Turbulent London: Mary Damer Dawson, 1873-1920

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Margaret Damer Dawson, animal rights campaigner and founder of the first female police force in Britain.


Margaret Damer Dawson

Margaret Damer Dawson in her Women’s Police Service uniform (Source: BBC).

It might be tempting to think that the recent increase in vegetarianism and concern for animal rights is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, the campaign for animal rights can be traced back a long time. Margaret Damer Dawson’s involvement in animal rights activism would be enough to make her worthy of attention, but she also went on to be the founder of the first female police force in Britain, making her doubly fascinating.

Margaret Damer Dawson was born on the 12th of June 1873 in Hove, East Sussex. Her father was a surgeon, and she had a comfortable upbringing, and an independent income that allowed her to pursue her campaigning interests as an adult. She was probably educated at home, but studied at the London Academy of Music when she was older.

Dawson was a committed campaigner, devoting her life to the causes she believed in. She first got involved in campaigns against the cruel treatment of animals; in 1906 she became the Organising Secretary of the International Animal Protection Societies, and in 1908 she was made the Honorary Secretary of the International Anti-Vivisection Council. She was also an active member of the Animal Defence and Anti-vivisection society, which campaigned against the use of circus animals and the killing of animals for meat, amongst other issues. Vivisection is a particularly unsavoury practice, where operations are performed on live animals for scientific research or education. In 1906 Dawson organised the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress in London.

Although not actively involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, Dawson was interested in feminist issues, such as the trafficking of women and children. After the beginning of the first world war, she championed the formation of the first women’s police force in Britain. Campaigners for women’s rights knew that male police officers often handled cases involving women poorly, and it was thought that female police officers would help protect women. The government had previously been opposed to female police officers, but with so many male officers joining the army they relented. Along with Nina Boyle, a campaigner for women’s rights and member of the Women’s Freedom League, Dawson was permitted to set up the Women Police Volunteers (WPV). At first the WPV consisted of 50 women, all of independent means. They initially concentrated their efforts on London, and their responsibilities included looking after refugees arriving in London after fleeing the war.

In November 1914, Dawson and Boyle had a disagreement that caused Boyle to leave their joint venture. The Army had set up a training camp for new recruits at Grantham, and the WPV were asked to protect the trainee soldiers by controlling women of ‘bad character’ in the area, effectively imposing a curfew on women. Boyle wanted to refuse, viewing the request as an attack on women’s rights. Dawson argued that they should accept any orders they were given to prove that they could accept police discipline. Dawson had the support of the WPV members and won the argument; she inspired loyalty and affection in the women who served under her. After Boyle left, the WPV was renamed the Women’s Police Service (WPS), and Mary Allen became Dawson’s second in command. Allen was a former member of the WSPU, and formed a close relationship with Dawson; the two women would live together until Dawson’s death.

Margaret Dawson Plaque

This plaque, at 10 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, marked where Margaret Damer Dawson lived with Mary Allen (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

In 1916 the Ministry of Munitions asked the WPS to supervise the female employees working in munitions factories. Dawson recruited and trained 140 women for this task, with no financial input from the government, on the understanding that the scheme would be funded if it proved successful. The WPS training, which took place in East London, received lots of attention from the press, which did not please the Home Office and the leadership of London’s Metropolitan Police.

By the end of the war the WPS had more than 350 members around the country, although many weren’t sworn in as police officers and could not make arrests. After the Armistice, many of the women who had worked during the war were expected to give up their jobs to make way for the returning soldiers. The Baird Committee on the Employment of Women on Police Duties approved the employment of female police officers, although the Home Office was reluctant. 47 members of the WPS were hired by Chief Constables around the country, although the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was especially hostile. He seemed to have a personal grudge, and refused to hire any members of the WPS, although he did recruit women who weren’t loyal to Dawson.

Dawson had to step down from the WPS in 1919 due to poor health, Mary Allen took over as Commandant of the WPS. Margaret Damer Dawson died of a heart attack on the 18th of May 1920. Allen believed that Dawson’s constant struggle with the male police establishment had contributed to her early death.

Margaret Damer Dawson was a fierce and determined campaigner. During both phases of her activist career she fought hard for what she believed in, and as Commandant of the WPS she began the process of normalising women in the police force, disproving many of the prejudices of the male policing establishment. In 2019, women make up 30% of the UK’s police officers. As with many areas of employment, the battle for gender equality is not yet won, but we owe a debt to women like Margaret Damer Dawson, who fired the first shot.

References and Further Reading

Doughan, David. “Dawson, Margaret Mary Damer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 3rd January 2008, accessed 22nd October 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/45544 [Requires a subscription to access].

Simkin, John. “Margaret Damar Dawson.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2015, accessed 22nd September 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Wdawson.htm

Wikipedia. “Margaret Damer Dawson.” Last modified 7th October 2019, accessed 22nd October 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Damer_Dawson

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