Edith Smith: The First Woman Police Officer in the UK

Edith Smith in uniform. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edith_Smith_policewoman.jpg

Olivia Hennessy

To wrap up Women’s History Month, I would like to discuss a woman with a close-to-home connection. Grantham is my home town, with many recognised heritage sites and connections to well-known individuals. But has anyone heard of Edith Smith? She was the first woman police constable to gain the full powers of arrest in the UK, for her work in Grantham.

It’s worth pausing to consider the implications for women who came into contact with the law at a time when there were no female officers. Through the Victorian and Edwardian periods, women were cleared from court rooms during sexual assault cases, there was an extremely low conviction rate for sexual offenders and women convicted of crimes were treated extremely harshly.  Organisations such as the British Women’s Temperance Association began to agitate for an improvement, including the need for women police ‘matrons’ to protect women accused and convicted of crimes.

As with so many other aspects of women’s struggle for social equality, the First World War proved important: in return for their participation in the war effort, they won concessions. One of these was the foundation in 1914 of the Women’s Police Service in London – to fill the roles of men who were away at the front. This gave Edith Smith the opportunity to take on a full-time policing role.  Born in Birkenhead in 1876,  she married in 1897 but a decade later was already widowed with four children to support. She moved to London and trained as a nurse and midwife. She joined the WPS and was posted to Grantham, the first county town to form a branch of the WPS.

In 1915, Smith’s post became an official, paid one, at  £1.40 per week. For the remainder of the war, she served in Grantham. A substantial part of her job involved visiting families of girls considered to be at risk of prostitution and ensuring compliance with a wartime curfew imposed on women. Both duties were related to the fact that there were significant numbers of army recruits being trained near the town.  How to regulate relations between them and Grantham women became a huge issue locally. In 1917 Smith was granted powers of arrest – the first woman Police Constable to gain this power.  One researcher has remarked, ‘whether female police officers were there to protect women from men, or vice versa, is a moot point’. However, what is beyond doubt is that Grantham was the site of a key contest over rights of association between army men and civilian women, and women like Smith were mobilised to regulate these rights.

After the war, Smith returned to Halton, near Liverpool, and nursing. Her life could not have been easy and she took her own life in 1923. She was buried in an unmarked grave. In more recent years, as part of the centenary commemorations of the First World War, she has found renewed recognition. Merseyside police erected a proper headstone on her grave in 2018, and there are plaques dedicated to her memory on the Lincolnshire Police Headquarters at Nettleham, at Halton and in Grantham. There is also a street called Edith Smith way in Grantham, and the Grantham Museum mounted an exhibition on her life and career in 2018.


Alison Woodeson, The first women police: a force for equality or infringement? Women’s History Review, 2, 2, 1993, pp 217-232. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09612029300200025?needAccess=true

Grantham Civic Society. ‘PC Edith Smith’. Accessed 25th March 2021. http://www.granthamcivicsociety.co.uk/public/plaque_smith.php

BBC. ‘World War One at Home’ (4th February 2014). Accessed 25th March 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01rp7g6


Murderous Millinery – Claire Arrand on Women Pioneers in Animal Welfare

This women’s month, Reimagining Lincolnshire project member Claire Arrand, has written a post on the women led campaign to end millinery on the University of  Lincoln Library Blog:

The full blog piece can be accessed here:


“Milliners were located around the city but concentrated on Silver Street, where there were up to 5 listed at any one time between 1857 and 1919, in either the Lincoln or Lincolnshire trade directories 

Millinery businesses were the target for two different groups of women, Etta Lemon in Croydon and Emily Watson in Manchester. In 1889 Etta joined a branch of the Fur, Fin and Feather Club, appalled at the fashion of trimming hats with feathers and other avian decoration. This club joined with Emily Watson’s Society for the Protection of Birds and eventually became the RSPB. They decided to try and change public opinion, highlight this cruel trade and persuade women to solely use the available alternatives, fake flowers, lace and velvet, which were used when feathers were temporarily not in fashion.” 

Unheard Voices from Reimagining Lincolnshire

Our project recently participated in Heritage Open Days, a celebration of cultural heritage that takes place across many regions of the world in September.  Lincolnshire’s theme this year was ‘Voices of Lincolnshire – Stories Unheard’. For our contribution, several members of Reimagining Lincolnshire presented an online discussion about some of their favourite figures from our region’s past, remarkable yet neglected. They are all emblematic of the ways in which our region’s people have, for millennia, meshed into comings and goings, arriving and leaving, across land and sea.

We started with two seventeenth-century women who were central to the struggle for religious freedom, Mary Brewster and Anne Marbury Hutchinson.  Mary Brewster was one of the group that came to be known as the Mayflower Pilgrims; for this talk, Dr Anna Scott focused on the back story of her life in Lincolnshire before their departure across the Atlantic. Anna and Neil Baker have created an illustrated children’s story book on this theme, which  is available for purchase.

Edwin Austen Abbey’s impression on Anne Hutchinson on trial. Courtesy Anne Hutchinson on Trial – Anne Hutchinson – Wikipedia

Researcher Judy Harris traced Anne Marbury Hutchinson’s life from her birth in Alford in 1591 to her death in  New Amsterdam in 1643. She was an outspoken theologian and women’s leader.  Her beliefs were considered seditious and she was banished to Rhode Island: ‘cast out by the very men who had been cast out of England’, said Harris. A household name in New England, she is almost entirely forgotten in her native Alford.

Heather Hughes then considered the four servants who accompanied Joseph Banks’s party on their scientific expedition aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour (1768-1771).  We often pass over ‘servants’ as doing menial work at the behest of others; they rarely if ever receive credit. Yet recent research has revealed that Peter Briscoe, James Roberts, Thomas Richmond and George Dorlton all made lasting and significant contributions to science. The two Black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, perished on the voyage; Roberts and Briscoe survived and continued their interaction with international science and scientists.

Attention then turned to the Black funambulist (or tightrope walker), Carlos Trower. Dr Andrew Walker explained that Trower was one of several Black entertainers who regularly performed in Lincolnshire through the nineteenth century. Known as the ‘African Blondin’ after the renowned Charles Blondin, who crossed the Niagara Falls on a highwire, Trower performed some of his amazing feats over the River Witham, to the delight of huge crowds.

Pupils enjoy a knitting session at the Murray Hill Institute. Canner 1/4/1, Special Collections UoL. Courtesy Rosemary Saunders.

Lincoln-born Walter Canner was the subject of Claire Arrand’s contribution.  He studied at St Paul’s Missionary College near Skegness – itself deserving of a far higher profile for its international connections. From 1921 to 1938, he worked in northern China at the Murray Hill Institute for Blind Children, where he developed many facilities to enrich the lives of its pupils. The University of Lincoln holds a collection of his papers.


The presentation finished up with a truly international story of one Lincolnshire family. Dr Victoria Araj, who is the project’s full time postdoctoral researcher, gave a fascinating insight into her grandmother’s family, the Snelsons of Grimsby.

Their journeys connected the family to Lagos, Cairo, London, Beirut, Bethlehem, Rabat, and Melbourne, a tale of empire, diaspora, war, opportunity and fortune.

Audrey Snelson Malouf and husband David Malouf at home in Lagos, 1960s. Courtesy Audrey Malouf.

If you’re interested in more of these stories, you can watch our presentation here.

Heather Hughes