Dr. Charles Metcalfe

How did a Kew Guild President help catch the Safebreakers?

By Janette Ames, 2019

The Guild’s collection of photographs is held at Kew Gardens Archive and I am in the process of repackaging them as part of a conservation project to protect the photographs and allow easier handling. The collection is a popular and fascinating resource for research into the business and life of staff at Kew.

One photograph that caught my eye and piqued my interest was that of a Dr Charles Metcalfe.

Crimefighter and Kew Guild President may sound like a curious connection, but staff at Kew Gardens were sometimes called upon by police to help them track down safebreakers. Dr Metcalfe was one such staff member requested to use his skills for this purpose.

In the quest to make safes not only theftproof, but fireproof, the cavity between inner and outer safe lining was filled with sawdust and alum (amongst other variations) to act as a firewall. The thief who managed to break into a safe would likely have incriminating traces of sawdust on their clothes, samples of which would be sent to Kew Gardens for analysis to see if there was a match.

Here is the photograph of Dr Metcalfe analysing samples of sawdust under the microscope. Dr Metcalfe was Keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory from 1946-1969, and President of the Kew Guild in 1960-1961.  We don’t know how many safebreakers were caught as a result of Dr Metcalfe’s work but it certainly made for a varied job description!

Dr. Charles Metcalfe
Dr. Charles Metcalfe

(photograph reproduced with permission of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Ref KGU/1/9//31)

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