Unseen: Women in Policing in Devon and Cornwall by Pam Giles

Our first blog for November is from Pam Giles, a retired police inspector turned historian, who was a recipient of a WHN grant for independent researchers.

I have been fortunate to receive a grant from The Women’s History Network to undertake a study of the civilian women who worked in the Devon and Cornwall Police.

Reading previous blogs, it is evident that finding the actual material and archive is a common problem in relation to any women’s history research in any field.  I am hoping that as I set out on my research the material that I seek is there, even though no one has viewed it before.

I am a volunteer and for the past 12 years I have been involved in the sorting and cataloguing of The Devon and Cornwall Police heritage collection, largely unseen by the public or researchers.

This collection is now under the protection of the South West Police Heritage Trust and includes objects and photographs as well as an incredible archive. It is this archive together with other historic documents that I intend to research to seek evidence of the women who were there at the beginning, pioneering women’s involvement in policing. They may have been police matrons, police wives, women police volunteers, the women’s police service,  an array of females supporting the work of the already appointed male Policemen. What did these women do? Were they completing tasks like telephone operators, drivers, cleaners, escorts? I hope to discover evidence of their employment and I hope that the reader will find the subject interesting.

My first Find.

Recently, whilst sorting a box of crime files I came across a Devon Constabulary report dated 26 April 1946 submitted by a Detective Constable which gives a sad tale of children evacuated from London to Hartland, Devon. The children were initially housed at a local farm and later joined by their mother (who is blitzed from her London Home) and she rehouses herself and the children in a rented cottage, in “appalling conditions”.

The Police’s attention is drawn to the fact that one of the young girls is pregnant, and a Detective Sgt. and Constable, accompanied by a named Police Matron, attend the girl’s residence and interview her and she is subsequently taken into care of the local authority.

Thus, buried in the archive is evidence that the Devon Constabulary not only had Matrons in 1946, but shows what sort of work they did, because there were no policewomen available in the smaller stations at the time.

Police matrons were civilians appointed to search and escort female prisoners.  We know they were employed from the 1880s in the Metropolitan force, and the 1890s in Manchester but did Devon and Cornwall have police matrons? If so when, where, what did they do? Did the employment of females in the police forces result out of necessity due to the war, refugee and domestic situation, lack of manpower, protection of women within the white slave trade? What will I discover?

Speaking to elderly retired police officers I have discovered that many wives anecdotally  were heavily involved in supporting the role of their husbands back in the 1940 and 50’s particularly in rural areas and indeed were expected to become involved.  Will I find further evidence of this and other work by women?

I look forward to updating you on my next blog.

Pam Giles is a retired Police Inspector, currently a heritage volunteer embarking on research into unseen women in Policing. She is very keen to ensure that the incredible archive of The Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Heritage Collection is made available to historians, and can be contacted at Pfgiles[at]btinternet.com

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