Sir Charles Warren: Jerusalem, Jack the Ripper, And the Boer War
Though not exactly a household name in our time, anyone reading the newspapers in the latter half of the 19th century would have been familiar with Charles Warren. He gained fame for such disparate events as surveying Gibraltar to excavating Jerusalem, finding the killers of a prominent archaeologist and bringing them to justice, to the humiliation of being the police commissioner on whose watch Jack the Ripper terrorized the people of London and eluded arrest. Warren was also the scapegoat of one of Britain’s worst military disasters – the Battle of Spion Kop– and helped found a global organization: The Boy Scouts. If anyone remembers Warren today, it is for vastly divergent things. Let’s delve into the highs and lows of Warren’s career.
Charles Warren was born in Wales in 1840. At age 17 Warren was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He gained praise and promotion for his work surveying Gibraltar from 1861-1865. This laid the foundation for the next phase of his career, which would bring Warren considerable fame.
In 1870, the newly-founded Palestine Exploration Fund recruited Lieutenant Warren to survey the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land for archaeological purposes. Warren was the first person to conduct a major excavation of the Temple Mount and became the preeminent explorer of Jerusalem. Warren also “settled several vexed questions of site, and amongst them that of the position of the Temple.” Though his discoveries in Jerusalem were what gained Warren acclaim, he also led expeditions in Gaza, Ashkelon, and Jericho. Remarkably, Warren only spent three years in Palestine before returning to England as a result of ill health.
He was next dispatched to South Africa, another flashpoint of British imperialism at the time, in 1876. After his work surveying there, as well as gallantry in battle, he was made a companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, promoted to brevet lieutenant colonel, and had a town (Warrenton) named after him. In 1880, he returned to England to assume the role of Chief Military Engineering Instructor, but in 1882, he was dispatched on a special assignment. Edward Henry Palmer’s archaeological expedition had gone missing, and Warren was charged with determining their fate. He successfully found the company’s remains (they had been ambushed and murdered) in the Sinai and brought the killers to justice, earning him several knighthoods. In all likelihood, this may have led to his unlikely and unfitting appointment as Chief Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1886.
Although Warren set about reorganizing and expanding London’s Metropolitan police force, his appointment seemed doomed from the beginning. In 1887, he was roundly criticized for his heavy handling of “Bloody Sunday,” in which many protestors in Trafalgar Square clashed with the police and military, resulting in numerous injuries on both sides. His bad luck continued, when in April 1888, Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim. In September of 1888, the Ripper committed a double murder. What is now known as the Goulston Street Graffito was found at the scene of the crime. The text according to Warren’s report was:
The Jewes are
The men that
Warren, generally punctilious about detail and army discipline, made a decision that was highly irregular: he ordered the graffiti washed off the wall before the police photographer could arrive at the scene. In his report, Warren explains that the graffiti was incendiary in light of the strong anti-Semitic sentiment in London at the time and it needed to be removed immediately – a necessity that trumped retaining the evidence in the murders. In doing so, Warren very likely prevented a pogrom.
Two days after submitting his report about the Goulston Street Graffito, Warren tendered his resignation from the Metropolitan Police on November 8, 1888, and within hours, the serial killer struck again. Though the press relentlessly crucified Warren for his inability to bring in Jack the Ripper, the resignation was more about internal politics and power struggles that had existed prior to the Ripper’s killing spree. Warren returned to the military and was promoted to general.
Warren’s career would hit a nadir, even after the Ripper affair, with the disaster of Spion Kop, where the British were massacred in the bloodiest battle of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1900. The 59-year-old Warren had been charged with relieving British soldiers besieged by the Boers at Spion Kop. Effectively sitting ducks being picked off by the Boers, a young lieutenant in the South African Light Horse regiment of the British Army named Winston Churchill described the carnage: “The scenes on Spion Kop were among the strangest and most terrible I have ever witnessed.”  Churchill, a war correspondent, acted as a courier during this battle, directly urging Warren to send more reinforcements and explaining that their soldiers were trapped on the mountain. The agitated Warren ordered Churchill’s arrest and did not send reinforcements. Had he done so, the British would have won the battle. At dawn, the Natal Ambulance Corps, led by their leader, Mohandas (known later as Mahatma) Gandhi, marched 25 miles bearing stretchers to remove the wounded and dying from the summit. Warren, who managed to blunder a battle in which 20,000 British soldiers faced off against 8,000 Boers, was held responsible for what went down in history as one of Britain’s worst military disasters.
Warren’s initial brilliance as an archaeologist is a chapter of his life that he never quite closed. Warren “retained his interest in Palestine to the last. He strongly supported the renewed excavation of the Hill of Ophel, which was carried out by the Fund in the years 1924 and 1925. At the end of the latter year, when the report on these excavations was being published, he assisted materially in the preparation of the map of the excavations…” Warren died two years later, in 1927. Periodically, the world’s attention is on Jerusalem; Warren’s name will always be associated with the city.
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- F. C. “Obituary: General Sir Charles Warren, G. C. M. G., K. C. B., F. R. S.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 69, no. 4, 1927, pp. 382–383. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1782787. Accessed 2 June 2021.
- “I do not hesitate myself to say that if that writing had been left there would have been an onslaught upon the Jews, property would have been wrecked, and lives would probably have been lost.” Warren also notes in his report that the Chief Rabbi thanked him for his handling of the volatile situation. Ref. HO 144/221/A49301C, ff. 173–81, Evans and Skinner, The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook, pp. 183–184
- Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill. Doubleday, 2016
- From Warren’s obituary in The Geographical Journal