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Margaret Damer Dawson (1863 – 1920), Police Pioneer -Founding member of ‘Women’s Police Volunteers’

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From trailblazing female doctors in Brighton and Hove to the first women police officers, this third blog in our series 100 Pioneering Women of Sussex looks at the life of Margaret Damer Dawson (1863 – 1920), Police Pioneer.

Among the fascinating displays at Brighton’s Old Police Cells Museum is information about one of the first women to enter the very male world of policing and prove that women could play a role in this line of work.

Margaret Damer Dawson, Chief Officer, about 1917

Margaret Damer Dawson, born at York Road, Hove, in 1863 was a woman who aimed high and got things done.  Before becoming involved in policing, she was a talented student at the London Academy of Music, a respected mountaineer and a fearless campaigner for animal rights and the anti-vivisection movement.  In 1906 she was secretary of the International Animal Protection Societies and was awarded medals by Finland and Denmark for her outstanding contribution to animal welfare.

It was in London at the outbreak of the First World War, however, that her attention turned to policing and the fact that it might be time for the all-male force to have some help from women.  At the time she was working as a volunteer, meeting and greeting fleeing Belgian refugees at London railways stations.  She had been disturbed to see how easy it was for lone, vulnerable women to fall victim to organised crime and find themselves recruited into the sex trade.  A woman in authority, she thought, would be able to prevent this situation and offer real support to the women involved.  Dawson saw her chance when a call went out from Sir Edward Ward, the War Office’s Director General of Voluntary Organisations for volunteers to help the police due to so many men having gone to serve in the war.  She immediately offered her services but was disappointed to be told they would not be required as she was a woman.  Undeterred and making good use of the social connections she had from her step-father who was a baron,  Dawson arranged to meet Sir Edward Ward and soon afterwards she and Nina Boyle, a journalist and Suffragette, were founding the first group of women ever to work for the police, the ‘Women Police Volunteers’.

Numbering at first around fifty women and dressed in a military style uniform designed by Dawson, who became Commandant, the WPV’s duties included moving on drunks, calming down situations on the street, supporting women in court, assisting with children who were being taken into care, and looking after refugees.  It was hoped that their presence would have a calming affect on the streets of London and further afield and, as such, they had no powers of arrest and weren’t allowed to carry truncheons.

Margaret Damer Dawson, Chief Officer, centre figure

As the war progressed, it became expected that the volunteer ‘lady policemen’, as the press dubbed them, help to police other women, supervising female munitions workers, visiting any woman deemed to be at risk of becoming a sex worker and, most controversially, helping to enforce a curfew of women in the barrack town of Grantham for the army.  With the prevalence of young trainee soldiers in the town, the army wanted to prevent distraction and poor moral behaviour by keeping women away.  Uncomfortable with this, Nina Boyle and several other women left the organisation. Dawson stayed until the end, assisted by Mary Allen, a Suffragette who had previously been a WSPU organiser in the Hastings area, changing the name first to the more serious sounding Women Police Service and then the Women’s Auxiliary Service.

At the end of the war there were 357 ‘lady policemen’ on the streets of London but if Dawson thought that the door had now been opened for women to join the force permanently, she was disappointed.  Sir Nevil Macready, the Police Commissioner, put his foot down, refusing to employ Dawson.  However, he rethought his decision and started to recruit women shortly afterwards.

Sadly Dawson died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1920 before she could see the profession she’d worked so hard to establish fully opened up to women.  How would she have felt to know that in 2019, almost 100 years after her death and her hard work proving that women were able to police, women make up 30% of the police force.  Her contribution was acknowledged by her award of an OBE in 1918 and a blue plaque at her former house in Cheyne Row, London.  In a nod to her great contribution to animal rights, a commemorative bird bath, recently restored, stands in neighbouring Cheyne Walk.

head shot photograph of Pauline Clare. SHe is holding her shirt collar and smiling directly at the camera. She has short cropped blonde hair, is wearing a blue blazer and a brightly colour shirt.

Pauline Clare CBE, First Women, from series 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin

100 Pioneering Women of Sussex blog series is published to celebrate the exhibition 100 First Women Portraits, currently on display at Brighton Museum (until 7 June 2020). It features Pauline Clare CBE, who became the Chief Constable for Lancashire Police in 1995, making her the first ever woman to hold that position in 103 years of the police service.

Researched and written by social historian Louise Peskett