Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Strange and Secret Peoples

Now my research has taken me down many strange paths of late - Orphic mythology, Kali cults, theosophy just to name a few - but now I'm feeling drawn to investigating the broader spiritual consciousness of Victorian and Edwardian England (you never know, a book may come out of it!). I just ordered a book entitled "Strange and Secret Peoples, Fairies and Victorian Consciousness" by Carole G. Silver. Seeing as it's from Oxford University Press it appears to be fairly erudite, if a little obscure. I'm intrigued and eager to read it. This kind of book research will at least take my mind off the fact that my flight to London on Monday was cancelled and thus, for the moment at least, a much anticipated on-site research visit has had to be postponed:(.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Great Silence

Over the holidays I read an amazing book about the post war years (as in post WW1) called The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson. She details the years 1918 to 1920 and the introduction of the 2 minute silence as a way of remembering the war dead. What struck me the most, however, was how well she captured the overwhelming sense of grief after the war - grief that most British people were simply unable to articulate. This book draws upon first hand accounts that span class as well as experience and is unforgettable. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the profound impact the Great War had on the British psyche as well as how close Britain came to the edge in those early years after the war had ended (it was a miracle there wasn't a revolution). Be warned, however, you will need a box of tissues on hand - especially for the final chapter which details the return and interment of the unknown soldier.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

I just returned from a week in London and managed to spend two fantastic mornings at the Imperial War Museum doing research on the women police in World War I. I also caught a fabulous play, War Horse, that dealt with the realities of warfare through the eyes of a horse - the puppetry was amazing and there was not a dry eye in the theatre at the end. The week turned out to revolve around the war in so many ways- not least because it was the week leading up to Remembrance Day (today). I think the British know how to pay tribute to the past in a way few other cultures can and the past truly resonates for me when I am in London.

My research turned up some real gems. Not only did I get to read the diary of a woman police officer but I also got to hear an interview with her from the mid 1980's which brought her vividly to life. The documents I got to see included an amazing array of photographs including a studio portrait of her dog 'Rip' and his official pass to accompany her into one of the munitions factories. It was hilarious to see so much dedicated to her dog! The police woman worked in munition factories across Britain and her diary provided insight not just into the life of a female police officer during the war but also the horrific conditions under which the female munition workers had to perform their duties. It was truly fascinating - and I can't wait to use the material!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Off to London

I am off to London today for a research trip that includes reviewing files at the Imperial War Museum of a woman police sergeant during the First World War. I'm also hoping to wander the streets, absorbing the atmosphere for a scene in my current WIP, The Soul Reader...more on that to come!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Not in Front of the Servants

I've just been re-reading Frank Dawes' terrific book, Not in Front of the Servants, for my latest WIP. I'm interested in what it must have been like to serve as a scullery maid just before the First World War and believe me the life sounds awful. A scullery maid occupied the lowest rung of the servant ladder and in many situations her lot was pretty poor.

In 1906 the wages of a scullery maid in London were about 6 pounds a year and despite the hard work it was no doubt better than many of the other options available to poor working class women at the time. Conditions for servants had also improved by the 1910s, when the entrenched hierarchy and domestic servant situation was starting to come unravelled (there were many laments that it was impossible to find a good servant at the time!) but nonetheless you wouldn't envy their lot. Up at 5:30am, rising in a cold 'cell' in the attic, probably in a bedroom shared with two maybe three other maids, then down to the basement kitchen where the day would be spent scrubbing floors, washing pots and pans, and hauling coal scuttles, until the late hours of the evening. By the 1910s servants were getting usually one free afternoon a week so a scullery maid in London would have probably had some chance to view the hustle and bustle of the streets - but what of those in the country? Their lot must have been pretty dismal at times.

The scullery maid I am writing about lives in Yorkshire on a remote estate and it isn't much of a stretch to imagine that conditions then must have been pretty primitive and isolating. Such is the stuff of novels:)

Monday, August 17, 2009


The First World War heralded the first visible role for women in ‘policing’ work in Britain. Coordinated by two separate organizations – the National Union of Working Women (renamed the National Council of Women in 1919) and the Women's Police Volunteers (renamed the Women’s Police Service in 1915) – these pioneer policewomen were introduced because of safety and morality concerns during wartime.

In 1914, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Margaret Damer Dawson, approached her friend Sir Edward Henry, Chief Commissioner of Police, about forming the Women's Police Volunteers (WPV). She envisaged a separate group of trained professional women to deal with the pressing need of controlling the behavior of young women in wartime Britain. The initial impetus for the creation of the WPV was Damer Dawson’s concern that British men at railway stations were attempting to recruit Belgian women as prostitutes. She also believed that the influx of young women into cities across Britain, enjoying freedoms and employment opportunities unheard of in peacetime, were at risk of succumbing to the vices of drunkenness, loose morals and criminal behavior.

