Women detectives: meet the Victorian female super sleuths

From the mid-19th century onwards, an increasing number of women discovered a new career, one that offered freedom, excitement and subterfuge. Nell Darby explores why female private detectives came to be in such demand...

It was the need for witnesses in divorce courts – ones who wouldn’t mind their names being linked to scandals, no less – that partly gave rise to female detectives. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

In 1858, the Matrimonial Causes Act of the previous year came into force. Although it is chiefly remembered for opening up divorce to the non-elites, it also had a significant side effect: it created a new market for private detectives, a market that would grow over the course of the next half a century and open up a new career path for many women.

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The new law enabled both men and women to petition for divorce from their partner without the need for a private parliamentary act, as had previously been the case. Men could seek a divorce on the grounds of their wives’ adultery, but women, in this patriarchal, unfair society, had to not only prove that their husband had committed adultery, but also needed an additional cause, such as his having deserted her, or been cruel or abusive to her.

In order to prove adultery, a husband or wife’s word was not enough. They needed hard facts, and preferably a witness to back up their claims. But who would be willing to stand as a witness, and possibly appear in a divorce court? Divorces would rapidly become big news – the ever-popular, ever-growing press quickly learned to fill their pages with these scandalous stories (adultery, of course, meant they could include tales of illicit sex, much to the disapproval of Queen Victoria).

Witnesses would have their evidence included in press reports, their names made public, and this was clearly not attractive to many members of polite society. Therefore other people, not related to the parties involved, were needed. Enter the private detective.

The sting in the tail

Private detectives could ‘tail’ or watch a spouse suspected of adultery. They usually referred to this as ‘shadowing’: following a man or woman to hopefully see them meet up with a lover, perhaps disappearing into a hotel, only to re- emerge hours later.

They might take on a position within the couple’s household,in the hope of overhearing suspicious conversations. Or they might even find an opportunity to become a separate spouse’s fellow lodger in a boarding had featured in a couple of novels, offering women an alternative view of life from that traditionally expected from them.

It was no coincidence that life below stairs could be a hotbed of rumour and gossip – the trick was separating the facts from fiction. In some cases that called for a lady detective, acting undercover of course the women’s suffrage movement was gaining traction, and several female detectives would also be strong supporters of the suffragists.

While these women were increasingly becoming their own bosses, established male detectives, such as Henry Slater and Maurice Moser (whose own former protégé and lover, Antonia Moser, would subsequently set up her own detective agency), continued to use female detectives in divorce cases, drawing the public’s attention to their skills in “secret watchings, ascertaining what people do, where they go, the company they keep”.

It’s clear that these ‘lady detectives’ were valuable resources in divorce suits, and although surviving divorce petitions usually omit details such as the involvement of private detectives, newspapers contain several examples of female detectives giving evidence in the divorce court about their work.

One of the first cases dealt with by private detective Kate Easton was in 1903, when she gave evidence in the divorce of Sir Robert McConnell and his young wife Elsie. Sir Robert, a former Lord Mayor of Belfast, had accused Elsie of an adulterous relationship that had resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child. To prove her adultery, he had employed a male detective named John Robinson, tasked with watching Elsie’s flat in London, and also Easton, who was employed to watch a hotel in Brighton where Elsie was known to stay.

Women were supposed to be domestic, less brainy than men, yet here they were setting up their own businesses

Easton was able to explain to the court that she had seen Elsie’s alleged lover frequently visiting the hotel and calling Elsie by her first name – the latter being a social no-no at the time, as it suggested a familiarity between the two that should not have existed.

Clues in the paper trail

Newspaper advertisements for the services of female detectives, and press stories of the time, also give a good insight into the work of these women, and how they saw and sold themselves. But in 1899, one press article stated that its interviewer had, at long last, “drawn aside the veil of mystery which has hitherto shrouded her existence”, revealing that some lady detectives had learned their skills in childhood, pondering domestic mysteries such as the disappearance of food from the family larder.

Such patronising reports highlighted the confusion amongst men as to the success of women in this field: women were supposed to be domestic, less brainy than men, with overuse of their intellectual faculties seen as damaging them or leading to hysteria.

Yet here were women setting up their own businesses, employing staff, and taking on work perceived to be dangerous and both physically and mentally demanding. Vitally, though, the 1899 article made clear how enjoyable women found this occupation, with one particular interviewee’s comments that she wouldn’t recommend her career to most others sounding as though she was keen to keep it to herself.

