#HeForShe – Women in Policing in the 1920s

by Ben Hodges

I am very grateful for this opportunity to write for Herstory Club as part of their #HeForShe initiative.

The First World War was a watershed for women. Opportunities previously off limits to them, suddenly became available in the name of the ‘war effort.’ One area in particular benefitted from female recruitment, namely intelligence and security. Across the Admiralty, War Office and the intelligence agencies, women took on roles that would have been unheard of in pre-war, Edwardian Britain. On the home front women became police officers, with the first female police officer, Edith Smith, pounding the beat in Lincolnshire in 1915 and by 1919, the largest police force in the country, London’s Metropolitan Police Force, had appointed its first women’s section. In the world of military intelligence, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps had become involved in intelligence gathering missions. So-called ‘Hush WAACs’ conducted code-breaking operations in France, years before the more well-known Bletchley Park efforts of the Second World War.

WAACs with their tinned rations in German steel helmets at Etaples, 26 April 1918. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205244563

The 1920s were an interesting time for women. Women were starting to enjoy suffrage and the world was adjusting to life after the First World War. Industrial and political unrest spread throughout Europe and new enemies emerged. It was the jazz age and there was a sense of excitement and new beginning following the years of war. Despite this, the various women’s military services were disbanded in the immediate aftermath, with only the WAAC soldiering on (pun intended) until 1922.

Thinking about those women involved in intelligence and security at the time, I would like to draw on my experience of working in the world of policing and focus on the pioneering women of the Metropolitan Police Service.

In 2019 the Metropolitan Police Service celebrated 100 years of women in policing. However, it was not until the 1920s that the women’s section, as it was known, established itself as a permanent element, and this was not without a fight. At first it appeared that it would be another victim of large scale public expenditure cuts, the now infamous ‘Geddes Axe.’ However, the efforts of our first woman prevented this.

Sofia Stanley  

Born in Italy, to Scottish parents, in 1873, Sofia was comfortably middle to upper class. Her father was a mechanical and civil engineer. By the outbreak of the First World War she was heavily involved in the national Union of Women Workers and through this, the Women’s Police Service, which at the time, was an entirely voluntary service. The work of the Women’s Police Service was recognised by Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Edward Henry. This in turn led to the establishment of the Metropolitan Women Police Patrols in February 1917. Sofia was placed in charge of these patrols and by 1922 the Metropolitan Women Police Patrols numbered 112. 

Mrs Sofia Stanley, Superior of Special Women Police Patrols. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205351276

Sofia used her connections and lobbied the first women MP, Nancy Astor, to prevent the cuts. Astor and Stanley worked together to convince the Home Secretary, Edward Shortt, to maintain a cadre of women officers. Despite her success in securing this and her place in history as the first Commander of the Womens Patrols, she was dismissed following a complaint by one of her colleagues regarding her conduct towards the Home Secretary and she was dismissed.

Alice Bertha Clayden    

Following the upheaval of budget cuts and the Stanley/Astor/Shortt affair, the women’s section of the Metropolitan Police found itself in 1922, just 22 members strong. It was to this that Bertha, as she was known, found herself appointed. Born in 1871, she was in charge of the women’s section until 1930 and oversaw a number of firsts. She also came from a distinguished policing family, with her three brothers serving in the Metropolitan Police.

Inspector Alice B Clayden, London
©Metropolitan Police Authority/Mary Evans

She was the first woman to be warranted as an Inspector (and later Sub-Inspector). She also oversaw a major development for women in policing. In 1923 women were finally given legal powers of arrest! The number of officers had also increased to 50.

In 1924 the Home Secretary wrote to the various police authorities suggesting that consideration should be given to employing women police sections across all forces “to deal with cases involving women and children.” This is a role that women in the police would take on for many many years to come and struggle to shake off well into the 1980s and beyond. 

The early work of Stanley and Clayden did much to establish women as a permanent fixture in the Metropolitan Police. Nowadays all roles in the police are open equally to men and women. There are currently around 8000 women officers in the Metropolitan Police Service and Dame Cressida Dick QPM, as Commissioner, is perhaps the biggest sign of its equality. The fight for women to be seen as equals in policing goes far beyond the scope of this blog, so I will leave you with this statement from Sir Nevil Macready, Metropolitan Police Commissioner 1918-1920, regarding then recruitment and selection of the ideal woman police officer,

“eliminate any women of extreme views – the vinegary spinster or blighted middle-aged fanatic – and to get broad-minded, kindly, sensible women who would bring to bear common sense in their dealings with their sisters who had taken a wrong turning, more often from a desire to lighten a dull existence than from inherent vice.”

Recommended Reading:

Lock, J., The British Policewoman (London, Robert Hale, 2014). 

Jackson, L., Women Police: Gender, Welfare and Surveillance in the Twentieth Century (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2006).

Mason, G., The Official History of the Metropolitan Police (London, Carlton, 2004).

About the Author:

Ben Hodges is a former Metropolitan Police Officer and a part-time PhD student at the University of Northampton. His thesis looks at the British Army’s intelligence function during the interwar period. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter using the link below!

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