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Wales’s Forgotten Pioneering Women Police Officers

2015 marked the centenary of the International Association of Women Police (IAWP), a professional network who celebrated at their conference in Cardiff, Wales that year. It was also the centenary of Edith Smith being sworn in as a constable in Grantham, Lincolnshire. She was England and the United Kingdom’s first warranted woman police officer. At the conference, hosts South Wales Police identified Joan Coke of Cardiff City Police and Elsie ‘Joan’ Baldwin of Glamorgan Constabulary as Wales’ first women police officers, both appointed in 1947. In doing so, however, they overlooked WPC1 Phyllis Mary Gamble, who had joined Newport Borough Police seven years earlier in 1940 and was named in Through Seven Reigns: A History of the Newport Borough Police, by Islwyn Bale, a former police inspector.[1]

I volunteered at the IAWP Conference, and spent a day with the researchers who had prepared the histories of Elsie Baldwin and Joan Coke, but was not convinced. It took me several years of research in Newport where I live, visits to records archives, and assistance from researchers in London, Manchester and Aberdeen to prove I had been more wrong than I knew.

Women’s groups and female politicians including Nancy Astor MP and Margaret Haig, Viscountess of Rhondda played a prominent role in promoting the value of women police officers. The latter had been imprisoned in 1913 after posting an explosive package in a Post Office letterbox in Newport. In the 1920s, she and other women established branches of the national Women Citizens Association (WCA) throughout Wales. This was an umbrella organisation for women’s societies such as the non-feminist Mothers’ Union, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the working class Women’s Co-operative Guilds and the conservative, middle-class Catholic Women’s League. WCAs sought to further women’s participation in public life and advocated for the introduction of women police to better protect women and children.

The Welsh Chief Constables, however, were opposed. Cardiff City Police’s James Arthur Wilson told a Royal Commission in Wales   it was not a job for women and that the idea of female and male officers working together on a sexual case was revolting.[2] When challenged, Chief Constable Wilson said he would only employ women police if his watch committee insisted, but would do his best to stop it. Miss Munro of the Women’s Freedom League, a  at the National Council of Women’s 1927 Conference desperately asked, “Are we going to wait for all the wrong types of chief constables to die?”[3] In the event, it was not death but retirement which brought a new generation of chief constables to Newport and Cardiganshire from 1939 onwards and which finally led to the employment of women police in Wales.

Phyllis Gamble was born in Newport in 1912, about two minutes walk from the letterbox firebombed by Margaret Haig. Her parents and her two older sisters were from Leeds in Yorkshire. Phyllis attended the local Public Elementary School, and the Newport Intermediate School for Girls until 1928. She moved to London to join the Metropolitan Police Force in 1937. By December 1940 she had transferred back to her hometown as Wales’s first attested woman police officer after Newport Borough Police’s newly appointed Chief Constable responded to the town’s women’s groups. Her wartime police work included air raid duty and finding missing teenage girls who were considered to be in moral danger. In September 1942 Phyllis married fellow police constable PC Gideon George Arnold. Prior to the war women police had been required to resign if they married, but this had been rescinded and Mrs Phyllis Arnold transferred to Newport’s Women’s First Police Reserve. She performed in that role until 1943 when she resigned. Phyllis gave birth in 1944 to John, the first of her three sons. Despite her short career in Wales, her total service was not inconsiderable and her pioneering legacy in the history of women’s policing in Wales is significant.

However, John Arnold, her son, inadvertently undermined my findings when he described visiting ‘Auntie Rich’, a friend of Phyllis’s and a former Met colleague. I identified her as Edith Richardson, who had transferred as a sergeant from London to Cardiganshire Police in west Wales in September 1939, a year before Phyllis returned home. Edith was born in Brighouse, Yorkshire in 1902 to Mary Jane Richardson and her labourer husband Thomas. She attended the Elementary and Girls Secondary School in the town before leaving in 1921 to study for a degree at Victoria University of Manchester. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Maths and Physics.

She subsequently gained a certificate in housekeeping at the Edinburgh College of Domestic Science in 1931, and was appointed Superintendent of the Aberdeen Business Women’s Club. It had been formed by Soroptimists five years earlier and was linked to the local YWCA. Edith connected with these pioneers who had campaigned together for votes for women. She resigned in 1936 to commence her policing career with the Metropolitan Police Force in 1937, the intake after Phyllis. She transferred to Cardiganshire Constabulary in 1939. She retired from Cardiff City Police as an Inspector in 1961, Wales’s most senior female officer. She never married. I have yet to find a living relative of this remarkable woman, a veteran of three police forces, a graduate with a unique place in Welsh policing history.

John Arnold died in 2022. This has spurred me to publish the forgotten stories of his mother Phyllis Gamble and Edith Richardson, the first women sworn in as police officers in Wales.

Image: WPC1 Phyllis Gamble, from the Arnold family’s private collection.

Tola Munro lives in Newport, Wales and previously served with Gwent Police. He is a serving Police Inspector with Avon and Somerset Police. He is interested in the history of policing and has been writing about women in policing since 2013. He can be contacted on Twitter or LinkedIn.

[1] p.93, Bale Islwyn, 1960 Through Seven Reigns: A History of the Newport Borough Police, Pontypool: The Griffin Press.

[2] Western Mail, Friday 23 November 1928, Powers of police. Cardiff Chief’s call for standard of rules. Street offences problem. South Wales clubs: Why he opposes aid of women. The first evidence from Wales at the inquiry by the Royal Commission on Police Powers and Procedure was given on Tuesday by Mr. J. A. Wilson, O.B.E., Chief Constable of Cardiff. p. 146, Glamorgan Archives record DCON/214, Retrieved on 24 April 2018.

[3] South Wales News. 14 October 1927, Women Police Puzzle: Chief Constables’ Difficulty. Call to Home Secretary – Women Film Censors. p.392, Glamorgan Archives record DCON/214, Retrieved on 24 April 2018.

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