Leicester’s first private detective, Francis “Tanky” Smith, would be long forgotten but for his mastery of disguise and a curious building near the city centre.
Victorian Leicester was a lawless place, where burglaries, robberies and street brawls were frequent. In 1836, the Leicester Corporation decided to create the city’s first police force to tackle the problem.
Francis Smith (Tanky) and his partner Tommy Haynes (Black Tommy) joined the new force in 1840 as the city’s first detectives. The pair worked together, infiltrating criminal gangs and gleaning evidence that soon made them the city’s most successful officers.
When he retired from the police, Tanky set himself up as a private detective and in 1862 he was hired by the Winstanley family of Braunstone Hall to find James Beaumont Winstanley who had disappeared whilst touring in Europe.
Tanky succeeded in tracking Winstanley to Koblenz where his body was found in the River Moselle. Richly rewarded for his efforts, he invested the money in building Victoria Terrace on Leicester’s London Road.
Designed by his son James Francis Smith, a well-known local architect, Victoria Terrace was built in 1864 and acquired the name Top Hat Terrace because of the 16 heads carved in stone adorning the front of the building: Tanky Smith in his various disguises (among them a bishop, a Quaker, and two jockeys). Today, the building is a solicitor’s office bearing a blue plaque recalling the Tanky legend.
Smith is believed to have been one of the men on whom Arthur Conan Doyle based his character Sherlock Holmes and his ghost is said to haunt the nearby Marquis Wellington pub – which serves some of the best ales in Leicester.
There are two explanations for the nickname “Tanky”. Some believe it is a corruption of the name “Frankie”. More likely is that the nickname comes from his habit of tapping or “tanking” disorderly people on the head with his cane.