Policewomen on the railways
We were one of the first police forces in Britain to
recruit women to our ranks. They joined in their
numbers during the First and Second World Wars.
In the late 19th century, detectives at London terminals often
took their wives on patrol with them, as a married couple wandering
around a station looked less conspicuous than two men. These women
were unpaid, and were often called to give evidence in
In the early 1900s, women had a different impact on the railways
as the suffragette movement gathered pace. Bombs were left at many
stations and others were burned down.
Women in the war
The First Great War took a huge toll on the young, male, railway
workforce. Women were recruited to fill vacant jobs; the post
office, bus companies and the railways being pioneers in the
employment of women.
Shortly after the war began, Margaret Damer Dawson, a wealthy
philanthropist, was waiting at a London station when she saw men
attempting to recruit young Belgian girls as prostitutes. In
response, she formed the Women’s Voluntary Service, a group
providing policing services in London and other
The first WPCs
The Great Eastern Railway recruited at least six women police
officers, one of them as a sergeant. Thirteen worked on London's
underground and there were also some in the Great Central Railway
Police and the North East Railway Police. Unlike the Women's
Voluntary Service, these women were employed as police officers and
were sworn in as constables. This could make them Britain’s first
officially employed policewomen.
The first four NER Policewomen were sworn in on 20th December
1917 and by August 1918 their number had increased to seventeen,
led by Sergeant M Roberts at York.
They wore ankle length skirts and tunics with collar and tie.
Each had a wide rimmed hat and a whistle and wore their duty bands
on their left wrist.
Exact numbers and duties of railway policewomen are unknown. It
is likely they provided a full range of policing services and were
thought to be particularly useful in dealing with female offenders
and victims. They could go in to ladies toilets and waiting rooms
and could obtain statements from victims in women's hospital wards
where men were not allowed.
Their powers varied. Records show the WPC on the Caledonian
Railway had no police powers, while the sergeant at London’s
Liverpool Street successfully detected female pickpockets and
policewomen on the Metropolitan Railway were tasked with preventing
soliciting at Piccadilly Circus.
Between the wars the numbers of policewomen declined although
their services were still needed in some areas; on 29 May 1924, Ada
Atherton was recruited as a 'female detective' at Waterloo station,
the first recorded woman detective. She went on to complete over 25
years of police service.
The Second World War again saw an influx of women to the
railway. Policewomen were stationed across Britain
and our force archives have details of over 100 paid Women
One woman gained publicity in tragic circumstances; on 6 January
1944 WPC Lillian Gale was run over and killed by an engine in
Plymouth GWR docks.