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London’s policewomen have come a long way since 1919, following a path similar to that encountered in New Zealand.
The pioneers had to overcome prejudices and prove their worth. A huge debt is owed to those who took on the early challenges and it is their dedicated service that shaped the role that policewomen have today.
New Zealander Sophie Alloway was one of those pioneers and had the distinction of being the first woman in the Commonwealth to receive the Queen’s Police Medal (QPM).
Sophie was born in 1899 and grew up in Marton, one of three daughters of the local bank manager. She trained and worked as a teacher before working with a friend to develop a poultry and flower farm in Levin.
In 1930, the pair travelled to Britain with the idea of setting up a small farming venture there, but the Depression intervened and Sophie took up a shorthand typing position instead.
Someone jokingly suggested she became a policewoman, to which she scornfully replied, “No”, but the idea must have stuck because later, she said, when she was crossing a London street “a young policeman smiled at me” and that decided her future.
In 1933, Sophie trained at Peel House and was posted to “A” Division in Hyde Park, reaching the rank of sergeant in 1938.
During World War II, Sophie’s letters home were full of her experiences of Britain at war and her sometimes harrowing duties during the bombing of London. Promoted to inspector in 1941, she was in the thick of it when posted to the East End.
At the end of the war, she was seconded to the Foreign Office with the Police branch of the Control Commission that was in charge of occupied Germany. Her task was to reorganise German female police officers. From 1945, and operating from a former Gestapo headquarters in Hamburg, she visited all parts of the British Zone as well as the British Sector of Berlin.
Her letters home gave vivid descriptions of post-war Germany – the displaced persons, the bomb damage, the destruction of roads and bridges, the countryside littered with wrecked trains, aircraft, guns, tanks and trucks.
She wrote that she was appalled by the results of just one 28-minute raid that had reduced a town to rubble under which were the bodies of thousands of people. No one had attempted a rescue as the Americans were advancing to capture the town after the raid.
Her task with existing women police was to weed out those with Nazi sympathies, recruit and train replacements, changing their focus from control to community safety.
It was a task that gave her much pleasure and through the sympathy and understanding of their problems she became well loved and respected by German policewomen.
In 1948, at the end of her secondment, 500 policewomen had been trained in the British Zone and 100 in the British Sector. Those in uniform wore a smart navy blue uniform that Sophie had designed.
Returning to Britain, she was made inspector to the Women’s Police Branch at New Scotland Yard, later being regraded to chief inspector. Her work was largely administration and organisation. In 1953, she was promoted to superintendent.
The following year she was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal. The citation mentioned her loyalty, courage and organising ability, both during the Battle of Britain and when chosen for special duty in Germany from 1945 to 1948, and her devotion to duty at all times.
She ended her service at New Scotland Yard as a superintendent in charge of policewomen.
Over several years, New Zealand policewomen visiting Britain would contact Sophie and she was always willing to arrange for them to experience aspects of policing in London.
When she retired to New Zealand, settling in Levin, she joined the National Council of Women and, during her term as president, initiated the Meals on Wheels service.
She served on the Horowhenua Road Safety Committee, was an official visitor to the Levin Hospital and Training School and, after appointment as a justice of the peace, acted as a marriage conciliator.
Sophie died in 1975.
Valerie Redshaw was a member of the London Metropolitan Police and later the New Zealand Police. She is well known for her book Tact and Tenacity, New Zealand Women in Policing, published in 2006. This month she will be attending a service at Westminster Abbey in London, among other events planned for the centenary celebrations. For more information, visit the Metropolitan Women Police Association website, metwpa.org.uk.