The stories of bravery, leadership and invention that make up the history of the emergency services are largely dominated by men. That’s hardly surprising, given that in the UK women were not officially recruited into any of the services until World War I and, in some cases, long after that. That’s not to say that women weren’t playing an unofficial role before this in what were often very local operations but, as is so often the case with female-led stories, much of this went unrecorded and is lost to history; something that never stops being frustrating and infuriating in equal measure!
However as the 20th century progressed and opportunities opened up for women both in war and peacetime, it paved the way for trailblazers to smash the glass ceiling and make their mark on history as part of a roster of fabulous female firsts.
Before the 20th century if women featured in any stories of emergency services heroism it was always as volunteers.
This was perhaps truest of all in the ranks of the RNLI. Women have played a hands-on role in lifesaving since the organisation was formed in 1824. Of the 22 females who have been awarded RNLI medals for gallantry after taking part in rescues at sea, an amazing 19 were honoured during the 19th century,
The first of these medal-winning women, and undoubtedly the most famous, was Grace Darling. Grace became a national hero in 1838, aged just 22, after helping to rescue stranded survivors from the SS Forfarshire, which had been wrecked just off Longstone Rock, Northumberland. Grace and her father William, the lighthouse keeper, rowed out to the stricken ship in ferocious weather, with Grace single-handedly keeping the lifeboat away from the hazardous rocks while William went ashore to help survivors. The pair made two trips to the wreck, saving the lives of nine people.
Following the rescue Grace became famous up and down the land. People sent gifts, portraits were painted and it’s said that so many people wrote to her requesting a lock of her hair, she began to go bald. When she died four years later, aged just 26, hundreds of people turned out for her funeral in Bamburgh.
It was not until 1969, more than 125 years after Grace’s heroics, that Elisabeth Hostvedt, an 18-year-old Norwegian student, became the first woman qualified to command an RNLI inshore lifeboat. Based at Atlantic College in Llantwit Major, Wales, Elisabeth’s application to join the college’s lifeboat crew met with some resistance from those who still believed women didn’t have the physical strength needed for rescues. It was agreed to accept her as a trained crew member if she could prove that she had the ‘physique to stand up to an arduous service’; a challenge she passed with flying colours.
As of 2019 there were 300 women on RNLI lifeboat crews, including five coxswains and 44 helms. And 95 per cent of lifeboat crews are still made up of volunteers.
Heroism in War
Some of the earliest opportunities for women to take an official role in the emergency services came as part of the ambulance service. This may be because it was part of the ‘caring profession’ like nursing, something that had always been seen as the preserve of women. That’s not to say, however, that female ambulance crews were welcomed with open arms; the image of the saintly nurse sitting patiently by the bedside of an injured soldier was very different to the idea of a woman tearing along the Western Front behind the wheel of an ambulance!
This didn’t stop women wanting to ‘do their bit’ for king and country when World War I began and many joined organisations such as the Red Cross and St John Ambulance, or other volunteer units like Dr Hector Munro’s Ambulance Corps and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry Corp (FANY). Travelling to France and Belgium as volunteers, pioneering women like Lady Dorothie Feilding, Elsie Knocker and Marie Chisholm fought prejudice and chauvinism to become heroes for their lifesaving exploits. In 1916 the British Army finally relented and officially welcomed female ambulance units into its fold for the very first time. (You can read more about these amazing women in a previous blog post at
The trail blazed by these female ambulance crews meant that, during World War II, women were actively recruited as ambulance drivers and medics in large numbers. It was now seen as such a suitable profession for a woman that even princesses were allowed to get behind the wheel! Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) drove ambulances as part of her role with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Her wartime service means she can boast a first of her own; the first female member of the Royal Family to join the Armed Services as a full-time active member.
Following the end of World War II and the creation of the NHS, ambulance services were reorganised but crews were still largely dominated by men. However a handful of women were making inroads into the profession. Women like Phyllis O’Connor, one of London’s first post-war female ambulance drivers, who joined a unit based at Waterloo in 1951. Or Sally Pattie, Essex’s first ever female paramedic, who this year celebrated 40 years with the ambulance service. As of today, around a third of the country’s 20,000 or so paramedics are women.
Women in blue
At the same time that female ambulance crews were saving lives on the Western Front, the UK’s first official female police officer was being sworn in.
When the Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829, followed by forces in towns and cities up and down the country, the role of the ‘bobby’ was exclusively male. In 1883 the Met began recruiting women as matrons - usually wives or relatives of officers - to guard women and children. In 1910 a group of forward-thinking women wanted to take this one step further and began pushing for the creation of female constables who would deal exclusively with female prisoners.
Their campaign was given a boost after 1914 as millions of able-bodied men signed up for the armed forces, leaving problems in recruiting jobs at home. As with so many trades and professions during World War I, it was women who stepped up to fill the gap. The Women’s Police Volunteers (WPV), set up by Margaret Damer Dawson and Nina Boyle in 1914, were given official permission to patrol the streets of London and Met officers were instructed to assist them when needed. A rival organisation, Voluntary Women’s Patrols, had also spread to other cities by the end of the war.
Although Margaret Damer Dawson and Nina Boyle could lay claim to being the first female police officers the accolade is generally given to Edith Smith, a member of the WPV based in Grantham, Lincolnshire. In 1916 she was appointed as the first women police constable in England with full power of arrest. She received 28 shillings (£1.40 a week), which was raised to £2 10 shillings (£2.50 a week) in 1917 due to the fact that her ‘duties were most onerous’ and that she was also a qualified nurse. She left the service in 1918 and sadly died just five years later, aged 46, probably by her own hand.
Over the next one hundred years many other female firsts followed in the wake of Edith Smith, from the first sergeants (Florence White and Ethel Gale in 1920) to the first chief constable in 1995 (Pauline Clare in Lancashire) and, in 2017, the appointment of Cressida Dick as the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. As of 2019 30 per cent of all police officers in England and Wales were women; a total of more than 37,000.
Up to the task
It was in the fire service that women found it hardest to break the glass ceiling. The role of a firefighter was seen as a physical one, requiring strength and stamina that many believed were beyond the capabilities of women.
Although there had been examples of volunteer female firefighters, it was once again the necessity of war that opened up official opportunities for women and during World War II they were actively recruited into the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) - later the National Fire Service (NFS) - for the first time. It was a move that not everyone was happy about; one fire chief exclaiming ‘I would rather resign than be made to drill young girls and women to be firemen.’ (You can read more about changing attitudes to female firefighters in a previous blog post - https://www.visitnesm.org.uk/post/reflecting-a-changing-world.)
Thousands of women answered the call. Although their role was generally confined to driving, delivering messages, staffing telephones and administration, there is little doubt that many of these women were more involved in active firefighting work than has generally been acknowledged. Indeed, 25 female firefighters lost their lives during World War II.