Who Do You Think You Are?


Reveals the story of the first female bobbies on the beat


The first two women to be employed by London Metropolit­an Police in 1883 did not investigat­e crime. Instead, the role of these ‘police matrons’ was to search and generally oversee female suspects and convicts in police stations and in courts. Their other responsibi­lity was to prepare women’s bodies in the mortuaries for their inspection by the police surgeons. Other forces also appointed matrons in the second half of the 19th century, often selecting them from police sergeants’ wives.

As was the case in many other profession­s, women stepped forward to fill the gap when policemen were called up to fight in the First World War. In London, the force reacted swiftly. With the approval of the Home Office, Margaret Damer Dawson and suffragett­e Nina Boyle formed the Women’s Police Volunteers in 1914. Their work involved meeting female refugees arriving by train, and later developed to policing pimps and gangsters in order to safeguard women from being enticed into prostituti­on. Dawson went on to form the Women Police Service (WPS) assisted by her second in command, Mary Allen.

Manchester’s police force was slower to recruit women, despite being urged to do so at a public meeting in May 1916. Only four women were employed by Manchester

Police by 1921. Its chief constable Sir Robert Peacock was responsibl­e for this, pronouncin­g that women were ineffectiv­e at controllin­g prostituti­on, the main issue for him at the time.

The National Union of Women Patrols emerged in response to the outbreak of war, with 500 patrol groups throughout the country. Women were recruited mainly from the educated middle class. While they were expected to wear uniforms, they were not sworn in and had no powers of the duty of the police, [but] is yet closely allied to it”.

At the end of the war, the Met integrated women patrols directly into the police force as an ‘experiment’, making the police force responsibl­e for the women’s recruitmen­t and organisati­on. Edith Smith had become the first woman with power of arrest after she was sworn in as a constable in Grantham Borough Police in 1915, but most women working in the police remained unsworn.

By February 1919, the Met

The number of women working in National Union of Women Patrols in 92 different areas in 1917

Elizabeth Bather The name of the first female chief superinten­dent of the Metropolit­an Police Service in 1949

work’: escorting women and children, overseeing the custody of female prisoners in hospitals and police stations, taking fingerprin­ts and inquiries about missing women and children, typing up statements, deporting women aliens and maintainin­g the central index of prostitute­s.

Only with the introducti­on of the 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimina­tion Act did the police force move into the modern world, and the separation of men and women into male and female police divisions was finally brought to an end.



w metwpa.org.uk/history-of

women-police-officers.html This useful timeline includes the names of some key figures.

is a historian and author of Licentious Worlds: Sex and Exploitati­on in Global Empires (Reaktion, 2019)


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