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  • Daisy Simpson-Talmer

The History of Female Police Officers in Scotland and Donna Moore's 'The Unpicking'

Text reads, 'The Historical Fact Behind 'The Unpicking''.  To the left is the cover for 'The Unpicking' by Donna Moore.  Light purple background, with a dark blue banner and white border.

In her upcoming historical thriller, The Unpicking, Donna Moore takes us on a gripping journey through the annals of Victorian and Interwar Scotland, examining systemic corruption, as well as the role of women, within the police force. With a background in crime fiction, and a PhD in creative writing around women’s history and gender-based violence, Moore dives into historical realities where women navigated their roles, their safety, and their rights with courage and resilience.

In the third section of the novel, the reader is introduced to Mabel, one of the first policewomen in Glasgow, in 1919. Mabel's quest to unveil the truth about a killer weaves together the stories of her mother, her grandmother, and the countless other ‘young women who were there one day and gone the next’. Echoing the struggles of Scotland's earliest female police officers, Mabel faces the undermining and belittling actions of her male peers , all while dealing with cases that cast women and children as victims. Yet, with unyielding dedication and unwavering resolve, Mabel leaves an indelible mark on the force, showcasing a presence that refuses to be brushed aside.

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the history of female police officers in Glasgow, and Scotland as a whole, which inspired the character of Mabel.


On the 30th June 1800, the authorities of Glasgow successfully petitioned the British Government to pass the Glasgow Police Act, establishing the City of Glasgow Police and heralding the first modern-style municipal police force - a significant step towards organised law enforcement in Scotland. However, it would be a long and arduous road before women were officially recognised as officers…

A photograph of 'Big Rachel' Hamilton, a tall and broad Victorian woman, smoking a pipe
'Big Rachel' took on a voluntary police role in 1875

The 19th Century

During the 1875 Partick Riots, Rachel Hamilton, also known as ‘Big Rachel’ (stemming from her 6ft 4in stature), was sworn in as a Special Constable to quell the unrest. Rachel was one of around 30 locals sworn in, responsible for driving the rioters back. Rachel’s time as the first female constable was, however, brief - the position was voluntary or auxiliary, and until relatively recently, it was restricted to times of emergency exclusively.

While it would take a further 40 years after the Partick Riots for women to be officially employed by the Scottish police force, it was common for officers' wives in the countryside and small towns to care for female prisoners, as well as to voluntarily clean and maintain the police station. In urban areas and cities, however, the urban areas, women were hired as turnkeys and matrons to oversee female detainees.


The 20th Century

The chaos of the First World War brought a shift as women in Scotland, and throughout Britain, joined voluntary patrols, organised by the National Council of Women Workers, with groups in Dundee, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Hawick, Kirkcaldy, and Leith. Their work was gender-based, focused on social and 'rescue' efforts, preventing prostitution, and providing guidance to young women and children. The significant involvement of women in policing activities in Scotland extended to responsibilities at HM Gretna Munitions Factory between 1916-1918, searching women workers as they entered and left, and monitoring their behaviour.

A photograph of the blue plaque for Edith Smith, on a brick wall
Edith Smith's blue plaque in Oxton, awarded by The Oxton Society 2018

Edith Smith, a former midwife, became the first official police officer in the UK, moving to Grantham in 1915 to deal with prostitution in the town after billeting in the area. She, like many Mabel, was solely given cases relating to violence against women and children, and issues with prostitution. While the roles of female officers were seen as complementing, rather than replacing their male peers, resistance and criticism persisted, mirroring broader biases. Edith’s appointment in particular was criticised by the Home Office, with the claim that women were not ‘proper persons’ (‘the same reason’, Jackson notes, ‘given to explain why women could not vote’). Legislative changes, including the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 (the same year that Mabel’s section is set), gradually paved the way for the inclusion of women in policing. The legitimacy of policewomen continued to be questioned due to their blurred status and limited powers.

A newspaper clipping from 17 September 1915, describing Emily Miller's appointment as a policewoman
Emily Miller was Scotland's first female police officer

With millions of men fighting overseas, and following the hiring of Edith Smith, a decision was made to recruit women for the first time in Scotland, in order to plug the gaps in police forces across the country. In September 1915, Emily Miller was appointed as the first female investigation officer (or ‘statement taker’ and ‘lady assistant’) within Glasgow City Police. She, like Mabel and her peers, was assigned a very specific brief: to take statements from women and children in cases of sexual assault and abuse. Only in 1919 did she secure a position as a 'policewoman' instead of a 'lady assistant' (alongside Georgina W. McLeod). In 1920, she and fellow police officer Jean Thomson presented their testimony to the Departmental Committee on the Employment of Women on Police Duties. Their argument centred on equalising pay, pension rights, and arrest powers between female and male officers. It took until 1924 for Emily to be granted the power of arrest.

