The Secret History of Female Sleuths
‘Private Inquiries is a must-read – a riveting mythbuster, with its revelations of the real histories of women PIs’
– Val McDermid
‘Intriguing and informative, Private Inquiries is a fascinating piece of detective work. Caitlin Davies undertakes an intriguing investigation in which she discovers the stories of legendary figures like Zena Scott-Archer and demonstrates that women gumshoes have proved just as persistent and effective in real life as Miss Marple did on the page and TV screen’
– Martin Edwards
‘Every page teems with larger-than-life characters – women who broke the mould and the accepted rules to make their way in a traditional male world of private investigation. It is a story told with style and panache by an author who not only talks the talk but has walked the walk, training as an investigator herself’
– Daniel Smith, author of Scandal at Dolphin Square: A Notorious History
‘Davies is a great storyteller and this is a feast of true crime and women’s place in history. Fascinating and utterly riveting’
– Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC
ORDER PRIVATE INQUIRIES HERE
Female private eyes have long been a staple of popular culture – from plucky Victorian ladies to ‘busy body spinsters’ and fearless modern investigators.
But what about the real women detectives? What crimes did they solve? Where are their stories?
Dismissed as ‘Mrs’ Sherlock Holmes or amateurish Miss Marples, mocked as private dicks or honey trappers, they’ve been investigating crime since the mid 19th century – from theft, fraud and burglary, to missing persons, blackmail, drug dealing, robbery, marriage scams, ‘white slavery’, industrial espionage, and murder…
Female detectives have caught counterfeit coiners, adulterers, jewel thieves, imposters, conmen, poison pen writers, railway robbers, wizards, shoplifting syndicates, stamp cartels, racetrack gangs, romance scammers, and killers.
After more than a century of working undercover, it’s time to hear the real women’s stories, including
Victorian inquiry agent Antonia Moser
Baker Street sleuth Annette Kerner
Zena Scott-Archer, the first woman president of the World Association of Detectives.
Who were the first female private eyes? How did they succeed in the macho world of detection and crime?
Detective work has long been regarded as an unsuitable job for a woman, yet ‘feminine’ traits such as intuition, imagination and empathy, are also seen as necessary requirements for the job. Women are known for their ability to get information out of strangers; we create less suspicion and pose less of a threat than men. We are highly skilled observers, and known for our close attention to detail.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, women like Antonia Moser, Kate Easton, Maud West, May Storey and Annette Kerner launched their own detective agencies and became celebrities at home and abroad. Zena Scott-Archer enjoyed a career that spanned nearly 50 years, and was the leading female investigator on the world stage.
Yet at the beginning of the 21st century, only eight percent of the roughly 5000 – 10,000 private detectives in Britain were female. Why aren’t there more women in the field today?
The idea behind the book
I’ve been fascinated by female detectives ever since I started researching Queens of the Underworld and the criminal activities of The Forty Elephants in the early 1900s. The all-female shoplifting gang created work for other women, as private detectives in department stores. Women were not yet allowed to join the police force, yet here were store detectives working undercover, apprehending offenders, and testifying as expert witnesses in court. They sounded like tough women.
I wondered who the store detectives were and what their lives were like. Then I wondered why I could name numerous fictional female sleuths – Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Cordelia Grey, Charlie’s Angels, Jessica Fletcher, Lisbeth Salander, Precious Ramotswe – but not a single one in real life. I also wondered, what do private investigators actually do?
Training & Research
To get a better understanding of the job, I’ve completed a BTEC Level 3 Award for Professional Investigators, run by the Association of British Investigators (ABI). The private detective industry remains unregulated in the UK; anyone can set up as a private investigator, regardless of their skills or criminal record, without any form of license or qualification. According to the ABI, when licensing is introduced then the Level 3 is expected to become the industry standard.
I’ve also completed a Diploma in Private Investigation, through the UK Professional Investigators Network (UKPIN). The course provides a thorough explanation of areas such as process serving, which has formed a central part of a PI’s job ever since the 19th century Bow Street Runners.
To get an insight into the life of modern investigators, I’ve interviewed a range of current PIs – including a woman who solves cases of online ‘cat fishing’, a specialist in cold case homicides, a corporate investigator, and an expert in undercover work. What makes a good PI? What are the moral, ethical and legal dilemmas when it comes to investigation and surveillance?
Crusaders and charlatans, role models and rogues, pioneers and pretenders…
Meet the British female detectives
‘The first female detective’, employed by Charles Frederick Field, Chief of the Metropolitan Police Detective Department, in the late 1840s.
‘Peephole servant’, a former cook hired to gather evidence in a high profile adultery trial in the 1850sElizabeth Joyes
‘I am perfectly certain of the thief’s identity’, Elizabeth worked undercover in railway waiting rooms in the 1850s. She was also a female searcher, one of the first women to be employed by the City of London police.
‘A very intelligent woman,’ Sarah successfully investigated the theft of sugar from London’s West India Dock in the 1860s.
Margaret Saunders – Clubnose
‘Make me one of yourselves—a detective’, reportedly worked for Scotland Yard in the 1870s, infiltrating thieves’ dens dressed as a boy and armed with a magic whistle.
‘I only go where a stylishly-dressed person is required’, Ellen worked for Private Inquiry Agent Henry Clarke in the 1880s. Like many male sleuths, he was a dubious character who used entrapment to gather ‘evidence’.
‘A woman of the highest culture and refinement’. Antonia became a private detective in 1888, the year of the Whitechapel murders, when there was a new interest in female sleuths. In 1905 she launched her own business on the Strand.
’A woman of the world’, Paulowna started working for Henry Slater’s detective agency in the 1880s, and then ran her own inquiry business.
‘A stylish, aristocratic looking lady’, a former store detective, she investigated fortune tellers in the early 1900s.
’A smart, businesslike girl detective’, Dorothy was an actress, who also gathered evidence in divorce and occult cases.
’Maud West’s life would enchant Agatha Christie’. Maud started her career as a detective in the early 1900s, becoming England’s most famous female sleuth. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
’How did I become a lady detective? That is a question which I have often been asked’, a former pantomime actor, Matilda became head of Selfridges Secret Service in 1912.
‘London’s Leading Woman In Every Branch of Detective Work’. Kate was one of the leading sleuths of the early 1900s, based initially on Shaftesbury Avenue.
‘It’s a grand job sleuthing. I wouldn’t give it up for the worlds’. May started her career in 1919, joining an agency run by a former Scotland Yard officer and then launching her own business.
‘A very kind lady detective’, known for her dramatic confrontations with shoplifters in the 1920s, as well as her phenomenal memory.
‘Sleuthing is a great career for girls’. The daughter of a Yorkshire coal miner, May ran the International Detective Agency. Her all female staff were Ju Jutsu experts and operated their own fleet of motorcycles.
‘Whenever I step into my consulting room in Baker Street, my spine tingles with excitement’. According to her own account, Annette was born to a wealthy English family and started her career as a spy in Switzerland in 1919.
‘Of course I’m following you, you have been doing such interesting things’. Anne came to prominence in the 1960s and was known for investigating matrimonial cases. She carried a tiny tape recorder in her bra and used a target shooter to flush her targets into the open.
‘Before I’ve had time for coffee, I may be off to Switzerland by air or tracing a lost person’. A former journalist and meteorological observer, Raissa worked in London in the 1960s.
‘In an emergency women are more determined, more calm and certainly less easily embarrassed than most men’. The daughter of a Flying Squad officer, Zena became the most successful private detective of her generation.
‘It’s a dangerous job which some men think is no place for a woman. But I’ve shown I’m not just as good as them – I’m better.’ Yvonne ran her own agency in the West Midlands in the 1980s.
‘Being a private detective is the best job in the world…there’s never a dull moment, your brain’s always buzzing.’ Patricia ran Norstac Inquiry Office in Stoke On Trent.
‘Queen of true confessions and special investigations’. Rosemary became ABI president in 1998, after 30 years working as a PI.
I’ve heard men say they can do surveillance better than women because they can sit in a car for hours and just pee in a bottle. I would say I can justify sitting in a car much better than a man.’ Sam runs Rogue Daters, which helps people who fear they’re being scammed online.
‘I love knowing where we are now because of where we’ve been. I can well imagine women PIs in the past having a bit more to prove, I can relate to that.’ Jen is a death investigator, investigating cold case homicides. In 2022 she won the ABI’s Investigator of the Year Award (pictured above, courtesy ABI).
‘I love this job. The satisfaction when you crack a case is just amazing.’ Charlotte runs Taylor Investigations in Norwich, one of approximately 15 women to own and run a private detective agency in Britain.
The rise and fall of the female sleuth in Britain – from private inquiry agent to professional investigator
1850s – The newly formed Detective Police unofficially hires women to work undercover.
1880s – Female detectives became more visible, appearing in press coverage of court trials.
1900s – Women start launching their own agencies, and hiring male agents.
1920s – A training school for women sleuths opens at 130 Baker Street (now home to Snappy Snaps).
1930s – 11 women head private detective agencies in London’s West End alone.
1940s & 50s – The number of women sleuths declines, they revert to playing background roles.
1960s & 70s – The image of the PI became increasingly macho.
1980s – Of the 2000 private eyes operating in England, just 5 are women.
1990s – Female PIs begin to increase – 1 in 10 investigators are now women.
Today – The number of female investigators is on the rise once again….on some courses women make up 30 percent of all trainees.
Very little has ever been written about real life female private eyes, particularly in the UK. But with the recent publication of two great books – Sister Sleuths by Dr Nell Darby and The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton – it looks like female PIs are finally coming out of the shadows.
The Bookseller has featured Private Inquiries in its preview of books out in October, chosen by Caroline Sanderson.
‘Caitlin’s own attempts to be a private detective herself are hugely enjoyable (and) serve to highlight just how hard a job this was, and continues to be,’ Dr Nell Darby, author of Sister Sleuths.
‘An intriguing account of real female detectives from Britain’s past,’ Chris Simms, editor, Crime Readers’ Association Case Files.
‘Throughout history, the PI role has been seen as a job for an unshaven male in a raincoat, yet plenty of women have taken advantage of their social invisibility to excel. Caitlin Davies finds herself drawn to the idea of testing herself as a sleuth and while working her way through aspects of detective craft, she applies her archive-sifting skills to build a picture of the history of women in the profession,’ Strong Words Magazine.
‘An absolutely fascinating book, amazing photographs and great documentation,’ Alexis Conran, Times Radio.
Upcoming talks & events 2024, details TBC:
February 29th, the London Library, SW1Y 4LG
March 19th, Highgate Library (online)
March 24th, Conway Hall, WC1R 4RL
April, AGE UK Camden
June 8th, BirchLit, Birchington, Kent
June 9th, Broadstairs Literary Festival, Yarrow Hotel, CT10 1PN
November, Medway River Lit, Kent