It’s a hundred years since the introduction of women police in Britain, and there will be a documentary about their history on BBC4 next Monday.
I wonder whether the programme will explain how very unpopular they were at first, especially with women.
An interesting essay by Clare Langley-Hawthorne fills in the history. The first female force was the brainchild of Margaret Damer Dawson, who persuaded Sir Edward Henry, Chief Commissioner of Police,that there was a need for a group of trained professional women to tackle the worrying behavior of young women in wartime Britain. She was especially concerned that British men at railway stations were attempting to recruit Belgian women as prostitutes. Another worry was the influx of young women into cities across Britain. They had freedom and money (and the chance of jobs less regulated than domestic service) therefore were seen as likely to indulge in drunkenness and promiscuity.
Dawson’s Women’s Police Volunteers (and also the patrols of the National Union of Working Women) did their best to regulate the behavior of women liberated by the War’s opportunities. The NUWW inspected cinemas, for example, where it was believed that untoward things might be happening in the darkness.
I mention this because I was struck by a passage in a novel I’m reading at the moment. It’s Old Wine and New (1932) by Warwick Deeping, and there is a scene in London on Armistice Night, 1918. There is a scene where Marwood’s wife (one of Deeping’s fleshly and sensuous, and therefore evil, women) is out carousing with an Australian.
His face smiled a cruel icy smile.
He heaved his way further, roughly, scornfully. He had a glimpse of a half-naked woman, and of other women. [….]
‘Go it girls. Leave nothing on.’
‘The totties are scragging one of the women police.’
Marwood’s wife let out a scream of laughter. Her face was exultant.
She is clearly on the side of the women (good-time girls who are sick of the policewomen’s interference?
For Deeping it is an expression of the new ugly spirit that would triumph in the post-war world. His book’s decent old-fashioned hero is deeply upset by stories like these:
When Scarsdale heard how a part of London had given thanks to God on Armistice night, he looked pained.
Was Deeping reporting an actual incident? I think he may have been.