Edith Smith: The first Women Police and close connections to Grantham
By Olivia Hennessy, BA History, Level 1
To celebrate Women’s History Month, I would like to discuss a historic woman figure with a closer to home connection. Grantham is my hometown with old churches preserved from the past, St Wulframs for example, and well known individuals. Most of us have a brief knowledge or have heard of these Grantham-born figures, Margaret Thatcher, and Isaac Newton, but has anyone heard of Edith Smith? From then, I was curious as to who she was and her connection with Grantham. My curiosity led to further research on the history of Edith, the history of the first police woman, particularly the demands in the 19th and 20th centuries, and how Edith became the first Woman Police Constable with full powers of arrest in the United Kingdom. My blog intends to explore the background of women police, which will lead to the establishment of the ‘Women’s Police Service’ and discussing the life of Edith Smith.
I shall begin with discussing the demands of police women in the late 1800s into the 1900s. During the Edwardian period, women were cleared from court rooms when a sexual offence took place, failed to secure convictions of sexual abuse and there was harsh treatment received by women criminals. These problems were addressed in pamphlets, such as the British Women’s Temperance Association, and suggested that in order to ensure protection and a polite society, women police ‘matrons’ should be established. The Suffragettes (Women’s Social and Political Union) and Suffragists (the Women’s Freedom League) were the groups that had become more attracted to active campaigns rather than legal action. However, these actions from both groups give no evidence on the acceptance of women police before the outbreak of World War One.
Looking at the Outbreak of World War One, there was more progress for the enactment of women police officers. Many women abandoned the efforts for the protection of women due to the war due to unemployment and poverty in a society with ‘no system of welfare provision’ Nina Boyle, the political secretary for the WFL, saw that women police were essential to ‘ensure fair treatment’. This was followed by the introduction of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), which provided the military authorities with more power. More than ever, women police were essential to ensure fair treatment for all and Boyle was busy organising volunteers with the shortage of manpower (although Boyle’s suggestion about women recruitment was not taken seriously at first). Amongst many of the women who were interested was Margaret Damer Dawson, hearing of Nina Boyle’s efforts and both worked together to push (again) for official recognition for an organisation of women police volunteers. This eventually led to the establishment of the ‘Women’s Police Service’.
Around 1914, the ‘Women’s Police Service’ was founded to provide constables when many men were fighting on the Western Front. This gave Edith the opportunity to volunteer for a full-time, paid role and prepared to go anywhere in the country. She was described by a colleague as ‘a woman of outstanding personality, fearless, motherly and adaptable’. Before Edith became a police woman, she was a midwife. She noticed that there was more crime in Grantham due to the influx of soldiers and prostitutes. So, in 1915, Edith was bought in by Grantham Borough Police to deal with prostitution in the town.
On the 17th December 1917, Edith’s warrant card was signed and she received the power of arrest, becoming the first WPC received £1.40 a week. She worked seven days a week for two years until she resigned from the force in 1918. This blog reflected Edith’s journey to becoming the first WPC to receive the power of arrest and I wanted to represent her commitments and unforgettable history in my town. Remember, commemorate, and pass on this knowledge, along with many other stories of the ‘unknown’ women of history.
Edith Smith, the first warranted police women in the United Kingdom in her uniform, 1915-1918. Lincolnshire Police. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edith_Smith_policewoman.jpg
Alison Woodeson (1993) ‘The first women police: a force for equality or infringement?’, Women’s History Review, 2:2, (1993) (217-232). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09612029300200025?needAccess=true
Grantham Civic Society. ‘PC Edith Smith’. Accessed 25th March 2021. http://www.granthamcivicsociety.co.uk/public/plaque_smith.php
BBC. ‘World War One at Home’ (4th February 2014). Accessed 25th March 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01rp7g6