When I first started writing the Sinclair’s Mysteries, while I loved the idea of Edwardian girl detectives, I had a feeling that it was unlikely that my heroines Sophie and Lil had many real-life counterparts. Although I’d come across works of fiction like Revelations of a Lady Detective, and The Female Detective published in the mid-19th century I suspected that real lady detectives at this time had in fact been few and far between. And although many new opportunities were opening up for women in the early 20th century, I couldn’t somehow imagine that there were really many young women who had the opportunity to work as professional detectives as Sophie and Lil do in my stories – never mind setting up their own detective agency. However…
Reader, I was entirely wrong.
In my research for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, I’ve discovered that there were many women engaged in detective work both in London and further afield in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. In fact, one of the first lady detectives Kate Warne got a job at the famous Chicago agency Pinkerton’s as early as 1856. By 1894, Henry Slater (head of one of London’s largest detective agencies) was advertising Slater’s Women Detectives and at around the same time, Moser’s Ladies Detective Agency was set up by his rival, the ex-Scotland Yard inspector Maurice Moser. Meanwhile, Kate Easton was one of the first lady detectives to set up her own agency in London, which she established in 1905, declaring: ‘Blackmail, divorce, evidence, robbery, I undertake it all; I have touched everything except murder.’
Meanwhile, although women could not officially work for the police in the UK, Scotland Yard had been quietly hiring lady detectives to help with their cases as early as 1899. And across the pond in the USA, Isabella Goodwin was hired as New York’s first woman police detective in the 1900s, investigating burglars and swindlers; whilst Frances Benzecry worked as a detective for the medical societies of Brooklyn and Manhattan to expose fake medical pracitioners.
Anyone who has read the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents will be interested to hear that another place women detectives could often be found in the 1900s was in London’s department stores! Stores like my own (fictional) Sinclair’s would frequently hire women to help prevent shoplifting, as women detectives were better able to blend in with the customers. When it opened in 1909, Selfridges hired a detective named Matilda Mitchell as the head up its very own ‘secret service’. She and her staff helped to catch thieves and frustrate the efforts of gangs like the ‘Forty Elephants’ who would sweep into the shop and cause a rumpus, while others quickly stuffed furs and expensive trinkets into outfits fitted with pockets especially for the purpose.
I recently read a fascinating new book The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton which explores the intriguing story of one of these early lady detectives, Maud West, in more detail. I was especially interested to discover that Maud had a surprising number of things in common with Sophie and Lil!
Maud reportedly set up her own detective agency in 1905: she had a number of both male and female detectives working for her, and an office in Bloomsbury. She had a particular eye for publicity, placing advertisements in the press (‘Maud West, Lady Detective. Are you worried? If so, consult me! Private enquiries and delicate matters undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability’) but also writing colourful newspaper stories about her cases, seeking out publicity stunts, and circulating pictures of herself in various disguises.
According to her own accounts, her detective work involved everything from unmasking blackmailers to foiling jewel thieves to infiltrating dangerous gangs. She frequently used disguises, changing her appearance with wigs and make-up, and often dressed as a man, occupying rooms in a hotel as a ‘titled Englishman’ and following her suspects ‘into their clubs, playing baccarat beside them at the Monte Carlo Casino. She would reportedly disguise herself as ‘a shabby old scrubwoman’ at 5pm before being at the Ritz elegantly dressed for dinner by 7pm. She even claimed to have been involved in catching foreign spies, and just like Sophie and Lil, apparently worked for the British intelligence services during the First World War.
Something else that I was particularly intrigued to discover about Maud is that just like Sophie she appears to have started her career as a shop assistant – possibly even working in millinery – and that just like Lil she may have spent some time on the stage.
Later, her two daughters also came to work for her as detectives. One newspaper reported that her daughter Vera (described as ‘a pretty fair-haired girl of 17’ when she first started working for Maud) was such a clever young detective that she was dubbed ‘Miss Sherlock Holmes’.
It seems that my idea of Edwardian girl detectives was not so very far-fetched after all!
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents