Thursday, 4 April 2013


A to Z Challenge – travels round Leicester with my camera No 4.

Francis ‘Tanky’ Smith was a detective in Leicester’s newly created police force in 1836 where he acquired a reputation as a master of disguise able to infiltrate the town’s criminal gangs. After his retirement from the force in 1864 he became the city’s first private detective. His fortune was made when he was hired to find James Beaumont Winstanley, the High Sheriff of Leicestershire, who had gone missing on a European tour. Smith tracked Winstanley to Koblenz where his body was found in the River Moselle.

Smith used some of his fee to build Victoria Terrace on London Road, employing his son James Francis Smith as architect. The building became known as Top Hat Terrace as it was adorned with carved heads representing Smith in some of his many disguises.

The nickname ‘Tanky’ is said to refer to his habit of tapping or ‘tanking’ disorderly people over the head with his stick.

Smith seems such an eccentric character. I can imagine him as the hero of a series of Victorian who-dun-its, donning a new disguise each time to solve some dastardly crime.

The many faces of Francis ‘Tanky’ Smith, master of disguise. The heads are painted stone and the sculptor is unknown.

The frontage of Top Hat Terrace has been greatly altered over the years. An early photograph of the building shows a terrace of four houses with front gardens. Although not listed, the building is well maintained. 


  1. Hi Sally - fascinating stuff. A friend of mine mentioned Tanky Smith to me last year, and I had never even heard of him, but such an interesting character and story surrounding his life. As you say, perfect for a Victorian series. I do know a retired police officer who has written some crime novels set in a bygone Leicester, and I think he would find your post interesting.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I've known about Smith for some time but have only recently made the effort to walk down there and take a look.

  3. oh yes such a lovely background for many stories!!!

    1. I ought to have a go at writing one but I don't suppose I will.

  4. What a great story. The photos really bring it to life.

  5. That's interesting. Wish I'd known about this when I visited England a 5 years ago!

    Deeply Shallow

  6. That is really cool! I'll look for this next time I visit England.