The detective who pretended to be his own son
George Trace wanted to capitalise on his police experience - but also needed to distance himself from it. He did so by using his son's name.
‘Taking Out Cab Licenses at the Metropolitan Police Offices, Scotland-Yard’, 1880
Between 1886 and 1890, Herbert George Trace regularly advertised his services as a private detective, operating from the Strand area of London. He was not unusual in many respects; he said he was a former Metropolitan Police inspector, and worked on divorce, libel and fraud cases, as well as watching individuals and taking on trade inquiries. He also boasted that there were 'no unscrupulous self-styled detectives here' (even though private detectives were indeed 'self-styled'; he was clearly making a divide between former police detectives and 'amateurs').
The unusual part of this, though, is that at the time, Herbert Trace was only a child, as he had been born in 1874. The 'scrupulous' private detective was actually Herbert's father, using his child's name as his professional one - even though, for his pre-private detective days, he had used his own name. It is as though he wanted to set create a distance between his career in the Met (for that was true), and his subsequent one on the Strand.
The private detective was actually George Trace, a native of South Tawton, near Okehampton in Devon (some census records have him as being from Taunton in Somerset, but this seems to be an enumerator's misrecording, or mishearing of ‘Tawton’). He was born there in 1847, the son of an innkeeper. By 1871, he was living in Covent Garden, and working as a police constable; his first mention in the press suggests that he was a police constable from at least 1870. By the time he married Elizabeth Jane Yeo in 1873, he was a sergeant, and living in the Old Street area of London. His eldest son, Herbert George, was born in Shoreditch on 15 March 1874, when George Trace was 27.
Two more sons followed - Archibald James and Frederick William John - and the three children were baptised together at Holy Trinity, Hoxton, in February 1878 (Frederick would die aged one the following year). The family then moved south of the river, to Camberwell, with the 1881 census recording Metropolitan Police inspector George Trace and family living there. The absence of George in the Metropolitan Police Pension Register suggests that he left the Met before qualifying for a pension, and when his final son, Frank Horatio (born 1882) was baptised in 1884, he was described as a commercial clerk, showing that he had left the police by this point.
Leaving prior to qualifying for a police pension was a risky thing to do as it meant he had to make his new career a success, as he had nothing to fall back on. Yet he lasted less than two years as a clerk, before establishing his new business as a private detective. This was a rash move. Although he was still advertising his services between January and March 1888, by the autumn of 1888, it seems that he was made bankrupt.
his came just months after he was sued by the late James Walch Howarth's executors for a loan he had received from the deceased. Howarth, who died in 1886, aged just 31, had lent Trace £500; although Trace argued that he believed the money was a gift rather than a loan, he was ordered to pay the money back to Howarth's estate. This loan and its repayment might suggest that Trace was struggling to make a living, and having to borrow money from acquaintances in order to keep afloat. It obviously was a risky strategy, and one that failed.*
However, bankruptcy did not keep George Trace down. In the autumn of 1890, he started advertising again, stressing his motto of 'secrecy and integrity'. He had moved offices from his previous one at 5 Adam Street, but hadn't gone far - he was now renting an office at 80-81 Strand. His main selling point was his former Met position, and he claimed '22 years' detective experience'. Although I don't know exactly how long he was in the Met, the absence of pension suggests that this boast of 22 years' experience was cleverly phrased to imply a longer police career, when it was more likely a combination of police and private detective career.
The 1891 census showing George Trace, private inquiry agent, living in Paddington (TNA/TheGenealogist)
The 1891 census shows the Trace family living in Paddington, with George, aged 44, still working as a private inquiry agent. The notice of him receiving orders under the Bankruptcy Act, from September 1888, shows him living at Elgin Terrace in Maida Vale, and he may have relocated the family from Camberwell to west London when he left the Met.
This subsequent spell as a private detective, like the first one, did not last. When son Herbert got married in 1898, he said his father was now a clerk. The 1901 census corroborates this subsequent change of job. It recorded George Trace as now lodging in Willesden with youngest son Frank. Both men were working as bank clerks. Wife Elizabeth, who would live for another year, was not at the same address, but was visiting Herbert and his wife elsewhere in Willesden.
In 1906, George - who had, by this point, been widowed for four years - married Alice Brazell in west London, and the couple settled in Bayswater. At the age of 64, George Trace described himself in the 1911 census as the keeper of an apartment house there, having several boarders.
George Trace is last listed in the census in 1921, living in Marylebone. He died seven years later, in 1928, aged 81. As with many private detectives, George had used his police experience as his main selling point; and he had exaggerated his already impressive experience to market himself. It feels a bit odd that although he stressed his police experience, he then tried to separate his two careers by using his son's name professionally; but perhaps he hoped his surname would trigger memories in potential clients of the police inspector of that name, and thus would be sufficient.
Despite his credentials, he struggled to make a long-term success of inquiry work - renting a central London office while maintaining a family home elsewhere - and an attempt to make a comeback post-bankruptcy also appears to have failed. Ultimately, the Met Police had offered him more security - and he struggled to get this afterwards, despite trying several other occupations.
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*James Welch Howarth’s own life was short but eventful, and deserves its own mention. This Lancashire man had a substantial fortune, and was able to live off the interest on his money. At 25, he underwent a clandestine marriage with 17-year-old Ada Wild - a marriage both her parents objected to. He was known to have ‘dissolute habits’ and both beat his wife up and committed adulteries, including with an actress from a travelling troupe. In 1883, Ada sought a divorce from James, her husband failing to appear in court as he was ill in Lucerne, having been accompanied there by Mina Keller. In the spring of 1886, he married Mina, only to die in Hastings in September that year. He left over £44,000, although Mina only received £450 together with furniture, plate and pictures. The residue of his estate, after various charitable bequests, went to his children. These were his two children by Mina - Osbert and Eva - but Osbert was born a month prior to James’ marriage to Ava, and Eva shortly after his divorce from her…