Margaret Damer Dawson
Margaret Damer Dawson was born at 1 York Road, Hove, Sussex on 12 June 1873 to surgeon Richard Dawson and his wife Agnes Baird Hemming, and educated at the London Academy of Music. Her independent income enabled her to mix with the social elite and fund her many and various philanthropic interests.
In the early 1900s she campaigned for the humane treatment of animals and in 1906 she became organising secretary of the International Animal Protection Societies. As a result of her work for animal welfare she was awarded silver medals by Finland and Denmark. She was also active in the in the Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society and in later life helped found a home for abandoned babies.
Although not active in the women’s suffrage movement, she did take an interest in such feminist issues as the campaign against the traffic in women and children, and served on the Criminal Law Amendment Committee in 1914.
World War 1
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Sir Edward Ward called on people to volunteer as special constables and only ever envisaged men applying; however, journalist Nina Boyle in the ‘Vote’ called upon women to apply. At the same time Margaret was the Head of Transport of a committee formed by Chelsea people, who met and supported Belgian refugees escaping from the Germans. Whilst trying to find British homes for the refugees she was shocked to discover pimps and gangsters enticing many of the women into the sex trade.
After a meeting with Sir Edward Henry, the Chief Commissioner of Police, Margaret and Nina Boyle joined forces and founded the Women Police Volunteers. The following year Margaret became Commandant and Mary Allen became Sub-Commandant.
David Doughan argues that Margaret Damar Dawson was the right kind of leader for this new organisation:
‘Many of the first recruits, numbering approximately 50, had experience of being imprisoned as militant suffragists. Margaret Damer Dawson’s highly respectable non-suffragette background, together with the number of her aristocratic acquaintances, was thus an asset when dealing with figures of authority.’
Although the government had always opposed the idea of policewomen, with a large numbers of policemen joining the British Army what other options did they have? And of course the new recruits were volunteers and prepared to work for free. In February 1915, Margaret and Nina fell out over the WPV being used to police a curfew enforced against women and Nina left the movement leaving Margaret and Mary Allen firmly in control of the fledgling organisation.
Margaret decided to drop the name Women Police Volunteers and reformed the group as the Women Police Service WPS; later they became the Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS).
Margaret and Mary
Margaret and Mary cropped their hair and wore a military style uniform designed by Margaret (Mary wore her police uniform in public for the rest of her life) but had no powers of arrest. They moved drunks on, visited the families of girls they believed were in ‘moral danger’, and enforced, controversially, a curfew imposed on the women of Grantham by the Army. If they came across a couple lying together on the ground, they would be prodded with an unrolled umbrella. They also instituted training for women in giving evidence in court and introduced motorcycles and sidecars for transporting senior staff.
As a couple they lived together from 1913 and in 1915 Margaret made a will that left everything to Mary. When Margaret died unexpectedly of a heart attack on 8th May 1920, Mary assumed the role of WPS Commandant and continued to live in Margaret’s house throughout the 1930s. She began a relationship in the early 1920s with another former WPS, officer Miss Helen Tagart
When the Armistice was signed, there were over 357 members of the Women’s Police Service. Margaret and Mary asked the Chief Commissioner, Sir Nevil Macready, to make them a permanent part of his force. He refused, saying that the women were ‘too educated’ and would ‘irritate’ male members of the force. Instead he decided to recruit and train his own women.
Margaret was awarded the OBE for services to her country during the war.