There were just two detectives plying their trade in Leicester as World War 2 was declared - but which one was the 'Leicester Investigation Bureau'?
One of the two only adverts for the Leicester Investigation Bureau - this one from the Leicester Daily Mercury of 26 October 1939 (via British Newspaper Archive)
The 1939 Register is a great resource for locating private detectives who were working at the outbreak of World War 2, but it is their home addresses that can locate them better than their work premises. For example, I know from telephone directories that 84-90 London Road in Leicester was a private detective office in 1939, operating under the name of the Leicester Investigation Bureau. However, the 1939 Register records it as an empty building – it was rented by an individual or individuals rather than being a residential address that a private detective worked from.
Working out who was behind the Leicester Investigation Bureau can be guessed at by looking at the individuals in Leicester who described themselves as private detectives. In fact, there were only two: Harry Coward, a 28-year-old living at 56 Carlisle Street, and Charles Fryer, 61, living at 101 Highcross Street. My initial view was that on the balance of probabilities, it was Harry who was based at London Road; in 1939, Charles Fryer was married, but lodging at the house of retired brewer’s labourer George Boar. This suggested that he was in Leicester temporarily on a job, thus lodging in the city, and did not have the longer-term links that would lead him to have his own office there.
Harry Coward, however, was younger and ambitious – and from the city. He lived at Carlisle Street with his parents. Father John was a retired butcher’s manager from south London; mother Ellen was from Oxfordshire. The couple had lived in north London for many years, only moving to Leicester at some point between 1905 – when their son Edward was born in Marylebone – and 1910, when another son, Walter, was born in Leicester. Harry was the youngest child, the second to be born in Leicester, and in fact would both be born and would die in the city.
Conversely, Charles William Fryer, the other private detective, was from a conventional background for this career: he was a former police constable. However, he had a far weaker link to the East Midlands. A native of Thorney in Cambridgeshire, he had been a policeman in Derbyshire, living in Buxton for quite a while. He then moved to Hampshire. This would back up a theory that he was in Leicester on a short-term basis to do a job, rather than being settled there. His wife and children certainly don’t seem to have lived in Leicester at the time of any census – and a closer look at the 1939 Register shows that his wife Ellen was in Bognor Regis at this time, together with the couple’s two married children and their grandchildren. This suggests that Charles Fryer was settled with his extended family in Sussex, and that work took him only temporarily away from home.
However, as is often the case, the census does not provide the full picture. A 1932 reference to him in the local press has him give evidence in a divorce case, and he is listed as ‘Mr Charles Fryer, an inquiry agent, of Leicester’. It seems that for at least six years in the 1930s, the Fryers had moved to Leicester, and settled at Highcross Street, and Charles had worked as a private detective in the city at this point. There are certainly references to him here between 1932 and 1938, although when he wrote a letter to the press about local dialect in 1933, noting that he had ‘known Leicestershire for the last forty years’, this was more about visiting the county than living there, as he had been living elsewhere certainly up to 1921.
In addition, a longer study of addresses suggests that Charles may have been living in Leicester, and that he had either separated from his wife, or she was simply visiting their son and daughter in Sussex at the time the 1939 Register was compiled. The 1939 Register states that Charles was lodging at 101 Highcross Street – but this is where he was living throughout the decade, so he must have been a long-term lodger at the address.
The 1939 Register therefore shows just two private detectives in Leicester, and they are almost complete opposites. One is young, near the start of his career. He is local, knows his home patch, but is inexperienced. The other, an experience former cop in the provinces, is coming towards the end of his career and looking towards retirement. Harry Coward was a man who had a youthful history of high spirits – five years earlier, he had appeared at court in Loughborough charged, along with several friends, of disorderly conduct while on a weekend camping trip, and trying to stop police from finding out his real name and address.
Harry Coward and his new wife, from the Leicester Chronicle of 31 May 1941 (via British Newspaper Archive)
Luckily, his next appearance in the press was for a more positive reason – an announcement of his wedding, and a respectable photo of the happy couple. His detective career may have been fairly brief; he only advertised his services in October 1939, and not unexpectedly, by the time of his marriage in 1941, he was in khakis.
Which man rented the city centre office? There are reasons why either could have done. Charles Fryer was a more established detective who may have needed to rent a quieter base, away from his busy lodgings. Harry Coward may have only tried to work as a detective for a short period of time, which means he could have done so from home: but as a young man in the 20th century, he would have recognised the value of a separate work base to make him look professional. Ultimately, it’s not possible to be 100% sure of who rented the London Road office – but trying to research its tenant has led me to identify two very different private detectives who were working in Leicester just as war had broken out.
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