Who were the first female detectives in Britain?

Who were the first female detectives in Britain?


Lilian Wyles 1885 - 1975

In The Suffragette’s Daughter, Iris Woodmore is a young journalist who turns sleuth. The novel is set in 1920, and there were no female detectives in the British police force at this time.

Until World War One, women had only been employed by the police in the capacity of matrons. Often, matrons were the wives or relatives of police officers, and their role was to guard women and children.

During the First World War, a voluntary force known as the Women's Police Volunteers, later the Women's Police Service, was established. These volunteer constables and officers wore uniforms and patrolled the streets of cities and towns across the UK with particular interest in women and children involved in crime.

In August 1915, Edith Smith became the first woman in Britain to be appointed a police officer with full powers of arrest. Her duties were to deal with cases where women were involved. She was posted to Grantham in the spring of 1915 to try and tackle the problem of prostitution outside a nearby army base.

In 1919, the Metropolitan Police began to employ women, still in the fairly basic role of foot patrols and tending to female and child suspects. At this time, the only women detectives were self-employed investigators – and there were few of these.

One famous female detective was Maud West, who ran her own business in the 1920s. Maud is often cited as the first British woman detective and was well known for going undercover.

Maud Westjpeg

Maud West 1880 - 1964

It seems Maud mostly dealt with adultery cases, but there were also rumours of her spying on suffragettes in London. She sounds like a fascinating character, and I’ve ordered a copy of The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective: Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime by Susannah Stapleton to find out more about her.

In the police force, Lilian Wyles was recognised as the first female detective in the Metropolitan Police Service. She started her police career in February 1919 as one of three sergeants in the Metropolitan Women Police Patrols covering Central London and the East End, but at that time did not have the power of arrest.

Thanks in most part to Lilian, patrol women within the Metropolitan Police were finally given the power of arrest in 1923. Lilian was promoted to chief inspector in 1932.

She retired in 1949 and wrote her memoirs, A Woman at Scotland Yard: Reflections on the Struggles and Achievements of Thirty Years in the Metropolitan Police. Her headstone, funded by the Metropolitan Women Police Association, bears the inscription ‘We stand upon the shoulders of such pioneers’.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that female police officers gained equal status to men and fulfilled the same role and duties. Before this, police forces segregated male and female officers, giving them different ranks, responsibilities and sometimes separate facilities.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 and Sex Discrimination Act 1975 changed this, and segregation was gradually phased out with the Metropolitan Police integrating female officers in 1973.

From their initial recruitment in 1919, female police officers were differentiated from male officers by the prefix 'woman' before their rank, being known as a WPC or WDC. This practise carried on over the decades until it was officially discontinued in 1999.

Despite these pioneering police women, the next generation still had to fight for equality. 

The Suffragette's Daughter introduces a new sleuth for a new era.

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