Mary Sophia Allen was a military-minded woman who was probably attracted to the WSPU because it was the most regimented and militant of all the suffrage societies. Born of a wealthy family in Cheltenham (her father was General Manager of the Great Western Railway), she was educated at Princess Helena College. When she took over the Hastings branch in 1912 she had already achieved national fame (or notoriety). She introduced herself to local suffragettes by giving a talk at the WSPU at 8 Trinity Street describing her window smashing raids on Government buildings in London and Bristol, three terms of imprisonment, her hunger strike and force-feeding. When war broke out in 1914, Mary co-founded (with Margaret Damer Dawson) the Women's Police Volunteers and was Sub-Commandant under Dawson. Its members were unpaid. After being invited to Grantham and Hull in 1915 to curb prostitution, she was made a member of the regular police force. She and Dawson renamed her force the Women's Police Service. They asked the Chief Commissioner, Sir Nevil Macready, to make them a permanent part of his force. He refused, saying that the women were "too educated" and would "irritate" male members of the force. For this work she was honoured with an OBE in 1917. The following year, it was recorded that the WPS had 357 members. She became Commandant when Dawson retired in 1919.

When the war was over Scotland Yard tried to disband the Women's Police Service but the moves were countered by Miss Allen. In 1921 Damer Dawson died and Mary Allen became commandant of the renamed Women's Auxiliary Service. Her motto was 'Set a woman to catch a woman'

In 1922 she moved to Cologne in Germany to train women police. She must have returned by 1926 because she organised women to help to break the 1926 General Strike, by keeping road transport services running. After meeting Hitler in 1934 she became a fervent admirer, Nazi sympathiser, and took to wearing jack-boots. Allen was an active supporter of General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist Army during the Spanish Civil War and associated with Sir Oswald Moseley. She was also Chief Women's Officer of the British Union of Fascists and a member of the the Right-Club. Her extreme right-wing views made her unpopular with some members of the Women's Auxiliary Service and she was forced to leave the police service with the approach of the Second World War.

Mary Allen became increasingly eccentric, and her apparent support for Hitler and Goering led to questions about whether she should be interned in 1940.

Mary Allen (right) shares a platform with Mrs Pankhurst (left) at Hastings' Public Hall in 1912

Mary Allen, centre

Commandant Mary Allen, left, inspecting her officers

She wrote several books, including The Pioneer Policewoman (1925), Woman at the Crossroads (1934) and Lady in Blue (1936).

See also this article.

Julie V. Gottlieb of the University of Manchester wrote:

The history of the Voluntary Women Police suggests that the lines separating women's suffragette militancy from the militarization of the female population, women's sexual liberation from women's roles in thwarting the sexual liberation of their own sex, and women's political protest in demand for rights from their instrumental roles in the regulation of female dissent, are fine indeed. From its launch in 1914, and under the leadership of former-suffragettes Margaret Damer Dawson, Nina Boyle and Mary Allen, the WPV's wish to create a women's police force was "a reflection of the extent to which one strand of the British feminist movement had come to view the application of the criminal law - particularly as far as sexual offences were concerned - as the primary or even decisive battleground of the struggle for political rights" (p. 11). Building on the moral crusades already evident in the Edwardian Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), and running parallel with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's shift to the Right during the Great War, the gender ideology and tactics of the WPV demonstrate the heterogeneity of inter-war feminism and should encourage us to think of British "feminisms" in the plural.

While this is not the first study to investigate the activities of policewomen during the Great War or the gradual inclusion of women into Britain's police forces - important articles and monographs on these subjects include those by Philippa Levine, Angela Woollacott, and Joan Lock - Feminist Freikorps provides the first full account ofthose pioneering activists and organizers who confronted sexism and official resistance in their bid to put women in blue. Douglas's book is especially valuable as it clearly outlines, for the first time, the many organizations that sprang up on the eve of the Great War to harness this seemingly contradictory form of right-wing feminism. The focus though is on the WPV itself, and the plot of the WPV is complicated and web-like: the WPV was renamed the Women's Police Service (WPS ) in 1915 after a schism between Boyle and Damer Dawson; it was re-christened the Women's Auxiliary Service (WAS) in 1921 after the death of Damer Dawson and was henceforth under the leadership of Allen; and the organization was again reconstituted as the Women's Reserve (WR) during the 193 Os. It was finally forced to fold at the beginning of the Second World War, due to the revelation that Allen was a prominent supporter of Mosley's British Union, a movement she claimed she had joined due to her sympathy for its anti-war policy.

During the Great War the WPV/WPS had worked in collaboration with the authorities and with the Ministry of Munitions, being one of many independently-- run women's auxiliaries in wartime. However, after the war it lost official backing and found itself at odds with Metropolitan Police initiatives to introduce, albeit very gradually and piecemeal, women officers into the force. Ironically, the post-war WPS was functioning outside the law as it sought to train women for law enforcement duties, and Allen herself got into many scrapes as she tried to pass herself off as an official policewoman on her frequent international publicity tours on behalf of the WPS. Indeed, in this plot so rich in intrigue, Allen was the central protagonist, a starring role she reinforced by her chronicling of the WPS/WR's activities in the three books she published during the inter-war years that provided the fullest, if least reliable, account of the organizations she led. And it was also a reflection of her political sympathies, culminating in her great enthusiasm for the Third Reich and Franco's forces in Spain, that she led the WPS to form a working alliance with the British Fascists during the General Strike (1926), and that she came to express interest in becoming the Chief Women's Officer of the Mosley's British Union in 1939. As the WPS and the WR were largely the product of "Commandant" Mary Allen's efforts and energy, it might well be asked if these links forged with the far Right were the result of her own personal eccentricities, or of the intrinsically authoritarian nature of police work. Highlighting the political complexion and strange bed-fellowships of the WPS and the WR, this book also makes an important contribution to the expanding field of research on gender and British fascism, as well as engaging with the historiography on women and fascism in various national contexts.

It is Douglas's ability to unravel these fundamental binaries in the history of women's social movements in Britain that makes Feminist Freikorps such a thought-provoking and timely book. The lively, lucid, and often light tone of the narrative voice; the sensitive and often amusing biographical portraits of leading figures in the WPV; the thorough research and the skillful framing of the anecdotal evidence; and the generous complement of illustrations depicting the selfrepresentation and public reception of these renegade women in uniform, altogether make this not only a very valuable addition to the historiography but also a highly readable work. However, the approach is almost exclusively empirical and political. At times, more penetrating analysis and suggestions for the theoretical implications ofthe evidence would have been welcome, especially by contextualizing this history with inter-war concerns about the single woman ( the majority of WPS members belonged to the generation of"superfluous women"), representations of"deviant" sexuality (more could have been made of the fact that the politically eccentric Mary Allen was also a lesbian, as were many of her underlings), and of the construction of inter-war gender identities.


Victorian women

Social class

Notable women

Hastings maps and photos

Suffragettes in Hastings

Suffragettes in Thanet

Elsie Bowerman


Marianne North

About the author