Until 1914 the British Police Force was entirely the prerogative of men, but following the outbreak of WW1, the Great War, the Women Police Service (WPS) was established. It was founded by Nina Boyle from the Women’s Freedom League, and musician and philanthropist Margaret Damer Dawson. By 1915 trained Women Police constables and officers were in uniform on the streets of many towns and cities across the UK. All volunteers, they took a special interest in laws affecting women and children, patrolling outside munitions factories, railway stations and places such as YMCA buildings.

As the Daily Mirror stated in an article on October 14 1916 praising the work of the WPS “The policewomen are not out to march people to the police station, but to prevent them going there”. The Chief Commissioner of Police disliked the WPS recruits, and refused to make them a permanent part of the police force, despite their experience. So, after the war the WPS continued as a voluntary service, becoming the Women’s Auxiliary Service in 1920.

In April 1916 the Bucks Standing Joint Committee (SJC), the county authority responsible for the police service, considered a resolution organised by the WPS and the Criminal Law Amendment Committee, the national authority, ‘urging the inclusion of properly qualified women in the police force with official recognition and status, and that suitable provision should be made for the necessary training’. This was ‘ordered to lie on the table’, the chairman pointing that they had no means of providing for their proper training!

And lie on the table it did for many years. A token gesture was made however, by Bucks Police giving their ‘unofficial blessing’ to a Mrs Wright to help the Constabulary and appointing her to the rank of Sergeant. No records have been found to indicate how this arrangement worked out!

Local women who served elsewhere in the WPS

This reluctance by the police authorities in Bucks to encourage women to join the force undoubtedly led many young local women to seek opportunities elsewhere in the country. Further encouragement for women to join the WPS was provided when in August 1916 the Police, Factories, etc (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1916 brought the WPS members’ pay into line with that of policemen.

Furthermore, it was at this time too that the Ministry of Munitions asked the Prime Minister (Lloyd George) to provide women police to supervise the workers in the munitions factories. These had been constructed to supply the Allies with the huge explosive shells needed on the European front line, and women were hired to fill the large brass shells with high explosive chemicals. The factories had grown to huge proportions and some housed as many as 12,000 female workers. Women were needed to police these workers, their duties were described by Nina Boyd thus ’The work undertaken by the WPS in the munitions factories was extremely exacting and dangerous: their duties included patrolling the factories, canteens and nearby towns; general policing and petty crime; searching women for smuggled items such as cigarettes and hairpins, which were strictly forbidden in the vicinity of high explosives.’ The workers were searched when they arrived at work, and again as they left. Searching of women could only be done by the WPS.

Here are two examples of two local women who are known to have been stationed at munitions’ factories when they were in the WPS, both of whose service included time at the somewhat notorious H M Factory at Gretna. In WW1 this was the greatest munitions factory in the world in WW1, where the ‘devil’s porridge’ (cordite, the explosive material) was mixed. There were 30,000 workers, 12,000 of them were women.

Katherine Mary Tearle served in the WPS, from 1916 until it was disbanded after the Great War ended. The precise details of her service are sketchy but are known to include National Filling Factory, No14 in Hereford, where she was a Constable, and she then moved to H M Factory, Gretna, where she won her stripes as a Sergeant. On November 7, 1916 she found cordite on a munitions worker. The case went to court, this being reported in the local press: ‘‘Ellen Routledge, a munitions worker at Mossband, was found guilty of stealing a stick of cordite worth one shilling on 7th November 1916. The cordite was found tucked into the top of her stocking by Police Sergeant Catherine Mary Tearle. The judge said, “It is undesirable that an article made by a secret process should be taken from the compound, as it might easily get into the hands of the enemy.” She was fined £1 and ordered to pay costs.’ Katherine ended her career in the WPS at the Walsall Borough Police.

