Guardians of Morals: Women in the Police

Women police at Euston Station-

Title: Women police at Euston Station-
Description: @IWM (Q 31088) by-nc

Two separate (and to some extent rival) organisations of women police were established during World War I, in response to the social and moral challenges thrown up by the war.  In 1914, the suffragette Miss Margaret Damer Dawson and the journalist Nina Boyle established the Women Police Volunteers, later the Women Police Service (and later still the Women’s Auxiliary Service), which operated from headquarters in Eccleston Square, London, and received some support from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Edward Henry.  Henry’s successor, Sir Nevil Macready was less enthusiastic but gave his support to the women police patrols which had been set up by the National Union of Women Workers, with the encouragement of Scotland Yard, with a brief to work among the women and girls who were coming to London in increasing numbers and congregating around the army camps, parks, recruiting stations and railway terminals; later in the war the patrols operated within the munitions factories, concerned to guard the moral welfare of young, single women, away from home and family and with money in their pockets.  The first fully recognised Women Police were recruited after the war from the patrols, headed by Sophia Stanley, rather than the WPS.

Both organisations soon spread beyond the Metropolitan Police area to other parts of the country, including Surrey (part of which lay within the Metropolitan Police’s jurisdiction in any case).

In Reigate and Redhill women patrols were operative early in 1915.  An article in the Surrey Mirror of 23 March 1915 defended their work, denying that they were a police force or were intended to stop soldiers meeting women.  The patrols, who wore striped armlets and carried a card signed by the Head Constable and with a number registered at Scotland Yard, did not seek to ‘rescue the fallen, but to prevent the ignorant from falling’, accomplished by patrolling the areas where girls were ‘loitering about the places where soldiers are to be met’.  Their work was overseen by a committee, the secretary of which was Jessie Heesom of Welton House, Redhill.

Miss Rhoda Brodie, leader of the Croydon Women Patrols (from Croydon in the Great War)

In Croydon voluntary women patrols were also started in 1915 by the National Union of Women Workers.  A specially organised committee of ladies supervised the work of the patrols in Croydon, which were led by Miss Rhoda Brodie.  The patrols were aimed at ‘raising the tone of the behaviour of young people in the streets and open spaces’ and apparently ‘the preventive welfare work of the women patrols carried out tactfully and by trained women did much to achieve this object’.  Around 40 women participated who patrolled in pairs for two hours during the evening.  They wore a blue coat and skirt, black hat with a NUWW badge and an armlet bearing their Metropolitan Police number, and were armed with a whistle and lantern.  They were entirely voluntary and unpaid, with the exception of those asked to work an extra hour during the period January 1917 to September 1918, who were paid at ‘the police rate’ and four women who were appointed to full time work who were paid by the Metropolitan Police and continued until the Metropolitan Women Police were formally created in early 1919.  The voluntary patrols continued in Croydon until 30 September 1919.

Similar patrols were also established in Weybridge in 1915.  As in Reigate and Redhill, they did not meet with universal approval.  A letter printed in the Surrey Herald of 18 June 1915 from ‘A Weybridge Girl’s Brother in Khaki’ believed the patrols, set up ‘for the purpose of preventing anyone in uniform from enjoying the society of girls’, constituted ‘a studied insult to both parties …. though I think it totally unnecessary to attempt to defend the good name of the Weybridge lasses, I am sure they have no superior in character or behaviour in all parts where my regiment has been quartered’.  A reply from ‘One Who Knows’ (25 June) denied that the patrols were designed to prevent the sexes from mixing and said that on the contrary a Club had been set up, which provided a safe environment for dances and socials.  Towards the end of the war, at a meeting reported in the Herald of 12 July 1918, Sir Francis Champneys praised the work of the Weybridge patrols in countering the dangers posed by ‘the flapper, the girl between 14 and 18’, which ‘at that moment was one of the greatest problems for the country’.  Champneys lamented the spread of venereal disease and advocated self control, parental discipline and knowledge of the catechism. Mrs Macfarlane, Metropolitan Organiser of Women Patrols, agreed with Sir Francis’ diagnosis of the problem and asserted that ‘It was to protect the growing girls that the movement was started. They were preventive agents, ready to help girls and warn them and to be their friends, thus preventing them from hurting themselves and others’.

In Guildford, women patrols were established in July 1916, with eight operating by December 1916.  They had been coached by Winifred  Kersey, of the London Women’s Patrol Committee, and the Surrey Advertiser of 4 December 1916 carried a justification of their presence in the town: ‘our object is entirely to befriend young girls …. What we want is to create a moral atmosphere in the streets by our silent presence’.  Each patrol wore an armlet and carried a card signed by Surrey Chief Constable Sant.  In July 1918 the Borough Council considered and rejected a suggestion of the local branch of the National Union of Women Workers that two women police officers should be appointed to the Borough’s police force ‘in view of the special and grave danger to which the young girls of the town are exposed at the present time, and as a means of securing an improvement in the conduct of members of the public, particularly in the neighbourhood of the river (Surrey Advertiser, 31 July 1918).  The Council considered that ‘it is not easy to regard women as the instruments of that force upon which the law relies in the last resort’ and argued that the volunteer women patrols, seemingly abandoned by this point, should be revived.

