The Glasgow Necropolis – Gordon’s Last Case


In remembrance of Alexander Gordon late chief detective inspector died 6 November 1917. A token of respect from the detective department, Glasgow Police

Alexander Gordon’s headstone
[Image courtesy GWSFHS]

In 1800, the British parliament passed the Glasgow Police Act, establishing a professional police force for the city. Other Scottish cities and burghs followed suit, but Glasgow can lay claim to having the first modern municipal force. Those early policemen were equipped very simply – a truncheon, handcuffs and a wooden rattle to raise the alarm. The rattle was abandoned as a means of communication in 1880, and a telephone line was erected between the Central Police Office in South Albion Street and the Western Division.

South Albion Street Police Station
[Image courtesy Glasgow Archives]

By 1886, all police offices and fire stations were connected by telephone and, in 1891, a network of cast iron police boxes was installed across the city, the first in Britain. Designed by Fire Engineer Eggar of the Glasgow Fire Brigade, the gas lamp in the hexagonal box ignited when the phone rang, alerting beat police in the area. (Unlike the rest of Britain, Glasgow’s police boxes were red.)

The enthusiasm with which Glasgow’s police force embraced new technology was not confined to telephones and gas-lit police boxes. The French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, had devised a system of identification based on the idea that each individual had a unique combination of body part measurements. Carefully recorded, these measurements created a profile of every person who came to the attention of the law.

Around the same time, Sir Francis Galton, a British anthropologist, published the first book on fingerprint identification. Both systems were adopted by the Glasgow Detective Department in 1899, and returns sent in to Scotland Yard. The local force, however, preferred its extensive archive of criminals’ photos showing front and profile views of 10,000 known miscreants, with images of their hands (and frequently missing fingers).

1894 advert for the “Glasgow Style Police Signal Box System”
sold by the National Telephone Company
[Image courtesy Wikipedia]

The Glasgow police force was famed for the height and physique of its men. Many of its constables were recruited from the Scottish Highlands, from where Alexander Gordon originated. The son of Murdo Gordon, a farm labourer, and Ann Gordon or Tulloch, he was born around 1848 in Urray, Ross-shire. Later Alexander went to live with his grandfather, Alexander Tulloch, at Newton of Muirton in Urray.

From there, young Alexander moved south. 5’10” in his stockinged feet, he was a natural for the police force. He worked for a short while with Govan police before joining the Glasgow Police Force in 1871. Glasgow had a very high turn-over of constables, mainly due to dismissals for drunkenness and assaults on members of the public. Alexander’s conduct was impeccable. He became a Detective Officer in 1878 and in 1888, received a reward of ten shillings and sixpence for the arrest in the Glasgow International Exhibition of an unknown man ‘with felonious intent to commit a crime’. His progress up the pay scale was measured and steady. A later press report described him as a shrewd and capable officer and associated with the unravelling of many crimes in the city.

The case for which Alexander Gordon was to be best remembered was the arrest of the diamond thieves, James Webster and James Herbert Walton. The Glasgow Herald of 19 December 1906 recounted how a pair of fashionably dressed men with English accents had entered two jewellers’ shops on Buchanan Street. In the first shop, they had examined a large selection of jewellery, leaving without buying anything. In the second, they ordered £70 worth of items for payment and collection the following day.

After they had left, it was discovered that a diamond scarf pin was missing. The newspaper made special mention of the police having been contacted by telephone. Glasgow police were clearly operating at the cutting edge of technology! Detective Inspector Gordon and three colleagues confronted the villains (one of whom had a loaded revolver) in their hotel room, and discovered a cache of valuable stolen items. At their subsequent High Court trial, the pair were sentenced to seven years penal servitude.

In 1879, Alexander had married Ann McIntosh, a farmer’s daughter from Fodderty in Ross-shire – perhaps the couple already knew one another from earlier days. They had five children – Alex, William, John, Ann and Mary – and the family lived at John Knox Street in Dennistoun, moving later to Greenhead Street in Bridgeton. Sadly, John died aged only thirteen in 1897 from tubercular meningitis.

Headstone of the Gordon family
[Image courtesy GWSFHS]

Further tragedies were to strike the family. In December 1908, Alexander’s wife, Ann, died from tuberculosis. Just four months later, his eldest son, Alexander Tulloch, died from the same complaint at the Seaforth Sanatorium in Dingwall. Opened in 1908, the Sanatorium had been funded by Colonel Stewart-Mackenzie of Seaforth as a military man’s response to the effects of tuberculosis on the health of his fellow countrymen. In 1900, over 10,000 Scots died from the disease and until the BCG vaccination became available in 1924, little could be done to prevent its spread. Alexander’s son passed away on 2nd April 1909 and was buried in Urray Churchyard.

Alexander himself enjoyed nearly a decade of retirement, living at McLennan Street in Mount Florida. On 5th November 1917, he was out on a morning walk to Queen’s Park where he met several friends, including two of his former colleagues. He suddenly collapsed outside the Camphill United Free Church, and died before medical help could be found.

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