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Suffolk celebrates 100 years of women on the beat

Retired officer Liz Pettman, ACC Sarah Hamlin, Sergeant Claire Simons and ACC Rachel Kearton
Retired officer Liz Pettman, ACC Sarah Hamlin, Sergeant Claire Simons and ACC Rachel Kearton

A celebration to mark 100 years of women in policing has been held by Suffolk Police has today, Friday 18 September.

The inspirational event offered the opportunity to speak to women who played important roles in Suffolk Police’s history and the chance to find out what policing was like in the past. A raffle was also held with proceeds going to the charity Care of Police Survivors (COPS).

Deborah Watson, who was part of the Metropolitan Police and Suffolk Police
Deborah Watson, who was part of the Metropolitan Police and Suffolk Police

Assistant Chief Constables Rachel Kearton and Sarah Hamlin opened the event, which was organised by Sergeant Claire Simons, Chair of Suffolk Association of Women in Policing (SAWP).

Sergeant Claire Simons said: “This event was about acknowledging our female pioneers and the work that they did before us, to get where we are today. Without their struggles, I don’t think we would have the current strength in women policing we have. I’m also hoping that the event has helped to inspire new officers and show them that anything is possible.”

Here’s a quick look at some of the incredible female officers who have served our county:

Liz Pettman:

Edith Smith's, Britain's first policewoman to be granted the power of arrest.
Edith Smith's, Britain's first policewoman to be granted the power of arrest.

Liz Pettman joined Suffolk Constabulary in September 1974 at the age of 16 as a Police Cadet. In February 1977, she became a Police Constable working on section in Ipswich. Liz took promotion exams for Sergeant at the first available opportunity and passed, but it took until 1989 to gain promotion to the rank of Sergeant. In the meantime, she had become the first female Area Car driver in the county. Liz had also worked as a Sexual Offence Investigation Trained officer which involved working as part of a Major Crime Team investigating rapes. Liz has always been interested in issues around equality and fairness and has been a Federation Representative in all ranks up to, and including, Chief Inspector at which time she stood for. She was also elected as Chair of the Joint Branch Board (JBB) in Suffolk a role she carried out until her promotion to Superintendent.

Liz represented the Federation on the Equal Opportunities Monitoring Group in the 1980s and 1990s and then on the newly formed Diversity Programme Board. From 1992 to 1995, Liz studied. First, for a CMS, then a DMS and finally for a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Strategy. At the same time, she applied for, and was awarded a Police Research Grant. Her dissertation and grant paper were on the same subject, the under representation of women in specialist roles in the Police Service.

When Liz became a Superintendent she joined the Superintendents’ Association and soon became an Equality Advisor in Suffolk. At this time, Liz was approached separately by two female colleagues who suggested that, now she had reached this rank she should do something about setting up a women’s networking group in Suffolk. As a result of these conversations SAWP was formed and Liz became the first Chair. Liz retired as a Police Officer in March 2007 and started work the next week as Diversity Manager until 2013.

Liz feels her major achievements were; representing individual women as a Federation Representative and getting results; keeping equality and diversity issues on the agenda for the past 40 years; challenging decisions/ policies at a strategic level as Chair of the JBB, as Superintendent, in my Policing Improvement role, which involved carrying out internal inspections and as Diversity Manager; and co-ordinating and driving forward SAWP. She continues to make a difference to the lives of women by working as a Crisis Worker at the Suffolk Constabulary SARC.

Deborah Watson:

Deborah Watson began a career in the Metropolitan Police in 1978, but was originally interested in a career in the Royal Navy but was dissuaded by a Sailor in the careers office who advised she’d only be a typist. She was stationed at West End Central sporting a new uniform designed by Norman Hartnell, who at the time provided designs for the Queen. On tip-toes just making the height requirement of 5’4” she had to sit at the front of the class with other female’s so they could see and be seen. Women were told they must always patrol with a male officer to protect them from sexual assault or ridicule on the streets.

Deborah was deployed for the Brixton Riots in 1981, stating it was ‘terrifying.’ Female officers had no protective equipment unlike their male counterparts. After the riots she wrote a report that was printed in the Daily Mail with the headline ‘We want riot gear too says police girl.’ This report got her in hot water with the powers that be but she stands by the fact that she spoke out.

Deborah resigned in 1985 following the birth of her daughter as there was no part time or flexible working. The average length of service for a Woman Police Constable was 5 to 7 years. However, she re-joined Suffolk Constabulary in 1993 repeating her training at Shotley and was first stationed at Newmarket. She worked full-time on shifts despite being a single mother.

In 1996 she was the female Constables Federation Representative and sat on the ‘Uniform and Equipment Working Group’ campaigning for more initial issue trousers for women. Upon her retirement in 2015, Deborah has many fond memories and thoroughly enjoyed her time in the police despite the regular moans and groans. She particularly remembers the words of a male colleague…”Debs, if we were in a fight and I had to rely on someone, I’d rather have you next to me than some of these Policemen!”

Edith Smith:

Britain’s first policewoman to be granted the power of arrest 100 years ago was Edith Smith, who patrolled the streets of Grantham, Lincolnshire. She had previously been a midwife and it came at a time when the nation was waging a war against Germany and hundreds of thousands of men were fighting overseas. So the decision was borne more out of necessity than a genuine desire to promote equality. At the time women still didn’t have the vote and there were many men, including senior police officers, who did not regard crime-fighting as women’s work.

Edith was a member of the Women Police Service, a voluntary organisation which had been founded the previous year. The fledgling policewomen weren’t allowed to carry truncheons or handcuffs but were instead equipped with umbrellas. But bizarrely they were issued with the latest motorbikes, which only served to upset male colleagues still often using pony and trap to get around.

Chasing crooks was left to the men and at the first sign of trouble female officers were under instructions to call for help. Early uniforms were supplied by Harrods, including a shallow cork and felt helmet which offered minimal protection. The power of arrest for female officers was rolled out nationally in 1923 but it was up to individual chief constables whether to recruit women. They worked apart from men and there were strict rules which blocked women rising through the ranks. Most onerous was that they must automatically leave if they became pregnant or got married, because homemaking was seen as taking priority. The rule was not lifted until after the Second World War in England.

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