Detective Superintendent Alexander McCall & The Greatrex Case

D/Supt. Alexander McCall

John Henry Greatrex, was a commanding figure with a long flowing beard, always immaculately dressed, who carried on more than one business in his studio on Hope Street, Glasgow, with his wife, Jessie, and three daughters. Born in England, he had been transported to Australia for theft at the age of 18 years, returned to England after more convictions for dishonesty, served as a Captain in the First Surrey Artillery Volunteers and finally took up photography as a means of earning an ‘honest’ living.

John Henry Greatrex
John Henry Greatrex

He was also a public preacher for the Plymouth Brethren and was seen preaching among the crowd at Jail Square, Glasgow, on 28 July 1865 on the occasion of the execution of Dr. Edward Pritchard for murder, the last public execution in Glasgow.

Greatrex was continually experimenting with new processes of photography. These including photographing £1 notes, especially those issued by the Union Bank of Scotland. Gradually he came round to the idea of forging the bank’s notes on a grand scale. First, he tried a photographic process, but the results were poor and he turned for help to an expert copper engraver named Sewell Grimshaw.

Grimshaw agreed. They would forge the notes by the engraving method and by litho printing. But before their scheme could commence they needed money and for this they approached Grimshaw’s brother Tom. Tom Grimshaw had the necessary capital and had no hesitation in joining the forgers.

Early in 1866 Greatrex moved his business to 97 Sauchiehall Street, where the experiments were continued in an adjoining store. It was about this time that he became intimate with 22 year old Jane Weir, one of his assistants, despite his wife and family living in the same building.

Very little photographic business was now being done, and in June, 1866, the forgers succeeded in producing what they believed to be a perfect replica of a £1 Union Bank note. So confident were they of the achievement that they printed over 1,300 of the notes.

The next problem was how to pass the notes quickly over as large an area of the country as possible. In this, for a time at least, they were highly successful. Dozens of notes were passed in small shops in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Greenock, Hamilton and Stirling.

It appears that on Wednesday 3 October 1866, Sewall and Tom Grimshaw were in Dalkeith with a quantity of forged banknotes. They left their luggage at the station and split up, to pass as many of the notes as possible. They were successful in exchanging the forged £1 bank notes for two glasses of brandy, a handkerchief, two shirts, a silk umbrella and even received £55 in gold from the local branch of the National Bank.

A sharp-eyed sales assistant in one of the shops, Robert Blair, who had read recent newspaper reports about the forgeries, raised the alarm and the chase was on. Inspector Copland, of the County Police, was informed and along with witnesses, traced both Grimshaw brothers to a shop where they were in the process of buying other goods. When arrested they gave false names but the game was up. Their luggage was retrieved from the station, and a total of 1292 forged £1 notes were found, the equivalent value today being £50,000. They were later transferred to Edinburgh Prison to await trial.

Greatrex and Jane Weir, who had read in the newspapers of the arrests in Dalkeith, were panicking and decided to leave at once for America. They travelled to London by different trains, and then met in Brown’s Hotel.

From London, Greatrex and Weir travelled together to Southampton, where, on 10 October, Greatrex took passage for New York on the S.S. Hermann. A week later Weir followed on the S.S. Deutschland arriving in New York two weeks later.

Greatrex and Weir obtained lodgings in Renwick Street, New York, under the name of Parker.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow, Superintendent McCall had been patiently investigating the forgery. A search of Greatrex’s Sauchiehall Street premises yielded specimens of engravings from which the notes had been printed, and a quantity of banknote paper.

From there, McCall’s detectives traced his quarry to Southampton and learned Greatrex had already left for New York. There was nothing else but to follow him, and on 19th November, 1866, McCall sailed for New York, also taking with him a young Union Bank clerk, Andrew Neilson, who knew Greatrex and could identify him positively for McCall.

