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Breaking the Mould: The first police women in Victoria

An account of the first police women in Victoria.

The story of Victoria’s police women begins in 1917 when Madge Connor and Elizabeth Beers were appointed to the force. Initially they were called police agents to differentiate them from male sworn members. They had no uniform, were unarmed and their work was to be similar to that of a social worker; looking after neglected children and protecting vulnerable women.

By 1924 the number of female agents had doubled and they were sworn into the force as official members. Reclassified as police women, they were given powers of arrest and equal pay. However, there were still many challenges ahead for them, including battles for equal opportunities and training.

One of the most dramatic events of Australian history, the onset of World War II, had a profound impact on the employment of women in policing. Across the Australian workforce record numbers of women filled jobs traditionally held by men. Victoria Police responded by forming the Women’s Auxiliary Force in 1942. Many of these women would continue their service beyond wartime. This was the largest single intake of women in Victoria Police’s history.

During the 1960s and 1970s the women’s liberation movement fought hard for equal pay, education and employment opportunities for women in Australia. This soon impacted on the rights and entitlements of women in Victoria Police. By the late 1970s, the number of police women more than doubled.

Despite Victorian police women continually breaking barriers in a male dominated workforce, it wasn’t until the twenty-first century that a woman reached the most senior leadership position. In 2001 Christine Nixon was appointed the first female Chief Commissioner.

In 2017, Victoria Police celebrates 100 years of women in policing with the exhibition ‘Agents of Change’. The exhibition acknowledges and celebrates the struggles and achievements of these women over the last century by sharing objects and photographs from the collection of the Victoria Police Museum.

Photograph (Madge Irene Connor)

Victoria Police Museum

Madge Connor 7711

Madge Irene Connor was one of Victoria's first police women. She was appointed as a police agent in 1917 and a fully sworn police officer in 1924. Madge received a great deal of praise for her work during her career. Together with agent Nell Davidson, she was highly commended for her assistance in the Gun Alley Murder case. Upon her retirement (due to imposed age restrictions) in 1929, Madge became a private inquiry agent. During her career Madge fought for equal pay and better conditions for herself and her colleagues.

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King’s Police Empire Gold Medal

Victoria Police Museum

Jessie Clarey 8507

Upon graduating from training in 1929, Jessie was sent to the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) for a year as a typist before being transferred to Fitzroy where she stayed until 1940. Jessie worked in the Plain Clothes Branch as well as the CIB. In 1938 she won first prize in the King’s Police Empire Gold Medal, a Commonwealth wide essay competition for her paper on Juvenile Crime – Its Causes and Treatment. Credit was given to competitors who were able share their own experience. Jessie was the first Australian and the first woman to win this medal.

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Photograph (Graduation July 1941)

Victoria Police Museum

Gwendoline Mudford 9575

Gwendoline Mudford began training at the Police Depot on 11 February 1941. The only female in her class of 53 recruits, she graduated in first place. Gwendoline was the first woman to win the prestigious Silver Baton award. After serving just seven months, she was forced to retire due to her impending marriage. Her Record of Conduct and Service stated she was ‘… well conducted. Showed great promise of being a successful police woman until she decided to get married’.

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Record of Conduct and Service

Victoria Police Museum

Grace Brebner 9690

Grace Brebner applied to join the force in 1939, however due to a waiting list it was several years before she commenced training. She was often commended for her ‘outstanding zeal and ability’. In 1944 Grace took on undercover work in a factory, in order to investigate gambling rings. Grace achieved many ‘firsts’ during her career. She was the first police woman to pass her police driving test, the first female detective in Australia, and the first police woman in Victoria to be awarded the Queen’s Police Medal (QPM). Grace was Officer in Charge of Women Police, until she retired in 1974.

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Photograph (badge, Auxiliary Force)

Victoria Police Museum

Auxiliary Badge – Jeanette Silvester 9954

The Women’s Police Auxiliary Force was formed in 1942 to solve the shortage of staff due to police men enlisting in World War II. A total of 202 women served in the Auxiliary. Unlike police women at the time, the Auxiliary Force members were given a uniform. The cap badges began at 251 which had been chosen at random so they wouldn’t look new; Jeanette Silvester was the most senior member of the auxiliary and was given this badge. She performed the duties of typist and car driver. Jeanette went on to join the regular police force in 1946, where she became private secretary and driver to the Chief Commissioner.

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Photograph Police Woman

Victoria Police Museum

Elva Carr 9835 – Street Patrol

Elva Carr (pictured right) joined Victoria Police in 1946 and was dux of her squad. Elva pushed for a women’s Street Patrol in 1948, arguing that the patrol could prevent and detect crime just as well as their male peers did. Prior to having access to a car for their work, police women travelled by public transport even when escorting victims, prisoners and psychiatric patients. The patrol needed uniforms and, led by Elva, the police women designed their own. The group later became known as Uniform Patrol.

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Diary

Victoria Police Museum

Kath Mackay 8600

This 1950 reissued police diary belonged to Senior Police woman Kath Mackay. After graduating in 1930, Kath worked for many years at the Russell Street Station, and in 1943 became the first police woman to attain the rank of Senior Constable. She was promoted again in 1956 and became the first female Sergeant in Victoria. Kath was then in charge of police women and auxiliaries. Her diary gives an insight into the tasks undertaken by police women. Amongst their duties was the welfare of women and children. Diaries were submitted weekly to the Superintendent, Melbourne District, for inspection.

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Tunic, Female

Victoria Police Museum

June Long 11868

Police women were not given their own uniform until 1947. Led by Elva Carr, the women designed their own uniform. This tunic belonged to June Long and was worn by her in 1968. This tunic was made by Louis Epstein of Flinders Street and issued to female first constables between 1947 and 1979. June served as a member of the Women’s Police Auxiliary Force for four years as a car driver, before becoming a sworn member of the Victoria Police in 1954. In 1956 she was transferred to Bendigo where she remained until she retired in 1980.

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Identity Card, International Police Association

Victoria Police Museum

Catherine Margaret McVeigh 12428

Catherine ‘Margaret’ McVeigh graduated in 1956. Margaret was a high achiever and quickly rose to Sergeant. In 1974 she was awarded the Churchill Fellowship and travelled overseas to study women in world police services. By 1977 she was Inspector – the highest ranking police woman at the time. Margaret was the first female to attend Airlie Officers’ College and in 1986 became the first woman in Australia to hold the rank of Chief Superintendent. Margaret was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1989.

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Patch, Police Nurse

Victoria Police Museum

Despite wearing this patch, nurses were unsworn members of the police force. Nurses were a part of Victoria Police since the first Police Hospital was opened in Punt Road in 1853. The service also used buildings in the Victoria Barracks, St Kilda Road and Dodds Street, South Melbourne. The hospital provided outpatient and inpatient care including surgery, and employed a Chief Medical Officer, a Matron and Sisters to care for patients. In 1992 the Police Hospital (Victoria Police Medical Centre) moved to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Today Victoria Police maintains in-house medical services with their Medical Advisory Unit.

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