Somehow the idea of 1920s Leeds has got under my skin lately, and the first policewomen we had here. so I began writing. Here’s a little bit of it, wherever it ends up going.
Who know, it might have been this way….
Walking into Millgarth Police Station, Charlotte nodded to the desk sergeant and strode back along the corridor to the matron’s office. The day shift of bobbies had already gone on patrol and the building was quiet. She rested her hand on the doorknob, took a deep breath and straightened her back.
‘Good morning, ma’am. WPC Armstrong reporting.’
Mrs. Maitland looked up, giving a quick inspection. She was a pinch-faced woman in her late forties, her dark hair going grey and pulled back into a tight bun. She’d never mentioned Mr. Maitland, but in two years the woman had never revealed anything personal about herself; the job seemed to be her life. She was here first thing in the morning and long into the evening, as if she had no better place to be.
‘There’s a hair on your jacket, Armstrong.’
Lottie looked down. One hair, blonde, one of hers. She plucked it away, annoyed at herself and at the matron.
‘Sorry, ma’am.’ She stayed at attention.
Maitland returned to the letters on her desk. This was her way. Keeping someone waiting was the way to enforce discipline.
The door opened and Cathy Taylor marched in. She was late and she knew it. Lottie could see it in her eyes. But she just winked, stood to attention and said,
‘WPC Taylor reporting, ma’am.’
‘You were supposed to be here at eight, Taylor,’ Mrs. Maitland said.
‘Sorry, ma’am, my watch must be running slow.’
The matron sniffed. Only two women constables in Leeds and she had to keep them in order.
‘Well, since you’re finally here, I have a job for the pair of you.’ She scribbled and address on a piece of paper. ‘Go and see her. She runs a boarding house for unmarried mothers. One of her guests has been acting strangely.’ She stared at the pair of them. ‘Well? Off you go.’
‘It’s in Woodhouse, we might as well walk,’ Cathy said as they set out up the Headrow. She folded the note and put it in her uniform pocket. Early September but it was already feeling like autumn, enough a nip in the morning air for their breath to steam. ‘Bet you the girl’s just gone off to find some fun. It’s always old cows who run those places.’
‘At least it makes a change from talking to prossies or chasing lads playing truant.’ Lottie sighed. She loved the job but wished the force would let them do more, rather than treating them like delicate flowers with tender sensibilities.
Still, it was better than working in an office or being a housewife. She’d developed a taste for freedom when she worked during the war, like so many others. Getting the vote was something. Earning her own money was much more.
Lottie had worked as a clerk at the Barnbow munitions factory in Cross Gates. 1916 and she was twenty, fresh in the job with everything to learn, just promoted from the factory. But she’d managed, even finding time to flirt with the procurement officers who came to check things.
Geoff had been one of them. Shy, diffident, still with a bad limp from a wound he’d suffered the year before in the Dardanelles. He had a modest charm about him, and in his uniform he looked quite dashing.
Charlotte was the one who’d made the running, someone had to and he wasn’t one to put himself forward. On his third visit she’d suggested an outing to the pictures, watching him blush as she spoke. From there it had taken two years until they reached the altar. By then he’d returned to his job in the area Dunlop office
With the war over and the men coming home, factories began sacking the women. A wedding ring on her finger, Charlotte had tried to become a housewife. But life chafed around her. Other women were having babies but she never would, with Geoff’s injuries. She needed something, but there was nothing. Until the Leeds Police advertised for policewomen. And suddenly life excited her again.
“You’ll be getting yourself shot if you keep coming in late,’ Lottie said.
‘It was only a couple of minutes. Anyway, Mrs. Prissy wouldn’t know what to do if she didn’t have something to complain about.’ She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand.
‘I went to the pictures with my friends, then they wanted to go on dancing so I couldn’t say no.’
Cathy was twenty-four, with a husband gone most of the year in the merchant marine. No kids. No wonder she liked to be out a few nights a week, dancing and flirting and enjoying herself. Married but single, she called it with a small laugh.
Lottie had gone out with her a couple of times after work, changing into civvies at the station then going on to a see a film at the Majestic. It had been fun, but not something she’d want to do often. Cathy had wanted to go on somewhere, to have a cocktail. God only knew where she found the energy. By the end of a shift all Lottie wanted was to be at home and off her feet. When the working week was over, she was exhausted. She was lucky to stay up until ten, never mind the wee hours.
But Cathy was still young, always getting looks from men. Pretty enough for a portrait, hair in a modern bob, with a pair of shapely legs and that bony, modern figure that always made Charlotte feel huge in comparison.