President A. Johnston

On his arrival, Superintendent McCall had to take the train to Washington to have President Andrew Johnston sign an order to authorise that the warrant could be enforced in the United States. Johnston had taken over the Presidency the previous year when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

On returning to New York, the Glasgow detective began the most difficult part of his investigation which was magnified by the size of the city and its ever increasing population. Presuming that both Greatrex and Jane Weir would be looking for employment, he struck on an ingenious idea.

Letter from Weir replying to advertisement in New York Herald

On 24 November, The New York Herald carried an advertisement for a female assistant to work in a photographic studio stating ‘one who has had experience in a similar place preferred’.

A reply was received from an ‘H. Parker’, which was the name under which Greatrex and Weir had travelled from Southampton to New York, and with the address ‘8 Renwick Street, off Canal Street, New York’, conveniently at the top of the letter. The chase was back on!

On Monday, 26 November, the validated warrant for Greatrex arrived from Washington and early on the morning of Tuesday 27 November, 1866, Superintendent McCall, accompanied by Neilson, the young bank clerk, and Detective Joseph Eustace of the New York Police, went to 8 Renwick Street and positioned themselves where they had a clear view of the residence.

About 10 o’clock that morning, a Military Band marched past playing their instruments, which attracted the attention of the local residents. As it passed the house, a window was opened and a clean shaven Greatrex next to Jane Weir peered out at the band as it passed. As Greatrex had obviously removed his whiskers, young Neilson wanted a closer look to be sure. It was decided to wait for Greatrex to emerge into the street, which occurred a short time later and the two Detectives, one from Glasgow and the other from New York, moved forward and arrested him. Superintendent McCall said “I suppose you know who I am?”

“No I do not,” replied Greatrex.

“Well, I am a Superintendent of Police from Glasgow, and I am afraid you must accompany me back to that city”. Greatrex was then locked up in the Headquarters of the New York Police.

McCall’s work was far from done and he proceeded to 8 Renwick Street where he found Jane Weir alone in the flat. When told of Greatrex’s arrest she burst into tears and co-operated fully with McCall’s search of the flat where large amount of evidence was uncovered namely new clothing which had been bought with the forged bank notes. Jane Weir was not arrested but agreed to return to Glasgow as a witness.

The subsequent Extradition Proceedings moved at a reasonable pace despite Greatrex’s defence lawyers employing delaying tactics. McCall received the Extradition Warrant five days later.

S.S. City of Paris

Superintendent McCall brought both the prisoner John Henry Greatrex and the witness Jane Weir back with him to Liverpool on the SS City of Paris, arriving there on Christmas Day, 1866. The journey to Glasgow was completed by train to Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Station. Greatrex was taken to the Central Police Office, which at that time was in South Albion Street near to Bell Street, (now the site of Merchant Square), where he was locked up to await trial. Jane Weir made her own way to her parents’ home in Shamrock Street, Glasgow, and the young Union Bank clerk, Andrew Neilson, also went home with the story of his great adventure.

John Henry Greatrex and the brothers Sewell and Thomas Grimshaw were tried at the High Court in Edinburgh on 9th May, 1867. All three were found guilty of forgery and uttering. As the prime mover in the enterprise Greatrex was sent to prison for twenty years, while the Grimshaw brothers were each sent to prison for fifteen years.

Greatrex would die in the Jail for Invalid Convicts in Woking, Surrey, on 16 October 1876, aged 49, almost exactly 10 years after the Grimshaws were arrested in Dalkeith and his plan, and his life, began to disintegrate.

Three years later Superintendent Alexander McCall, now one of the most famous Scottish detectives of the 19th century, was appointed Chief Constable of Glasgow, when the previous Chief Constable, James Smart, died whilst in office. McCall would carry out major changes to the force, introducing photography, training for probationary constables and a river patrol boat. He also died in office on 29 March 1888 and is buried in the Glasgow Necropolis. A monument for his grave was erected under the supervision of Superintendent William Mackintosh and was designed by his youngest son, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Copyright GPHS 2020 and Adapted from:

Greatrex – Forger and Photographer’ by David Bruce (Renaissance Press 2013)

The Thin Blue Line’ by Douglas Grant (John Long 1973)