A little known heritage museum for the Metropolitan Police has had a revamp of its display to highlight 100 years of women in London’s police force.
The Heritage Centre opened in 2009, and honestly, it’s been so quiet since then that I thought it had closed, but it’s still open, and still interesting.
The new display focuses on the centenary of women police.
The arrival of women in the police force started as with so many other changes at the time, thanks to the men folk being off fighting WW1. A lack of men shrank the police force, and there was moral panic about women behaving badly thanks to earning a wage in munitions factories.
A voluntary women police group was set up, mainly middle-class ladies to help out a bit during the war effort.
“Is there any possibility of women being employed as police constables?” a Daily Express reporter asked a Scotland Yard official in January 1916. The reply: “No, not even if the war lasts 50 years”.
As it happened, the official was wrong, and Scotland Yard eventually decided it simply had to employ women in the police force, but only as an experiment.
They were however invited to Harrods for their uniforms — as apparently, the prices charged were “good value for money”, which is probably the first and last time anyone has said that about the stuff Harrods sell.
Wearing their Harrods supplied uniforms, the first Metropolitan Police Women’s Patrols started 100 years ago, on 17th February 1919, but they lacked the power to arrest people — being expected to deal with children and drunken soldiers.
Women in the police force slowly took off – it was four years before they could arrest anyone, and some of the social codes of the time can shock our modern eyes.
A rather sober document in one case reminds us of how attitudes have changed, as it’s a guide to rape law for female police officers – and starts with a note that rape is only illegal when perpetrated by a man against a woman not his wife.
Once the marriage vows were signed, a woman lost the right to refuse sex.
Until 1931 WPC’s were required to resign if they married, although, as in so many other areas of women’s rights, the practical requirements of war stopped that and married women were allowed to serve during WW2.
For a while after that, application forms asked what their husband’s job was.
There’s a section about how the Met Police hired a famous fashion designer to revamp their disliked and military style uniforms, thinking a fashion designer would appeal to younger female recruits.
Indeed, the sight of ladies in uniforms sometimes caused male hearts to flutter a bit.
Slowly the oddity of women in the police force faded, although it was only in 1993 that Women Police Constables became simply Police Constables. The presumption that women needed their own category was finally abolished.
A hundred years on, and the Met Police gained its first Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service.
The exhibition is a collection of archive documents and newspaper clippings, and some uniforms from the time. It’s a fairly small exhibition, but if you take the time to read everything, then it’s actually quite informative.
The Heritage Centre is in in Empress Approach, just down the road from West Brompton station and is open until Friday, 26 July, weekdays 09:30hrs -13:00hrs and 14:00hrs – 16:00hrs. Entry is free.