Women Patrol members talking to British soldiers at a railway station (copyright IWM Q108504)

The Surrey Comet of 3 March 1917 carried a report of the annual meeting of the Women’s Local Government Association for Wimbledon at which Miss Richardson Evans, secretary of the Women Police and Women Patrols Sub Committees, spoke on their work in Wimbledon.  The town had originally employed two salaried policewomen to patrol the streets, commons, pubs and cinemas, and it had been hoped that they would be given ‘official status’ by the Met, through which they would have the power of arrest.  However in October 1916, it was decided that this local experiment with a paid women police force should be discontinued, because of ‘the lack of official status and the consequent limitation of the scope of their work debarring them from undertaking some of those police duties for which women are most needed’.  In February 1916, the policewomen had suggested that they should be supported by a body of voluntary women patrols and seven patrols were set up in March, the number rising to eleven by 1917. The patrols wore armlets and worked in pairs  from 8pm to 10pm.  The report hailed the work of the patrols whose mere presence had ‘a sobering effect on noisy groups and serves as a protection to girls who are accosted in the street’.  The number of young children left outside pubs by their mothers has fallen, drunken soldiers and women had been assisted and cinemas visited, to ensure nothing untoward was happening when the lights went down.  Consideration had been given to the establishment of a club for the ‘provision of wholesome occupation and recreation’ but the idea had been rejected.

Such a club was set up in Guildford, at the suggestion of the Women’s Patrol Committee.  The Kitchener Club opened in September 1916 at Bishop’s Croft, Mount Pleasant, as a venue where soldiers could meet girl friends. Uniformed men paid 1d per visit and could bring up to two girls at 2d each; a limited number of girls were admitted as members, on the recommendation of a clergyman, headteacher or employer, for 2d a week. The club, which closed in January 1919, held reading, French and dancing classes ‘and a good moral tone was maintained throughout’.  It was estimated that 2663 soldiers used it regularly, there were 1096 girl members and many hospital patients also visited.  A similar club was set up in Godalming, again on the recommendation of the local Women’s Patrol Committee and with the enthusiastic endorsement of General R G E Leckie, the commanding officer of the Canadian soldiers in Witley Camp.  It opened in February 1917, occupying the Borough Hall on weekday evenings and the Court Room between 2.30 and 9pm at weekends (Surrey Advertiser, 22 January and 5 February 1917).  By March 1918 the Godalming Patrols had ceased to operate though the Surrey Advertiser of 6 March urged the continuing need: ‘The giddy, giggling, irresponsible flappers one sees ogling soldiers and inviting their attentions are not only a danger to themselves and the men but they are a danger to their sex generally, for they cheapen woman hood in the eyes of the men in khaki’.

An inspector and sergeant of the Women Police Service (copyright IWM Q30381)

The Surrey County Constabulary also experimented with paid women police officers, recruited from the WPS.  In December 1918, Chief Constable Sant reported that he had appointed women police ‘for the purpose of dealing with the females at the camps in the vicinity of Frimley, in consequence of the employment of a number of women at the camps’.  The Commandant of Women Police at Eccleston Square had sent four potentially suitable candidates, and two were taken on, although they had to suffer a demotion to work in Surrey, their ranks being lowered from Sub-Inspector and Sergeant to Sergeant and Constable.  Sant argued that women constables should be appointed across the county, as they would be particularly valuable in watching suicidal female prisoners and in attending female prisoners while the latter were in court and subsequently escorting them to prison.  Such work generally had to be undertaken by the wives of serving policemen, who often had to be accompanied by their husbands ‘for safety’.  However, in March 1919, the Chief Constable reported that as demobilisation of troops was proceeding, the two policewomen at Frimley were no longer required and had been laid off.  One policewoman continued to work in the Godalming Division, where she was fully occupied in attending on female prisoners; probably many were prostitutes in the vicinity of Witley Camp.  In December 1918 Sant reported that 31 women had been prosecuted under Section 40D of the Defence of the Realm Act for continuing their trade while carrying sexually transmitted diseases.  27 of the 31 had been convicted and had each received 4 months imprisonment. The Chief Constable commented ‘it is computed that these 27 women had connections with at least 10 different men a week, so that at the end of 4 months, no less than 4320 men would have been contaminated by them’.


Reports of Chief Constable to Standing Joint Committee contained in SHC ref CC98/1/5

H Keatley Moore and W C Berwick Sayers ‘Croydon and the Great War’ (1920)

W H Oakley, ‘Guildford in the Great War’ (1934)

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