How small Sheffield museum secured a 'unique collection of national importance'

When Sheffield’s National Emergency Services Museum (NESM) reopened last month it revealed to visitors for the first time a major new exhibition exploring the history of crime and punishment during the 19th century.

Wednesday, 16th June 2021, 5:54 pm
Donald Swanson was one of the most famous detectives in the country but today his career is largely forgotten.
Donald Swanson was one of the most famous detectives in the country but today his career is largely forgotten.

The centrepiece of the ‘Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds’ exhibition is a collection of objects that have never been on public display anywhere in the world; items belonging to the former superintendent of the Metropolitan Police – and the man who led the investigation into Jack the Ripper – Donald Sutherland Swanson These include 'the Swanson marginalia'; a book, annotated by Swanson, in which he names the person he believed to be the infamous Whitechapel murderer.

The archive of Donald Swanson is a unique collection of national importance and is thought to be one of the most detailed and significant of its kind.It covers not only his work with the Metropolitan Police but also his personal and family life. It includes official police paperwork and documents from a number of nationally significant criminal cases as well as Swanson's own personal findings, theories and evaluations, arrest lists and the resources he used to solve some of his cases. As such, it offers an unrivalled insight into the life of a 19th century detective.

And now the entire collection - some 150 individual photographs, letters, drawings and personal belongings - has been entrusted to the care of NESM. So how did a relatively small, independent museum in Sheffield manage to secure this prestigious archive when other high-profile private collectors and major museums could not?

Museum curator Holly Roberts with Adam Wood, author of the definitive Swanson biography.

Ironically it was the museum’s status as a provincial, independent museum that played a large part in securing the archive, as Holly Roberts, NESM’s curator, explains.

“There had been a lot of interest in the collection from much bigger and better known museums than ourselves. But the Swanson family, who had been caring for the archive since it was discovered in the early 1980s, really wanted it to be with a museum that would showcase it to its fullest extent and give it the star treatment it deserves. In that sense, we could offer something that some bigger museums couldn’t.”

That ‘something’ is a whole host of activities intended to raise the profile of Swanson and his career. As well as forming part of the museum's new exhibition, NESM is also planning to digitise the collection and make it more widely accessible. It is looking to begin several research projects around the archive in partnership with researchers and colleagues to understand what can be learnt from the collection, and will be hosting a series of workshops, talks and special events to celebrate the Donald Swanson legacy. The story of Swanson will also be taken to a younger generation, with parts of the collection being included in the museum’s new learning and discovery programme.

Another key to securing the collection was the museum’s collaborative approach which has seen it work closely with the Swanson family, leading academics and historians.

Items from the collection are on display in a new exhibition at the museum.

Holly said: “During planning and research for the new exhibition I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Adam Wood, author of the definitive biography of Donald Swanson, and through him with the Swanson family. Adam immediately saw the potential of NESM as a home for the archive and thanks to his efforts, and to the Swanson family who we consulted with at every step, we were able to bring the archive to Sheffield.

“Establishing these really positive relationships has made a huge difference and without that we wouldn’t have the collection. From these discussions we understood completely what the family wanted; that we use the collection to celebrate Swanson and ensure that his remarkable life and career are appreciated once more. Their trust in us and in Adam meant they said ‘yes’ to the collection leaving the care of the family for the first time.”

Adam Wood said: “It's astonishing that Donald Swanson is largely unknown today. It has been a joy bringing this to fruition by working with the museum.”

The Swanson marginalia' names the person the detective believed to be the infamous Whitechapel murderer.
The archive includes personal papers belonging to Swanson, such as this address book where he recorded the name of his Scotland Yard colleague, Frederick Abberline.
Swanson rose to become the superintendent of CID at Scotland Yard; the country's top detective.
Items relating to some of Swanson's famous cases, such as the recovery of the Countess of Bective's stolen jewels, are part of the collection.