Continuing these 10 years of publishing crime novels set in Leeds, I’m moving back in time a little to revisit WPC Lottie Armstrong, one of the first policewomen in Leeds. She featured in Modern Crimes, set in 1924, then again, 20 years later, in The Year of the Gun.
This little story takes place in 1923, a few months before Modern Crimes, and gives more background into how Lottie (whom I really do love) came to know Auntie Betty and the Royal Hotel.
Leeds, December 1923
December. One of those long winter days when the sun came out but hardly seem to rise in the sky. Lottie Armstrong’s breath had plumed in the air as she walked on patrol, and she’d been grateful for the heavy cape and leather gloves.
Now, sitting on the tram and it trundled up Chapeltown Road, she realised how much her feet ached. She wanted to peel off her scratchy woollen stockings and let her toes soak in a warm bath of Epsom salts. Still, it came with the job, and she’d wanted to be one of the first women police constables in Leeds. Today, she and Cathy Taylor, the other WPC, had covered the area around the railway stations, over to Holbeck, back through Hunslet, down to Kirkgate market and up through Quarry Hill. Some of the places where girls and young women might mix with low types, she’d been told.
They hadn’t seen any. Hardly any girls at all. They probably had more sense than to hang around in the cold.
The conductor rang the bell. Her stop.
The pavement felt very hard under her shoes. She had to stop at the butcher and the greengrocer on Reginald Parade to pick up something for tea; Geoff would be hungry when he came home from work. Sausages and mash. Quick, easy, warm and filling on a day like this. She’d just turned up Sholebroke Avenue when she heard someone call her name.
‘Mrs. Armstrong. Do you have a second?’
She turned and saw Tim the muffin man hurrying towards her. One handied stead the tray of muffins balanced on his head, while the other silenced the clapper of the bell he used to let people know he was selling by their house. He was wrapped up warm in the heavy greatcoat he’d worn during the war, a muffler tied around his throat and some knitted fingerless gloves.
‘Of course you can, Mr Worthy.’ She stood and waited until he’d caught up with her. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘It’s our Nell,’ he began. She knew who he meant and her heart began to sink. His daughter, seventeen going on thirty. She worked in a mill, but the rest of the time she was part of a group of girls who haunted the dance halls in the city centre. Tim was a pleasant man, a hard worker who tried to do his best for his family. But Nell had been trouble since he’d returned from the fighting in France.
His wife had died on the Spanish flu a month after he’d come back, and he was left to bring up Nell and her older brother on his own. The boy was fine, settled in a good job. But Nell had turned wild.
Lottie tried to smile. ‘What’s she been up to now?’ she asked.
‘That’s the problem,’ he said. His face was creased with worry and his eyes filled with sadness. ‘I don’t know. She didn’t come home last night.’
This was serious, more than mischief. ‘Have you reported it? We can have the whole force searching for her.’
He shook his head. ‘I didn’t want to cause any fuss. At first I though she’d come home. She’d been out late and stayed at a pal’s house or something. Now…I’m worried that if I went in and told them, they’d think I’d done something to her.’
‘I can telephone and get things rolling.’
‘Would you?’ His eyes were pleading with her.
‘Of course.’ She gave him a warm smile. ‘Come on, you give me the details. I know what she looks like. And don’t worry, they come home when they get fed up.’
‘Do they?’ He needed hope. He needed something. Lottie knew that Nell had gone missing before, overnight on a few occasions.
‘Of course they do.’
The was a blue police box just down Chapeltown Road. She used the key to let herself in, identified herself and gave the dispatcher all she could.
It wasn’t much. Nell Worthy had left for work, the way she always did. But she’d never arrived; her father had checked with the mill owner.
‘She’s seventeen but she looks younger,’ Lottie said. ‘She could probably pass for fourteen. She has a wild side to her, thought. Likes to smoke and drink and she often spends her evenings down in those dance halls on Lower Briggate. Her father gave me the names of her friends and the addresses he knew.’
Another voice cut in, a man. She recognised the gruff tone. Sergeant Wilson.
‘Where are you now, Armstrong?’
‘Chapeltown Road, Sergeant. Mr Worthy just stopped me as I as walking home.’
‘And she’s been missing all night?’
‘We’ll send someone to talk to the father-’
‘He’s on his round. He’s a muffin man.’
A hand over the receiver, something that she couldn’t make out, then: ‘We’ll need you here to help look for the girl. There are other females to interview, is that right?’
‘Yes, sir. But I’m off duty.’
‘You’re back on as of now. I want you at Millgarth as soon as possible.’
A quick dash home with the shopping, scribbling a note for Geoff, then the tram back into town. It felt strange to be heading to work in the evening. The shops along Vicar Lane were a blaze of electric lights and there was a curious gaiety to the faces she saw. Work done for the day, an evening of pleasure ahead. Dinner somewhere, drinks, the cinema, dancing. Her police partner, Cathy Taylor, was probably out in it all. She was married, but her husband was in the merchant marine and she didn’t enjoy nights at home on her own. She wanted company and laughter and music.
