Detective Superintendent John Ord

In recounting the life and times of John Ord, we see that he was a well known figure both in, and out of, police circles in Glasgow. His detective career was to span both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and gives us an insight into the activities of the detectives of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

John Ord was born on 28 April, 1861, in King Edward, Aberdeenshire, the son of a farm labourer. It is likely that he too would have worked on the land had he not travelled to Glasgow in 1880 to join the Glasgow Police. As an 18 year old youth, when asked by Chief Constable Alexander McCall why he wanted to join the force, John replied ‘I want to see city life and make my way’.

He was appointed as a Probationary Constable on 16 June, 1880. A month later he was posted to ‘F’ or St. Rollox Division. At the end of his probationary period, there was no doubt that he would be confirmed as he had already shown signs of the powers of observation, reasoning and the tenacity of purpose that were to distinguish his work in later years. He was selected for promotion to Sergeant on 19 July, 1888.

While in the uniformed branch, John Ord kept his ambition to be a detective fixed in his mind and, within three years, he was promoted to Detective Officer in ‘A’ or Central Division on 1 June, 1891. On joining the detective staff, he became the ‘neighbour’ of Alexander McMahon, an enthusiastic and resourceful detective who had served with distinction in Egypt with the British Army.

Ord and McMahon made an ideal combination in another ‘war’, this time against the vice and criminality that pervaded the darker areas of Glasgow, known by such names as Havannah, Bell o’the Brae and Schipka Pass. At one sitting of the Glasgow High Court, the sentences passed on prisoners arrested by Ord and McMahon totalled more than forty years! John Ord obviously valued his successful working relationship and friendship with Alex McMahon, but it would come to a sudden and unexpected end in 1893, which would have a lasting effect on John.

In December, 1893, the young Detective Ord was on duty in the Trongate when he became suspicious of a man making repeated visits to a public house there. A few days later, he again saw the man enter the public house and this time he followed the man into the bar where he saw him sketching the interior onto a piece of paper. On making discreet enquiries, John Ord established that the man was the leader of a gang of housebreakers and it was obvious that he was planning to break into the pub.

Ord took Alex McMahon into his confidence and they planned to lay a trap for the housebreaking gang that night. He arranged with the licensee to allow them to hide in the cellar of the pub. The cellar was extremely cold and damp but the two detectives remained there all night waiting for the thieves. At dawn, the officers realised that their wait had been in vain and left the pub to return to the Central Police Office. When they got there they were told that the man they were waiting for had been arrested by a beat constable at Bridgeton Cross, in possession of his housebreaking tools, and obviously en route to the pub to break in.

But the night in the cold, damp cellar had affected McMahon severely and he was taken seriously ill. He died at home on Monday, 18 December, 1893.

After three years in the Detective Department, John Ord was promoted to Inspector (Court Officer) of the Central Police Court. He held that post until he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in ‘H’ or Maryhill Division. In 1901, he was transferred back to ‘A’ or Central Division, but it was working as a detective that John relished most and on 19 July, 1903, he was given the title Chief Inspector of the Detective Department.

Improvements in criminal identification were long overdue when John Ord was a young detective and in his position as head of the Glasgow Criminal Investigation Department, he worked tirelessly to improve the methods in use at that time to identify criminals.

Until 1899, a photograph of a newly arrested criminal would be taken and, together with written details of his activities and associates, entered on a ‘route sheet’. This would be circulated by post to the main police forces in Britain, to be viewed by their detectives. Any suspicions of other criminal activities would be telegraphed back to the originating force, and the ‘sheet’ forwarded to other forces, and so on. It was an extremely inefficient, time consuming and cumbersome system, but given the technology available in these times, it was the best they could do.

In 1899, the Bertillon system of measurement, combined with fingerprint impressions, was introduced by Scotland Yard, and Glasgow Police were the first Scottish police force to adopt it.

Bertillon System Chart

Although the Galton-Henry system of fingerprinting was effective and relatively easy to operate, the Bertillon measurement system was awkward (see image right). It also relied on the full co-operation of the prisoner and accuracy of the detective. By 1900, only the fingerprint system was in use, but Glasgow Police were seen to be at the vanguard of its practical application and in 1904, John Ord was promoted to Detective Superintendent.

In May, 1906, the Chief of St. Petersburg (Russia) detective staff, together with an official known as the Court Chancellor, visited the Central Police Office to see the system used to identify criminals. The fingerprint procedures were demonstrated to them by Mr. Ord, head of the Detective Department. The Russian officers could not speak English and were accompanied by an interpreter. Over the following few months, similar instructional visits were arranged for police officers from Australia, and South Africa.

