The idea of women police began during the Edwardian era. Social surveys carried out at that time had shown vast numbers of people living in poverty. It was believed that this showed the development of social problem groups, such as the poor and the “criminal classes”. It was feared that this also showed deterioration in the quality of the British race. The solution, it was believed, could be found in the more moral behaviour of women who could be used as guardians of the race and prevent this decline.
At the outbreak of the First World War, it was noticed that the excitement shown by young girls and women towards soldiers in uniform produced what became known as “Khaki fever”. Though this died out very quickly as the reality of war hit home, concerns about the safety of young women lasted throughout the war.
This concern gave campaigners for women’s rights the opportunity to push for the adoption of women police. Two groups of women were formed during this period; the “Women Police Service (WPS)” and the “National Union of Women Workers (NUWW). Both groups of women patrolled parks and public spaces, policing the behaviour of working-class women, separating courting couples, and moving on “dangerous” women. The WPS modelled themselves on male police officers regarding duty, punctuality, and ethical behaviour. Their patrols were also issued with uniforms.
Bexhill’s Women Police
According to a report in the “Bexhill Observer”, published on 4th August 1917, earlier in April of that year money from private sources had been used to employ two women police officers, an Inspector Cooke and a Sergeant Braddon, to carry out patrols around Bexhill’s streets.
These patrols had proved so successful that on 12th May 1917 the Chief Constable of Sussex, working with, and on behalf of, the Borough of Bexhill, applied to the East Sussex County Council for permission to employ these two women as official police officers in Bexhill on a month’s trial. The borough had agreed and arranged their pay of £2 per week. It was further requested that, should their services prove successful, the women would be kept on at the expense of the County, but the application for this was turned down.
Though the County Council had turned down the application, it was felt locally that because of the shortage of male police officers, and the perception by the general public of worsening social problems, the patrols were kept going, once again from private money.
Just a few months later however, on 4th August, the Bexhill Chronicle reported on a meeting held on July 31st between the East Sussex County Council and the Bexhill Town Council. At that meeting a resolution, passed by the Town Council was read out and it said, “In view of the experience gained by the Council and the town regarding the Women Police Patrol, which has been maintained for some weeks by private effort, the Council propose representing to the police authority for the county the urgent necessity of this form of police work being maintained. The Council are satisfied that under present conditions women police are able to perform most important duties and wish very strongly to urge that it is in the best interests of the community that two women police should be added to the police force of the Borough.”
The Committee resolved that the services of the two women who had been working in Bexhill as an unofficial patrol since last April should be continued at a salary of £2 per week each, for such time as troops were stationed in the Borough. The resolution was passed and Bexhill got its Women Police Officers.
However, It seems that the finances for the patrols were proving difficult for the Council as on 30th March 1918, the Bexhill Chronicle reported the following:-
“Appeals for support in the employment of women police at Bexhill, through the interdenominational Social Service movement, were made on Sunday in St Peter’s and St Barnabas.”
The importance of the Women Police patrols in the town is obvious from a letter signed by eight members of, “A large Committee, representative of the religious life of the town” as they termed themselves, and published in the Bexhill Chronicle on 30th March 1918 – it said:-
“Sir – It is strongly felt by all who care for the real well being of our community, that special efforts are needed of a preventive character to check the evil of impurity which is rife in abnormal times such as the present. Temptation to wrong-doing is prevalent, and many sad and distressing cases of moral lapse on the part of very young girls and others have recently come within our knowledge. We desire, as far as in us lies, to save such from further shame, and protect others who are exposed to the subtle and powerful temptations.
A large Committee, representative of the religious life of the town, has earnestly considered the measures which the situation demands. As a first step, it was unanimously felt that the system of women police should at once be re-introduced. Two of these have already been appointed whose work will be especially concerned with young women and girls. This cannot be done without considerable financial help, but we feel confident that such help will be forthcoming, perhaps to an extent enabling us to engage additional women police.
Sadly by 1918 the employment of women police was still being considered by some as an “experiment”. This is shown in the Bexhill Observer on 20th April 1918, from where the following extract is taken – from the column headed “Town Talk”;
“Like many new experiments which are being tried in these days of new and exceptional difficulties and dangers, the system of women police is only in the experimental stage, and while it is zealously claimed by its friends, it has a good deal of prejudice to overcome. Having been thrown over by the County police authorities, women patrols have been re-introduced in Bexhill by the Social Service Committee, whose laudable motives at least will not be questioned.”
“Without knowledge of the methods which are being employed, it would be rash to express an opinion on the merits of the scheme. Obviously, it is a work demanding discretion of no ordinary kind, and without the sympathetic co-operation of the authorities, it is difficult to see that much can be accomplished. In contrast to the attitude of the County Standing Joint Committee, the Chief Constable of Brighton is favourably impressed by the usefulness of women police, and confesses that the only doubt in his mind is not as to the question of the employment of police women, but how many should be employed.”
On Thursday 20th June 1918 at a meeting in St. Barnabas Vestry, it was shown that the financial support for the women police was quite healthy and the future looked good. Inspector Cooke gave a brief account of their work in the town, and stated that in almost every case they had come across they had been successful. She concluded by saying that there were now about 1,200 Women Police across the country.