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Womens Police Service

Mabel Alice Read being awarded a medal.

Worker of the Week: Mabel Alice Read

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a new weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

Hello, and welcome to the very first edition of our new weekly series! This blogpost really demonstrates just how valuable sharing stories with us (and any Museum ) is!. A member of the public recently got in touch with us, enquiring about a lady named Mabel Alice Read.

 Mabel had been very briefly mentioned in our blog about Women Police Officers at H.M. Factory Gretna. The Women’s Police Service (WPS) was formed in 1915 by Margaret Damer Dawson, and one of its largest wartime units patrolled H.M. Factory Gretna and nearby towns. Over 150 women officers worked at Gretna, and we know very little about most of them.

Previously, Mabel’s name appeared on a valuation roll record from Gretna. However, a member of the public reached out to us and shared that Mabel was the focus of an article of the Policewomen’s Review that mentioned, not only her time at Gretna, but also her later work as a policewoman!

The Policewoman’s Review, Vol III, No, 32., December 1929. Document source: East Sussex Record Office, ESRO ref ACC 6572/3

In this article, it is written:


“Miss Mabel Alice Read was appointed Police Woman at Hove in July, 1919. She had previously been trained in the Women Police Service, and had practical experience in Government Munition Factories at Gretna.”


Although this mention of Gretna is only brief, this article gives us a real insight into Mabel’s professional development as a policewoman. It is clear that after the war, Mabel continued her policework in Hove in earnest. In a report written in October 1921 that summarised her duties, she states that she dealt with: ‘Wayward girls…drunks, women, prostitutes…illegitimate baby cases…lost children’ amongst other duties.[1] This list suggests that Mabel’s policing was very much gendered—she dealt with women and children a lot of the time. This was a crucial aspect of early policing for women, and one of the arguments that proponents of women in policing focused on: that women police officers were better placed to deal with enquiries and issues by women members of the public. Mabel herself asserts this in here report: ‘In cases of attempted indecent assault when I have obtained statements the mother or relative of the child have expressed gratitude at the sordid details being collected by a woman instead of a man.’[2]

Despite this, the Chief Inspector’s praise of the Hove Policewomen was faint. He argued in a letter that ‘a very considerable portion of their time appears to be occupied in typing or other internal administration or filing in the Detective Department’ and stated that he, an assistant inspector, and an inspector agreed that they ‘know of no result effected generally by the women patrol.’[3]

A really interesting case that Mabel was involved in happened in 1928, when she went undercover to ensnare a clairvoyant, Leoni Ward. Mabel visited Ward, who told her ‘that a dark man was in love with her and was about wherever she went, but that he was no good to her. She would marry the dark man and would have two children. The boy would be a great man, the girl a clever musician. Ward also said that Miss Read would travel and see the Sphinx, but must not touch it, as an evil spirit would harm her. She could see Miss Read “standing on a marble slab dressed in white, with pearls and diamonds all down the front.”’[4] At Hove Police Court, Ward ‘was fined £2 for “using palmistry and clairvoyance to deceive.”’ This was against Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1834, which prohibited ‘every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects.’[5]

Palmistry always puts me in mind of Professor Trelawney

It was great to find out more about Mabel’s post-Gretna life and her role as a pioneer policewoman. Thank you so much to the member of the public for bringing Mabel to our attention. I am very excited to go through the records the Devil Porridge Museum has on women police officers when the COVID-19 situation allows. Hopefully, I’ll find out more about Mabel and her fellow officers. If you are doing research on anyone connected to H.M. Factory Gretna, do get in touch on our social media pages or email me at We’d love to hear from you!


[1] Copies of correspondence and reports concerning the work and duties of policewomen in Hove, ESRO Reference: ACC 6572/2, Oct 1921, East Sussex Record Office

[2] Copies of correspondence and reports concerning the work and duties of policewomen in Hove, ESRO Reference: ACC 6572/2, Oct 1921, East Sussex Record Office

[3] Copies of correspondence and reports concerning the work and duties of policewomen in Hove, ESRO Reference: ACC 6572/2, Oct 1921, East Sussex Record Office

[4] ‘”Evil Spirit” Warning”, The Berks and Oxon Advertiser, 27 April 1928, p. 7.


Illustration of a child dressed as a police women on a postcard.

Women’s Police Service at HM Factory Gretna

By Collections blog

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be focusing on one interesting aspect of HM Factory Gretna – the Women’s Police Service.

This first post provides introductory information, then we’re going to take a look in more detail at some of the documents and accounts in the Museum collection.

During World War One, 12,000 women worked at HM Factory Gretna.  They were mainly young, unmarried women and the Ministry of Munitions felt responsible for them, taking several actions which they saw as being for the girl’s own protection. We might now view curfews, searches and the largest women’s police service in Britain as restrictive, but at the time there was a War on and the measures were seen as necessary.

All work at HM Factory Gretna came under the Official Secrets Act. There was large police presence, this building in Gretna was once the police HQ, it still stands and is now converted into flats.

The Devil’s Porridge Museum has several items in its collection and archive which relate to the Women’s Police Service.  There were over 150 members of this unit and they were, on the whole older, better educated middle class women who policed the younger, less educated, working class women who made up the majority of the Factory employees.  These young women were known as the ‘Gretna Girls’ although they came from all over Britain and worked in a Factory which stretched as far as Longtown.  For example, we know one female police officer was born in Braithwaite, Cumbria.

Members of the WPS outside the Women’s Police Barracks, Gretna in World War One.

The Museum archive includes documents about the training of the female police force and their uniforms, photographs of them and the buildings associated with them (one of which, the Police HQ in Gretna, still stands and is now flats).  An interesting document is a petition to Winston Churchill for improved pay.  This dates from 1918 when Churchill was Minister of Munitions and includes the signatures of lots of women employed in this role.  We are also fortunate to have a women’s police truncheon and WPS badge on display in the Museum.

Ministry of Munitions WPS badge from the Museum collection.

What did the women police do?  We know they inspected the girls as they entered and exited the Factory (for example one young woman tried to sneak in her knitting, another some cigarettes, one tried to steal some cordite).  They also policed the morals of the girls (breaking up a kissing couple on the railway platform, maintaining the 10pm curfew and inspecting the back rows of the two factory cinemas).  At the end of the War, some women remained in police service while others returned to their families or other employment.

That’s the end of Part One, Part Two coming soon.

If you’d like to know more about HM Factory Gretna and women in World War One, the following items from our online shop might interest you:

Gretna’s Secret War

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet

The Devil’s Porridge Museum Guidebook

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