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Mary Sophia Allen (12th March 1878- 16th December 1964)

Mary Sophia Allen was born in Cardiff in 1878, one of the ten children of Thomas Isaac Allen, Chief Superintendent of the Great Western Railway. Mary was very close to her sisters, all of whom had a tendency to religious mysticism. She left home at the age of thirty, after a disagreement with her father about women's suffrage, and joined Emmeline Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union, becoming an organizer in the South West, and later in Edinburgh. She was imprisoned three times in 1909 for smashing windows; went on hunger-strike twice, and was force-fed on the last occasion, for which she was awarded a hunger-strike medal by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

At the outbreak of World War One, militant suffragist activities ceased. Mary turned down an offer of work with a Needlework Guild, and looked around for a more active occupation. She heard that a number of women were trying to set up a women's police force and, in 1914, she joined Nina Boyle's Women Police Volunteers, which was taken over by Margaret Damer Dawson in 1915 and renamed the Women Police Service (WPS), with Mary Allen as second-in-command. They designed their own uniform, and opened training schools in London and Bristol. They saw their role as mainly dealing with women and children, and rescuing women from vice and ‘white slavery’. Mary served at Grantham and Hull, overseeing the morals of women in the vicinity of army barracks. She went on to police munitions factories which employed large numbers of women. She also worked in London, where ‘khaki fever’ was perceived as a problem. Child welfare work led the WPS to set up a Benevolent Department and a home for mothers and babies. Mary was awarded the OBE for services during the War.

Mary and Margaret Damer Dawson cropped their hair and assumed a severe military appearance. Mary wore her police uniform in public for the rest of her life. In 1915, Dawson made a Will leaving everything to Mary; when she died suddenly in 1920, Mary assumed the role of Commandant of the WPS. After the War, the WPS was expected to disband: the authorities saw no further need of them. The Metropolitan Police set up their own women’s division, and accused the WPS of masquerading as Metropolitan policewomen. Mary and her officers were summonsed to appear at Westminster Police Court, accused of impersonation, and instructed to cease wearing the uniform they had designed themselves. The WPS changed their name to the Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS) and, with minor modifications to their uniform, carried on as before, setting up a further training school in Edinburgh. The Government appointed the Baird Committee to investigate the activities of the WAS. Despite no longer being recognized by the authorities, Mary was invited by the Government to go to Germany, and advise on the policing of the British Army of the Rhine. This semi-acceptance encouraged Mary to represent herself overseas as chief of the British women police. She travelled in uniform, and was welcomed by police authorities in Europe and in South and North America.

In November 1922 she stood unsuccessfully for parliament as an Independent Liberal candidate for St George’s, Westminster. During the General Strike of 1926, Mary mobilized large numbers of women to work against what she perceived as an imminent Communist coup.

Mary learned to fly. She attended international police congresses in Austria and Germany. She also visited Holland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Turkey and Brazil, advising on the training of police women. She went to Egypt in 1936 on holiday (wearing her uniform), but was received as if sent by the police authorities in Britain. Her interest in vice and white slavery continued to be a preoccupation, and she attended the League of Nations conference in Geneva on the traffic in women. Wherever she went, Mary was welcomed as the leading British policewoman, and she made contact with police chiefs and political leaders all over Europe.

The Home Office began to take an interest in Mary’s activities in 1927. She was becoming an embarrassment and a nuisance to the Government, partly because of her acceptance abroad as representing the British authorities, and partly because she was mistaken for a Metropolitan police officer at home. Home Office records, covering the period 1927-1934 reveal that she keeps dossiers on people she suspected of activities connected with vice and white slavery. She was also suspected of fascist activities, and articles by or about her in national newspapers increased the Home Office surveillance.

Mary met a number of fascist leaders abroad, including O’Duffy in Ireland, Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, and Hitler and Goering in Germany. Although her links to Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists were unofficial until 1939, she engaged in various right-wing activities, including the formation of the Women’s Reserve in 1933, which was intended to serve the country in the event of subversive forces taking over. The publicity for the Women’s Reserve reveals her fascist sympathies, and her fear of communism.

She met Hitler in 1934, and discussed women police with him. She was captivated by Hitler, and expressed her admiration for him in public. Once she had joined the British Union of Fascists, she wrote numerous articles for its newspapers, and openly declared herself to be a fascist. A Suspension Order under the Defence of the Realm Act was made against her when suspicions arose about her contacts with Germany. Her home was searched, and internment was considered, but not implemented. She was suspected of making flights to Germany, and acting as a spy for the Nazis, but this was never proved.

Mary was known as ‘Robert’ by her close circle of female friends, and she was called ‘Sir’ by her officers. Her friends and lovers included Margaret Damer Dawson, Isobel Goldingham and Helen Bourn Tagart, all of whom she met in her policing days.

Mary wrote three volumes of autobiography: The Pioneer Policewoman (1925), A Woman at the Cross Roads (1934), and Lady in Blue (1936). A Woman at the Cross Roads is revealing of aspects of her life and philosophy, but reticent about personal matters. It was written at the time when Mary met Hitler, and her political views are made plain: she was at a crossroads in her life because she was toying with fascism as a solution to the world problems she perceived. She also wrote numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, and founded The Policewomen’s Review, which ran from 1927 to 1937, to which she was a major contributor.

Little is known of Mary’s life after the Second World War. She continued to be associated with Oswald Mosley and other fascists. Mary always had a strong interest in religion, without any particular affiliation. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1953, and died in a nursing home in Croydon at the age of 86, attended by her sister, Christine.

People either loved or hated Mary Allen: nobody was indifferent to her. Despite her eccentricity and unfortunate political associations, her friends and family valued her warmth and loyalty.

References

  • Allen, Mary S. (1925) The Pioneer Policewoman, London: Chatto & Windus;
  • Allen, Mary S. and Heyneman, Julie H. (1934) A Woman at the Cross Roads, London: Unicorn Press;
  • Allen, Mary S. (1936) Lady in Blue, London: Stanley Paul;
  • National Archives, PRO HO144/21933
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