Nan, one of our Royal Parks in the First World War research volunteers, finds out more about preventing lewd behaviour in the Royal Parks:
As complaints against public displays of affection in the parks mounted, the Office of Works and police force looked for a way to deal with 'indecent behaviour'.
Women offering to patrol Hyde Park presented a possible solution. Could women really act as police officers? A male police officer asked this question in 1916 laughed, “No, not even if the war lasts 50 years.” Within a few months, he was proved wrong. After initially dismissing women police as “too ambitious” and “repugnant to human nature”, the Home Office eventually bowed to public pressure and agreed to try out the Voluntary Women's Patrols (VWP) in Hyde Park.
So what did the VWP actually do in Hyde Park? After four weeks of training, successful candidates were issued a coat and boot allowance, plus a distinctive armlet and a Home Office authorisation card. They were paid and allowed to testify in court cases, though women were never sworn in as constables. Patrolling Hyde Park in pairs, followed by a male constable, their actions included (taking the example of August 1918) warning 123 courting couples about possible indecency, testifying in 8 court cases, helping a lost child, and taking a sick girl to the hospital. Betraying a double standard about gender, they “spoke to” 10 girls about perceived inappropriate behaviour, but no men.
Public reactions to women policing Hyde Park were mixed. The Metropolitan Police received a few complaints about overzealous patrols “flashing electric torches in the faces of respectable persons sitting on the seats in Hyde Park after dark” or scolding a 14-year-old girl that she “ought not to crimp her hair and must put her hat straight”. At the same time, The Times reported that some frustrated parents had actually sent for women police to give their “refractory daughters” a talking-to! Overall, both the women’s groups and the Home Office considered their service at success, with The Times deeming them “valuable, brave, and steadfast”. The VWP cited a dramatic reduction in arrests for indecency in Hyde Park - and this was despite the dangers they faced: Mrs Damer Dawson, head of the Women's Police Service, commented in 1918 that:
“the women police had justified their existence. The pioneer work had been successful beyond expectation.I have not had a stone thrown at me for at least two months!”
As a direct result of women’s policing of Hyde Park and other areas during World War I, and ensuing pressure by the two women’s organisations, a new police career path opened to women. In 1919, the first 110 women officers were appointed to the Metropolitan Police. Sir Leonard Dunning, Inspector of Constabulary, now proclaimed that “it was accepted as a woman’s work and he hoped that every properly-constituted police force would include women”. Perhaps only the drab uniform remained as a discouragement: Tatler suggested that even more female recruits would apply if only the cut were a little more fashionable.