He was one of Glasgow’s most decorated detectives and brought many of the best-known criminals of his day to justice.

John McGimpsey was a master of disguise and the villains never knew where or when he would turn up.

He pioneered the concept of putting suspects under surveillance and using undercover tactics, particularly against those involved in organised crime.

At the time Victorian Glasgow was booming and it had become known as the second city of the Empire.

The shipyards and related industries attracted large numbers of people looking for work which provided increased opportunities for criminals.

In the days before CCTV, the police did most of their work out on the streets and on foot patrol looking out for people acting suspiciously or known offenders.

One such officer was McGimpsey whose distinguished career spanned 34 years of service in the City of Glasgow Police.

McGimpsey was born in County Down, Ireland in 1864 and like many of his countrymen at the time came to Glasgow to exploit the new work opportunities.

He found employment on the trams before joining the police in 1888 at the age of 23.

Around this time the City of Glasgow force was increasing the number of police officers, particularly detectives, to deal with the rise in crime.

Glasgow Times:

McGimpsey was posted to Maitland Street police office in Cowcaddens – which covered the north of the city and was one of the toughest beats for officers.

It was there for the next 10 years that he honed his crime-fighting skills, earning a promotion to Sergeant in 1898.

Three years later, McGimpsey achieved his ambition to be a Detective Officer and was moved to the West End of the city.

In those days the rank of Detective Officer was higher than that of Sergeant, This was to make sure that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) got the best recruits.

After a spell in the west of the city, McGimpsey was moved back to Maitland Street where his knowledge of the area and local criminals would soon be put to good use.

It was then that he developed a particular skill in disguising himself to make arrests and his exploits soon became legendary in police circles.

His favourite roles were that of a labourer and baker.

These disguises allowed him to carry out surveillance on suspects and make quick arrests – often to the astonishment of criminals who were unaware of his real identity.

On one occasion, dressed as a baker, he went with a colleague dressed as a tram worker to the nearby Phoenix Park in Cowcaddens.

The aim was to arrest a notorious bookmaker who had eluded the police for years. Then it was illegal to gamble and operate as a bookie. Many of the illegal bookies of the day were also involved in other types of crime.

On reaching the park, the baker and tram worker sat at either end of a wooded bench, ignoring each other and reading a newspaper.

The bookmaker came along and sat down between the two detectives unaware that they were police officers in disguise.

It was where he would usually meet his clients and take their bets, particularly if the weather was good. Today was no different. Both cops watched as a stream of customers arrived and handed over their cash or took their winnings.

When they had seen enough, McGimpsey and his colleague arrested the bookmaker and took him back to Maitland Street.

They arrived at the charge bar still in their disguises, before they had a chance to reveal their identities to the Duty Officer who would normally process any prisoners.

He was astonished to see what he thought were two members of the public bringing in a high-profile criminal suspect.

The officer, who knew McGimpsey and his colleague well, was even more astonished to discover their true identities.

He called in the local police chief Superintendant Mennie, who also failed to recognise the baker and workman.

When they revealed who they were Mennie burst out laughing and congratulated McGimpsey and his partner on their ingenuity.

On a second occasion, McGimpsey arrested another well-known illegal bookie by dressing as a tramp.

He stood outside the tenement where the bookmaker was operating, McGimpsey then walked past his ‘lookouts’ who hardly have him a second glance, and arrested the bookie as he took wagers from his punters.

When he took the suspect, while still in disguise, to Maitland Street, the then Chief Constable John Boyd, was visiting the office, He was delighted with what he saw and immediately recommended McGimpsey for a commendation and a cash reward.

Glasgow Times:

McGimpsey’s policy of putting suspects under surveillance paid off with the sensational arrest of James Muirhead, nicknamed ‘Scotch Jamie’ – one of the best known criminals in Glasgow at the time.

He operated a robbery gang which was being watched by a team of detectives led by McGimpsey He suspected that the office of the Glasgow Pawnbroking Company in nearby Bath Street was their intended target The manager often worked late and normally locked the premises at 10.30pm.

One night around this time three of the gang then entered the building, closing the door behind them unaware they were being watched.

The detectives waited a few minutes, then arrested the ‘look-outs’ before quietly following the robbers up the internal stairs of the building.

They found the three men drilling holes in the floor of a tailor’s shop above the pawnbroker’s office.

The robbers including ‘Scotch Jamie’, were taken completely by surprise and gave up without a fight later receiving hefty prison sentences.

By 1909, McGimpsey had reached the rank of Detective Inspector and was given the task of investigating a safe blowing at a large warehouse in Sauchiehall Street.

The culprits had left very few clues and the police enquiry was not progressing well.

McGimpsey brought in several known criminals for questioning and noticed that the fingernails of one of the suspects were dirty and stained. Knowing that gelignite had been used in the crime, McGimpsey took scrapings from under the suspect’s nails.

When the substance was analysed it was found to be an explosive.

It was enough for the man to be put on trial at the High Court in Glasgow where he also received a lengthy prison sentence.

In 1912, McGimpsey was promoted to Detective Lieutenant – equivalent to Detective Chief Inspector today.

Around this time the political turmoil in Ireland had spilled over into Glasgow.

Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, was also active in the city with recruitment drives and fundraisers.

There were also fears that the violence that had been seen in Ireland – as part of a war of independence from Britain – would also erupt in Glasgow.

It was McGimpsey who was tasked with monitoring the activities of organisations sympathetic to the Irish cause in Glasgow.

In particular, the transportation of arms and explosives to Ireland from Glasgow by supporters during the 1916 uprising and ongoing civil war.

While he was responsible for keeping such organisations under surveillance, he was also being watched by the IRA.

Once, when some of his detective colleagues visited him socially at his home, some of the officers saw two men listening at the house window.

They gave chase but the two pair managed to escape.

It was also known that the IRA. followed him to his holiday home at West Kilbride, Ayrshire, but neither he nor his family was ever harmed.

McGimpsey was also used by The Secretary of State for Scotland for special assignments during this period because of his detective skills.

One of his jobs during the First World War was to root out any German spies who were operating in Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh.

There were also fears that the Germans were supplying the IRA with weaponry, including guns and ammunition.

McGimpsey was awarded the King’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1919 and retired three years later, as second in command of the city’s Criminal Investigation Department.

His medals, baton, warrant card and other artefacts were donated to the Glasgow Police Museum in Bell Street by his granddaughter 20 years ago and can be seen on display to this day.

The museum’s curator Alastair Dismor added:”John McGimpsey was an industrious and dedicated police officer which was one of the reasons that he got the King’s Police Medal.

“He pioneered many new policing techniques, particularly in targeting organised crime through undercover work which are still used to this day.

“In many ways, he was ahead of his time and it was the law-abiding people of Glasgow in that era who saw the benefits.”