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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.


Mabel Farrer

Members of the Women’s Police Service at HM Factory Gretna

By Collections blog

12,000 young women were employed to work at HM Factory Gretna during World War One (The Devil’s Porridge Museum tells the story of this amazing factory and the people who worked there).  Over 150 police women were also employed to help supervise the female workforce.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about women police, to read part one see:

We don’t always know very much about the women who worked at HM Factory Gretna (sometimes we don’t even know their names) but we do know a little more about the members of the Women’s Police Service (WPS).  They signed a letter/petition to Winston Churchill so we have many of their names (more on this in a future blog), we have some good photographs of them, we know where they stayed and we know a little about their training.

One family member also provided us with this invaluable account of Mabel Farrer, who was born at Braithwaite in Cumbria and was a member of the WPS at Gretna during the War.

“Auntie Mab was one of the first women appointed to the then new Women Police Service in 1916 by Damer Dawson herself. Her training in London under Dawson and Commandant Mary Allen’s direction comprised ‘a small amount of military drill and a few visits to Police Courts, and we were sent in our sweet innocence to improve the moral tone of Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square’!  Rules were strict though and education and compassion were guiding aims as the Women Police had very little powers other than those conferred under wartime legislation.

By Margaret Damer Dawson(Life time: 1920) – Original publication: Mary S. Allen ‘Lady in Blue’ 1932Immediate source: Mary S. Allen, ‘Lady in Blue’ 1932, Public Domain,

After this basic training, Mab was sent to Gretna and became the one of the first female policewomen there starting work in January 1917. Her pay was £2 a week  and she was provided with all uniform. After one year’s service she was given an addition 1/- a week boot allowance, and at some time during this period, she was promoted by Dawson to the rank of sergeant.

Members of the WPS at HM Factory Gretna,

At the time, Gretna had huge munitions factories and included the new townships of Gretna and Dornock, and there was an enormous female population working in the munitions factories for the war effort.  Other women police trainees followed and eventually there were [up to] 170 Women Police there. One group of policewomen had charge of the factory gates and kept up a constant patrol inside the danger areas and in the townships where most of the workers lived. They also escorted the trains full of female workers to and from the factory (mainly from Carlisle) and had to take numbers of sick girls home after their work hours, most of them suffering from ‘the effects of the special nature of their work’. (It was a criminal offence for workers to leave their employment in the munitions factories).

If you look carefully at this photograph of workers at a Factory station, you can see members of the WPS on the platform (they’re wearing long skirts and hats).

The policewomen also searched all workers going in and out of the factory, on entering to ensure they did not take in metal or other articles which could cause an explosion if brought into contact with machinery and on leaving, ‘for any factory property to which they had become attached’!

Women working in the Factory. Like many other observers of these young women during the War, Farrer commented on their cheerfulness.

She notes ‘It is surprising how little one remembers of two busy, happy years but one cannot forget those cold still nights walking alone between the buildings where high explosives were being manufactured at top speed. We rarely spoke to anyone except when we met a truck loaded with cordite, gun cotton etc being pushed quickly by two very young girls from one dangerous building to another. These youngsters usually sang at their work and if we greeted them with ‘it’s a rough night for you’ they would reply ‘it’s worse for the boys and they continued to sing of the ‘little grey home in the west.

Mabel Farrer photographed while working at HM Factory Gretna. She is seated in the centre of the front row.

She reported to three people! Although employed by the Women Police Service, she was sworn in as a ‘Special Constable’ for Dumfrieshire, Cumberland and the City of Carlisle. Part of the time she was in Carlisle itself in charge of a group working there and when there she reported to the Chief Constable. But she also reported to the Women Police Service office in Gretna. However she was paid by the Ministry of Munitions which had been set up by the Munitions of War Act 1915. She continued to be paid by them until the end of the war.

Mabel’s name appears on a valuation roll record from Gretna along with the names of other female police officers.

At the end of the war, British Police were just beginning to appoint women to their ranks and in October 1918, Northampton Police Force appointed its first two female police officers and Auntie Mab became the fourth to be appointed in December 1918 with the rank of ‘Police Constable’ with Powers of Arrest and her name placed on the roll of Court Officers.

Uniform was provided and comprised navy serge tunic and skirt over riding breeches and a military type navy overcoat. No shirts, ties, or gloves were supplied until some years later. Hours of duty were generally 8 and pay was £2 a week and no additional pay given for overtime. Policewomen were employed almost exclusively working with women and children and this included ‘women found wandering, neglected children, suicides, searching female prisoners, attending court, taking statements, indecency complaints, escorting female prisoners to jails etc’ and she also notes taking them to Dover and Holyhead for deportation. She also had to visit cinemas and read the synopses of films reporting to the Watch Committee suggesting a private viewing if considered too explicit.

She served at Northampton for 28½ years retiring in June 1947 with the rank of Sergeant and with a pension of £182 per annum. You no doubt remember she then lived with Auntie Flo and Uncle Maurice at 24 First St, Chelsea. After Uncle Maurice died, they moved to Newcastle.”

Our next article on the Women’s Police Service at HM Factory Gretna in World War One is coming soon.

If you would like to know more about women’s work at HM Factory Gretna in World War One, the following books from our online shop might interest you:

The Devil’s Porridge Museum Guidebook

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet


Gretna’s Secret War


Munition Workers’ Poems

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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