January 16, 2013
On the detective trail
Recently I visited Manchester for the first time since being commissioned to write the biography of Victorian detective Jerome Caminada. I followed in his footsteps around the city centre to see if there were any traces of his life there after almost a century.
I began my tour at his birthplace on Peter Street in the heart of the city. Not surprisingly the house is no longer there but there were some vestiges of the past still evident today. Opposite Caminada’s birthplace is the Free Trade Hall. Built originally in 1840 on the site of the Peterloo Massacre the present building dates from 1856 when Caminada was 12 years old. The Free Trade Hall is now a Radisson Edwardian hotel. As I stood there contemplating what the cityscape might have looked like in the mid-nineteenth century, a rather shabby building to the left of the Free Trade Hall caught my eye. On closer inspection I discovered that it was the Theatre Royal. Dating from 1845, the oldest surviving theatre in Manchester was built the year after Caminada’s birth on the other side of the street. Now it is empty and neglected with the statue of William Shakespeare gazing mournfully out onto the busy modern thoroughfare.
Moving further into the business quarter, I followed King Street to the former Bank of England building. Caminada began his career in the old town hall, which was opposite, and he tailed many suspects into the bank including the infamous Birmingham forger, Arthur Foster, who changed stolen gold in the bullion office as the detective observed him from the shadows. The bank was completed in 1846 and was the home of the Bank of England’s agent to the northwest. It is now an office building.
Although Manchester has changed almost beyond recognition since Caminada’s time, there are still traces of the past hidden behind the modern boutiques and state-of-the-art office blocks. Walking down Deansgate, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, I veered off into the side streets and stepped back in time. With the registry office on the corner, Jackson’s Row is lined with red-bricked warehouses that would have been commonplace in the city a hundred years ago. Tucked between the tall buildings is the Old Nags Head built in 1880 when Caminada was still a Detective Sergeant.
The most poignant reminder of the city’s past is the Wood Street Mission building in a narrow street down the side of the John Rylands Library on the other side of Deansgate. The mission was established in 1869 (the year after Caminada joined the police force) by Rev Alfred Alsop to meet the needs of the desperately poor street children of the nearby slums. I paused before this timeworn building and thought about all the families, including my own ancestors, who struggled to survive on the brink of poverty. A child of the slums, Jerome Caminada had to face a precarious childhood on the filthy streets of Victorian Manchester, which makes his story all the more extraordinary.