From vicious knife fights to having your breasts stamped by colleagues (yes, really), female police officers have seen it all. Veteran Jennifer Rees interviewed WPCs from across the decades and now shares more than 60 years of unbelievable but true tales
Members of Edinburgh’s Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps, 1940
When women were a rarity on the beat
The first female officers were thought incapable of dealing with anything other than ‘fallen women’, children and administration. Our uniform was designed by Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker. I liked the jacket, pillbox hat and cape, but the skirts were awful – straight and without pleats, which would have been useful when chasing villains. Those who believed that women were too gentle to make arrests didn’t understand the determination some would bring to the job.
AUDREY (1950s) Women police officers were a rarity. Our jobs were general patrolling, keeping an eye out for absconders or young girls on the streets, and there seemed to be little crime. I mostly patrolled with a pushbike and reported to the station using police phone boxes, which were handy as we could write up our pocket books in them. A whistle was all we had to get attention.
MARGARET (1960s) Being a woman worked in your favour sometimes. A man once came out of a café crying for help. I went in and an enormous man was rocking the one-arm bandit around as though it was a toy. He wasn’t drunk, just angry, and I thought, ‘Christ, what am I to do?’
Then a van-load of PCs arrived, but when they saw the size of him they stopped in their tracks, bumping into each other as though they were in a Keystone Kops film. It was hilarious. He turned his head to me, winked and held his arm out. I said, ‘I’m arresting you for malicious damage,’ and he walked out with me as calm as a pussycat. When I put my hands around his arm my fingers didn’t meet – he was that big. The men were gobsmacked when we got back to the nick.
I turned up to be told they’d called for a policeman, not a woman
JANIS (1970s) When I was patrolling there was still respect for women, even among men who were otherwise capable of extreme violence, and I got little hassle on the street when arresting someone. I was patrolling one day when a call came about a man armed with a knife. I was the first to reach him. He was scary, but I think his respect for me as a woman outweighed his ‘thuggery’ and he stopped his threats, I arrested him and took him to the police station. Had I been a man I think he would have reacted very differently – good news, really, as I only had a handbag, not even a truncheon to defend myself.
CHERYL (1980s) I cannot tell you how many times I turned up at calls to be informed that they had called for a policeman, not a woman. A rather obnoxious lady told me that she had a plumbing problem and that a woman was no good to her. She actually needed her radiators bleeding, which I did for her. She still showed no gratitude – probably because I pointed out that she should have called a plumber, not the police. On another occasion I was called to a launderette with six inches of hot water on the floor. I waded in to find a stopcock, and a member of the public complained that I was doing my washing on duty!
SUE (1980s) As an inspector I did a mandatory firearms awareness course, but women weren’t allowed to carry them, and didn’t even have truncheons when I joined. The thinking was that they might be taken off us and used against us. Later we got small truncheons, which initially were kept in our handbags, then in pockets in our uniform skirts.
DERYL (1980s) On my promotion to sergeant, one male PC gave a speech in the canteen about a woman’s place being in the home, barefoot and pregnant. I blanked him. When he asked my opinion, I said, ‘As long as you do what I say, when and how I say, I don’t give a s*** what you think.’
MARY (1980s) While the men were dealing with the miners’ strike and protests at Greenham Common, the women held the fort – and very well, too. When we WPCs were sent to sort out a knife and bottle fight, the brawling stopped and we were asked if we fancied a party.
We had to ride bikes but were only provided with men’s bikes – and we had to wear skirts. The locals, normally not keen to see the police, would come out to watch me mount or dismount. One PC refused to patrol with me as he didn’t want to have to defend me as well as look after himself. That was until I was driving one night and he was my passenger. Our first call was to a fight. I had the aggressor on the ground before the PC had even unbuckled his seatbelt. Our next call was a stolen car, which we chased until two thieves decamped. I caught mine but my male colleague lost his. Funnily enough, he was OK with me after that.
