Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Inspector Field and the Improbable Gift

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Inspector Field and the Improbable Gift

Article excerpt

In an annotation to his 1928 edition of John Forster's biography of Dickens, J. W T. Ley quoted a report in The Daily News of Monday 24 January 1853.

   Mr. Charles Dickens has, with great liberality, presented a cheque
   for 300 [pounds sterling] to Sergeant Field, a superannuated
   officer of the detective force, upon whose information he founded
   several articles in Household Words relative to the detective
   system. (843)

The officer referred to is Charles Frederick Field, a member of the "New Police" since its inception in 1829 and the head of its Detective Department from 1846 until his retirement in 1852. He and other members of the Department had been invited to the Wellington Street offices of Household Words during 1850 and while there recounted exploits, which, edited by Dickens, subsequently appeared as articles in the periodical. A later piece of 1851--"On Duty with Inspector Field"--described one of several nocturnal tours of the London underworld undertaken by Dickens in the company of Field. (1)

These articles were widely noted at the time and have been much discussed since. In particular, Philip Collins has commented on their "laudatory" (205), "awestruck" (205) and "hyperbolical" (207) tone, and a "boyish hero-worship" (206) revealed nowhere else by Dickens in relation to public functionaries. The high regard of the editor for the policemen was, apparently, reciprocated: Field himself was said by Dickens to be "wholly devoted" (Letters 6:377). (2)

Collins was unable to trace the report quoted above in The Daily News in or around the date noted by Ley and was unaware of any other reference to what he called "this improbable gift" (341). Certainly, Dickens's regard for Field and gratitude for good copy notwithstanding, a donation equivalent to sixty per cent of the Household Words editorial salary (3) seems unlikely. Nevertheless, the story of the 300 [pounds sterling] gift retains currency. (4)

Recent inspection shows that The Daily News did carry the story, although not on the date specified by Ley. It appeared instead on Saturday 5 February 1853, when it also featured in The Morning Chronicle. (5) During the following week, several other newspapers also printed the paragraph, all of them, like the two London dailies, acknowledging its source to be a particular small, provincial newspaper, The Derby Reporter. (6) Such an origin for a news item of this kind is a little unusual: news of national or general interest (as this item appears to be) tended to flow from the London dailies to the provincial newspapers; flow in the opposite direction tended to occur when a provincial news item (as this appears not to be) was deemed to be of national or general interest. Nevertheless, inspection shows the item to be indeed present in The Derby and Chesterfield Reporter and Derbyshire Chronicle of Friday 4 February. (7)

Dickens evidently read the paragraph as it appeared a day later in The Daily News, and, in a letter which has not previously been noticed, asked for a retraction. The Daily News of Monday 7 February consequently included the following.

MR. CHARLES DICKENS wishes us to contradict the paragraph (quoted from The Derby Reporter), relating how 300l. had been presented to Inspector Field, late of the detective force. Mr. Dickens says: "The statement is unimportant to me, but as it might cast a slur on the conduct of a most excellent officer in the discharge of his duty, I beg you to do him the justice of contradicting it, on my assurance that it is one of the most extravagant inventions I have ever seen in my life, without a scrap of truth for its foundation." (p. 5, col. c.)

Subsequently, while slower provincial newspapers were still propagating the original paragraph, others began reproducing the contradiction. (8) In the meantime, The Derby Reporter itself had received a complaint. On 11 February it contained the following letter. …

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