Life on the home front included criminal activity and women were not excluded from this. Criminal activity was monitored in the war because it could affect the war effort by dampening morale or by aiding the enemy.
In wartime Norfolk, women were commonly recorded as committing crimes such as child neglect, drunkenness, theft, soliciting, prostitution and keeping a brothel. Any female convicted and admitted to Norwich Prison had her name and her crimes written in red ink in the admissions register.
The Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was imposed at the very beginning of the First World War and listed a number of wartime measures in the United Kingdom. Anyone violating these rules would be committing a criminal act. Recreational activities such as drinking were frowned upon, under DORA, public house opening hours were shortened and buying a round of drinks was not allowed. The Norwich brewing industry suffered due to shortage of supplies and due to these harsh measures. As a result the beer was weaker, nonetheless, ‘drunkenness’ is a frequently listed crime of the women in the county.
Drunkenness, it was often noted, would lead to further criminal behaviour. There were plenty of concerns over female promiscuity and the risks this could impose with soldiers. Concerns over the morals of the country were raised and worries were expressed that women would seduce soldiers which would distract them from their duty to the country. Loitering (for the purposes of prostitution), prostitution, keeping a brothel and importuning are all crimes that increased during the war.
There are also examples of women stealing food and household items such as clothing and curtains, perhaps a sign of the conditions in which people were living, or perhaps a sign of a chance to make a profit. Often these women were repeat offenders.
These crimes are all acts of disorder, but not crimes which would directly hinder the war effort. Most ladies have no more than three crimes recorded under their names, all usually a similar or the same offence. Life on the home front was not without drama!
Women were committing crime before, during and after the war but it was rare that they received a custodial sentence and those who did were usually repeat offenders. This can be reflective of the circumstances women were living in, where times were hard financially, morals were low and domestic violence and drunken violence were regular occurrences.
Here are two cases as recorded in the Norwich Prison book:
Age at first conviction: 48
Court and Place of Conviction: Norwich City (every time)
Date of First Recorded Conviction: 18/04/1910
Date of Last Recorded Conviction: 03/12/1917
Number of Recorded Convictions: 14
CRIMES LISTED: Drunk and Disorderly, Wilful Damage, Obscene Language and Indecent Behaviour.
Age at first conviction: 23
Court and Place of Conviction: Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth
Date of First Recorded Conviction: 28/09/1910
Date of Last Recorded Conviction: 30/06/1924
Number of Recorded Convictions: 6
CRIMES LISTED: Keeping a brothel, Obstructing police, Aiding and abetting, Stealing money and valuable items.
It is important to question the evidence we see as this is a reflection of the recorded crimes and does not account for anyone not caught or not recorded. It also reflects the society of the time and the way the crimes were perceived. During the war, some crimes such as lighting infringements (because blackouts had to be maintained in case there were air raids) and spreading Venereal Disease to members of HM Forces (prosecuted under Defence of the Realm Act) were very much wartime crimes that had not been seen in court before the First World War. Certain other crimes such as drunkenness, prostitution and obscene behaviour appear to have increased but this could be due to clamp downs on such behaviour amid fears of dissent on the home front and a desire to keep up morale.
WOMEN AS LAW ENFORCERS
After the end of the First World War women had to adapt to the changing circumstances they found themselves in as many were faced with war-wounded husbands or broken families. Others were forced out of the work they had been doing during the war as men returned to work, being offered domestic work instead, or if married, none at all.
Such pressures often led women to commit violence and theft, as evidenced through Nursery Governess Gladys Gidley. Gladys was charged with stealing from her employer in 1920. For some, who needed to continue working to support their family, theft was the only option.
However, not all women were criminals, they also became law enforcers. Prior to the war Norwich Police Force had employed women as Matrons and in administrative roles. In 1919 Norwich Police Force employed Jessie Hines as a motor ambulance driver and in 1920 Edith Clarke was officially recognised as their first official policewoman. Nonetheless, the immoral behaviour of women was still a major issue in Norfolk, as was male criminal activity which records show increased post war.
Wartime notice prohibiting the throwing of banana skins or orange peels, Norwich, 1916. Image Courtesy of Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service, www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk.