Margaret Damer Dawson

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Margaret Damer Dawson in her Women Police Service uniform, about 1917

Margaret Mary Damer Dawson OBE (12 June 1873 – 18 May 1920) was a prominent anti-vivisectionist and philanthropist who co-founded the first British women's police service.[1][2]


Margaret Dawson was born on 12 June 1873 to a wealthy family in Burgess Hill and grew up in Hove. After her father, Richard Dawson, died her mother remarried, becoming Lady Walsingham.[3] Her step-father was Thomas de Grey, 6th Baron Walsingham. Dawson had a private income and studied music with the Austrian pianist Benno Schoenberger at the London Academy of Music. She became involved in anti-vivisection and other good causes and founded a home for foundlings. She was awarded silver medals by Finland and Denmark for her campaigning work for animal rights.[4] Dawson was honorary secretary of the International Anti-Vivisection Council set up in 1908 by Lizzy Lind af Hageby, and together they organised the International Anti-Vivisection and Animal Protection Congress in London in July 1909. As Honorary Organising Secretary of the Animal Defence and Anti-Vivisection Society. The organisation campaigned against cruelty and the socially acceptable circus performing animals and the slaughter of animals for meat. Her grave can be found in Lympne church yard in Kent.[5]

Women Police Volunteers[edit]

Before the first World War, campaigners for women's rights proposed that there should be female as well as male police officers. The war prevented any progress but a volunteer service was established by Dawson and Nina Boyle.[6] They met when Damer Dawson was working for the Criminal Law Amendment Committee in 1914.[4] They women joined forces after seeing the trouble faced by refugees during the war.[6] Nina Boyle led the organisation with Dawson as assistant.[7] Dawson had been made aware that Belgian women were being recruited as prostitutes when they arrived at British railway stations.[4] The volunteer women were allowed to officially patrol the streets of London and policemen were asked to assist them. The "Women Police Volunteers" were trained and were intended to assist women during the turmoil of the war.[6]

Women's Police Service[edit]

Boyle was of the view that the organisation should assist in catching criminals, but the role created for them was to enforce the Defence of the Realm Act and to supervise female workers and public decency.[7] Dawson and Boyle parted over a problem in Grantham when the women police were asked to enforce a curfew on women to protect the men from the temptations of prostitution. In August 1915, Edith Smith was appointed the first woman police constable in England with full power of arrest.[8]

T use of policewomen to impose a curfew on women was against Boyle's beliefs. Dawson took a more pragmatic line.[6] Boyle asked for Dawson's resignation, but instead Dawson convened a meeting of 50 policewomen and 48 agreed to follow Dawson's lead.[7] Dawson was soon leading a renamed Women's Police Service. Like similar groups the WPS was disbanded at the end of the war but it was the first uniformed women's police service and continued to operate.[6] Dawson's request to have her volunteers made into police officers was refused as the police Commissioner felt that it would cause friction because the women were too well educated.[4] Dawson and Allen were both awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1918.[7] Edith Smith left the service and died of an overdose in 1924.

Dawson was asked to advise the Baird Commission when it looked at the role women in policing. She and many of her followers had been excluded from being on the Baird Commission on the advice of the Police Commissioner who disliked lesbians and in particular Dawson.[7] Dawson thought that the women's police force should be entirely separate from the male service. Her view did not prevail and she died prematurely of a heart attack in 1920.[9] Her leadership role was taken over by Mary Allen had been Dawson's assistant for many years and they had lived together during the first World War having a close professional and personal relationship.[10] Dawson died on 18 May 1920 and left her house and most of her money to Allen.[4]


Dawson was buried in Lympne on 22 May 1920 after a funeral attended by other women police officers. A memorial was erected in the corner of Lymne churchyard. Her finances had dwindled as she had spent money on the voluntary police service. The home she shared with Mary Allen was left to her.[7]

Dawson's house at 10 Cheyne Walk has a plaque to commemorate her.[11] A bird bath, installed in Cheyne Walk, was organised by Miss St John Partridge and designed by Charles Pibworth It has since been restored and incorporates a quote from Rime of the Ancient Mariner "He prayeth best who lovest best all things great and small".[5]

The home for babies that Dawson helped found was funded by the Women's Police Service's benevolent service in Kent. After Dawson's death it was renamed the "Damer Dawson Memorial Home for Babies".[7]


  1. ^ Mary S. Allen (1925) The Pioneer Policewoman, London:Chatto and Windus, p.135
  2. ^ The Policewoman's Review, VII, 8 December 1933
  3. ^ Visitation of England and Wales, Volume 19, Page 329
  4. ^ a b c d e Margarget Damar Dawson, Spartacus-Education, retrieved 19 July 2014
  5. ^ a b The Newly Restored Bird Bath Memorial near the Thomas Carlyle Statue, Hilda Kean,
  6. ^ a b c d e Kramarae, Cheris (2000). Routledge International Encyclopaedia of Women. Routledge. ISBN 1135963150. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Boyd, Nina (2013). From Suffragette to Fascist the Many Lives of Mary Sophia Allen. Stroud: The History Press. p. contents. ISBN 0752492780. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  8. ^ Kelly, Kay (2012-11-27). "First police women in UK". Grantham People. Archived from the original on 2014-02-23. Retrieved 2014-02-11.
  9. ^ Doan, Laurs. Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. p. 42 and 225. ISBN 0231533837. Retrieved 19 July 2014.
  10. ^ Suffragette, fascist, policewoman and spy? Huddersfield author's book on women's right pioneer Mary Sophia Allen, Hilarie Stelfox, June 2013, Huddersfield Examiner,retrieved 20 July 2014
  11. ^ Damer Dawson's plaque Archived 2014-07-25 at the Wayback Machine.,, retrieved 20 July 2014
  • Allen, Mary S. (1936) Lady in Blue, London: Stanley Paul