A Fair Cop: Women celebrate 100 years in police force

Edith Smith has been named the first official female police officer
Women on their new police motorcyclists in1918
Cressida Dick became Britain's highest ever-ranking policewoman
Sophia Stanley
Metropolitan Police Authority

Extracts taken from Express 9/03/2015

Adrian Lee

Edith Smith

With her hair in a prim looking bun and round spectacles Edith Smith didn’t look much like a pioneering crime fighter. The former midwife was already in middle age when she became the first policewoman in Britain to be granted the power of arrest 100 years ago.

The nation was waging a war against Germany and hundreds of thousands of men were fighting overseas. So the decision was borne more out of necessity than a genuine desire to promote equality.

Nonetheless Edith patrolled the streets of Grantham, Lincolnshire, in the knowledge that her sex no longer prevented her from marching offenders off to the cells. At the time the place was an unruly barracks town, likened to the Wild West.

A decline in moral values

Drunken brawls frequently erupted among off-duty soldiers and Grantham was a magnet for prostitutes. Smith’s main duty was to deal with the “frivolous girls” who sold their bodies. Edith was a kindly person who preferred a ticking off to arrest but she is now recognised as being the nation’s first official policewoman.

A report from 1915 records how she would approach canoodling couples in the park and “addressing them with motherly frankness, she pointed out the dangers of the situation and appealed to their chivalry for the protection of the girls”.

Edith was a member of the Women Police Service, a voluntary organisation which had been founded the previous year.

Fair Cop

A new BBC4 documentary called Fair Cop, which examines 100 years of female policing, reveals that it was a highly controversial move. At the time women still didn’t have the vote and there were many men, including senior police officers, who did not regard crime fighting as women’s work.

Worse still for their opponents, a lot of the women were former suffragettes. They were thought of as a troublesome lot and it was claimed the women were only offered posts in the service to keep them under control. Their leader was Margaret Damer Dawson, a fervent anti-slavery campaigner and militant feminist.

The fledgling policewomen weren’t allowed to carry truncheons or handcuffs but were instead equipped with umbrellas.

But bizarrely they were issued with the latest motorbikes, which only served to upset male colleagues still often using pony and trap to get around. It was an inauspicious start and symptomatic of the jealousy and sexism female officers continued to suffer deep into the 20th century.

Sofia Stanley

In London another unofficial body of policewomen operated during the First World War. Unlike the former suffragettes, the members of the Voluntary Women Patrols, who came mainly from a church-going background, were more softly-softly.

They were led by the feminine and very diplomatic Sofia Stanley, who became the first female officer in the Met Police which had not long since allowed women to be employed as typists.

Battling to be taken seriously

For several years, as policewomen battled to be taken seriously, there was a power struggle between the two organisations.

For the winner was the prize of forming the first official female force in London. Ultimately it went to the more moderate and compliant VWP. The duties of the officers mainly involved dealing with prostitutes and runaway children, along with preventing fortune-telling which was illegal at the time.

A Job for the Boys

Chasing crooks was left to the men and at the first sign of trouble female officers were under instructions to call for help. Early uniforms were supplied by Harrods, including ashallow cork and felt helmet which offered minimal protection.

The power of arrest for female officers was rolled out nationally in 1923 but it was up to individual chief constables whether to recruit women. They worked apart from men and there were strict rules which blocked women rising through the ranks.

Most onerous was that they must automatically leave if they became pregnant or got married, because homemaking was seen as taking priority.

The rule was not lifted until after the Second World War in England and Wales, and 1968 in Scotland. Joan Lock, an author and historian who also served in the Met, says: “The conditions for the early policewomen were very poor.

They didn’t receive good pay or a pension and were on contracts which meant they could easily be dismissed. They got the jobs the men didn’t want, such as taking drunks to the station on a barrow.

“They also faced a lot of opposition from male colleagues, who would tell them to get back to the washroom, and from members of the public who believed they were a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

There was a big setback in 1922 when spending cuts resulted in the mass sacking of female officers. The police horse units of the period faced less savage treatment. By 1939 there were still only 246 female officers, employed in only about a quarter of Britain’s forces.

Fair Cop  A Century of British Policewomen BBC Documentary 2015


With 2015 marking the 100th anniversary of the first British policewoman being given the power of arrest, A Fair Cop takes us through the remarkable history of 100 years of Britain’s female police force. This film explores the individual careers and ambitions of women police officers, who through their bravery and guile, were determined to succeed in a profession that never wanted them. It’s a story of class, drive, and sheer guts, entwined with a darker side of sexism, snobbery, intimidation and betrayal.

A Fair Cop includes interviews with former policewomen who pushed boundaries in the profession such as Sislin Fay Allen, Britain’s first black policewoman; Cressida Dick, Britain’s highest ever-ranking policewoman; Alison Halford who brought a high-profile sex discrimination charge against the police; and Jackie Malton who provided the model for Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennyson. These interviews will be combined with fascinating facts and illuminating stories from expert historians and current serving officers who have made their careers in the specialist areas of the mounted police and firearms units.

This is a story about ingenuity and determination as well as law and order. A Fair Cop is a hidden history of our society, depicting a battle of the sexes that masked a battle for power.

No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *