Jerome Caminada - Manchester’s real-life Sherlock Holmes

Gruesome crimes were reported in graphic details by the Press

Gruesome crimes were reported in graphic details by the Press - Credit: Archant

The Victorian era was notorious for gruesome crimes but a long-forgotten Lancashire detective led the fight back, as author Angela Buckley reveals

The new book

The new book - Credit: Archant

My investigations into the exceptional life and groundbreaking detective work of Jerome Caminada began with my own family. I was born in Manchester and my roots are firmly in the city. When my great-grandparents migrated from the sun-drenched fields of Italy to settle in the grey slums of Ancoats in the 1880s, Detective Chief Inspector Caminada was a local celebrity. As soon as I read his memoirs I knew I had to write about him to bring this extraordinary man back to life after a century of obscurity.

Jerome Caminada was born on March 15 1844 in Deansgate, Manchester, opposite the Free Trade Hall. His parents were both from immigrant families; his father was an Italian cabinetmaker and his mother had Irish origins. Caminada never lost his mixed cultural heritage. According to one report: ‘He was in appearance a typical Italian with very strongly marked features, but he never lost his native Lancashire speech, and was in many ways very much a Lancashire man until the end of his days’.

After surviving a precarious childhood, during which he lost his father and several siblings to disease and endured grinding poverty, Caminada joined the Manchester City Police Force in 1868, at the age of 23. His career in fighting crime had begun.

For the next 30 years, he worked tirelessly to clean up the crime-infested streets of Victorian Manchester. Showing an early aptitude, he was soon promoted to the detective department, which operated from Manchester Town Hall. A master of disguise and an expert in deduction, Caminada tackled many shady characters and nefarious criminals in his daily work in the city’s dark underworld, including desperate thieves, clever con artists, expert forgers and even cold-blooded murderers. Many of his cases bear the hallmarks of the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, during his lifetime, he was often compared to his fictional counterpart.

Detective Caminada’s signature case was the Manchester Cab Mystery. In February 1889 a well-known businessman hailed a cab on the steps of Manchester Cathedral with a young man. Just over an hour later, John Fletcher was dead and his companion had fled. Using methods worthy of Sherlock Holmes, including knowledge of chemicals and the criminal fraternity, Caminada pieced together this baffling puzzle and solved the crime, caused by the use of an underworld drug. He brought the perpetrator to justice in a record three weeks.

His success was widely celebrated in the national press and he became a household name. Dubbed ‘a terror to evil doers’, Caminada’s other high profile cases included tracking Fenian suspects during the dynamite conspiracy, facing his nemesis, desperate burglar Bob Horridge, in a final deadly confrontation, and saving the life of a young ‘scuttler’ (street fighter) from the gallows. One infamous ‘crime’ invol ved Caminada and colleagues infiltrating a cross-dressing ball. The headline in the Illustrated Police News declared: ‘Disgraceful proceedings in Manchester - men dressed as women’.

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After Caminada’s retirement from the rank of Detective Superintendent in 1899, the Evening Telegraph described him as ‘one of the most noted detectives in the country, a man of whom Manchester has been pardonably proud.’

A century after his death in 1914, I have thoroughly enjoyed researching his legendary career. I have explored the seedy streets and labyrinthin alleys of Victorian Manchester’s murky past and discovered the rich history of my home city. I even came across an ancestor of mine who kept ‘a house of infamous notoriety’ on young PC Caminada’s beat. Despite a personal life beset with tragedy, Jerome Caminada remained resolute in his fight against crime and earned his place as one of Manchester’s finest police officers. He was a true Victorian super-sleuth and a real-life Sherlock Holmes.

In disguise

In 1888, Caminada’s reputation was nationwide and he was reportedly responsible for the imprisonment of 1,225 criminals. Threats on his life were commonplace and the detective often carried a pistol. He had reason to use it on several occasions.

Caminada built up a network of informers, not unlike Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, and they would meet in St Mary’s Church, known as the Hidden Gem. He famously dressed in disguise to gather evidence on suspects, once posing as a labourer to catch a gang of thieves at the Grand National.

Caminada retired in 1899 and became a private detective, an estate agent, and a Manchester city councillor. He died at his Moss Side home in 1914 after being injured in a traffic accident.

The Real Sherlock Holmes - the Hidden Story of Jermone Caminada by Angela Buckley is published in hardback by Pen & Sword, priced £19.99