Mary was born in Cardiff in 1878, one of the ten children of Thomas Isaac Allen, Chief Superintendent of the Great Western Railway. She was educated at home and later at Princess Helena College. She left home in 1908 after a disagreement with her father about women’s suffrage, and joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, becoming an organiser in the South West, and later in Edinburgh. She was imprisoned three times in 1909 for smashing windows, twice went on hunger-strike, and was force-fed on the last occasion, for which she was awarded a hunger-strike medal by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
Mary was known as ‘Robert’ by her close female friends, and called ‘Sir’ by her officers. Her friends and lovers included Margaret Damer Dawson, Isobel Goldingham and Helen Bourn Tagart, all of whom she met in her policing days. It’s a shame that her later rather eccentric behaviour, far-right sympathies and fascination with Hitler and Mussolini overshadow her ground breaking achievements with Margaret Damer Dawson and the WPV and WPS.
Women Police Service
When in 1914 Mary heard that a number of women were trying to set up a women’s police force she joined Nina Boyle’s Women Police Volunteers, which was taken over by Margaret Damer Dawson in 1915 and renamed the Women Police Service (WPS), with Allen as second-in-command. They saw their role as mainly dealing with women and children and rescuing women from the sex industry. Allen served at Grantham and Kingston upon Hull, overseeing the morals of women in the vicinity of army barracks. Several times a day, her officers had to separate couples having sex in the fields and lanes around the base. A sharp crack from a rolled umbrella usually did the trick.
She went on to police munitions factories which employed large numbers of women. She also worked in London which was suffering, or not, from an outbreak of khaki fever which was to last at least four years. This term refers to women who suffer from a condition by which they are ridiculously attracted to soldiers in uniform. In 1914, an epidemic of khaki fever broke out across Britain. Young women, it seemed, became so attracted to men in military uniform that they started to behave in immodest and even dangerous ways.
After the unexpected death of Margaret Damer Dawson in 1920, Mary assumed the role of WPS Commandant. Unfortunately for Mary, Scotland Yard tried to disband the Women’s Police Service. The authorities saw no further need of the organisation. The war was over, the men were home and as one officer put it the ‘policewomen could now go home to their washtubs’. The Metropolitan Police set up its own women’s division and accused the WPS of masquerading as Metropolitan Policewomen. Allen was even arrested in 1921 for wearing a Metropolitan Police uniform before it was decided that her activities, which included producing dossiers on left-wing activists, were harmless and she should be allowed to continue wearing it.
In 1922 she moved to Cologne in Germany to train police women. By 1926 she must have returned because she organised women to help break the General Strike by keeping road and transport services running.
After learning to fly she began to attend conferences all over the world advising on the training of police women. She travelled to Egypt in 1936 on holiday (wearing her uniform), but was received as if sent by the police authorities in Britain. Wherever she went, she was welcomed as the leading British policewoman, making contact with police chiefs and political leaders all over Europe. The police and the establishment were increasingly embarrassed and suspicious of her activities. Her fascist leanings and high profile activities invited further Home Office surveillance.
In 1934 Mary met Hitler and discussed women police with him. She soon became a fervent admirer and Nazi sympathiser and took to wearing jack-boots. She also became an active supporter of General Franco and his nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. After joining the British Union of Fascists, she wrote numerous articles for its newspapers and openly declared herself to be a fascist. Her extreme right wing views made her unpopular with many members of the Women’s Auxiliary Service and she was forced to leave the police service as World War II approached.
Sadly, from this time on she was intensively investigated but ultimately regarded as a harmless crank and of no further concern. She died in a nursing home in Croydon at the age of 86, attended by her sister, Christine.
Like her lover Margaret she was also awarded an OBE for her services during the Great War.
Historical Consultant David Rowland
Metropolitan Police History