By Paul Craven
William Melville was born in Sneem, County Kerry. His exact date of birth is not certain – it has been variously given as 1852, and the 25th of April, 1850. Other details of his early life are also unknown.
His father’s name has been given as James Melville, a baker and publican, and, it is believed that he had at least one brother. In the 1860s, he moved to London and followed in his father’s footsteps as a baker. Then, in 1872, he quit this trade and joined the London Metropolitan Police.
Promotion through the ranks of the Detective Section was rapid when several senior detectives were removed because of a corruption scandal in 1877. Then, in 1883, he was transferred to a brand, new Police Unit – the ‘Irish Branch’.
This consisted of twelve detectives, headed by three Inspectors (of whom Melville was one) within the CID (or Criminal Investigation Department).
Later, this Unit became the “Special Irish Branch”, and, later still, the “Special Branch”.
This Unit was set up to deal with the Fenians, who, in the 1880s, were carrying out a dynamiting and bombing campaign in England. (One of these ‘Dynamiters’ was Thomas J Clarke, the future 1916 signatory.)
However, there were other so-called ‘political’ offenders in England at this time, known as ‘Anarchists’.
‘Anarchism’ was widespread on the European continent, and was fuelled by the idea that all Governments and authority were harmful to society.
On the continent, some ‘Anarchists’ resorted to violence to oppose some or all Governments, and this idea spread to England in the late nineteenth century.