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The most famous detective you’ve never heard of

Picture the scene...the dark, foreboding streets of Victorian London. Thieves, pickpockets and rogues around every corner and a police force struggling to keep up without the benefit of so many of the forensic tools we’re familiar with today. Into this world steps a detective whose analytical mind and nose for detail made him famous, as well as making him the bane of many a would-be mastermind.

Sound familiar? If you think this is a blog about Sherlock Holmes - well, you’d be wrong. This is about another - very real - detective whose career saw him investigate some of the most famous crimes of the 19th century including the Whitechapel murders of the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’. A man whose unique personal archive of over 150 individual documents, photographs, letters, drawings and personal belongings has just been entrusted to our museum and parts of which will be on public display for the very first time as part of our new exhibition, Daring Detectives & Dastardly Deeds.

The man in question is Donald Sutherland Swanson, who rose through the ranks of the relatively-new Metropolitan Police force to eventually become the Superintendent of CID at Scotland Yard - the most senior detective in the country.

Donald Swanson was born in 1848 near John O’Groats, Scotland. After a spell working as a teacher he left for London aged 19 and in 1868 joined the Metropolitan Police. Initially working as a uniformed Police Constable patrolling around Westminster, a series of promotions and transfers saw him serve in north London and the East End before moving to Scotland Yard in 1876 at the age of 28.

Once at Scotland Yard his reputation as an astute and thorough officer with a calm demeanour and an analytical mind - as well as his talent for discretion - saw him regularly appointed to lead delicate and highly sensitive investigations. One such case, in 1880, was the theft of the Countess of Bective’s jewellery, worth a staggering quarter of a million pounds. Although the jewels were quickly pawned, a single pearl found in the pocket of the suspect - the Countess’s former butler - led Swanson to recover all but ten pounds-worth of the stolen valuables. A feat Sherlock himself would have been proud of!

So relieved were the Earl and Countess to have the jewels back in their possession, they gave Swanson a personal reward of £10,000 - a year’s salary - and an inscribed pistol, which is still part of the Swanson archive and is now on display at NESM.

There were many other high profile cases which led to Swanson becoming a familiar name and face in the newspapers. He arrested the Brighton railway murderer, Percy Lefroy Mapleton, was called in to investigate the first case of bodysnatching in nearly 50 years, and was involved in politically-charged cases such as the Fenian dynamite campaigns of the 1880s.

Then, in 1888, Swanson was brought in to lead the most high-profile case of his career - and still one of the most infamous series of murders ever committed; the Whitechapel murders.

The police investigation into so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ was initially led by local detectives, with former Whitechapel-based Inspector Frederick Abberline sent from Scotland Yard to assist. Following the murder of Annie Chapman, the killer’s second victim, Chief Inspector Donald Swanson was placed in charge of the investigation. Every report, statement, telegram and letter from the case was forwarded to his office for his expert examination. He was, said the Commissioner, to be ‘consulted on every subject’ related to the murders and he was to oversee the work of many men.

Each day Swanson was at his desk at Scotland Yard for 8am, spending around 13 hours going through the swathes of reports, letters and statements that had come in during the day, assimilating the information and pursuing genuine lines of enquiry. At night he would head to Whitechapel to liaise with local detectives and then on to City Police headquarters to discuss progress with the head of the City Police’s CID, Inspector McWilliam. Few men could have had a better knowledge of this most-famous of 'unsolved' cases.

Donald Swanson retired in 1903 and died in 1924. A humble man, he spent much of his retirement fishing; a far cry from the fast-paced life of criminal London. He said almost nothing about his work, so that even his family knew little of the cases he had worked on.

And that’s the way it remained until the 1980s when Swanson’s descendants discovered a treasure trove of notebooks, newspaper clippings, documents, photographs and objects relating to the detective’s career. It appears Swanson had been meticulous, recording details of his most famous cases (in a very Dr Watson-esque way!), keeping letters and gifts received from grateful members of the public, notes on his theories and methods of working, and even information about the people he had arrested.

The most astonishing item, however - and one of the star exhibits in our new exhibition - is what has become known as the ‘Swanson marginalia’. In his personal copy of former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Robert Anderson’s memoir, Swanson added his own comments about the Whitechapel case of 1888; observations about the investigation, his own theories and additional pieces of information. In this book the former Chief Inspector names the person he believed to be the infamous killer, Jack the Ripper.

Although the Jack the Ripper link is the one that piques most interest, the archive as a whole is utterly unique, giving an amazing insight into the life of a detective in 19th century Britain. Swanson’s professional life spanned some huge changes in the way the Metropolitan Police worked; he joined when officers still wielded cutlasses and retired as techniques like fingerprinting and forensic science were coming to the fore. But it also shows us so much of his personal life too.

That NESM has been chosen to care for this amazing collection - the first time it has been out of the hands of the Swanson family and on public display - is a huge honour and a massive coup for a relatively small, independent museum in Sheffield! But we are determined to do everything we can to make sure this remarkable man gets the recognition he deserves.

As well as displaying key objects from the Swanson collection in our new exhibition, we’re also planning to digitise the collection and make it more widely accessible to researchers and historians. We’re looking to begin several research projects around the Swanson archive in partnership with researchers and colleagues to understand what can be learnt from the collection and will be hosting a series of workshops, talks and special events to celebrate the Donald Swanson story.

It is amazing that a man who was once the most senior - and most recognisable - detective in the country, feted by the public, has been largely forgotten while those who worked for him, like Ripper investigator Frederick Abberline, remain well-known names. When we unveil our new exhibition on 19 May we hope it will be the just the start of our museum helping to change that for good!

The museum reopens on Wednesday 19 May. Advance tickets are available at

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