Detective Lieutenant John McGimpsey

Glasgow has always been a bustling city and it was particularly so during the latter years of the 19th. Century. People from every walk of life, going about their business filled streets. The job of the Glasgow detectives was to single out those who were taking an “interest in other people’s business” and they were extraordinarily successful in doing so. Of course, many hours following suspects and taking observations were undertaken, but newspapers of the time record many instances of detectives, of all ranks, making spectacular arrests. Some cases, like today, resulted from ‘information received’, but an amazingly high number resulted from a detective noticing the unusual behaviour of a passer-by, as he patrolled the city streets.

PC McGimpsey

One such detective was John McGimpsey and his distinguished career spanned 34 years service in the City of Glasgow Police. He was born in Donaghadee, Co. Down, Ireland in 1864 and when he was around 20 years of age, he came to Glasgow. He worked as a Tramway Guard before joining the Glasgow Police on 4 April 1888, aged 23 years.

He was posted to the ‘E’ (Northern) Division and settled down to his ‘apprenticeship’ on the streets of that uncompromising area of the city. The energetic and enthusiastic way he carried out his duties was soon noticed and he was promoted to Sergeant in 1898.

It should be noted that in the rank system of those days, the rank of Detective Officer was higher than that of Sergeant, thus ensuring that the most experienced and tested men were admitted to the prestigious Glasgow Detective Department. Detective Constables were first appointed in Glasgow in 1904.

Det. Officer J. McGimpsey

John McGimpsey achieved his ambition to be a Detective Officer on 22 April 1901 and was transferred to the ‘B’ (Western) Division. However, he soon moved back to the Northern Division where his knowledge of the area and local criminals would be put to good use. He developed a particular skill in disguising himself to make arrests and his exploits were legend in the division, and beyond. His favourite roles were that of a navvy and a baker, allowing him to take observations and make arrests to the astonishment of local criminals.

On one occasion, dressed as a baker, he went with a colleague dressed as a tramway man to the Phoenix Recreation Ground, with the objective of arresting a notorious bookmaker who had consistently eluded many of his Northern Division colleagues. On reaching the park, the baker and tramway man sat at either end of a wooded bench and appeared to be reading their newspapers. The much sought after bookmaker came along and with an air of great business importance, sat down between the two disguised detectives. It was his habit, in good weather, to meet his clients at that bench and he was soon busy collecting bets from local worthies. When they had seen enough, McGimpsey and his colleague arrested the bookmaker and took him to the Northern Police Office at Maitland Street.

When they arrived at the charge bar, before they had a chance to reveal their identities, the Duty Officer (a duty performed by lieutenants in those days) exclaimed, “Where are the constables of Glasgow when a tramway man and a baker can bring men in here?” The Lieutenant, who knew McGimpsey and his colleague well, was aghast when he was told of the officers’ identities. He went to Superintendant Mennie, who was in charge of the division, and asked him to view the two men and he too admitted that he had not seen them before. When D.O. McGimpsey told him of the arrest, he rocked with laughter and complimented the two officers on their initiative.

On another occasion, he arrested another well-known ‘bookie’ by dressing as a tramp. He waited next to the close-mouth where the bookmaker was operating, slipped past the bookmaker’s ‘watchers’ and arrested him. When he took the bookmaker to the police office, Chief Constable John Boyd, who was visiting the office, saw him and recommended him for a certificate and cash reward on the spot!

James Muirhead alias
‘Scotch Jamie’ in custody

Taking observations on known criminals was the early detectives ‘bread and butter’ and for John McGimpsey it paid off with the sensational arrest of ‘Scotch Jamie’ an infamous criminal of the Edwardian era. McGimpsey was watching members of a well known gang when he concluded that they were preparing to commit a crime in the area around Sauchiehall Street/Bath Street. Detectives were summoned from neighbouring districts to watch the area and it was suspected that the office of the Glasgow Pawnbroking Company at 3 Bath Street, was the intended target. The manager had been working late and locked the premises at 10.30pm. Three of the gang then entered the stairway and closed the door behind them.

The detectives waited a few minutes, then quickly arrested the ‘watchers’ and quietly climbed the internal stairs of the building. They found the three men drilling holes in the floor of the tailor’s shop above the pawnbroker’s office. They were quickly arrested and James Muirhead, known as ‘Scotch Jamie’, was taken completely by surprise and, along with his mates, offered no resistance.

By 1909, John McGimpsey was a Detective Inspector in ‘A’ (Central) Division and given the enquiry into a safe blowing at a large warehouse in Sauchiehall Street. The culprits had left very few clues and the enquiry was not progressing well. D.I. McGimpsey and his men brought in several suspects for questioning and when interviewing one of the men, he saw that his fingernails were dirty and stained. Knowing that gelignite had been used in the crime, McGimpsey took scrappings from under the suspect’s nails. When the substance was analysed it was found to be the explosive and, along with evidence of the man’s movements at the time of the crime, sufficient evidence was gathered to put him to the High Court where he received a lengthy prison sentence.

In 1912, John McGimpsey was promoted to Detective Lieutenant (equivalent to D.C.I. today). His detective career involved him in all the notable cases of the time, but it was his duties involving the activities of the Sinn Fein organisations in Glasgow during and after the First World War which brought him great credit. He amassed an enormous amount of criminal intelligence concerning I.R.A activities and the transportation of arms and explosives to Ireland during the 1916 uprising and the later Irish Civil War. Whilst he was responsible for keeping such organisations under surveillance, it was also known that he himself was being watched by the I. R. A.

On at least one occasion, when some of his detective colleagues visited him socially at his home, some of the officers ran outside and chased away two men listening at the house window who had been hoping that the detectives would discuss secrets at the otherwise social occasion. It was also known that the I.R.A. followed him to his holiday home at West Kilbride, Ayrshire, but neither he nor his family was ever harmed.

During and after the First World War, The Secretary of State for Scotland frequently required a senior detective for secret or ‘delicate’ investigations. He was known to contact the Chief Constable of Glasgow and request that Detective Lieutenant McGimpsey be given the investigation due to the thorough, diplomatic and loyal way he carried out his duties. He was awarded the King’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1919.

John McGimpsey retired on 31 December 1922, having served for 34 years and attained the post of second in command of the Criminal Investigation Department of Glasgow Police. His medals, baton, warrant card and other artefacts were donated to the Glasgow Police Museum and can be seen on display.

© GPHS 2005