Katherine was born in Bisham in 1885, her family moving across the River Thames a few years later to live in Marlow. Her father was in the British Army, probably explaining why Katherine took so well to life as policewoman. After completing her education she was employed as a ‘teachers assistant’ in a local school. After the WPS disbanded she returned to Marlow and married Charles Randall later in 1919. Charles & Katherine then lived at Hyde Farm, Bisham.

Alice May Pepper joined the WPS, probably in 1917, and after training was posted to Gretna, where she was billeted in Barracks 2. When the WPS was disbanded Alice joined the Metropolitan Police on November 8, 1919 as a member of the Women’s Patrol. She left the force on October 8, 1922.

Alice was born in 1896, her family living at Northern Woods, Flackwell Heath. After attending the local school, at the time of the 1911 census she was employed as a domestic servant. After leaving the Met Police she married Sidney Samuel Slatcher, the couple moving to live in Downham, near Bromley in Kent.

Her brother Archie Thomas Pepper was killed in action on April 19, 1917, when serving with 1/8 Hampshire Regiment in Palestine. He was buried in Gaza War Cemetery. His death may have been one reason why Alice decided to join the WPS and aid the war effort by serving at Gretna.

Women police in Bucks

In the 1920s the volunteer Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS) was established in many towns in Bucks, but particularly in the north of the county. For example, in 1930 an Inspector Abbott of the WAS gave a talk to Buckingham Women’s Institute, and a second one in April 1933, about ‘the excellent work the women had done, and were still doing, causing the members to feel how very necessary Women Police were’. In that same year the County Police Force did again make a small concession, and a Miss Broome, a Probation Officer, was allowed to assist police in cases of indecency.

The national census taken in September 1939 allows us to identify one or two local women who had served, or were serving, in the WAS at that time. Gwendolyne Bush, the 49 year old wife of a solicitor living at The Chestnuts in Gold Hill, Chalfont St Peter, and her eldest daughter Naida aged 25, both gave their occupation as ‘police car drivers’. Alice L L Owencroft was a 57 years old disabled retired police woman living at Saint Bernards, Cryers Hill, off Hughenden Valley. In 1921 she had stated her occupation as ‘woman patrol at New Scotland Yard’.

However it was to take another war, WW2, before the value of women police was fully appreciated by the police service in Bucks. A circular from the Home Office in London to all Police authorities in the country in early 1940 finally persuaded the Bucks JSC to formally establish a Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps (WAPC). This was to be a ‘temporary wartime measure’. The authorised headcount was to be 36, 10% of the strength of the male force, and the women were to be paid a wage, but the whole cost was to be borne by the Government! Miss Joan Edwards was appointed as the first officer in the WAPC at the rank of Inspector.

It appears that recruitment of women constables did not commence until January 1941, the Chief Constable having been ‘anxious for the cooperation of some of the leading ladies of the county in arranging the appointment of the most suitable type of woman for the job’.

The value of women in the police service must have quickly been appreciated by all members of the JSC. In October 1942 it was announced that an establishment of one woman Inspector and five women constables in the Bucks County Police Force had been approved by the Secretary of State. But the appointment of the Inspector was on the condition that the post would not be filled whilst the Inspector in the WAPC continued to serve!

In March 1943 the Chief Constable ‘reported that three regular women police and 35 members of the WAPC (33 full-time, 2 part-time) had been recruited. He was authorised to spend £475.19s.9d on uniforms and other clothing for the new recruits.

This somewhat confused position in the police service was only resolved after the war ended The first regular woman police constable joined the Bucks Constabulary on September 10, 1945. She was 22 years old WPC 1 Olive Kemp, her pay being 79/- per week (just under £4). Olive received a number of commendations during her career when she retired after 31 years service on September 10, 1976.

For further information about the full history of Bucks Women Police see Mick Shaw’s website of the Milton Keynes Heritage Association www.mkheritage.org.uk/bch/docs/mick.

For HM Factory, Gretna, see the website of the Devil’s Porridge Museum www.devilsporridge.org.uk