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. 

Police women

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 court.WPC

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 locations. 

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.

A self defence class in Tadworth

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.

WPC Hetty Denny poses during a newspaper photoshoot to advertise her role

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 Special Constables.

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.