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Celebrating women in policing

To mark International Women’s Day today (8 March) we have searched our archives at the Bedfordshire Police Museum to celebrate significant female officers through the ages.

In 1946, the then Chief Constable, Mr William Willis, actively strove to recruit female officers and the first recruits were Irene Walters and Maud Lawrence. The following year, WPC Olive Canniford was appointed at the age of 27. Prior to this there had been a large number of members of the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps (WAPC) during World War I and II. But as these were wartime volunteers, they were stood down once the wars were over. However, women had proved themselves providing a much needed resource. Olive had been a member of the WAPC.

 Olive Canniford2

Following World War II women slowly began to be accepted into the force as a separate entity when the Police Women’s Department was formed and remained until the mid-1970s. They were paid less than their male counterparts and were principally engaged in dealing with matters involving women and children.

However, the Special Constabulary has always played a significant part in the policing of Bedfordshire and in 1962 a Woman Special Constable (WSC) 146 Chalkley was appointed and posted to D Division in Biggleswade where she worked alongside male officers. WSC 278 Gould was also posted to Biggleswade in 1967.

In 1969 Carole Groom (now Phillips) became a WPC, and in 1974 she submitted a report requesting that female officers be integrated into regular full time frontline policing in Bedfordshire. The scheme proved successful and after six months received the full backing of Chief Constable Armstrong.

The following year, the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced which ensured that women were treated equally in the workplace, but thanks to Carole it happened sooner at Bedfordshire Police.

Carole Groom on left - 1974

There had been campaigns to attract more females into Policing and by 1995, there was a fairly even balance of PCs and WPCs in Bedfordshire on the front line.  The biggest difference was found in the uniform and equipment as WPCs were issued skirts, handbags and a mini truncheon that was completely ineffective.  WPCs were issued with a small hosiery allowance and females were expected to buy the same colour and denier tights within their team to provide a uniform look. 

Inspector Vicky Miller, who joined the force in 1991 at the age of 19, recounts how looking back it was like the TV show Life on Mars. She said as a WPC in the early 90s she received the same training as her male counterparts and was expected to carry out the same role.  

At the time there was no body armour, no CS/Parva incapacitant spray and handcuffs were joined together with a small chain rather than the bar that we use today. 

Insp Miller said: “We were aware that our personal protection equipment was inadequate and often complained to our Supervisors about the risks posed to us. There were no mobile phones in those days and the radio coverage was sporadic, particularly in some areas of Bedfordshire.  We did, however always look smart as we wore tunics, hats and highly polished footwear and we spent a considerable amount of our time on footbeat.”

She explains: “There has been a massive cultural shift in the way women are treated in policing. Carole Phillips was my Chief Inspector in the early noughties and I was thankful that I was not policing in an era where my primary role was to deal with women and children.  Carole was highly respected and a good role model for younger female officers.  I have seen significant increase in females working in diverse roles and ranks and I have also witnessed the struggles for some women who campaigned for equality in dog handling, firearms and CID roles. 

“I recall being told in training that one day officers would be able to complete a Crime Report on a computer.  We laughed at the thought of this, yet here we are 28 years later with technology outstripping all other advances in policing.

“Modern Policing is a challenge for all officers at times and I take my hat off to the younger female and male officers that put themselves on the frontline today.”

Bedfordshire Police has since been led by two female Chief Constables and today has women in many top ranking roles.

Detective Superintendent Liz Mead is our Head of Crime, Detective Superintendent Jo Walker heads up the collaborated Major Crime Unit, our Eastern Region Specialised Crime Unit (ERSOU) has recently appointed Hannah Wilkinson as its new female head, Kathryn Holloway is Bedfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and her Chief Executive is Clare Kelly.

We also have a female Assistant Chief Constable, Dr Jackie Sebire, who will be speaking next week to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. She will address the global stage about why gender equality in policing is so important in increasing women’s access to justice.

ACC Sebire concludes: “Thirty or even 20 years ago it would have been unheard of for a senior female police officer to be addressing the UN, let alone for the UN to discussing women in policing, which shows what a long way policing has come in closing the gap between male and female officers.”


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