In this post, guest author Mark Rothwell looks at the service of GWR railway policewoman Lilian Gale – including her fatal accident at work in Plymouth docks during World War 2. As well as giving us an insight into Lilian’s time as a railway policewoman, Mark puts her role in context of women’s police service more widely. It also complements another guest post, about women’s railway service in World War 2.
Our thanks to Mark for his post – and we encourage other guest submissions, so do please get in touch with us if you have something you think might be of interest.
The recent focus on notable Plymouth women with the unveiling of the Nancy Astor statue on the city’s Hoe Promenade got me thinking about other, lesser known women pioneers from the region. Lilian Daisy Gale holds the distinction of being the first female member of the Plymouth division of the Great Western Railway Police. She was appointed at the height of the Second World War and served in uniform at Plymouth’s dockyards which had a strong railway constabulary presence. It took a certain type of woman to step so boldly in what was then a patriarchal occupation, and the small media coverage paid to Lilian paints her as a strong personality with a cheery disposition.
“The job is what you make it,” she was fond of saying, as she patrolled the chaotic dockyard environment in her smart police tunic and skirt, her hat deliberately worn at a jaunty angle in a nod to the many naval personnel she encountered on her rounds.
Lilian’s powers as a member of the railway police are unclear, and it is unknown whether she was a fully sworn constable with powers of arrest. The only known photograph of Lilian is the one below, showing her checking a driver’s documents, suggesting perhaps her duties were limited to administrative tasks.
Regardless, her presence in the railway police force at Plymouth was unprecedented at the time. Britain’s police forces had experimented with women police officers, with limited powers, during the First World War. Plymouth’s city constabulary in particular was ahead of the game when its chief constable Mr Sanders appointed 20 civilian patrolwomen to look after the morals of women and young girls 1917-1918. Lilian’s tenure coincided with that of another pioneer – Leading Auxiliary Policewoman Eileen Normington (nee Milo) who was the senior-most policewoman at Plymouth’s Greenbank Police Station.
A former RAF clerical worker, Lilian joined the police in April 1943. Her husband, Leonard, was away on active service at the time and was unaware. She worked eight hour shifts but did not work nights. Not long after her 26th birthday, Lilian was struck by a locomotive whilst she was patrolling the docks and she died at the scene. No doubt the noisy dockyard environment prevented Lilian from hearing the approaching locomotive. If true, then this certainly highlights the dangers faced by all railway workers of the era.
The role of women in the British police service found stronger footing at the end of the Second World War, when most police forces in the country followed directives from the Home Office to form policewomen’s departments staffed with fully attested woman constables. Although Lilian Daisy Gale’s tenure was short, she remains an important, if overlooked, pioneer in the history of British policing.
Lilian, thank you for your service.
Mark Rothwell is a Dartmoor-based historian, author and biographer. His publications include Policing the West Country: 180 Years of Policing in Devon & Cornwall, Invicta: A Biography of R.C.M. Jenkins and Devon & Cornwall Cop Cars: The History of Police Transportation from the Pointy End. Mark is also a volunteer researcher for the UK Police Roll of Honour Trust, and actively researches police deaths on duty.
 ‘Keen Plymouth Policewoman,’ Western Morning News 3 July 1943, p.6, col.8