Female Detectives

Mrs Frances  Power Cobbe (1822 – 1904) was a campaigning Victorian Irish writer who dedicated herself to many causes.

She was, for example, an ardent social reformer who helped found homes for Workhouse girls.

In 1875 she founded the Society for the Protection of Animals Liable to Vivisection (SPALV), the world’s first organisation to campaign against experiments on animals.

Her books and essays included  The Intuitive Theory of Morals (1855), On the Pursuits of Women (1863), Cities of the Past (1864), Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors (1869), Darwinism in Morals (1871), and Scientific Spirit of the Age (1888).

In her personal life she showed herself to be way ahead of her times by forming a marriage with the sculptor Mary Lloyd (1819 – 1896), whom she referred to alternately as “husband,”  “wife,” and “dear friend” – and the two lived together from 1864 until Mary’s death from heart disease.

She was also a leading advocate in the women’s suffrage movement, and she actively campaigned for women’s right to own property, as well as advocating for women to be allowed to take university examinations and therefore earn a degree at Oxford or Cambridge.

A photograph of Frances Power Cobbe.
Frances Power Cobbe (1822 – 1904)


At the height of the Whitechapel Murders scare, in October 1888, Frances Power Cobbe began openly suggesting that, since the police were showing no progress in their hunt for the unknown miscreant, who was now becoming universally known under the sobriquet  of “Jack the Ripper,” perhaps the Metropolitan Police should look at putting female detectives on the case, as they might well succeed where the male police officers were, so evidently, failing.

Several Newspapers reported her suggestion in October 1888, albeit, the articles were, to say the least, slightly sexist in their stereotypical attitudes and their response towards the idea of women as detectives.

The following article appeared in The Evening Star on the 11th of October 1888:-


“Miss Frances Power Cobbe once more lifts up her testimony among us.

Now, as ever, the undaunted champion of her sex, Miss Frances Power Cobbe insists on the immediate appointment of female detectives.

“Why should such a thing be unheard of in the land?”, asks the vigorous defender of woman’s rights, and it will puzzle even Sir Charles Warren to make reply.

Sooth to say, the suggestion is not half a bad one.


There are frequently criminal cases in the detection of which a woman could be employed much more advantageously than a man.

Miss Cobbe smartly summarises the superior points of the lady detective by saying that “she would pass unsuspected where a man would be instantly noticed; she would extract gossip from other women much more freely; she could move through the streets and courts without waking the echoes of the pavement with a sonorous military tread; and lastly, she would be in a position to employ, for whatever it may be worth, the gift of intuitive quickness and ‘mother-wit’ with which her sex is commonly credited.”


All true, most true; and yet there are moments in the detective’s life when a lady would probably – to put it mildly – feel embarrassed.

How, for instance, would she set to work if she found herself alone inside a dark room, with a couple of burly burglars?

Or, how would she set about pursuing and capturing them, supposing they took to flight, over successive walls, or shinned along the sloping roof of a house?

The lady detective, or even the lady policeman, would be rather at a loss on such emergencies.

The world is, doubtless, rude and unfeeling, but it harbours the suspicion that, except in special cases, where she is already employed, the fair one would lack the courage and activity so absolutely essential in the detective profession.

We are afraid that there is, as yet, no large field open to female energy in that direction.”

An illustration showing a woman police officer arresting a suspect.
From Judy Magazine, August 5th 1885.


Two days later, under the above headline, The Globe gave consideration to the proposal:-

“There is much good sense in Miss Frances Power Cobbe’s suggestion that women should be employed as detectives.

The advantages which they would possess over their male confreres are sufficiently obvious.


The female detective need not be 5ft. 7in. in height, nor possess the “sonorous military step, and the other products of drill which render the plainclothes officer as familiar to the habitual criminal as the ordinary boy in blue;” and she would bring to bear upon the detection of crime those peculiar qualities – akin, perhaps, rather to instinct than to reason – which nearly all women and practically no men possess.


In connection with such crimes which now baffle our ordinary detective forces, women would be especially valuable.

If of unobtrusive appearance, they might be able to draw from the poor creature, whose ranks have furnished the victims information which would not be furnished to a male investigator, and they could pass unnoticed where a man could not.


Nevertheless, it is to be feared that the authorities will not adopt Miss Cobbe’s suggestion.

In the minds of many of our countrymen the idea is firmly rooted that female detectives mean espionage, and political espionage.

Because, by Continental Governments, women have often been employed for this purpose, it is absurdly reasoned that the same result would accrue in England if once the thin end of the wedge – their employment for the detection of crime – were introduced.

We do not hesitate to say that such fears are unworthy and unfounded.


We are confronted by terrible crimes, and no false sentimentalism or silly squeamishness should prevent us from utilising every means which may result in the detection of the murderer.

A fortnight ago the notion of employing blood-hounds in the search was received with horror, to-day it is an accepted fact.


If women can be obtained who add to their ordinary feminine qualities those of courage and discretion, and who are ready to undertake the role of detective, their services ought to be utilised.”