Who was the first British woman police detective?

Lilian Wyles

After starting her working life in nursing, Lilian Wyles joined a women’s police patrol in central London in 1919.

The patrols were accompanied by a male officer and had considerable curiosity value to the general public not least because of the uniform: pudding bowl helmet, high-necked serge jacket, long skirt and knee-high leather boots.

The patrols were only intended to be temporary but several of the women including Lilian Wyles were determined to stay in policing.

Despite considerable male opposition, Lilian was admitted into the Metropolitan Police and joined the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) where she worked with children and young people and women involved in cases of sexual assault.

Lilian was the only woman officer in a department of over three thousand men.

As a detective Lilian worked on some high profile cases such as The Savidge case, the Vera Page muder, the Mancini case and the murder of PC Edgar in North London. But the case of the Trance Medium, as reported in the newspapers of the time, is classic.

In July 1928, Mrs Cantlon, a well-known medium and spiritualist, was charged at Westminster Police Court with selling fortunes while her assistant, Miss Mercy Phillimore, was charged with aiding, abetting and procuring.

The prosecutor, Mr Roome explained that Mrs Cantlon described herself as a trance medium and that Miss Lilian Wyles of the Metropolitan Police had made an appointment to visit her.

Mr Roome described how Miss Phillimore showed Lilian to an upstairs room and Mrs Cantlon closed the blinds and drew the curtains.

Mrs Cantlon sat down opposite Lilian and closed her eyes. There were three loud knocks and Mrs Cantlon told Lilian that a North American Indian chief was standing behind her and wanted to speak to her.

“Hail my chief,” said Mrs Cantlon and told Lilian that her mother was in the spirit. Lilian replied that her mother was still alive.

“It’s your father who has passed,” said Mrs Cantlon.

Lilian explained that her father was alive too.

“You know the black spaniel dog I see before me,” said Mrs Cantlon.

“No,” was Lilian’s reply.

Mrs Cantlon said, “Tell my squaw who saw the dog last” and then told the unmarried Lilian that her and her husband would soon be back together.

Mrs Cantlon said that Lilian would make a lot of money from her book.

“Do you write?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Lilian.

“What do you write?” asked Mrs Cantlon.

“Statements for the police,” replied Lilian to much laughter in the court as Mr Roome completed his account.

Gradually Lilian came to be well regarded by her colleagues and was appointed as a Chief Inspector in 1931. When she retired in 1949 she had served the police force for thirty years.

LILIAN WYLES 1885 – 1975

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9 Comments

  1. Fascinating post, Cathy! I hadn’t realised there was a woman in the Met as early as 1919.
    An author friend of mine is currently writing a police procedural set in the 1930s, with a woman detective as the protagonist. She said one of the hardest things is realistically portraying how a woman would have functioned in such a male dominated world at that time (not to mention the research to find out) while making her character strong enough for today’s readers to identify with. I’m looking forward to reading it!

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