The invisible ethnicity of Inspector Richard Tanner of the Met

The British-Jewish detective who hung the German murderer of a London banker. With photos of his tombstone in Winchester’s West Hill cemetery.

Richard Tanner, late Inspector in the Metropolitan Detective Police Force. Born October 30th 1831, died October 19th 1873. [Also wife and mother-in-law.]

Richard Tanner, late Inspector in the Metropolitan Detective Police Force. Born October 30th 1831, died October 19th 1873. [Also wife and mother-in-law.]

UPDATE: Wrong again – he was a Mason – see the comments.

Last night I read Kate Colquhoun’s Mr Briggs’ Hat, which tells of the death of an English banker called Thomas Briggs on the train to Hackney at the hands of a German tailor called Franz Müller, and of the latter’s pursuit to New York by Dick Tanner of the Met, his controversial trial, and his execution at Newgate (“Ich habe es getan!”). This interested me because I’d seen Tanner’s grave in Winchester’s splendid 19th century West Hill cemetery, in which on several recent occasions I’ve tried to sit and think peaceful thoughts, and failed – with so many tombs to inspect, eternity can surely wait. The book is thoroughly researched but misses one rather interesting fact which from the photo will have been immediately obvious to you: Tanner was a Jew.

I know very little of early Victorian London apart from Dickens, but this omission strikes me as curious in a political age dominated by Disraeli, who was instrumental in the invention of a particular conception of Semitism which was later to be used against him to considerable effect by liberal and conservative anti-Semites alike. And, as Colquhoun notes, the murder took place in the old East End, where ethnicity was paramount:

London was full of foreigners, a crucible bigger and more complex than any other city in the world – a city thrumming to “the eternal tread of feet upon the pavement”, as Dickens wrote in David Copperfield. The immigration of poor workers had brought problems of overcrowding in the rotting courts and rookeries and the overpopulated neighbourhoods that made up much of the turbulent “East End” – a term first coined by Dickens” friend, the journalist Henry Mayhew, in the 1850s. An extreme away from the genteel squares, the vibrant shops and the glittering lights of the new West End, these sunless slums and blind alleys contained a grinding maelstrom of poverty. There were the Irish, broadly considered disruptive; the politically skittish French; the Jewish ghettos with their money lenders, importers and wholesale dealers; the Italian vendors of macaroni and ice creams; extra-terrestrial barrel-organists; and, along the riverside by the Port of London, the “blacks”, “Johnny Chinamen” and “lascars” working as sailors or ships’ servants. Recent European revolutions lived in the memory and the middle classes feared the growing power of the brooding, multi-ethnic mob packed into the eastern reaches of the city.

Perhaps someone else can illuminate my brain.

Tanner emerges from the book and other sources as a decent soul who did not let compassion get in the way of a firm belief in the necessary deterrent power of the death penalty – see for example this deposition made immediately following Müller’s execution. I left the book with an overbearing impression of the efficiency of the system – justice delayed is justice denied, etc:

  • July 9 1864, late: Briggs is murdered.
  • July 18: Tanner gets his lead.
  • July 20: Tanner leaves Liverpool for New York on the fast steamer with all the necessary paperwork and witnesses organised.
  • August 24: Müller is arrested on arrival on the slow boat.
  • August 26-7: Extradition proceedings, with Müller assigned a first-class defence team.
  • September 3: Tanner, the extradition certificate signed by Abraham Lincoln or some convenient vampire (America has a civil war to think of), sails with his prisoner.
  • October 27-29: After preliminary hearings, Müller is tried and convicted at the Old Bailey, despite a thoroughly competent defence and reasonably sane judges.
  • November 14: Following considerable public debate re the merits of the case and of capital punishment, Müller is hung amidst great public debauchery.

So is justice now juster, or has it merely withered and cancered into a mechanism for redistributing public and private wealth to lawyers? Whatever, time travel wouldn’t suit Abu Hamza.

Tanner’s cemetery and the Roman Catholic burial ground (concealed opposite Rozzer Towers on the Romsey Road) can make Winchester’s west hill seem gloomy, and then of course there’s HMP Winchester (Google user review: “Spent five years, Wish it was longer. Good views from the beautiful 19th century building. Friendly staff with fantastic room service.”) and its most famous exmate:

The city of Wintoncester, that fine old city, aforetime capital of Wessex, lay amidst its convex and concave downlands in all the brightness and warmth of a July morning. The gabled brick, tile, and freestone houses had almost dried off for the season their integument of lichen, the streams in the meadows were low, and in the sloping High Street, from the West Gate­way to the mediaeval cross, and from the mediaeval cross to the bridge, that leisurely dusting and sweeping was in progress which usually ushers in an old-fashioned market-day.

From the western gate aforesaid the highway, as every Wintoncestrian knows, ascends a long and regular incline of the exact length of a measured mile, leaving the houses gradually behind. Up this road from the precincts of the city two persons were walking rapidly, as if unconscious of the trying ascent — unconscious through preoccupation and not through buoyancy. They had emerged upon this road through a narrow barred wicket in a high wall a little lower down. They seemed anxious to get out of the sight of the houses and of their kind, and this road appeared to offer the quickest means of doing so. Though they were young they walked with bowed heads, which gait of grief the sun’s rays smiled on pitilessly.

