When Benedict Cumberbatch attended the reinterment of King Richard III as a distant relative of the rediscovered king, how many of us knew that he had another connection to Leicester?

Benedict made his name playing the genius detective Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV show, and one of the real-life inspirations for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary character came from right here in Leicester!

Police historian Clifford Stanley wrote that Victorian Leicester was a lawless, crime-ridden place, and "burglars, robberies and street brawls were frequent". the narrow streets and dark alleyways were frequented by gangs of robbers and pickpockets, with riots and drunken brawls being commonplace. So in 1836, the Leicester Corporation created the city's first organised police force.

Growing up in the streets of Victorian Leicester, Francis ‘Tanky’ Smith was an intelligent and well-read man, and entering into the newly formed force, took time to study human nature and the behaviours and habits of the local criminals.

Due to the dangerous streets, police had to work in pairs, so Tanky and his partner ‘Black Tommy’ Haynes worked together to clean up the mean streets of Leicester. They quickly became two of the most successful police constables in the Leicester Borough force, rising through the ranks to become Leicester Police Force’s first ever detectives.

“Tanky” was tall, thin and distinguished, with a charismatic character that helped him to infiltrate criminal gangs in the city, often in disguise. Taking on undercover disguises including a Bishop, a Quaker, a Jockey and many others, he was able to frequent the city’s inns, taverns and other houses of ill repute ­– eavesdropping on conversations, and doing the real detective work that helped to put criminals behind bars and reduce crime in Victorian Leicester.

Tanky was renowned for his analytical approach and ability to puzzle out the secrets of a case in his mind. Thanks to this reputation for results, Tanky moonlighted as a private investigator, his most famous case coming when the Winstanley family of Braunstone Hall hired him to search for James Beaumont Winstanley, who was also the High Sherriff of Leicestershire and had gone missing after a family argument.

Tanky was given leave from his day job and tracked James first to Paris, and then Germany, where he discovered that an Englishman had fallen from a ferry and drowned. He arranged to have the body exhumed and in true Sherlock style, identified Winstanley thanks to the distinctive gold shirt studs and cufflinks that belonged to the High Sherriff.

Using the £1,000 he received for solving the case (plus a few other shrewd property investments), Tanky bought a plot of land on London Road, and with the help of his architect son, had Victoria Terrace built. The four houses were adorned with carvings of Tanky in his various disguises, including the top hat which was part of the Victorian police uniform and gives the houses their modern name – Top Hat Terrace.

On retiring from the police force, not without some controversy after accusing the police chief of misappropriating police resources, Tanky went into business as a private detective, much like the fictional detective he inspired. And who knows, maybe one day 117A London Road could be as well known as 221B Baker Street, only this one actually exists.

You can discover more about Victorian Leicester on the Story of Leicester website.




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