Londonderry born imperial policeman remembered

Many thanks to my old colleague Kevin Connolly, BBC Middle East correspondent  and a former Ireland correspondent for keeping his old antennae in good working order to discover the remarkable character of Londonderry born Sir Charles Tegart, commissioner of police in colonial India and Palestine. As Kevin says, they don’t make them like  that any more. I don’t know the name – I wonder if anyone out there does?

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  • He was born in the city in 1881 where his father was the minister of St Augustine’s CoI 1877-1888; he spent much of his childhood in Dunboyne, Co Meath; educated at Portora and Trinity (briefly).

  • Brian Walker

    Well done Nevin.And him just round the corner from me on the walls, so to speak.

  • I’d always had as a received opinion (from one of an earlier generation, who had been close to the Palestine campaign, and wasn’t keen to talk about it) that this was one of the Empire’s “nasty little secrets”. Still, Tegart has quite an extended biography, credited to Jason Tomes, in the DNB:

    Tegart, Sir Charles Augustus (1881–1946), police officer in India, was born in Londonderry on 5 October 1881, the second son of Joseph Poulter Tegart, Church of Ireland clergyman, and his wife, Georgina Johnston. His father was rector of Dunboyne, co. Meath. Educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, and Trinity College, Dublin, Tegart joined the Indian police in June 1901. He was assigned to Bengal, and, after training and probation, became superintendent of Patna.

    Tegart transferred to Calcutta in 1906 with the rank of acting deputy commissioner to direct the special branch of the Bengal criminal investigation department, an élite unit, renamed the intelligence branch (IB) in 1913, when it employed 50 officers and 127 men. Following the province’s unpopular administrative partition in 1905, Bengal endured a wave of political violence, organized by militant Indian nationalists; terrorist attacks between 1907 and 1917 numbered over 200. Undercover work engrossed Tegart. Tall, lean, and blue-eyed, he could never have passed for a Bengali, despite fluency in the language, but he donned false beard and turban to visit rough areas at night as a Sikh taxi driver. His special talent was for recruiting and managing informers, whom he met alone in unlikely places at high risk to himself. Colleagues sometimes complained that he played his cards too close to his chest; Tegart answered that his best agents confided in him as an individual. A tough disciplinarian, he yet enjoyed friendly relations with subordinates, British and Indian, who respected his courage. He received the king’s police medal in 1911 and was made an MVO in 1912. Promotion to deputy commissioner came a year later.

    In the eyes of Bengali insurgents the First World War offered ideal conditions for a rebellion. Refused permission to enlist, Tegart remained in India, monitoring plots to import armaments from Germany. The police operation culminated in a raid on 9 September 1915, when the key figure in the German scheme, J. N. Mukherji, was killed in an exchange of gunfire, allegedly by Tegart himself, who was now more than ever a marked man. In June 1916 his favourite assistant, B. K. Chatterjee, became the eleventh Bengal IB officer to be murdered since the start of the war. Tegart gave his Indian staff the freedom to return to normal police units without dishonour; none took the option. Conscious of the ostracism suffered by native policemen, he thought they deserved better pay and housing. From August 1916 the Bengal government fully utilized emergency powers; with 804 terrorist suspects interned by June 1917, political crime fell sharply, allowing Tegart to go to Europe and join the army. He was nevertheless recalled to India in November 1917 to advise Sir Sidney Rowlatt’s inquiry into sedition. ‘He appears to treat the whole thing as a game’, remarked Rowlatt (Curry, 7). Cheerful banter, fearless bravado, and delight in the chase all contributed to the emergent legend of ‘Tegart of the Indian police’. He even used a small bomb as a paperweight: one day, supposing it no longer live, he threw it across the office in jest and destroyed part of the wall. Annie Besant, of the Indian National Congress, accused him of punching suspects and threatening one with a gun; the Bengal government concluded that these allegations were baseless.

    After serving in France with the Royal Field Artillery later in 1918 and then in the Rhineland with the occupation army, Tegart undertook intelligence work in Britain and Ireland (1919–23). As a Unionist, he deplored the outcome of the Anglo-Irish War. His marriage to Kathleen Frances Herbert took place on 7 June 1922; they had no children.

    Tegart’s return to Calcutta as commissioner of police in 1923 followed the recrudescence of terrorism. The governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, thought an Irishman might have insight into revolutionary nationalism. In fact, Tegart gave it little credence—young Bengalis were so emotional, he judged, that a few evil men could easily manipulate them. His presence raised morale in the European community. Known to friends as Mike, he captained the Calcutta A team at polo and drove around in an open car with his Staffordshire bull terrier perched on the hood behind him. Radical nationalists saw him as the insolent embodiment of an oppressive police state. A businessman called Ernest Day who bore a resemblance to Tegart was shot dead by mistake in January 1924. After the reintroduction of internment in 1925 police quelled the terror campaign within two years. Non-political violent crime also halved during Tegart’s term of office. A CIE from 1917, he became a knight in 1926. Subsequent honours included CSI (1931), LLD (1933), and KCIE (1937).

    When emergency powers lapsed in April 1930, released detainees made an audacious foray on Chittagong. Internment resumed, and Tegart set about tracking down terrorist suspects once more. A bomb thrower in Dalhousie Square, Calcutta, narrowly failed to assassinate him on 25 August 1930. Soon afterwards he commanded an assault on rebels hiding in the French enclave of Chandannagar. Having arrived in Britain on leave in 1931, he resigned from the police on being appointed to the Council of India (1932–6), the body advising the secretary of state in London. He was forthright in voicing his opinions, using a lecture to the Royal Empire Society on 1 November 1932 to accuse the Calcutta Corporation of employing known terrorists as schoolteachers.

    The Colonial Office wanted Tegart to be inspector-general of the Palestine police in 1937. He refused but joined Sir David Petrie in visiting the mandate (December 1937 – January 1938) to advise on dealing with Arab guerrillas. Staying to oversee implementation of their report, he did not finally leave until May 1939. By then, a 2 metre high barbed-wire fence (‘Tegart’s wall’) ran all along the frontier with Lebanon and Syria and some fifty fortified police stations (’Tegarts’) had been built. His survival of an ambush on 31 December 1938 seemed further proof of a charmed life.

    During the Second World War Tegart worked for the Ministry of Supply until 1942, assessing factories to decide allocation of resources. He then became head of the intelligence (anti-black market) bureau of the Ministry of Food. Despite suffering from arthritis and heart disease, he chose not to retire, dying suddenly at his home, the Croft House, Warminster, Wiltshire, on 6 April 1946. His wife survived him.

  • I suspect, the
    History Ireland article (Winter 2000) is something of a seminal document for Tegart’s “rediscovery”.

    Apologies if I duplicated the hot-link to that.

  • Rory Carr

    Kevin may well think that “they do’t make ’em like that any more,” but as this extract from the DNB (courtesy of Malcolm) :

    Annie Besant, of the Indian National Congress, accused him of punching suspects and threatening one with a gun; the Bengal government concluded that these allegations were baseless.

    suggests, it is more likely a case of plus ca change (and all that). As everyone (welll everyone within the jurisdiction of the Metroploitan Police in any case) knows, any complaint of brutality against a police officer is always baseless. The spirit of Tegart was alive and well in a unit of the Met on 4 August 2011 whose officers, no doubt acting in the best traditions of the service, fired round after round of ammunition into the body of defenceless Mark Duggan.

  • Barnshee

    “they don’t make them like that any more”
    A minor British Public servant

    If you want a real interesting character try

    CURTIS, PATRICK (1740–1832), Roman catholic archbishop of Armagh spy for Wellington