By the time the WPV formed, The National Union of Working Women (NUWW) had already organized around 5,000 voluntary ‘women patrols’ across Britain to walk the city streets, public parks and to visit cinemas and other places of entertainment to prevent and protect women from immoral behavior. Damer Dawson’s vision, however, was for a true women’s police organization that would presage the formation of a women’s police force after the war ended. She believed strongly that only women could effectively tackle problems of female criminal behavior and immorality.

The first person to join the WPV was Mary Allen, an ex-militant suffragette who had been imprisoned three times during the Women’s Social and Political Union’s campaign to secure votes for women. In her memoir, The Pioneer Policewoman, Mary Allen writes that: "A sense of humour had kept me from any bitterness. I was quite as enthusiastically ready to work with and for the police as I had been prepared, if necessary, to enter into combat with them."

In 1915, following a schism within the organization over the Damer Dawson’s moralistic and interventionist approach to policing women, the WPV was renamed the Women's Police Service (WPS). Wearing dark-blue uniforms with lettered armlets, hard felt hats and shoulder straps, the first WPS patrols concentrated on looking after the welfare of refugees in London. Soon, however, WPS members were assigned to many other cities, most notably Grantham and Hull. Edith Smith, one of the original members of the WPS, became the first attested policewoman in the United Kingdom when she was sworn in as a member of the Grantham Police Force in 1915. In most cases, however, WPS volunteers were not sworn in as full members of the local police force and could not make arrests.

In 1916 the Admiralty recruited a member of the WPS as an undercover worker in an attempt to expose spying and drug taking at the Scapa Flow Naval Base. The Ministry of Munitions also used the WPS to search women workers at its factories. By 1918, WPS policewomen were on duty in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Belfast, Oxford, Cambridge, Grantham, Portsmouth, Folkestone, Hull, Plymouth, Brighton, Reading, Nottingham, London and Southampton. Between 1914 and 1920 the WPS trained 1,080 women, 90% of which were involved in supervising women workers at munitions factories.

The WPS was a particularly militaristic organization, in both discipline and practice. The WPS leadership adopted close-cropped military style haircuts, a decidedly masculine uniform and a martial hierarchy that required superior offices to be saluted and addressed as ‘Sir’ by subordinates. Many in the leadership had masculine nicknames (Mary Allen, for example, went by the name of ‘Robert’ apparently). The WPS also insisted that its officers should all be ‘educated gentlewomen’. WPS volunteers also received instruction in first aid, drill, the art of self-defense (ju-jitsu), police court procedure, and signaling. Unlike the male police force, almost all the WPS members worked without pay and were often older, socially privileged and better educated than their male colleagues.

At the end of the First World War Commandant Margaret Damer Dawson and Subcommandant Mary Allen asked the new Chief Commissioner of Police, Sir Nevil Macready, to make them a permanent part of the police force. He refused, saying that the women were "too educated" and would "irritate" male members of the force. Instead he decided to recruit and train his own women from the ranks of the NUWW/NCW patrols. Margaret Damer Dawson died in 1920 and, although she was awarded the OBE for services to her country during wartime, she never realized her dream of establishing a separate women’s police force.

The WPS continued as a voluntary service and in 1920 became the Women's Auxiliary Service. By the 1930s Mary Allen, who took over the leadership of the WPS after Damer Dawson’s death, had become a controversial political figure and in 1939 she declared herself a supporter of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists.

Phillipa Levine.“Walking the Streets in a Way No Decent Woman Should”: Women Police in World War I. The Journal of Modern History. 1994; 66(1):34-78
R.M. Douglas. Feminist Freikorps: The British Voluntary Women police, 1914-1940. Praeger Publishers, Westport. 1999
Commandant Mary S. Allen O.B.E.. The Pioneer Policewoman. Chatto & Windus. London. 1925
Louise A. Jackson. Women Police. Gender, Welfare, and Surveillance in the Twentieth Century. Manchester University press. 2006
Fido M. and Skinner K. The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard. Virgin Books. London. 1999.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


I've been procrastinating with my blogging but finishing a book can have that effect - so Unlikely Traitors is done and now I'm turning my attention to other ideas - most of which come directly from my research. I've been up to my eyeballs in espionage. Starting with Tammy Proctor's terrific "Female Intelligence, Women and Espionage in the First World War" followed by Julie Wheelwright's "The Fatal Lover. Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage" and ending up with Matthew Seligmann's "Spies in Uniform, British Military & Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the first World War". The last book was really the only one I used in my research for Unlikely Traitors but the other two have definitely got me turning around a few new book ideas...As I was surprised to learn the extent to which women were involved in the intelligence services during the First World War. I also discovered two wonderful books published in the 1930s that I cannot wait to read...They are both by Captain Henry Landau - reportedly a member of British intelligence during the war - and could be wildly inaccurate or just plain hilarious (or both - who knows!). The first is called "All's Fair" and the second "Secrets of the White Lady." I'll post more when I've had a chance to digest these...who knows more book ideas may follow!