Met WPCs in the Norman Hartnell design (left) and old uniform, 1967
An era to never be alone at the station
In my early days in the job I heard about the custom of ‘station stamping’, where men would slap a date stamp upon a new WPC’s breasts or buttocks. It was an era when women were expected to put up with behaviour that would not be tolerated today. The men I worked with teased me, swore like troopers and made sexist jokes, but always treated me with courtesy and kindness. Some other policewomen were not so fortunate.
JUDY (1970s) When I first went to Division I was initiated with a ‘station stamping’. I was held down by three policemen while about 40 others watched as my breasts were stamped. I have never forgotten it. Another colleague fresh out of training had the same thing done to her bottom and never got over it. She resigned the following day, too distressed to remain in the force.
MARY (1980s) On day one, I turned up at Division expecting to be made welcome. I was informed my nickname was ‘udders’ – no guesses as to why – and I felt like a glove puppet because I had so many hands up my skirt. When making tea I kept a spoon in boiling water to use when they came in to show me their penises. One PC who I’d rightly been avoiding cornered me in the tea room and tried to have sex with me. He didn’t succeed as I fought back, but when I told him I’d scream he said, ‘You scream and you’ll lose your job for being a troublemaker; I’ll just get another move.’
Policewomen on a break during the Libyan embassy siege in London, 1984
Modern life on the front line
While the job may be challenging, dull it isn’t…
KATHY (1960s) While patrolling in Soho, I stopped a teenage girl, an approved school [a young offenders’ institution] absconder. She swiped at my face with a razor blade and I had to duck. Out of nowhere, four prostitutes that I had arrested and looked after jumped on her, grabbed the blade and sat on her while I waited for the van to arrive. It was my proudest moment when they said, ‘You don’t do that to our WPC.’
MARY (1990s) I once crashed a police car – and stopped a riot in Woolwich town centre. I was driving a marked response car having picked up a suspect. A fight had started around something he may or may not have done to someone’s sister; people were banging on the sides of the car trying to get at him. It was bedlam, with police and public fighting each other. I swung my car round a badly parked panda… and drove straight into a post. As the offside wing fell off, the fighting stopped and people burst into spontaneous applause.
Officers at the memorial for murdered WPC Yvonne Fletcher in London’s St James’s Square, 1985, left, and at a passing-out parade in 2017, right
LINDA (1990s) I was policing in Hampstead when two black limos double-parked outside a large house. I said, ‘Sorry, but you can’t do that.’ The drivers said, ‘Oh, Mr Brosnan won’t be long.’ I pressed the doorbell of the house and out came Pierce Brosnan. ‘Excuse me, Pierce,’ I said. ‘Could your cars come into the drive until you’re ready?’ ‘Oh, officer, of course.’ I put out my hand and said, ‘It’s Linda.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Linda.’ I just looked into those blue eyes and wouldn’t let him go.
ELLIE (2010s) During the riots of August 2011, officers were doing 12-hour shifts and had to hand over their children to their partner in the corridor. We’re not supposed to have children on the premises but if it allowed the cops to do their share and kept them from being stressed about childcare, I was willing to allow it on my watch.
With the Westminster and London Bridge terror attacks in 2017, my biggest concern was the long shifts officers were doing and the impact on those with families. That year was particularly challenging for us because of both these atrocities and Grenfell. I had to be mindful of that cumulative effect on officers.
People get stressed, seeing such terrible things in a short period of time. We also saw a shift in public confidence in blue-light services. It was tangible at Westminster and reinforced by London Bridge. People put flowers on our cars. Biscuits were handed in at police stations. Old ladies sent cards with £20 inside saying ‘give this to your staff’.
At the end of a one-minute silence for Grenfell on Kensington High Street, a posh woman wanted to write me a sizable cheque. Obviously I couldn’t accept it, so I explained how to give it to the Grenfell fund.
With such terrible events, the public really saw how we had been tested, and appreciated us.
- This is an edited extract from Voices From the Blue by Jennifer Rees and Robert J Strange, to be published by Robinson on 7 February, price £18.99. To order a copy for £15.19 until 10 February, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15