Undercover policing in the Victorian era

Updated: May 18, 2020

At 23 years of age, in February 1889 - the year Birmingham became a city, William Suckling joined Birmingham Borough Police. Married with one child, and a former porter, he became PC on what was then the D Division.

On 24 December 1889 (after only 10 months' service) PC Suckling was promoted from 4th class constable to 2nd class constable as a reward for services rendered. Normally constables could be apply to be promoted one class at a time after several years' good service and it could have normally taken a few years to attain 2nd class constable so this demonstrates just how well his work was received. PC Suckling had become well known for his undercover work going into illegal betting premises and public houses to catch criminals in the act. Newspapers at the time reported how the betting fraternity were most displeased at being kept out of court whilst he gave his evidence, so that they might not identify him. Apparently his police identify was kept a secret and he stayed away from police premises, meeting his superintendent at various rendezvous points. According to the papers, PC Suckling was also seconded to Walsall to assist the police there with some undercover work on illegal gambling dens. In one incident of note, much like a scene from a film - the paper states when the police raid occurred, the bookie smelt a rat and bolted into a nearby public house, with PC Suckling not far behind. The pair found themselves pushed into an outhouse with other members of the gang and locked inside, mumbling their threats against the police for an hour!

In June 1891 he was promoted to first class constable - an incredible achievement after only two years' service, this could be known to take in excess of 5 years normally! After this he was transferred to the Detectives Department, likely based out of the Corporation Street offices. His work involved arresting people for theft offences, coining, forgery and burglaries. In 1894 he was appointed Convict and Supervisee Clerk.

It is highly likely PC Suckling came across members of the Peaky Blinders as there were active in illegal gambling activities and other aspects of criminality throughout the 1890s.

He resigned on medical report on the 18 June 1899, cutting short what would surely have been an incredible career. We are grateful for his service and commend his bravery and integrity in what must, at times, have been a terrifying role.

William's policing legacy continues, with his granddaughter Christine Hazelwood a police staff investigator with West Midlands Police.