A history of local detectives in Untold Surrey

Surrey sleuths

Surrey sleuths - Credit: Archant

Amateur ‘historian’ Morris Otley bring us outlandish tales from our county’s past, with a healthy disregard for historical accuracy. This month, Surrey’s sleuths...

With more drawing rooms and conservatories per acre than any other county in the country, it’s not surprising that Surrey has witnessed more than its fair share of fiendishly plotted murders. As you’re doubtless aware, the Victorian age in England was a particularly trying time in this regard. Indeed, why anyone would choose to stay in a large country house during the 1800’s is a bit of a mystery in itself. Very few weekends would pass without one police officer or another scratching his head and muttering: “Why the devil would anyone want to top someone in that ridiculous fashion!”

Fortunately, the 19th century crime detection environment was somewhat different from today’s. For one thing, a lighter regulatory touch meant that the men in blue were able to avail themselves of the services of an astonishing number of amateur detectives of independent means. And nowhere was this resource more greatly appreciated than in cases of posh murder. For it’s a sad yet inescapable fact that a detective’s powers of concentration are not improved if he is quietly fretting about his accent, the cut of his cravat or whether milk should precede or follow tea into a teacup. This is where the sleuth of high social rank can have an edge. Or so was the theory.

The big names in the field are of course still well known – principally because they wore something eye-catching and had devised a pithy catchphrase. However, apart from those families whose innocent forebears were sent to the gallows because of them, most people today will be totally unaware of Surrey’s two main contenders. A dubious double-act Sir Sexley Blithe, one of the aristocratic breed of amateur detectives, possessed an accent so plummy and demeanour so haughty that many people found it impossible to tell whether he’d said yes to a cup of tea or suddenly remembered something unpleasant. By contrast, Miss Dotty Marbles was a meddlesome old biddy whose thirst for any brew served in bone china was impossible to quench.

Whilst they both cut figures not easy to miss, neither one of them had perfected a decent catchphrase. Sir Sexley’s “I don’t like the look of him” and Miss Marbles’ “You big fibber!” probably help explain why neither has featured in Sunday evening television series. This and the fact they didn’t actually solve many crimes. However, on the one occasion they worked a case together, they did score a notable success.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” exclaimed Lord Cheam. “How could it possibly have been Davinia? She was playing croquet with Father Rupert in the arboretum. Look, do you see this toasting fork? And have you never heard of strychnine? Honestly, a cunningly trained rattlesnake my ar – oops!”

Yes, the pair’s ridiculous speculations had prompted the culprit to give himself away out of sheer frustration. Fortunately for Lord Cheam, both detectives judged him a jolly good sort and were happy to keep schtum.

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For another taste of questionable Surrey history, visit morrisotley.co.uk