Millgarth police station seemed to fizz with energy. Plain clothes officers were moving around, determination on their faces. She recognised a few of them, but far more were strangers. Drafted in from other divisions, she supposed; a missing girl would fire up the authorities.
‘There you are,’ Wilson said when she reported. ‘About time.’
‘I’m sorry, Serg-’
He waved her words aside. ‘I want you to talk to the men working on the case. You know the girl, don’t you?’
‘A little. I’ve met her and spoken with her.’
‘You know what she’s like, where she goes.’
It was easier to simply agree. He didn’t want detail right now.
Some listened. Others didn’t want to hear a woman. Never mind. She carried on and told them all she knew about Nell Worthy. Lottie finished and looked hopefully around at the faces.
‘Do we have a photograph?’ Sergeant Wilson asked.
‘Not at the moment,’ she answered.
‘She’s about five feet tall, quite skinny. No shape to her. Mousy brown hair in a short bob,’ Lottie said. ‘I’m not sure about the colour of her eyes. Whenever I’ve seen her she’s always worn a lot of blue.’
Wilson rolled his eyes.
‘Right, that’s enough to get you started,’ he told the men. ‘Get out there and find here.’
‘What about me, Sergeant?’ she asked once they’d gone. ‘I could help. I know her.’
‘Leave it to the proper coppers, luv. We know what we’re doing. If you want to be useful, you can make us a pot of tea.’
Her cheeks burned with anger and humiliation. She stalked off letting the toilet door slam behind her, folding her arms and staring at the mirror.
Policewomen were nowhere near the equals of the men. They could deal with women and girls, and they didn’t have the power to arrest anyone.
Maybe she should just go home. After all, her shift was long since over.
She’d been standing there for more than a minute when she heard the tap on the door. Cautiously, she opened it, knowing her eyes were red and she was still close to tears.
She’d seen the man in the briefing room, standing near the back. In plain clothes, a dark suit with a sensible blue tie and polished black shoes. He was old enough to have fought in the war, a good six inches taller than her, looking down and smiling gently.
‘He was wrong, you know. There’s plenty you can do to help.’
‘What do you want me to do?’ she asked acidly. ‘Fetch the biscuits as well?’
‘Maybe come out with me and we can look for her. You’ve seen her, you can recognise her.’
‘Why?’ Lottie asked. She could hear the harshness in her voice, but she didn’t care. ‘I’m not a proper copper. The sergeant said so.’
‘Well, I’m a detective sergeant and I think you have something to offer. What do you say?’
‘Yes.’ She suddenly felt calmer. And astonished. ‘Thank you. Can you give me a minute?’
She ran the cold water, splashing it over her face. Looked at herself again, patted her hair down. Better.
It wasn’t far from Millgarth to Lower Briggate, but warmer in a motor car. McMillan parked by the railway bridge and turned off the engine.
‘Where does this girl Nell like to go? Is there anywhere in particular?’
‘Dancehalls is all I know, Sergeant.’
‘The other officers will be covering those. Nothing else?
‘Most of the public houses won’t serve her. She looks far too young.’
‘That’s not very helpful, Armstrong.’
‘Sorry, Sarge. Maybe the best thing to do is go up and down and look into the little bars, see if we spot here.’
‘If you include all the courts, there must be more than a dozen.’ He looked at her. If you take off your cap and button your coat all the way up, no one will guess you’re wearing a uniform. ‘
‘I have a cloche in my pocket. I could put that on.’
She brought it out and patted it over her hair. It was a sweet, warm raspberry colour, a contrast to the dark blues and blacks.
‘Will that do, sir?’
A chilly wind was blowing up from the river. No luck at the first place, a dismal little room hidden away in a railway arch, or at the second, a bustling club that played a succession of phonograph records, its bar nothing more than a door on sawhorses in them corner.
In both of them, McMillan knew people and stopped for a question or two.
‘She’s been in before, but not recently,’ he said as they came out into the cold night. He stopped and lit a Black Cat cigarette. ‘Why did you want to become a woman police constable, anyway?’
Lottie gave the same answer as always.
‘It was something different. Better than stopping at home, and it was a job that would take you if you were married.’
He nodded. ‘Do you enjoy it?’
‘Most of the time,’ she replied after a moment. ‘What about you, Sergeant?’
His face seemed to come alive. ‘I love the work. I’d been a bobby for a year when the war began, and I joined up in the first flush.’ He shrugged. ‘It seemed like a good idea. Patriotic. Was your husband over there?’
No need to say where he meant; everybody knew.
‘He was wounded. Invalided out.’ That was enough. Everyone knew a few men like that. ‘How did you end up in CID?’
