Women in Policing – a historical view

This blog was originally published in November 2014

When the ‘new police’ were created in 1829 there was no place for women in the workplace.  It was a masculine domain and so it remained for many years. 

 Pressure for the introduction of women into policing came from two angles.  First from feminist organisations as part of their campaign to change the nature of society and carve out a political role for women and second from voluntary organisations active in rescue preventative work.

 The role of policewomen in those early days must have been very difficult.  Miss Lillian Wyles wrote of the ordeal of the first twenty five police woman when they first appeared on London streets in 1919. She ‘shuddered’ and ‘regretted her choice of career’ when she saw herself in the mirror clad in the ‘appalling’ uniform supplied and fitted by HARRODS! Now the uniform of a policewoman has not been without complaint, but I can’t recall uniform being provided by Harrods in the modern age.

 This first batch of policewomen ‘allowed’ to patrol the streets was drawn from shop assistants, laundresses, tram conductress, school mistresses, typists, nurses, and a few with university degrees but they faced downright malice and a vindictive spirit from men.

 They were required to patrol in pairs followed closely by two police men who were given orders not to let them out of their sight and go to their aid if they were in trouble. (Critchley, 1967). 

 Police woman were formed into a Police Women’s Section and were confined to dealing with missing children and other welfare centred issues.  Even the government of the time (1922) was unconvinced of the role of police women with Home Secretary, Sir Edward Short recommending the complete abolition of the women’s section across the Metropolitan Police.  His insistence was that their work was ‘welfare work, not police work proper.’  Short was persuaded to keep a section of 24 women constable attached to the Metropolitan Police.

 The First and Second world wars saw woman taking a greater role in policing in the absence of men who were at war.  Among the famous people who became police constables was Celia Johnson, the actress famous for the film Brief Encounter with Trevor Howard.

 The number of women police officers has risen slowly over the years. Brown (1997) stated that as the number of women in the police increases, the ratio moves towards a ‘tip over’ stage from minority to gender balance and it is at this stage that women may have the greatest impact on the nature of policing.  Yet by 1981 women accounted for 8.6% of total force establishment in England and Wales. This had risen to 13.2% by 1994 and by 2004 women still only accounted for 20% of officer strength.

 Rising to the top ranks of policing has taken longer still, and Merseyside Police played a significant role in this.  In 1983 Alison Halford became an Assistant Chief Constable in Merseyside.  Alison was the first woman to hold that rank in British police history and the first woman outside the Metropolitan Police to hold Chief Officer rank. 

 It took a further twelve years before a woman was appointed as a Chief Constable.  This was former Merseyside officer  Pauline Clare who in 1995 was became Chief Constable of Lancashire.

 Today there are many more female Chief Constables, eight in fact.  But eight out of forty three is still a significant minority. 

 Below is a time line of woman in policing and there are a number of historical pictures of woman in policing on my web site www.bluelocustnetwork.co.uk.

1883 – Metropolitan Police began to employ a female visitor to visit women convicts on licence and under police supervision

1886 – A second visitor is appointed

1889 – Fourteen women employed as Police Matrons

1915 – Women’s Police Volunteers developed following the outbreak of war

1918 – Some forces incorporated Women Police Volunteers into the police force

1918 – Police orders set out the qualifications and conditions for the new ‘Metropolitan Police Womens Patrols’

1919 – A nucleus of 100 women police were attached to Metropolitan Police

1920s –  A committee reporting on the efficiency of women in the war recommended that police women be expanded across the country

1922 – Sir Edward Short (Home Secretary) states that Policemen’s wives could not do Women’s police work

1923 – women police officers were attested and given a power of arrest in Metropolitan Police

1927 – police women in the Metropolitan Police who married had to resign (this did not apply to those already married and remained in force until 1946)

1930 – Lillian Wyles becomes a detective in London dealing with cases involving children and woman

1935 – Police women first used at a state ceremony.  Theye were not allowed to march but were placed near to the Royal Box

1945 – First woman Assistant Inspector of Constabulary appointed (Miss B M Denis de Vitre)

1929 – Royal Commission on Powers and Procedure recommended that the ‘time is ripe for the substantial increase in their [police woman’s] numbers, more particularly in cities for patrol work in uniform’

1983 – Alison Halford becomes the first woman Assistant Chief Constable

1993 – Three female Deputy Chief Constables appointed

1995 – Pauline Clare becomes the female first Chief Constable

2014 – there are eight female Chief Constables

  1. Humberside – Justine Curran
  2. West Yorkshire – Dee Collins
  3. Suzette Davenport – Gloucestershire
  4. Jackie Cheer – Cleveland
  5. Collette Paul – Bedfordshire
  6. Sara Thornton – Thames Valley
  7. Lynn Owens – Surrey
  8. Sue Sim –  Northumbria

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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