The special event at the Met Heritage Centre (MHC) in West Brompton was opened by Commissioner Cressida Dick [Monday 18 Feb], almost a hundred years to the day that Londoners witnessed female Met officers patrolling the streets of their city for the first time.
She was joined by a group of specially selected internal and external guests, including 85-year-old historian Joan Locke and the Met’s longest serving female officer, Karen Giles, to be taken on a guided tour of the photographs, objects and documents on display – many of which have never been shown to the public before.
The exhibits have been selected from the archives by curator Dr Clare Smith and her team and illustrate the journey of women in the force during the past century. They cover a wide variety of themes including recruitment, uniform, anniversaries, sport and achievements.
The items selected demonstrate the wide variation in women’s experiences of the Met over the years depending on the different times they found themselves serving. For instance, the women officers of today, who take it for granted that they will be issued the same protective kit as their male peers, would no doubt consider the kit of the 1980s – ‘lady’ truncheons specially designed in reduced size in order to fit into the standard issue handbags of the time – primitive.
However, documents reveal the female police officers in the 1980s were well equipped compared to the pioneers in the early days who had no powers of arrest and were not even trusted to be able to handle ‘intelligence’. Instead, they were instructed to pass on any they received ‘post haste’ to a male officer.
Other gallery cases contain ‘Women Police’ signs that used to be a common sight in police stations across the capital – as well as the lists of stringent entry requirements for female officers. These included criteria such as height, age and marital status. Applicants even had to submit to dental tests that barred those with an ‘overbite’.
Uniform-related highlights include sketches for the 1968 uniform designed by Norman Hartnell, who designed the Queen’s wedding and coronation gowns. The Met asked him to design the women’s uniform as it was thought it needed to be glamourous to attract recruits.
The Commissioner said: “I’m delighted to be able to open this very special exhibition at the Heritage Centre today which marks another milestone in our centenary celebrations and showcases just how much women in our organisation have achieved since those first pioneers stepped out on patrol in February 1919.
“The team here has done a wonderful job of delving into the archives to shed light behind the scenes and find items that really bring to life the human stories at the heart of our remarkable history.
“We know it was these predecessors that turned what started as an ‘experiment’ into a resounding success, one that keeps growing with each year that passes. I hope that these real life examples the public can explore of battling prejudice, overcoming adversity and always taking pride in the job, prove an inspiration for women to come and help us forge the path ahead as we look to recruit a new generation of officers for the future.”
The Met has just launched its new women specific recruitment campaign, ‘Strong’, which aims to boost numbers in line with the Commissioner’s stated aspiration to increase the percentage of women officers from the current 26% to parity as a long-term goal.
As centre manager, Dr Clare Smith, who has worked in museums for 17 years, is equally passionate about her role in striving to make the collection as accessible as possible, while balancing the need to protect it in order to ensure it is kept safe to be enjoyed for the next hundred years.
MHC welcomes a wide range of visitors throughout the year including academic researchers and members of the public seeking to trace records of older relatives believed to have worked in the Met.
Dr Smith said: “It’s wonderful when we can are able to give information about a lost great grandfather’s record of service, though we do occasionally have to break the news that the family legend of their relative almost arresting Jack The Ripper or standing next to Winston Churchill at Sidney Street isn’t true.”.
Since taking on the role a year and a half ago and recruiting new assistants, the important work of reorganising the large collection has seen the team catalogue an astonishing 1,700 photographs 1,500 documents and 125 objects, with many boxes still to document. They are now looking forward to discovering more objects and photographs they can share with the public.
Future plans include creating an online database and working with colleagues across the MPS to grow and develop the collection.
Dr Smith said: “We hope this exhibition will encourage people to contact us about photographs and objects relating to the history of women’s policing that have been handed down in their families so that we can keep learning more about the experiences of former generations of women police.”
The 100 years centenary campaign launched on November 22 last year with a photoshoot outside the iconic NSY building featuring women officers from all ranks, roles and racial backgrounds and includes a series of exciting events designed to mark historic milestones important in the history of women policing. Over the coming months, these include a celebratory procession of female officers and other emergency service workers on International Women’s Day on 8 March and a photography exhibition at City Hall in late April. These will culminate in a special service at Westminster Abbey on May 17.
The 100 years of Metropolitan police women exhibition is free to visit at the centre in Empress Approach, West Brompton, from Tuesday, 19 February until Friday, 26 July, weekdays 09:30hrs -13:00hrs and 14:00hrs – 16:00hrs. Anyone can come along without an appointment, including members of the public, but contact the centre for guided group tours or to bring friends and family. If you’d like to visit the archive to see material that could not fit into the exhibition, please email (HeritageCentre@met.police.uk) for an appointment.