The Scrapbooking Detective: Frederick Porter Wensley and the Limits of 'Celebrity' and 'Authority' in Inter-War Britain

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Abstract

Frederick Porter Wensley was one of Scotland Yard's ‘Big Four’ detectives, head of the Metropolitan Police Criminal Investigation Department and responsible for establishing the Flying Squad. On his retirement in 1929, he used the two bound scrapbooks of press clippings and photographs he had collated to document his personal life and career to inform his 1931 autobiography Detective Days and serialized press articles. Through examining the interaction of material between scrapbooks and autobiographical writings, this article explores how Wensley constructed his post-retirement persona as ‘celebrity detective’ from a canny understanding of what had made him a commercial subject for the press. It argues that Wensley recast his life to promote his own successes at the expense of a narrative of police unity, providing a vehicle for him to suggest further changes to the structure of the police force without official sanction. By juxtaposing this against tightening legislation on police communication with journalists during the inter-war period under the Official Secrets Acts, this article demonstrates how the ‘celebrity’ that Wensley sought to occupy was increasingly regarded as irreconcilable with police ability to effect ‘impartial’ regulation, anticipating the concerns raised by the 2012 Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. The article thus charts a turning point in defining the relationship between police and press.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)58-81
Number of pages23
JournalSocial History
Volume40
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 6 Feb 2015

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