Fascinating talk about 32 years in the force

Brian Gott, Kate MacDonald and Vice President Rhona Dunn at Morpeth Rotary Club.
Brian Gott, Kate MacDonald and Vice President Rhona Dunn at Morpeth Rotary Club.

Morpeth Rotary Club

Kate MacDonald talked to Morpeth Rotary on her 32 years in the police. Her work has included CID, regional and national crime squads, and the Serious and Organised Crime Unit.

The police force began in 1829 with Sir Robert Peel. It was almost 100 years before it was thought to be useful to employ women in policing and the first moves only came about due to the activities of the Suffragettes.

The work was restricted to looking after women and children in court. In 1888, 14 matrons were appointed to search female and child offenders. Before this they had employed the wives and children of constables. In 1893, the Met decided to take on a woman to visit female convicts. Five years later a second woman was employed.

They did not wish to employ women as it was considered they would be exposed to foul living, drunkenness and violence, which would offend respectable ladies.

In 1914, there was a national appeal for Special Constables. It was meant to be for men, but following protests for the first time women were seriously considered, and groups of women volunteers were taken on to patrol the streets. The work was in co-operation with the National Union of Women Workers.

In 1918, Nina Boyle was the first women to be nominated to stand for Parliament and she was a pioneer of the women’s police service. They were to control the behaviour of working class women.

There was a lot of prostitution. The prostitutes saw what they did as providing a service. The police saw it as very bad and immoral and used women officers to stop it. They walked in pairs to look for prostitutes. Policemen were there to protect and walked six to 12 yards behind.

The John Baird Committee in 1920 looked into the employment of police women. Experience in wartime had proven the value of their work. When appointing women police they decided they must avoid those with extreme views and not employ young women as they would become hard and superficial. It was not until the Second World War that women were seriously considered for police employment. Women aged 18 to 65 were encouraged to volunteer. They would do telephone duty, radio and tea making, and by the end of the war, there were women police constables. Even by the 1950s, uniformed WPCs were not allowed to go on street patrol and they did not have the same powers and rights as men.

They mainly worked with women and children, had a seven-and-a-half hour day and were paid 90 per cent of the male pay rate. They had different ranks and structures and worked one weekend in three.

In 1970, they got equal pay and in 1975, everything changed with the Sex Discrimination Act. They were allowed to join the various sections of police. This is the year that Kate joined as a cadet.

She joined Kent Police from Morpeth in 1978 and became a regular police officer in 1979. Attitudes were not enlightened — on a day out with CID she was told to put on some lipstick and do her hair. In those days tourists often paid for photos with the police, but any money always went into the ‘Police Widows Fund’, although there was some doubt whether it really existed.

Kent County Constabulary had 4,500 officers with 230 women. Nationally, women made up seven per cent of the force. Kate was posted to Tunbridge as the only female.

Regulation dress included a handbag and skirt, but no equipment except a whistle. WPCs were still not part of the main police force. She had a large torch, but nothing to hang it on so it went in the handbag along with an unofficial metal brick. Trousers had to be worn from 10pm to 6am. A soft hat was supplied, later it had a hard top. Eventually they were given a truncheon.

If you wanted to marry, you had to have the permission of a Superintendent and supply as much information as possible about the man and his family. Without approval there could be no marriage. Permission was also needed to move house.

Now PCs have two years of probation after training and work in the personnel department. Kate served with the regular police from age 18 and though she had been allowed out as a cadet, she was not as a WPC.