behind…well, you’ll get my drift.

Anyway, the point is the fingerprint system was vastly superior in every respect. It’s stood the police in good stead since its inception and is still very much in use today – there’s DNA tracing and identification today but as powerful as it is it has not rendered fingerprint evidence obsolete.

And a couple of names rise to the surface here – London history, it’s pretty much always about the people – the most important pioneering work on fingerprints was done in the 1890s by the British eugenicist Sir Francis Galton. He was the one who established that the pattern of a person’s fingerprints did not change from youth to old age. And he created a taxonomic system by which the variations in fingerprint patterns could be described and catalogued. Which of course was vitally important when you had millions – or even thousands – of fingerprints on file.

And that brings us to the star of the show, the first British criminal convicted on fingerprint evidence. Incredibly, his name was Harry Jackson. Unforgettable to all of us old hands at London Walks because Harry Jackson – the guide not the burglar – was our colleague. Our late, lamented, much missed, much-loved colleague.

And Harry Jackson the criminal’s crime? On June 27th, 1902 he stole some billiard balls from a house in Denmark Hill in south London. He made the mistake of leaving a thumbprint on a newly painted window sill. Police photographed the print. Sent it to Scotland Yard, which had a new weapon in its arsenal. A fingerprint register. The register was less than a year old. 

Sure enough, there was a match. With 41-year-old Harry Jackson’s prints. Harry’d fought the law before and the law one. He’d served time for burglary. And, well, he fought the law again. Fought it today, September 13, 1902. Same outcome. The law won. Harry was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. That turned a page in judicial, legal, police and penal history. And it was Harry’s name on that page. Bears repeating: it was the first conviction in this country based on fingerprint evidence. 

Seven years’ imprisonment. Sitting here 120 years later, I’m wondering how many billiard balls Harry stole? What was he going to do with them? Sell them for a few pence each? Supposing he stole seven – that’s a year of his life behind bars for each billiard ball. And of course it raises a further question, how much did it cost to keep him in prison? There was the space he took up? He had to be guarded and fed and clothed. His cell had to be heated. And there must have been – however primitive – plumbing facilities of some sort. And lighting. 

For a few billiard balls. Was that a good use of whatever resources it was put toward Harry Jackson’s maintenance? Was that a good trade-off? It’s an obvious question, but is there no better way of handling these matters.

And to end, well, the subject’s put me in mind of our Ripper Walk. It was put together and for many years guided by Donald Rumbelow, Britain’s most distinguished crime historian. Don is, as The Jack the Ripper A to Z puts it, “internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” He doesn’t guide it anymore but he’s still centrally involved. Don’s still on the team. Still active. Don mentors our Ripper walk. One of the modules he’s drawn up for our Ripper guides has to do with the forensics of police investigations in 1888. How primitive it was. I can remember we all looked at one another with a wild surmise when Don said, “the first fingerprint conviction was 14 years in the future – indeed, in 1888 they weren’t even able to distinguish human blood from animal blood.”

Fascinating stuff.

Ok, a Today in London recommendation – well, let’s do it, let’s recommend the Ripper walk. All kinds of choice. It goes every single night at 7.30 pm from Tower Hill Underground Station. And there’s a matinee on Saturday afternoons at 3 pm. The only exception is December 24th and December 25th. The Ripper walk does not run on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day itself.

And there’s a further choice. Richard Walker does a small group Ripper Walk every Friday night at 7 pm. It has to be pre-booked and pre-paid. It costs a bit more – £20, with no concessions – but there’s a strict limit on the group size. A maximum of twelve people. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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