Who were the first female detectives in Britain?
In the Iris Woodmore Mysteries, Iris is a young journalist who turns sleuth. The novels are set in the 1920s, and there were no female detectives in the British police service at this time. But all that was about to change.
Prior to the First World War, women had only been employed by the police in the role of matrons. Often, matrons were the wives or relatives of police officers, and their job 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 a 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 to tackle the problem of prostitution outside a nearby army base.
In 1919, the Metropolitan Police began to employ women, still in the basic role of foot patrols and tending to female and child suspects. At this time, the only female detectives were self-employed investigators – and there were few of these.
One famous female detective was Maud West, who ran her own agency in the 1920s. Maud is often cited as the first British female detective and was well known for adopting disguises and going undercover.
Maud West 1880 - 1964
It seems Maud dealt mainly with adultery cases, but there were also rumours of her spying on suffragettes in London. Maud is an intriguing character with a colourful history. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective: Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime by Susannah Stapleton is a fascinating read.
In the police service, 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’.
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 and were known as a WPC or WDC. This practise carried on for decades until it was officially discontinued in 1999.
A female police officer, WPC Helen Jones, appears in The Body at Carnival Bridge, the third book in the Iris Woodmore Mysteries series. WPC Jones works for the Metropolitan Police and is stationed in Deptford. Unlike her male colleagues, she doesn't have the power of arrest and is given menial tasks by her senior officers. However, she does have the support of Mrs Sybil Siddons, MP, the third woman to take a seat in the House of Commons.
The novel is set in 1922, and the Home Secretary at that time took the view that WPCs were only employed for welfare work and not proper police work. He wanted them removed from the police service. In the early 1920s, it appeared that many of the gains made towards equality during the First World War were in danger of being lost - and this is a theme that recurs throughout the Iris Woodmore Mysteries.
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