What did clients want private detectives to do?
The work of one Cardiff detective shows that although he knew what his job was, on occasion, his clients didn't...
I'm in Wales today, to look at the life of a private detective there - one who was not Welsh himself, but who found that there were sufficient cases in the capital to establish a decade-long career there.
This detective was John Gillett, who was born in Wallingford (then Berkshire, now Oxfordshire) in 1866. In February 1889, John married Mary Ann Fry at Baptist Mills, Bristol. Mary Ann was from Bristol, and so it was unsurprising, perhaps, that the couple stayed in the city after their marriage. The 1891 census shows that the Gilletts were living in Stapleton with their one-year-old son. John was not originally a private detective, but in his mid twenties was working as an insurance agent for Pearl Assurance.
The Gilletts' first four children were born in or near Bristol, but John's career can be tracked by looking at where his subsequent children were born. By 1897, the family were in Pontypridd; in 1900, Bradford. The next two children - born in 1901 and 1903 - were born in Handsworth (then in Staffordshire, now part of Birmingham). The 1901 census shows that John had moved his family to a villa named Fair View, in Grant Street, Birmingham, and was now a building society manager.
An advert placed by Gillett in the Western Mail of 19 June 1918 (via British Newspaper Archive)
Then came the final move: across the border to Wales, where the Gilletts settled in Cardiff. The last of their 11 children - of whom nine would survive childhood - was born there in 1908. The 1911 census shows that John Gillett was now a private detective, his job enabling him to maintain his wife and children. However, the family income was helped by the fact that four of his children were now also working, the boys as a millinery salesman, tram conductor and draper's apprentice, and his eldest daughter as a servant.
‘He saw Stockley with his arm round Mrs Palmer’s waist’
The first case that is recorded for John Gillett comes from 1913, when he was employed by a Worcester draper, Charles Palmer, to find evidence of his wife Elizabeth's infidelity, in order to obtain a divorce. Gillett's work involved both local surveillance - Elizabeth Palmer being seen with her alleged lover, Yorkshireman James Stockley, in Cardiff (Gillett duly reported that "he had seen Mr Stockley and Mrs Palmer walking arm-in-arm at Cardiff, and he also saw Stockley with his arm round Mrs Palmer's waist") - and in Leeds, where Stockley lived.* There, he saw Mrs Palmer go into Stockley's house (at 9pm, when Gillett decided to call it a night, she was still there), and the next couple of days saw him shadow the couple as they went on a day trip to Harrogate, went to a restaurant, and visited each other's lodgings. Eventually, after witnessing Stockley spending the evening at Mrs Palmer's house in Cardiff, he served the couple with divorce papers.
The 1911 census for 91 High Street, Worcester, shows Charles Palmer living at the premises without his wife, suggesting that Elizabeth may already have left him (image TNA/TheGenealogist)
This was not a young couple in the throes of a great passion; Mrs Palmer was 53, and had been married since 1886, and her lover was a decade her senior. Stockley insisted he had just been dealing with Mrs Palmer's financial business (he was not a banker but a commercial traveller), but the couple did admit to 'being foolish, kissing each other and calling each other "dear".' It was Gillett's evidence that provided the proof of adultery, and enabled Charles Palmer to get his divorce.
Another divorce case that Gillett was employed on was that of a fisherman who accused his wife of having an affair with a merchant navy officer. Although the divorce case was heard in 1921, it was alleged that the wife of Alfred Kinnear had been interested in the officer, Harry Binham, since at least 1918 (both men had been in the navy during the Great War). Florence Kinnear (nee Collings) had only married her husband the year before, but by the end of 1918, she had sold the family home and disappeared. In 1919, she was spotted spending several nights on board the steamship Leeds City, while it was in Cardiff Docks - Harry Kinnear was serving on the ship at the time. Because the couple were believed to be in Cardiff, it was John Gillett who Alfred Kinnear employed to help him - he needed a local private detective who knew the area. Gillett duly served the divorce papers on Mrs Kinnear and Harry Binham; seven years later, and still living in Cardiff, the couple married.
She had sold the family home and disappeared
Gillett had a steady stream of work, but sometimes, it was hard to get clients to pay what they had agreed to. It's clear that this was an issue for many detectives. Clients sometimes expected too much from their detectives, or were unsatisfied with results, or just queried the amount their detective was spending on expenses. Gillett had to sue his clients on at least two occasions; in 1918, he sued Mrs LeBreton for more than £5 in owed fees, having travelled to Jersey on her account. He found himself facing questions when the judge said that his expenses "appeared to be excessive", but Gillett disproved this, and set out his agreement with Mrs LeBreton (his fees were £1 1s a day, which was a typical daily fee for private detectives at this time, plus out-of-pocket expenses).
What helped Gillett win his case was Mrs LeBreton's views on what the job of a private detective was: in court, she said,
"What did I pay him for? I wanted him to protect me and fight my case out."
The judge admonished her, saying this was not the job of a private detective; all Gillett's job was to do was to collect evidence and make a report of it to Mrs LeBreton. She was duly ordered to pay Gillett the owed fees at a rate of £1 per month.
In 1922, when he sued May Jefford of Barry for £4 18s 9d. Back in 1918, he had been employed by Mrs Jefford to carry out observations on her husband. He was given a four-day contract, and spent this time travelling from Cardiff to Barry every day to see what Mr Jefford was up to once he finished work each day. At the end of the contract, he submitted his invoice to Mrs Jefford, with a full list of expenses, but heard nothing back from her. Unfortunately, the press report covering this case failed to actually say whether Gillett got his money back; however, Mrs Jefford was not permitted a divorce because the case against her husband had not been proved, although she was instead allowed to separate from him.
Gillett’s claim, in 1937, to be ‘old-established’ was not hyperbole (Western Mail, 27 July 1937, via British Newspaper Archive)
John Gillett's wife Mary Ann, the mother of his 11 children, died in 1921, aged 54. A year later, John married again, and he and his second wife continued to live in Cardiff (although moving out from the city centre to the northern suburbs) until his death in 1942. His career was long, as he was still advertising his services as a private detective in 1937. Swansea may have been his adopted city, but through his work for the city's married people, he certainly got to know it as well as any local.
* The press described James Stockley as being a commercial traveller from Leeds, but he may have just had work in that city. The 1911 census records a James Stockley, 56, as a widowed advertising agent, born in Oxfordshire but living in Roath, Cardiff. I suspect this is Elizabeth Palmer’s alleged lover. The 19th and early 20th century newspapers could play fast and loose with the facts when recording the details of such court cases.
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