McMillan nodded. ‘When I came back, I didn’t want to wear a uniform again. They took a chance on me wearing plain clothes. I suppose it’s paid off. They promoted me.’
An hour later and they’d covered almost all the bars; so many tiny places the Lottie never knew existed. Nell had been in a couple of them. The last sighting had been the evening before.
That was good, she decided. The girl had still been fine twenty-four hours earlier. She glanced up and down the street. She didn’t know what it was about the nightlife here that attracted Nell Worthy, but something made it seem much better than home. Maybe one of the other detectives had discovered her.
‘Just the Royal left,’ McMillan said with distaste.
Lottie had walked past the Royal Hotel often when she was on patrol. She knew the rumours, that the customers liked people of their own sex. There was one bar for men and another purely for women.
It was hard to imagine the girl in a place like that. Lottie had seen her with boys; she’d seemed interest in them.
‘We’ll check it, anyway,’ he told her. ‘You’ll need to go in by yourself. If I walked into the woman’s bar, they’d scatter like a flock of birds.’
‘All right.’ It didn’t worry her. What was they worst they could do, tell her to get out?
The bar was dimly lit. A few women sat that the tables, in couples or alone, caught in the shadows. A big woman stood behind the bar, her hair cut as short as a man’s, neatly parted and pomaded. She wore a pinstripe suit, with trousers, waistcoat, shirt and tie.
Lottie took a deep breath and walked across he room. She could feel people watching her. At the bar she stopped.
The woman facing her spoke very quietly: ‘Now you can turn yourself around and leave again. I don’t want any coppers in here. You’re not welcome.’
‘Don’t try and say you’re not with the police. You don’t look like you’d be a good liar.’
Lottie felt herself starting to bristle. ‘I don’t lie,’ she said. ‘And I’m not about to start now.’
‘That’s settled, then. On your way before I come round there and throw you out.’
‘You don’t understand. I’m looking for someone. A girl who’s gone missing. Her father’s very worried about her.’ Maybe it was the tone of her voice. She knew she sounded earnest. But the woman didn’t move, just watching her. ‘Her name’s Nell Worthy. I know her a little, and I know she likes this area. I’ve been in every bar. Other people are trying the dancehalls.’
‘How old is she?’ the woman asked.
‘You said you know her. What’s her father’s name?’
It was a strange question. What did that have to do with it?
‘Tim,’ she replied. ‘He’s the muffin man near me. He’s the one who asked me to look for her.’
The woman chewed her lip as she looked at Lottie. ‘Come through to the back.’
Crates lined three of the walls. Full bottles and empties. But along the fourth was a camp bed, a few clothes bunched underneath, and a door.
‘What…’ Lottie began. She didn’t understand.
The woman tapped on the door. ‘It’s all right, you can come out now.’
A moment when nothing happened. The Lottie saw the handle turn and Nelly Worthy emerged into the light.
‘She’s police,’ the girl said. It was an accusation, not an observation.
‘I know who she is,’ the woman told her. ‘She might as well have had it tattooed on her head.’
‘She wants to take me home, Auntie Betty,’ Nell said.
‘Well,’ the woman said, ‘you can’t spend the rest of your life living back here, now can you?’
‘You left home when you were younger than me.’
The woman shook her head. For a second, her eyes flashed. ‘I had to go. I didn’t have a choice. My father threatened to whip me bloody. He didn’t like what I was.’
‘Your father wants you back,’ Lottie said. ‘Maybe it’s not perfect, but he’s tried, you know. He’s doing it on his own. He’s a man, they can’t understand girls.’
‘Listen to her,’ the woman said. ‘He’s a good man. If my sister was still alive, you wouldn’t have run, would you?’
‘I don’t know.’ A young, sullen response.
‘Well, I do. Look, I’ll come up and talk to your Dad. Me and him always got on well enough. How would you feel if he let you come and stay with me sometimes?’
‘Do you think..?’ Nell’s eyes widened. There was hope in her voice.
‘Maybe. But only sometimes. I have a life outside this place, too. Would that satisfy you?’
‘Yes,’ the girl agreed after a second.
‘You pack up your things and come through when you’re done.’
‘A woman copper, eh?’ Betty asked as they stood at the bar.
‘Yes. There are two of us.’ She paused for a second. ‘Only two of us. And a matron.’
‘You seem to care, at least. You came in here to look.’
‘I told you, I know Tim.’ She smiled. ‘I like his muffins.’
The woman glanced back towards the room. ‘I can’t guarantee she won’t run off again. But I’ll start to spend a little time with her.’
‘It can’t hurt.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Your Christian name.’
‘Lottie. Short for Charlotte.’
‘You can call me Auntie Betty. Sure you don’t feel uncomfortable in here?’
No,’ Lottie said. ‘Why would I? We’re all people, aren’t we?’