Lady detectives seem to have come late to Australia. The concept of them was known throughmost of the Victorian era, as they were subject of some popular novels, including Revelations of a Lady Detective (1864) which was advertised, widely, for many, many, many years in regional Australian newspapers. (It made searching… fun.) Tracing them was also complicated because the distinction between police detective and private detectives isn’t always obvious from the context. Still, they don’t appear until near the end of the century and the earliest mentions are from overseas.
THE LADY DETECTIVE. — Chicago has many female detectives, but they are not known as such. Their identity is successfully concealed. The female detective rarely if ever appears in the courts. Her evidence is carefully collected, and then corroboration is secured before the case is brought to trial. There are so few female detectives that it would not do for them to become known. Their occupation would be gone, and it would be a difficult matter for their employers to fill their places. The queen of the female detectives in Chicago is a motherly woman, perhaps 50 years of age. “I have lived out,” she said, in beginning her story, “as a domestic, just to get into a house and see what took place there, and who called in the absence of the husband. For the same purpose I have acted as a strolling fortune teller, and as a book agent and a pedlar of patterns. No one can have any idea how many cases there are of domestic misery, and how much deception and misery there is in the world, and generally in what is termed the fashionable world. Women will suffer every imaginable indignity and insult, rather than let the facts be known, for exposure means almost invariably the loss of social position—dearer to most women than life itself. There are many divorce cases reported in the papers, but there are many more which never come to light, and of which the public never hear.”
Port Augusta Dispatch, 10 July 1888
A few months later, this article appears in the Ladies Column of various newspapers (alongside the number of female medical students taken on Paris (114), macrame instructions and the most points that could be award at a recent beauty pageant (20). Ladies Columns cannot be accused of lacking variety.)
A new career is now open to women namely, that of a private detective. In London a large number of women are now employed in this capacity. In the first instance they were employed to detect cases of shoplifting and omnibus frauds on the part of conductors. Now, however, women are largely employed as detectives in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg; Most of those so employed are women of good social position, who find their business a lucrative one. The French and German embassies in London also employ women in this capacity. Two of the principal private inquiry offices in London were the first to employ women, and the principals state that women are far more efficient in their duties than men would be. One firm of inquiry agents has a very clever lady detective in the service, who, in the discharge of her duties, has travelled many thousands of miles. Her remuneration has been £400 a year for detective work alone. Another firm has paid a female detective as much as £80 for one month’s services in private investigation.
The Week (Brisbane), 8 December 1888
The “omnibus frauds on the part of conductors” might similar to this reference, from thirty years earlier:
Improved Detective System. – On looking over our files of late English journals, we were amused at finding that lady detectives are now advantageously employed on the main railway lines at home, and it is a question for consideration whether two or three well trained female attaches may not be a valuable acquisition here – Melbourne Herald
The Courier, 15 April 1856 (See, middle of the century.)
In 1891, the Armidale Express (northern NSW) offers up an interview with an English lady who follows the detective trade. It start thusly…
You would never have dreamt from her appearance that she was engaged in such a hazardous profession at all. There was nothing forward or fast about her, her dress was quite modest and heat, while in conversation she was as charming a companion as one could wish to meet. And her face—so innocent, and guileless, and sweet it looked! It had not only been her fortune— it had enabled her to carry through without suspicion many an intricate case, and had saved her life many a time. She gave a short account of some secrets of her profession.
“You must understand,” she said, that detective work has always been a passion with me. At boarding-school I went fairly mad over detective stories, and a favourite amusement with us girls used to be to unravel a case from which the main facts were called from Gaborian. “It always delighted me to unearth mysteries, and when I came across a hair-raising record, of inscrutable crime, with burglars, poisoners, and faithless women moving about as in a play, that was a thing which made me delirious with joy. My father meeting with reverses, I had to cast about to earn my own living, and feeling that my forte lay in detective work, I made up my mind without a moment’s hesitation to enter “this somewhat strange profession.”
“Did you find it difficult to make your way?”
“Not a bit. I entered at a peculiarly lucky time. There were few lady detectives then, and there are few now. It is quite a mistake to suppose that there are lady detectives employed at Scotland Yard. There are none. It is true that female police are in the pay of the Home Office, but that is quite a different thing.”
The Armidale Express, 17 March 1891
So, they’ve been known overseas for a few decades and then in the late 1880s suddenly start getting attention in Australia. (Probably related to the increased independence of women and newsapers editors looking for content to attract this new market.) The first mention in Australia is a news story about a problem with the ladies who ran the sweeps at Flemington race course so “a lady detective and a couple of male ditto were requested to keep their eyes open in the stand” (Melbourne Sportsman, 5 March 1890). As I mentioned earlier, not clear from that if they’re private or police.
There is also story about an “amateur lady detective” from a few years earlier, that appeared in a few different papers.
Caught by a Lady Detective. A great sensation was caused in the [Melbourne] City Police Court to-day by the disclosure of how an amateur lady detective (a Mrs Maddon) dogged the footsteps of a “swell-mobsman” until she landed him in gaol. Mrs Madden, a young, slender, and handsome brunette, and the history she gave of Edward Lucas, a professional pickpocket, showed that a miraculous Nemesis in the form of a lady had traced his footsteps. Lucas is an elderly man, but wears a large black beard, in conformity with the color of his hair. A detective explained that all had been dyed from irongrey since the date of Lucas’s last conviction. Mrs Madden said, “I have seen the man evidently trying to pick pockets in Ballarat, in Dandenong, and on the lawn at the Melbourne races on Cup Day. In Ballarat he attended the Bishop’s consecration in the Roman Catholic Church. He was among the ladies. He knelt down most devoutly. While the throng of them were coming out they had to brush past him, and I believe he tried their pockets. I actually found him at the hotel table for dinner. I warned the landlady and said, “I am sure that man is a pickpocket.” In Dandenong, at the railway station, I saw him operating upon a lady’s long velvet mantle. He had his finger crooked. I seized him by the wrist in the very act. He said “You’re too smart, you know.”
On the lawn at the races on Cup Day I saw the prisoner. My purse was stolen. I cannot say whether he took it, but I challenged him. I took hold of him and some persons gathered round. The prisoner knelt down and begged and prayed that I would let him off, which I did.” Detective O’Callaghan persuaded her to get a warrant out for the prisoner. Incidentally she mentioned that in Ballarat her pocket was picked of a purse with £5 in gold and diamond ring. Detective O’Callaghan deposed that Lucas is an experienced London swell mobsman and a Western Australia expiree. The detective then produced gaol photographs of this interesting personage under various names. In a closet on the racecourse on Cup Day, were found six purses which had been picked from different pockets and rifled. Mr. Call sent Lucas to prison for 12 months. In his appeal to Mrs. Madden on the racecourse he said that he would get an awful punishment if convicted, because of his antecedents; but probably he concluded that he escaped lightly.
Monaro Mercury, 15 November 1884
Now, to the ads. Although as ads go, they’re rather dull. The first ones I found were from 1892, then a scattering over the next few years and then after the turn of the century, they become more frequent. Of course, these are just the ones who advertised. The better (connected) ones might not have had to, or permanently employed somewhere. There is much more to find out about lady detectives!
Images from The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, by C.L. Pirkis, 1894, which you can find in the usual public domain book places.