The classified ads placed by female detectives themselves also demonstrate how they had to compete against each other, sometimes working in close proximity, their adverts jostling next to each other for readers’ attention.

Easton was one of the best-known female detectives of the early century, as was Maud West. Both were South Londoners from humble backgrounds, and they operated from offices near to each other in Central London. Their adverts boasted of successes in divorce cases and blackmail suits, staff both in England and overseas, and a team of male and female detectives. In 1909, Maud West stressed that her team of detectives were “intelligent” and that she dealt with “confidential inquiries and delicate matters – undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability”. She advertised that she had “unique facilities for tracing missing persons”, and frequently gave interviews to the press, or sold stories to them, highlighting her own ability for disguise, particularly her skill at disguising herself as a man.

Most female detectives did not emphasise their femininity, even though they advertised themselves as ‘lady detectives’

Easton was similarly skilled at disguise, appropriate for a woman who, until the death of her mother when she was in her twenties, had been a professional performer – an actress and singer on the London and provincial stage. She was skilled at adopting different personae, and changing her voice, appearance and mannerisms in order to pretend to be different characters.

The women were perhaps the two most successful female detectives of their era, but fought for supremacy: Easton stressed that she was “THE lady detective, London’s leading woman in every branch of detective work”, whereas West called herself “the lady detective EXPERT”, trusted by nobility and gentry.

Easton highlighted her “efficiency by dint of arduous and dangerous work”, thus making clear the fact that she was doing tasks that were traditionally seen as more masculine. West, meanwhile, stressed her more ‘feminine’ skills, with one of her adverts – “Are you worried? If so, consult me!” – suggesting a woman who could offer a confidential ear and gentle advice.

Easton and West both made long-term careers of detection, but others only operated for a few months – or perhaps a couple of years if they were lucky. That was due to a variety of factors, from competition to skills.

The gender gap

Most female detectives did not emphasise their femininity. Although they might advertise themselves as ‘lady detectives’, knowing their relative rarity made them stand out in a crowded marketplace, they tended to list similar skills to their male equivalents: experience, secrecy, ability, language skills and contacts. This was a career where women felt they were competing on the same level as men.

Male detectives, particularly those who ran their own agencies, recognised the appeal of female detectives (and their comparative newsworthiness) and advertised their own employment of women. When they felt that lady detectives were perhaps becoming too ordinary and too accepted to be newsworthy, they then marketed other, perhaps more modern or unusual skills at their disposal. Henry Slater, one of London’s best-known private detectives, placed adverts in The Lady Cyclist periodical in 1896, highlighting his use of ‘cyclist detectives’, who appear to have been women employed by him to shadow individuals by bicycle.

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Such publicity tactics appear to have been short-lived – unlike the existence of female private detectives who stil ply their trade across Britain today, with some still advertising their services by drawing attention to their gender, suggesting that they are a rarity. Yet for nearly 150 years, the female detective has operated in the shadows, observing, and recording: not such a rarity as we might imagine.

The unusual work of the female detective

A female detective’s job was a varied one, often involving stints undercover – and bringing risks to both body and reputation

Accused of theft

A 26-year-old Londoner, Ellen Lyons was employed by a male detective. In 1892, she was asked to shadow Mrs Gertrude Barrett, the wife of a member of the Indian Civil Service, as part of the husband’s divorce case. Ellen duly befriended Gertrude, but when Gertrude found out her ‘deception’, she took Ellen
to court, accusing her of stealing money and clothes from her.

Nursing a secret

In the 1870s, an anonymous female detective undertook work for Scotland Yard, posing as a nurse, in order to work for families who were suspected of misdeeds. Her role could only be undertaken when the suspect was ill, at which point she would become their nurse, and then “extracted” confessions of crimes from her “half-unconscious and debilitated fever patients”. She once also received a fractured skull from thieves whose den she had uncovered.

The art of persuasion

Clara Layt was employed by Scotsman William Hamilton Brown to investigate his household in 1897. He thought someone was persuading his servants to leave his service and so Clara, who worked for a London detective agency, was brought in to investigate. It was said that she persuaded a local letter carrier, a gardener, a kitchen maid and a sewing maid to give her vital information.

Nell Darby is a crime historian, author, and an honorary research associate and associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. Her upcoming book on the history of female private detectives will be published in January 2021

This content first appeared in the September 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed