First Policewoman in Scotland: 100 Years and Counting

This month marks the centenary of the first policewoman appointed in Scotland. She was Emily Miller who was appointed to the City of Glasgow police force on 6th September 1915. She remained Scotland’s only official policewoman until 1918, when the City of Dundee appointed Mrs Jean Thomson.

The history books and records are often loath to acknowledge these early women were policewomen. Depending on what source you research they can be described as statement takers, court sisters, police sisters, and a variety of other titles. However, the statistics firmly record them as policewomen, as does the Baird Report, an official government review into the employment of women for police duties, which reported in 1920.

Scotland was a bit behind the times in accepting a woman into the police, because the first women’s police service came into being a year earlier in 1914, and many of the first policewomen were former suffragettes. The two main suffragette organisations, the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), and the WFL (Women’s Freedom League), joined forces to formulate the Women’s Police Volunteers (WPV) after the suffragettes decided to curtail their activities for the duration of the Great War. They were not the only police service however, because the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW) set up the Voluntary Women Patrols. But this article is not about women police in London, or elsewhere in England, it is about Scottish policewomen.

The decision to employ women in the police force was made by the Chief Constable of each individual force, therefore Scotland was no different to England in that respect. However, the resistance to women was more widespread in Scotland, and in evidence at the Baird committee in 1920, the Town Clerk of Stirling stated – “We neither need them or want them”.

Glasgow City Police, however, had lost so many men to the Great War, they had to take radical measures. They employed hundreds of temporary constables and increased the numbers of men in the Special Constabulary, and they appointed Emily Miller in September 1915. Miss Miller remained the only policewoman in Scotland until 1918, when Mrs Jean Thomson was employed by the City of Dundee Police. There was actually another woman employed by the police in 1914, prior to Emily Miller, and that was the Court Sister in Aberdeen, whose duties included everything a policewoman might do, however little is known about her.

The Baird Report into employment of women for police duties, which heard evidence in 1920, is the place to go to find out details of how policewomen were employed and what their experience was. Both Emily Miller and Jean Thomson gave evidence, and it would appear that Miss Miller’s duties involved working with women and children, whereas Mrs Thomson’s role was wider, and it could be said she was the closest thing to a policewoman that Scotland had, although neither woman had powers of arrest. Women constables would have to wait until 1924 before they were granted this power.

It took a long time for women to achieve the same status as men in the police force, and initially they were used for work with women and children. The power of arrest, as stated earlier, came in 1924, and few women were employed – Glasgow only had eleven policewomen at that time. Promotions were unheard of and it was 1940 before the first woman constable was promoted to Detective Sergeant, and 1954 before there was a Chief Inspector, and 1995 when the first female Chief Superintendent was appointed, she went on to become the first Assistant Chief Constable. It was 2008 before Norma Graham became Scotland’s first female Chief Constable, making it a full 93 years before a woman reached the top of the tree.

The problem with researching the early women police is that records are sparse in Scotland, although I believe the London Metropolitan Police have more information in their archive. Joan Lock, a former policewoman and now a crime writer, used this archive to write, The British Policewoman: her story, the book that got me interested in the origins of women police services in Britain.

The women who joined the police in 1914 and beyond were adventurous, fascinating characters who were not afraid of authority, nor did they take kindly to the taunts they received from the constables of the time. Things like, ‘get back to your washboards’, and much worse. They were dedicated, tough, disciplined women whose training included learning martial arts like ju jitsu, and they ventured into places that many male constables avoided. These women, many of whom have faded into obscurity, were worthy forerunners of today’s modern policewoman.

My own historical crime mystery, The Death Game, was inspired by these women, and because my crime stories are set in Dundee it was fortuitous that the second policewoman in Scotland, Jean Thomson, worked there as a policewoman between 1918 to 1921, The Death Game could be said to have been inspired by her. Naturally, my Kirsty Campbell, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Jean Thomson, but I have given Kirsty the London Women’s Police service training, including the ju jitsu, and then transported her to Dundee.

I enjoyed writing The Death Game, it was great fun, and needless to say it is quite a bit different to my Dundee Crime Series, which is set in modern times. With The Death Game I take my reader on a journey through the shady alleys, shabby streets, creepy cemeteries, and sinister buildings of a long gone Dundee. And you really should visit my underground morgue and try to see into the shadows the swinging oil lamps fail to illuminate, while you listen to the slurp of Davvy’s rubber boots approach from behind.

I think it’s fair to say that this book has a gothic feel to it. And if anyone is interested in the formation of the women’s police service, I’ve included a historical note at the end of the book.

Chris Longmuir


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Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Chris, and a rich source for more and more Kirsty outings. You certainly caught the feeling of the period in The Death Game and, as well as all the crimes and mysteries, you've got plenty of other gender conflicts to keep the dynamism going.
Jan Needle said…
you stole my word, bill. fascinating stuff. and i, like you, was delightfully and quickly lost in The Death Game.
Mari Biella said…
Fascinating post, Chris. I'm looking forward to reading The Death Game!
Chris Longmuir said…
Thanks folks, it was great fun writing The Death Game, and the research was fascinating. The abuse these early policewomen had to put up with from the male members of the force could not have been easy to deal with, and I feel The Death Game only gives an inkling of that. To have detailed it in full would have made it a militant feminist book, which I didn't want it to be.
Dennis Hamley said…
The Death Game is great, Chris. Kirsty Campbell is a wonderfully drawn character. Her experience put me, not for the first time, in a state of impotent rage at the capacity for sheer nastiness of my gender. Is Kirsty going to appear again? And will she be the first woman to be, albeit fictionally, promoted?
Enid Richemont said…
Must/will get this, Chris. Re- militant feminism, the blog I'm working on right now has a mention of that.
Chris Longmuir said…
Yes Dennis, Kirsty will come back. She's currently tracking spies and killers at a munitions factory during the First World War.
Lydia Bennet said…
Ooh good to hear Kirsty's coming back, I really enjoyed The Death Game. I think you are the first crime writer to focus on the first policewoman for your character? Certainly in Scotland. Also it must be nice to write about the past, not only for the fun of research but to take a break from modern procedure, DNA, CSI, mobile phones and the internet, etc.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that the second Kirsty Campbell Mystery is now published. It's called Devil's Porridge, a name coined by Arthur Conan Doyle to describe how the munitionettes kneaded the guncotton and nitro-glycerine together with their bare hands. And this time, Kirsty is chasing spies, saboteurs, assassins, and a cold-blooded murderer at Gretna munitions factory.

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