TV blog

WPC 56: Women in policing in the 1950s

Writer

When I was first asked to pitch an idea for an original police series, which became WPC 56, I immediately knew I wanted to write about the 1950s.

The music and fashions of that decade were marvellously distinctive and it was a time of massive social change.

Britain was just getting back on its feet after the ravages of World War II, it was the beginnings of mass immigration, the birth of youth culture, the Cold War, and the feminism of the 60s was still a long way off.

The idea of a young woman wishing to buck the trend and join the police force, a traditionally male profession at that time, seemed to me to be rich in story potential.

'Never forget that your sole responsibility is to support the men'

Once I'd fallen in love with my subject matter, I knew I had to do it justice by doing as much research as I could.

I began with visiting the Metropolitan Police Museum which opened to the public in 2009 and is located at the Met's recruitment centre near Earls Court in London.

It is a small but fascinating collection of artefacts taken from a vast array of such treasures collected by Scotland Yard over at least a 100 years of policing – uniforms, weapons, photographs and archive footage.

I was even allowed to try on a genuine WPC's uniform jacket from the 1950s. While I was there I chatted to a couple of lovely retired policemen who were only too happy to tell me stories of the WPCs they worked alongside, mostly in the 60s and 70s.

One anecdote that stuck with me ended up in episode one, where the male officers give Gina Dawson a 'Brinford Branding'.

This was apparently a real tradition in some police stations, where new recruits were rubber stamped on the backside by their new colleagues, and the women had to endure the initiation too (although they proffered their thighs as a compromise).

The retired officer described the women as being "game" for it, but I wondered if it was really good fun to them, or if they were merely anxious to fit in.

PC Eddie Coulson (Chris Overton) stamps WPC Gina Dawson (Jennie Jacques)

Also I was told some female officers volunteered to work undercover as decoys, and occasionally were attacked before the male officers could intervene.

This was echoed in a book I read called The Gentle Arm Of The Law by Jennifer Hilton, a WPC in the 1950s.

She gives a vivid, firsthand account of walking along a canal at night in the hope of drawing out a reported rapist. She escaped unscathed but found the experience understandably frightening.

I was struck by the irony of the so-called "fairer sex" electing to take such risks, and yet they were generally considered less brave or capable than the men.

I interviewed Sioban Clark, Chairman of the Metropolitan Women Police Association and she told me about the impossible choice women had to make between love and career – if a female officer chose to marry or have children she would automatically lose her job.

These were some of the realities I wanted to reflect in the BBC One series.

WPC Gina Dawson in her office, the broom cupboard

The fact that women police were treated as an isolated section of the police force meant that even when they worked alongside the men, their ranks and responsibilities were considered separate.

They weren't fully integrated into the main force until the early 70s, and they didn't drop the prefix for Woman Police Constables until 1999.

No matter what her rank, a female officer in Gina's time was expected to do the typing for even the lowliest male colleague.

Reading firsthand accounts and listening to hours and hours of transcripts of police women and men, there were of course many differing experiences, and certainly not all of them were bad.

However, most would agree that making tea for the men was simply part of the job!

Dominique Moloney is the creator of WPC 56, and wrote episodes one, three and five.

WPC 56 continues daily until Friday, 22 March at 2.15pm on BBC One. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by Dominique Moloney

    on 22 Mar 2013 09:15

    A huge thanks to all the ex-police officers, and those still serving, who have written in to share their insights and experiences…
    TheOldDogListener – I was particularly moved by your very personal account of growing up in a police family, and later joining the force yourself.
    Greetings to Cheviot who joined in 1968,
    maggieB (I shall have to ask about those missing arm bands!)
    13oob who was WPC61,
    Anna Massen who served in the late 60’s,
    Simon who is still a serving officer in the West Midlands,
    Maggieb 39 – a real life WPC66 who joined Birmingham City Police in ‘65!
    And finally Marie Brookes, thank you for your comments about equal pay and maternity leave. According to the official Metropolitan Police history page it was “not until 1973 that Women Police were integrated directly into the main force.”

  • Comment number 42. Posted by glenn468008

    on 21 Mar 2013 21:50

    What a fantastic series, thank heavens for my recorder I could easily have missed this gem tucked away in the middle of the day, it certainly merits an evening slot. As a born & bread Brummie I'm pleased to note the regional accent isn't exaggerated to the point of ridicule and the clever filming on the outside shots capture the 50's very well. As for WPC56 herself, well she can arrest me any time. Hope there are many more episodes in the pipeline.

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by Anna Massen

    on 21 Mar 2013 15:09

    I have just watched the third episode with great interest and nostalgia as I was a serving policewoman (as we were then called) in Birmingham, in the late 1960's. I can identify with so many things, the uniform, the hat, Victoria Law Courts in which I sat or gave evidence on numerous occasions and unfortunately the conduct of some male colleagues, however perhaps time had moved on a bit by then as actually we were given a little more credence and respect than is portrayed. Brilliant series and I must go on I Player to catch up, well done.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by Dominique Moloney

    on 21 Mar 2013 08:58

    I am overwhelmed by the positive response to the show. There are too many of you to name, but thank you all for your comments. Writing can be a rather solitary process and it's just wonderful to hear that the work is being enjoyed when it finally goes out. I too would love WPC56 to get an evening repeat, and a second series. A good public response makes all the difference when Commissioners make such decisions, so thanks again for your support, and spread the word!

  • Comment number 24. Posted by 13oob

    on 20 Mar 2013 23:09

    Loving WPC56, I was WPC61 from '89 to '97. Male officers like these still existed ! I wandered off and got lost aged 8 and when I was found a lovely WPC came to gave me a right ticking off ,warmly of course and she inspired me to join the Police Force( they dropped Force because it was too aggressive )

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