The start of the First World War would bring about change for women in the United Kingdom as they began to enter occupations previously reserved for men, doing their bit for King and country but it is important to remember that women in paid employment weren’t a new phenomenon, in 1914 women made up a substantial portion of the industrial workforce (mainly in textile manufacture) and when the need for shells increased in 1915 women were brought into the munitions factories in large numbers, something that would occur again during the Second World War, and by the end of the First World War almost a million women were employed in relation to munitions.
Work in the munitions factories wasn’t the only work available to women during the war, around 4000 women took on a policing function as part of voluntary patrols which aimed to ensure orderly behaviour at a variety of public places including parks and railway stations. In 1915 Edith Smith became the first Policewoman in Britain to hold a warrant card, she had the same powers as her male counterparts, she was answerable to the Chief Constable and employed as a member of the local police force. This is her story.
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Trigger warning for suicide in this post
Edith was born on November 21st, 1876 in Oxton, Birkenhead, one of James, a seedman and his wife Harriet’s six children. In 1897 Edith married a stationer and tobacconist, William Smith and together the couple had four children, three daughters- Frances, Victoine and Annee and a son, James. For a time Edith worked as a sub-postmistress and her husband ran a stationary and tobacconist shop on the Post Office’s premises but Edith’s life changed in 1907 when William died aged 42, leaving her to care for their four children alone aged 31. 1911 census information shows that four years later she had moved to London to train as a midwife, her daughters were enrolled in various schools and her son was at an orphanage near Blackburn.
Following her training, Edith took up a post as a matron at a nursing home before she joined the Women Police Volunteers (WPV). The WPV was founded in 1914 by Nina Boyle and Margaret Dorner Dawson and staffed by volunteers. The organisation’s founders were heavily involved with the Women’s Suffrage movement and were outraged with both the legal and penal culture and brutality against women, in which the police played a part. Suffragette, like the WPV founders were calling for female police so that female victims of crime might receive fair and sensitive treatment in both courts and police stations.
WPV recruits were given basic training in drill, first-aid and self defence before they began patrolling the streets where they gave help and advice to women and children, especially amongst the French and Belgian refugees that were flooding into the capital. Many of these women faced a tough choice between prostitution and starvation when they arrived in Britain and the WPV military style uniform was used to give the impression that the volunteers were an official organisation, distinguishing them from the smartly dressed women who were known to offer the refugees food and lodgings which invariably ended up being within brothels.
Edith stayed in the WPV until December 17th, 1915 when she became the first woman to be sworn in as a police constable, with official powers of arrest in Grantham, Lancashire. Her duties were to deal with cases where women were involved and she was involved with trying to reduce the number of prostitutes in Grantham who had been attracted to the town by the number of servicemen stationed in the town’s two army camps.
In 1916 PC Edith Smith cautioned 100 girls in larceny cases (the theft of personal property) as well as 16 women and 15 girls that were found to be drunk. She was involved in the prosecution of 10 prostitutes and the cautioning of 50 more. When she wrote about her time in Grantham she said-
‘The appointment has made such a vast difference- the prostitutes have found that it does not pay and the frivolous girls have bowed down’
As both a widow and a former midwife, Edith would also approach couples laying on the grass in public parks to point out the dangers of their situation, appealing to the men to protect the girls addressing them with ‘motherly frankness’. The reason that she did this was owing to the concerns over Venereal disease at the time as well as the stigma that was attached to pregnancy outside of marriage which left single mothers in a vulnerable position. Edith also worked with hostel workers and health visitors to enable better support for these women. However, some of Edith’s actions were controversial, such as the reports that she provide information for ‘husbands placing their wives under observation during their absence’ essentially she was acting as an official spy for servicemen worried about their wives fidelity and it was actions such as this which caused many Suffragettes to end their support of the female police.
For her job in the police force, Edith was paid 28 shillings (£1.40) a week and in April 1917 this was raised to £2 10 shillings (£2.50) a week, more than the oldest male PC in the force. The reasoning behind her pay lay with her qualifications as a nurse and the fact that her ‘duties were most onerous’. While she was being paid more than some of her male counterparts her appointment was controversial. The Home Office advised that women couldn’t be sworn in because they didn’t count as ‘proper persons’ in the eyes of the law and Sir Edward Henry, Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police (1903-1918) said that he didn’t believe in the idea of female police officers ‘especially in view of the strained relationship between the sexes… in connection with the agitation over the suffrage question.’ Regardless, in Grantham, the Chief Constable and Watch Committee continued to give Edith their full support as they believed her work was vital given the problems their town was facing as a result of war conditions.