‘What are you going to do when your John comes home?’ Lottie had asked her. ‘You can’t go gadding about then.’
‘We’ll enjoy our time together. After a month he’ll ship out again. Don’t get more wrong: I love him and I’d never, you know…but I can’t sit at home every evening, can I? He wouldn’t want me to, anyway.’
They matched each other step for step along Woodhouse Lane and out past the university, going towards the Moor, with its library and police sub-station on the corner.
‘Down here,’ Cathy said, turning briskly along Raglan Road, followed by a right and a left. She scratched at her calf through the skirt. ‘God, I wish they’d do something about this uniform. It’s not bad enough that it itches, it’s so heavy, too. Like wearing a battleship. This is it. Thirty-six.’
The house seemed out of place. On a street of large terraced houses, it loomed on the corner, detached, standing apart at the back of a long, neat garden, look out over the Meanwood valley, with all its factories and chimneys. Hard an inspiring view, she thought.
Lottie knocked and waited. Some lovely stained glass in the window; she wouldn’t mind that at home. She was miles away when the knob turned and a small woman in an apron stared up at her.
‘I was wondering how long it would take the police to get here.’ There was no welcome in the voice. The woman raised an eyebrow and stood aside. ‘Well, are you coming in or do we do it all on the street?’
Charlotte led the way, following an open door into a neat parlour. A Sunday room, still smelling of wax, the wood on the furniture gleaming.
‘Go on, sit yourselves down.’ The woman bustled around, flicking off some non-existent dust.
‘You run a home for unwed mothers here, Mrs…’ Charlotte said.
‘Allen,’ she answered briskly. ‘Yes, I do. It’s a Christian thing to do, and I try to put on them on the right path.’ She sat very primly, back straight, her stare direct.
‘One of your girls has gone missing, is that right?’ She took the notebook and pencil from her pocket, read.
‘Yes. Didn’t come back last night and no word this morning.’
‘Could you tell us a little bit about her, Mrs. Allen? Her name, what she looks like, where she’s from.’ Lottie smiled. This was what she enjoyed, talking to people, teasing out the information.
‘She’s called Jocelyn Hill. Seventeen, but she could pass for younger. You know the type, like butter wouldn’t melt, but she’s a sly little thing. Always looking for a chance. A bit extra food, this and that.’ She shook her head in disgust. ‘Half of me wishes I’d never taken her in.’
‘What does she look like?’ Cathy asked. She liked facts, something solid.
‘Only about five feet tall, I suppose. Dark hair in one of those bobs they all seem to wear. Like yours,’ she added. ‘Thin as you like, no figure on her at all. Apart from the baby, of course.’
‘How far along is she?’ Charlotte wondered.
‘Eight months,’ Mrs. Allen replied. ‘so it’s not like she can hide it.’
‘Has she gone missing before?’
‘Of course not.’ She snorted. ‘They all know the rules when they arrive. No going out, only family to visit, in bed by ten. Break a rule once and they’re gone. I won’t stand for it otherwise. I give them a warm, clean place to have their children and I help find good homes for the little ones. I’m not about to let them take advantage of me.’
‘Have you had others disappear, Mrs. Allen?’ Cathy asked quietly.
‘Only the one,’ the woman said after a while. ‘Three years ago. But she was a wild one, wouldn’t ever settle down here. Jocelyn liked to push things, but she was nothing like that.’
‘Where did she come from?’ Lottie had her pencil poised, ready to take down the address. Mrs. Allen took a ledger from one of the empty bookshelves, found a pair of glasses in her pocket, and began to search.
‘Here we are.’ She read out an address in Cross Green. Lottie glanced towards Cathy and saw a tiny shake of the head.
‘Thank you,’ she said, standing. ‘Is it possible to take a look in her room? Perhaps we could talk to some of the other girls who knew her?’
‘Nothing to see in the room,’ the woman told them. ‘I’ve already packed her case. If she shows up at the door she’s out on her ear. And she never really got along with the others. Kept herself to herself.’
‘Maybe a look in her case, then…’ Charlotte suggested.
‘Two dresses and some underwear that’s as flimsy as nothing. Not hard to see how she ended up this way, is it?’
The door closed quickly behind them. As they walked back along the street Cathy looked over her shoulder.
‘She’s watching us from the front window.’ She shivered a little. ‘Blimey, I think I’d run off from that place, too. She’s…’
‘Strange?’ Lottie suggested.
‘Worse than that. Did you smell it in the hall?’
‘You mean the mothballs?’ She crinkled her nose. ‘She must have them everywhere.’
‘I could feel the joy being sucked out of me as soon as I walked through the door.’