The number of policewomen in Scotland remained low across the first half of the twentieth century. By 1928 there were 16 policewomen in Scotland, with 11 in Glasgow, rising to 15 by 1939 - although their role was still related to statement taking and the investigation of offences against women and children.

A black and white photograph of Jean Malloy, in uniform
Jean Malloy, Scotland's first detective sergeant

Throughout the mid-20th century, the number of policewomen increased, albeit primarily focused on roles related to women and children. Notable milestones emerged, such as Jean Malloy's ascent to detective sergeant in 1940 - the first woman in Scotland to do so - and Janet Gray, who relocated from Gloucester to Glasgow and became Scotland’s first female superintendent in 1958. Yet, marriage bars and societal attitudes continued to hinder progress, with most women, after training, serving for only three to four years.

A black and white photograph of Janet Gray, in uniform
Janet Gray, Scotland's first female superintendent

Only in 1975 did the Sex Discrimination Act finally abolish the marriage bar for the force in Scotland, allowing women to serve under the same terms as men. Gender-based assignments continued well into the 20th Century, with former detective chief superintendent John Carnochan stating that female officers were there for ‘support’ and were ‘separate. They did not do shifts, they did not walk the beat, they were in the office, they did admin stuff’. During this decade, the number of female officers rose to 382, yet this only accounted for less than 4% of all officers, with the challenges faced by Mabel enduring throughout the latter half of the century.

A colour photo of Jo Farrell, in uniform, smiling
Jo Farrell will become the first female Chief Constable of Scotland in 2023

The 21st Century

In 2008, Norma Graham was appointed as the first female Chief Constable, as the Chief Constable of Fife. The year 2013 saw the establishment of Police Scotland, and with it, Rose Fitzpatrick assumed the position of Deputy Chief Constable, becoming the highest-ranking female officer at the time and overseeing local policing responsibilities. By 2020, 32% of police officers in Scotland were women, with the rate of growth slowing year-on-year, challenges to parity within the police force continue to endure. A milestone was once again achieved in 2023 as Jo Farrell, head of Durham Constabulary, was designated as the first female Chief Constable, with her predecessor admitting in May that Police Scotland had problems with ‘racism, sexism, misogyny and discrimination’.


The changes that we have seen today are uplifting, with the resilience and endurance of women within the force reflected in Moore’s thriller. Whilst women within the police force continue to face challenges of representation and advancement, significant progress has been made, with women no longer facing the same issues faced by Mabel within the novel. The Unpicking provides a gripping portrayal of these struggles and triumphs, delving into the challenges faced by women like Mabel, whose resilience paved the way for the progress we witness today.

Text reads '27.10.23' - the release date for 'The Unpicking', to the right is the book cover for the novel.

About The Unpicking

"I had read enough mystery stories to know that girls who went out to meet strangers at night never came to a good end..."

Stirling, 1877.

Lillias Gilfillan, a recently orphaned girl of sixteen, falls in love and elopes with a man who sees her as wealthy and naïve: ‘a little boat without its oars’. In a sea of rising debt and deception, Lillias must learn quickly, or drown.

Glasgow, 1894.

Clementina knows little mercy living in a home for ‘wayward girls’. With the ‘Jingling Devil’ always lurking in the shadows and a child growing inside her, can she outrun him and save her best friend in the process?

Glasgow, 1919.

Mabel is one of the first policewomen in Glasgow, on a mission to find a murderer. In doing so, she finds a web of corruption and now the ‘Jingling Devil’ wants her dead.

The Unpicking spans three generations of ‘hysterical women’ who take on systemic corruption and injustice, despite all odds.

Scheduled for release on the 27th of October 2023, The Unpicking is available to pre-order now!



Jackson, Louise A. ‘Women in Scottish Policing: the first 100 years’. Women's History Scotland. 24/12/2015.

'Glasgow's Policewomen Pioneers'. Glasgow Police Museum.

Devine, Thomas M. Glasgow: Beginnings to 1830. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1995.

Silvester, Norman. ‘The Glasgow Crime Story of first female cop 'Big Rachel'’. Glasgow Times. 13/08/2013.

Finn, Courtney, Bob Knowles, and David Sterry. Edith Smith: Britain’s First Warranted Policewoman. Oxton: Oxton Society. 2018.

Scotland has first female chief constable’. The Herald. 07/06/2008

Mnyanda, Lukanyo. ‘Jo Farrell appointed Scotland’s first female police chief’. Financial Times. 14/06/23

Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs. ‘Police (Ethics, Conduct and Scrutiny) (Scotland) Bill: equality impact assessment’. Scottish Government. 07/06/2023


The People's Palace Museum. Glasgow.

Glasgow Police Museum. Glasgow.

Lincolnshire Police.

British Association of Women in Policing.

Wikimedia Commons.

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