SIR CHARLES WARREN - COMMISSIONER

Sir Charles Warren - Cartoon in Punch.

The Jack the Ripper murders were predominantly investigated by the Metropolitan Police. Their headquarters were at 4 Whitehall Place, and their Commissioner was Sir Charles Warren who had been appointed to the post in January 1886.

In the century and more since the murders occurred Warren has been subjected to a barrage of largely undeserved criticism and ridicule, most of which is based on several misconceptions and outright inaccuracies about his handling of the case.

An ex military man, he took up office with high hopes of bringing much needed discipline to the Metropolitan Police, and appears to have won the respect and loyalty of most of the rank and file officers.

The Times applauded him as being:

...precisely the man whom sensible Londoners would have chosen to preside over the Police Force of the Metropolis…there are few officials…who have had more varied experience. He is at once a man of science and a man of action…

Warren's reputation as a man of action was put to the test on 13th November 1887, a day that became known as 'Bloody Sunday.' During the summer of 1887 large numbers of destitute unemployed had begun camping out in Trafalgar Square and using it as a meeting place. As a result the Square had become a hotbed of political agitation, and Warren, fearing that this growing disquiet might soon place London at the mercy of the mob, requested that the Home Secretary, Henry Matthews, ban all meetings in Trafalgar Square.

Matthews, a typical career politician prevaricated for almost two months, forcing Warren to send 2,000 policemen into the Square at weekends to maintain public order. In early November Matthews finally made a decision, and Warren was authorised to veto further meeting in the Square.

Up until that point the left wing press had looked upon Warren as an intellectual progressive and had afforded him a reasonable amount of respect. But they saw the ban as been done at his sole discretion and, feeling it to be unlawful, the Metropolitan Radical Association decided to challenge it by calling a meeting in the Square for 2.30pm on Sunday 13th November.

Warren stuck to his guns and expressly forbade any procession from entering the Square at the appointed time. The stage was set for confrontation and, according to newspaper reports, 20,000 protestors (the police estimated twice that number, the organisers half) converged on the Square, where Warren had stationed 2,000 constables, two deep in a ring around its interior.

A further 3,000 were kept in readiness, and a battalion of Grenadier Guard foot soldiers, plus a regiment of mounted Life Guards were kept on standby. The three leaders of the Social Democratic Federation, Hyndman, Burns and Cunninghame Graham, linked arms and vowed to breach the circle.

Hyndman found himself lost in the crowd, but the other two made it to the police line where they exchanged blows with the officers and were duly arrested and locked up.

An idea of the brutality of what was to come can be gleaned from an eye witness account of the arrest of Cunninghame Grahame, Radical-socialist MP for Lanark:

After Mr Grahame's arrest was complete one policeman after another, two certainly, but I think no more, stepped up from behind and struck him on the head from behind with a violence and brutality which were shocking to behold. Even after this, and when some five or six other police were dragging him into the square, another from behind seized him most needlessly by the hair... and dragged his head back, and in that condition he was forced many yards.

Suddenly the mood of the crowd, which up until that moment had been good humoured, changed. Warren called for re-enforcements and 400 foot soldiers and mounted police divisions together with the Life Guards and Grenadier Guards were deployed to disperse the crowd. Socialist poet, Edward Carpenter was in the Square and witnessed the carnage that followed:-

The order had gone forth that we were to be kept moving. To keep a crowd moving is, I believe, a technical term for the process of riding roughshod in all directions, scattering, frightening and batoning the people...

Socialist artist Walter Crane, who was also present, commented that:

I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life - only the attack was all on one side. The police, in spite of their numbers, apparently thought they could not cope with the crowd. They had certainly exasperated them, and could not disperse them, as after every charge - and some of these drove the people right against the shutters in the shops in the Strand - they returned again.

As the melee ended, two protestors lay dead, a hundred people had been hospitalized, 77 constables had been injured, and 40 protestors had been arrested.

By the end of the week, seventy five charges of brutality had been lodged against the police. But, as far as the authorities were concerned, Warren was the hero who had made a decisive stands against both the mob and the threat posed to public order by socialism. The Times was fulsome in its praise and commented how Warren’s decisive action had undermined "a deliberate attempt… to terrorize London by placing the control of the streets in the hands of the criminal classes."

To the radicals, however, he had become an autocrat, and from that point on they sought any opportunity to attack and undermine him. Consequently when the Jack the Ripper murders occurred and the police appeared unable to catch the killer, the radical press saw an opportunity to avenge itself on Warren, and he would find himself vilified in many newspapers for his mishandling of the investigation.