One of the pair was Angel Clare, the other a tall budding creature — half girl, half woman — a spiritualized image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes — Clare’s sister-in-law, ’Liza-Lu. Their pale faces seemed to have shrunk to half their natural size. They moved on hand in hand, and never spoke a word, the drooping of their heads being that of Giotto’s ‘Two Apostles’.

When they had nearly reached the top of the great West Hill the clocks in the town struck eight. Each gave a start at the notes, and, walking onward yet a few steps, they reached the first milestone, standing whitely on the green margin of the grass, and backed by the down, which here was open to the road. They entered upon the turf, and, impelled by a force that seemed to overrule their will, suddenly stood still, turned, and, waited in paralyzed suspense beside the stone.

The prospect from this summit was almost unlimited. In the valley beneath lay the city they had just left, its more prominent buildings showing as in an isometric drawing — among them the broad cathedral tower, with its Norman windows and immense length of aisle and nave, the spires of St. Thomas’s, the pinnacled tower of the College, and, more to the right, the tower and gables of the ancient hospice, where to this day the pilgrim may receive his dole of bread and ale. Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St. Catherine’s Hill; further off, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it.

Against these far stretches of country rose, in front of the other city edifices, a large red-brick building, with level gray roofs, and rows of short barred windows bespeaking captivity, the whole contrasting greatly by its formalism with the quaint irregularities of the Gothic erections. It was somewhat disguised from the road in passing it by yews and evergreen oaks, but it was visible enough up here. The wicket from which the pair had lately emerged was in the wall of this structure. From the middle of the building an ugly flat-topped octagonal tower ascended against the east horizon, and viewed from this spot, on its shady side and against the light, it seemed the one blot on the city’s beauty. Yet it was with this blot, and not with the beauty, that the two gazers were concerned.

Upon the cornice of the tower a tall staff was fixed. Their eyes were riveted on it. A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag.

‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Æschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess. And the d’Urberville knights and dames slept on in their tombs unknowing. The two speechless gazers bent themselves down to the earth, as if in prayer, and remained thus a long time, absolutely motionless: the flag continued to wave silently. As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.

Mist would have worked too.

[What to call people? Probably the wrong solution.]

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  1. I sorry to disappoint you, but the Star of David is nothing to do with Tanner being Jewish. He was baptised and married in Church of England churches. It is, in fact, a Masonic symbol – Tanner had been the Master (or correctly “Most Excellent Zerubbabel”) of his Royal Arch Chapter just before his death. The full story is in my book “Crime & The Craft“. Mike Neville – Freemason and retired Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector.

    1. Oops, thanks for the correction! And there’s more over at Chris Payne’s: “The arrest, and its description in court was undertaken by Tanner’s sergeant who had travelled with him to New York. Tanner only arrived on the Victoria some hours later, accompanied by the witness John Death, to conduct an ‘identification parade’… Tanner still had sufficient energy in ‘retirement’ to run a pub in Winchester and to act as Secretary for his Fleet Street-based Lodge of Freemasons until his premature death in 1873.” Here‘s his The Chieftain: Victorian True Crime through the Eyes of a Scotland Yard Detective.

      1. As his great grandson my knowledge and belief is he was son of london carrige owner chabez tanner who was indeed jewish and an imigrant his fathers first name says it all indeed jewish ,christened a christian in a church of england doesnt hide fact of jewish decent , and for this reason the star of david on his headstone. Can come to sybolise many things , and like
        My great grandfather i am a christian from the church of england but doesnt hide the fact of jewish ancestors.

    2. Hello mr neville i am the great grandson of richard tanner and grandson of his son who travelled to australia? I was wondering if u had any information with his involvement in siege of sydney street any information would be greatly appreatiated my fathers middle name was richard and my great grand father sent him a dickens book inscribed live and learn , i also understand he fought in battle of sebastapol

    3. Retired chief inspector. Neville id have to disagree my great grandfather richard tanner was son of london taxi carrige owner chabez tanner , his fathers first name confirms jewish heritage, like my greatgrandfather i am also a christian from the church of england

  2. Being Richard Tanner’s great grandson through direct linage of George and Neil Richard tanner and myself being Shaun tanner I would have to disagree Mr Neville ,Richards father was a London taxi carriage business owner ,Chabez tanner, it is my understanding Chabez is a name of ancient Hebrew text , I am a Christian of the church of England as my father ,grandfather and great grandfather , I also understand that being a Jew in London Victorian times would have hindered his social and rising through policing ranks even the freemasons, with these facts in hand one must ask themselves if indeed Richard tanner was of Jewish decent ,their is merit in the organgrinders claims and encourage debate ,after 150years maybe the truth can be spoken the first time and history re written , sincerely Shaun tanner

    1. Sorry for not replying earlier, Shaun – incredibly busy here. That’s really interesting, because you do find a couple of people called Chabez in 19th century London, but it’s usually a surname. Have you got some rough dates for him or 19th century relatives so I can follow up?

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