The story of Waterloo #10: Edward Henry House

by Oisín Hetherington


A historian’s dream would be a time machine – how useful it would be to hop into my Tardis and travel back to interview Henry VIII about his views on marital counselling or the Black Prince about his views on European relations.

Alas this is not yet possible! However I do share a relationship with the Tardis that is not immediately apparent. That relationship stems from the place that I call home: Edward Henry House on Cornwall Road, Waterloo.

At the beginning of the last century a programme was commenced to construct special built accommodation for Metropolitan Policemen and their families. The authorities at the time generally believed that the Police should not live with the general population and this resulted in the Building of Edward Henry House on Cornwall Road and its sister building north of the river Charles Rowan House in the 1920s.

The British History website states:

“Charles Rowan House was built in 1928–30 as flats for married policemen and their families. It was generally acknowledged that housing policemen in large barracks away from the rest of the population was undesirable, but in 1903 the Metropolitan Police began to provide purpose-built married-quarters in central districts where decent affordable housing was scarce, making it difficult to call on men at short notice.
But by 1916 accommodation for only 122 men had been provided, and in 1920 it was recommended that 800 new flats should be built. Progress with this programme continued to be slow, but in the late 1920s two big projects were realized, with ninety-six flats each: Edward Henry Buildings in Cornwall Road, Lambeth, completed 1928, and Charles Rowan House. These were the largest concentrations of policemen in London.
Gilbert Mackenzie Trench, architect and surveyor to the Metropolitan Police, designed both blocks, the Finsbury building in 1927. Its builders were T. H. Adamson & Sons, and it was named after Sir Charles Rowan, the army officer appointed by Robert Peel in 1829 as one of two commissioners to organize London's new police force. Of five storeys, with plain stock-brick internal elevations under flat roofs, the block provided sixty eight three-bedroom and twenty-eight two-bedroom flats. Each had its own scullery, integral bathroom and WC, designated uniform cupboard and small internal balcony. There were also twenty-four pram shelters and a basement playground (Ills 328–30).
A massive and austere presence on a sloping enclosed site, the distinctiveness of Charles Rowan House lies in its style. The power of compressed rhythmic verticality, with patterned brickwork and chimneystacks that rise as battlements, shows awareness of recent German and Dutch architecture. Mackenzie Trench (with Charles A. Battie) had used the same idiom in the six-storey Edward Henry Buildings, of which it was said:
That the police should inspire in us the proper awe is eminently desirable, and there is something to be said for giving to a police-station a rather forbidding appearance. It is, however, carrying architectural symbolism a little too far that even the wives and families of policemen should be housed in a building of such astonishing severity.”

The Authorities at the time clearly believed the general population to fear the police which has echoes of the current crisis of confidence in policing even as I write. The Towers were removed from Edward Henry House when the roof was replaced around thirty years ago but are still visible on Rowan House. The large wooden entrance doors in Edward Henry were specifically designed to allow for the passage of mounted police entering and leaving the building complex. The original building had three sides, one each on Cornwall Road and Coin Street and a transverse building Joining these at the northern end. This third part was demolished when the Co-operative was formed in the late seventies as it had fallen into disrepair.

The building was named after Sir Edward Henry who has and interesting history. Henry is generally regarded as one of the great Commissioners having been appointed in 1903,two years after his return from India, where he had been Inspector-General of Police of Bengal. An article in Wikipedia states “He was responsible for dragging the Metropolitan Police into the modern day, and away from the class-ridden Victorian era. However, as Commissioner, he began to lose touch with his men, as others before him had done.


He continued with his technological innovations, installing telephones in all divisional stations and standardising the use of police boxes, which ( his predecessor) Bradford had introduced as an experiment but never expanded upon. He also soon increased the strength of the force by 1,600 men and introduced the first proper training for new constables.”


Controversy surrounds the main achievement for which he is known, namely the Henry Fingerprint classification for which he received many plaudits and which is still widely used around the world.


Henry at one point claimed to have thought of the system on a train journey in India and jotted it down on his shirt cuff. However, as always, the truth is much more complex. Having always had an interest in the subject, Henry set a task of simplifying the existing Galton Classification system and delegated this to two of his Sub-Inspectors: self-taught Bangladeshi mathematician Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. The two set about their work and eventually came up with a system which reduced the time required to trace a particular print from an hour to five minutes, greatly increasing its efficiency.

In Colin Beavan’s excellent book Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection and the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science’, he explains, “[Haque] devised a mathematical formula of sorting slips in 1024 pigeonholes in thirty-two columns and thirty-two rows based on fingerprint patterns. Its use required no math and no measurements.” Beavan further writes, "By 1897, Haque had collected 7000 fingerprint sets in his cabinet. His simple methods of further subclassification, which were easier to learn and less prone to error than Galton's, meant that even a collection numbering in the hundreds of thousands could be divided into small groups of slips. As he predicted, his fingerprint sets, compared with anthropometric cards, were far less prone to error and could be classified and searched with much greater confidence”

Although he was happy to accept credit for the system, Henry in later life did give some to the two men mainly responsible, and lobbied the government for a small recompense for Haque albeit shortly before his death. Today the The chartered society of forensic science Fingerprint Division host the Haque and Bose Award which is offered to “the most outstanding presentation at a Fingerprint related event or work stream during the calendar year” Their website states: Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose, were two statisticians recruited by Sir Edward Henry to utilise anthropometry in the advancement of the science. It was Haque who first derived the subdivision of fingerprints records into 1024 different groups that became the basis of the system for fingerprint classification, subsequently credited to Sir Edward Henry and is universally called the Henry system of classification. Haque and Bose both went on to have careers with the Bengal Police Service and have long been recognised within the worldwide fingerprint community.

So then – where does the Tardis come into the story? Well the Architect of Edward Henry House was, as mentioned above, Gilbert Mackenzie Trench who not only the original many of the older Police stations still seen around London today, but the original Police Box. I often wish that our flat was larger on the inside that the outside, especially during the recent lockdown, however for now I’ll have to console myself with the fact that there is less tidying up!

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