Edith also travelled around Britain giving talks about women’s policing as well as writing pamphlets on the subject. The legitimacy of policewomen was often questioned largely due to their limited powers and their role being left in their hands of individual Chief Constables, this led to some areas being conservative in their views of the female police while others were daringly innovative.
Edith left her role with the police in 1918 due to “chest trouble which becomes worse in the winter owing to late hours in the fog and the damp.” After working seven days a week for a period of two years, she handed in her resignation on January 4th 1918.
Following her work with the police, Edith became a matron at Lindis Nursing Home in Grantham until 1919 when she moved to Runcorn in Cheshire to work for a Nursing Association. Her obituary stated that-
“On coming to the district to work for the Halton and District Nursing Association, she found that the funds were in very low water and immediately set about to improve the position. She gave several interesting lectures, organised whist drives and even formed and conducted shorthand classes – all to aid the funds of the Association. She entered enthusiastically and efficiently into the nursing side of the work.”
But there was concern in the Association, as the County Superintendent said that they “did not complain about the nurse’s work, but about her methods.” and convened a meeting to which she was not invited and they decided that they could only resolve their issues by asking Edith for her resignation. It is believed that Edith was so distressed by this course of events that she felt compelled to take her own life.
Just five years after leaving the police force Edith died on June 26th, 1923. The coroner returned a verdict that she took her own life while temporarily insane as she took an overdose of morphine. While the coroner’s verdict might sound harsh at the time it served as a form of legal “kindness” which ensured inheritance and reduced the stigma that came with suicide enabling Christian burial rites to be performed.
In the days before her suicide Edith was reported to have appeared to be in good spirits. Her postman reported at the inquest that he was delivering, on the day of her death, a dress to be worn at the carnival the next day. She had planned a holiday in France with a friend. And it was further revealed that Edith had already given in her notice, to expire on January 6, as she was going to be married on that date. At the time of her death she was living in Halton Almshouses. It is not known whether this was because she had little money to support herself or perhaps that she wished to be closer to her “patients”.
Edith’s suicide note which was presented at the Inquest following her death and it said:
“I give my midwifery bag to the Halton District Nursing Association as a memorial to the nurse who lived and died for her patients. I have no sense of having wronged anyone. God is more merciful than man. He won’t misjudge me nor condemn me unproved. I love my patients and it has cut deep that they have so cruelly mistreated me. I have never harmed them, my whole thought was to save their pain and suffering. Goodbye. God bless you for all you have done for me. I shall lie waiting on the other side and will work out our way together through Purgatory to the feet of Jesus Christ, Our Saviour.”
Unfortunately for Edith’s family, a second tragedy came just 10 days after Edith’s funeral when Edith`s granddaughter Marjorie Weekes died in Runcorn`s Cottage Hospital aged 2 years. Marjorie was subsequently buried in Edith`s grave in Halton Cemetery on the 9th July 1923.
Edith’s life has been commemorated in Grantham, in 2014, a blue plaque was unveiled on the walls of the original police cells between The Guildhall and Grantham Museum to the “Pioneer Policewoman” in the road that has been named “Edith Smith Way”. Deputy Chief Constable Heather Roach, of Lincolnshire Police, said:
‘She spent time getting to know the people in her area and thoroughly understood the concept of ‘neighbourhood policing’.
Her grave at Halton Cemetery went unmarked until 2018 when two policewomen launched a fundraising campaign to buy a headstone. In the same year, a blue plaque was revealed by Edith’s granddaughter Margaret Smith at 18 Palm Hill, Oxton, where she had lived. On 8 March 2019 another blue plaque was erected on St Mary’s Church Hall, Halton village, Runcorn, on the site of the old almshouses where Edith had been living at the time of her death.
Following the conclusion of the First World War in 1918, women gained the parliamentary vote for the first time if they were over 30 and householders or the wives of householders. The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act stated that a person could not be ‘disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function’ and the Baird Committee of 1920, looked at employment of women on police duties, agreeing that there was no longer a legal justification for excluding women, but it also stated that the duties performed by women should be restricted to those involving females and child victims or complainants and that it was up to local police authorities to decide whether women were needed in their area. By 1920 only three policewomen remained and the Chief Constable stated that in his opinion ‘they are considerably below the value of policemen’. Two of the policewomen resigned. The remaining member continued until March 1921, when she too resigned. Even in the 1940s numbers of women police officers were insignificant, one female officer in a force of over two hundred in 1943 and six in a force of over three hundred in 1947. This approach to female officers continued to structure and shape the role of female police officers until the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts of the 1970s when women were finally able to police on the same terms as men. In 1995, women were present in all ranks of the police service when Pauline Clare QPM became Britain’s first female Chief Constable at Lancashire Constabulary, and twelve years later Greater Manchester Police appointed its first female Assistant Chief Constable, Justine Curran, in 2007.