Earlier that year, in March 1906, the Glasgow Police moved from the old Central Police Office in South Albion Street (at Bell Street) to a new headquarters building in St. Andrew’s Square. The old building had been in constant use since 1825 and was crumbling. It would be knocked down and a new fruit market built on the site (later Candleriggs Market). On the evening before the removal, John Ord addressed fellow members of the Old Glasgow Club in the old Central Police Court, to commemorate the closing of the ‘Old Central’. He delivered a presentation on the history of the Glasgow police which was later published.

John Ord’s intense interest in all things historical was very useful when the old building was being cleaned out for the removal. A wide variety of historical court productions, uniforms and equipment were uncovered and John decided to put them to good use. His brother who was curator of the Peoples’ Palace on Glasgow Green helped him establish the first Glasgow Police Museum in the Casualty Surgeon’s Waiting Room of the new Central Police Office. The museum was later moved to the Southern Police Office, Oxford Street (later the Force Training School) but around 1948 it was re-established in Glasgow Police Headquarters at 21 St. Andrew’s Street, where it remained until absorbed into, what is now, the Strathclyde Police Museum.

On the 21st. December 1908, an 82-year-old woman, Miss Marion Gilchrist, was battered to death in her apartment at 15 Queen’s Terrace, West Princes Street, by an apparently unknown assailant. John Ord, as head of Glasgow C.I.D. was in charge of the investigation, but it was not to be his ‘finest hour’. The case which resulted in Oscar Slater’s arrest, guilty verdict and sentence of death was later found to be flawed but at the time John Ord received a Certificate of Merit from Chief Constable James Stevenson. Slater would be spared ‘the rope’, and serve 27 years in prison, before the Scottish Establishment were convinced of his innocence. The case is infamous for its legal complexity, conspiracy theories and allegations of interference by the Crown Office in the police investigation. It is, no doubt, Scotland’s equivalent of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ mystery.

On 1 May 1911, Superintendent John Ord was put in charge of ‘D’ or Southern Division and on 1 January 1914, he was awarded the King’s Police Medal for Gallantry in recognition of a number of acts of gallantry while effecting the arrest of dangerous criminals throughout his service.

Superintendent John Ord

It would be later seen as ironic that in the same New Year’s honours list, Detective Lieutenant John Trench was also awarded the medal under the same terms. Both men travelled to Buckingham Palace together to receive the medals from King George V, but within a few months John Trench would be sacked from the Glasgow Police for disclosing police information to Oscar Slater’s lawyer. The disclosure went some way to confirm the allegations of a miscarriage of justice, and John Ord would never forgive Trench for committing, what he believed, was ‘treachery’ against the Glasgow Police.

Detective John Trench

John Trench volunteered for the First World War and later died in the influenza pandemic of 1919 which killed over 20 million people throughout the World. Apparently Trench, on his deathbed in the military hospital in Shakespeare Street, Glasgow, asked to see John Ord, but Ord arrived too late.

Superintendent John Ord continued his police service in charge of the Southern Division throughout the First World War, the Riots of 1919 and the attempts to return to normality after the conflict. He was particularly proud to welcome to his division, the newly promoted Sergeant John McAulay VC in 1919, and confirm his promotion to Inspector in 1922.

John Ord retired on pension from the Southern Division on 28 February 1925, having served the City for 45 years. He continued his interest in the history of Glasgow in general, and the police in particular. He had published books on ‘The History of the Glasgow Police’ (1908) and ‘The History of the Burgh of Calton’ (1912). A book of his ‘Bothy Songs and Ballads’ was published after his death and is still in print today. His interest in the latter subject, perhaps the result of his farming experiences as a boy, was the object of his travels around Scotland both during and shortly after retiring from the police.

John Ord took gravely ill in the spring of 1928 and he was apparently offered £2000, by members of the Press, to clarify the mystery of the Oscar Slater case. Ord refused the offer and stood by his belief that Oscar Slater was the culprit. He died of heart disease and pneumonia at his home at 2 Monteith Row, Glasgow, on 19 April 1928.

It is also interesting to note that his son, Dr John Smith McLaren Ord, M.B.E., M.B., CH.B., was a well known Police Casualty Surgeon in the Southern, Eastern and Central Divisions. He collapsed while attending a sudden death in the Tontine Hotel, St. Andrew’s Street, Glasgow, about 10pm on Sunday 1 January 1967. He was carried across the road to the Central Police Office and died in the office where his father had served for so many years.

John Ord served in the Glasgow Police through some of the most interesting periods of its history. He left his mark on the history of the force with his activities as a detective and his establishment of the first Glasgow Police Museum. He will, no doubt, be remembered by students of crime for his part in the Oscar Slater case, but however criminologists and conspiracy theorists judge his two years’ involvement in that particular case, the other 43 years were doubtlessly served with distinction, heroism and loyalty to the citizens of the City of Glasgow and their Police.

© GPHS 2005