My admiration for the work undertaken by the women of the BWTA continues to grow on a daily basis during my work in the archives here. It is an admiration for their passionate dedication and determination, especially during the earlier years of the organisation when women’s place in society was significantly different to that of their male counterparts. These women still found a way to champion their cause even in areas that we might not expect for the time.

Recently I have been especially interested in the early mission work of the women of our association  within the police courts. This Police Court Mission work was regularly reported on in our Annual reports at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, and branches across the country were involved. This significant body of work deserves a spot light within the history of the association. It must have been a challenging role working with offenders, but they didn’t shy away from what they saw as a real need to support women who were coming before the courts, and an opportunity to help to turnaround both their physical and moral health.

There was already a strong recognition of the connection between drink and crime at the time; in fact, the same year that the BWTA was founded in 1876, the House of Lords Committee on Intemperance was formed. When the Archbishop Of Canterbury moved that a Select Committee be appointed, “It was maintained that crime had been assisted by the growth of intemperance; that the Reports of all prison chaplains, or magistrates, and of all persons connected in the police with the repression of crime, attested that a large proportion of the crime of the country was owing to intemperance.” (1)

The origins of the early Court Missionaries can be traced back to the Church of England Temperance Society (CETS), when a fund was started to finance work originally to rescue drunkards brought before the courts. The Police Court Mission (PCM) was founded in 1876 (the same significant year again) initially in London and then onto the provincial courts. Offenders could avoid punishment by being placed under the supervision of court missionaries, for assistance and guidance. They were provided with practical  support including finding paid work and were also encouraged to sign the temperance pledge to abstain from drinking.

I am hoping that by looking at early references to the PCM work of the BWTA within our archive records, that I can identify when our association first became involved in this area and what the catalyst was for this department of work to begin. We do know that The Manchester and Salford Womens Christian Temperance Association was affiliated to our association during this period, and that they had established links to the Police Courts Mission. It was in the late 1800’s that the Manchester and Salford WCTA and PCM petitioned for female police matrons and better treatment of arrested females. It will be interesting to find out if our affiliation had any direct influence on our own undertaking of missionary work in the Police Courts.

By the early part of the twentieth century, legislation was moving on and some court missionaries were given official status as ‘Officers of the Court’, they were later called Probation Officers. Our own records refer to our workers as both volunteers, Missionaries and Probation Officers. The 1911 Annual Report of the National British Women’s Temperance Association provides an update of the ‘Police Court Work and Probation Officers Department’ – “Several workers point out the great importance of having women workers in every Police-court. I urge this on every branch. Many still think that a male Probation Officer is all-sufficient. If there is one time more than another when a girl or woman needs the help of another woman it is surely when drink is the cause of the offence…90 branches report doing some definitive Police-court work….Most of the Missionaries have been appointed Probation Officers….”(page 123). I think it is quite an achievement that 90 branches were involved and that our missionaries had been officially appointed as Probation Officers.

In the 1910 June Edition of The White Ribbon (NBWTA monthly publication) an extract from the Annual Council Meeting quotes a letter received from Mr Cecil Chapman, Metropolitan Police Magistrate, at Lambeth Police Court, “The work of your society on the Metropolitan Police Courts is quite admirable and I don’t know what magistrates would do without it. I am afraid in that using the service of your lady missionaries for probation work we are straining them to breaking point…. I beg to thank your society for myself and my colleagues for the work which you are doing for the reformation of women who have fallen into what is known as the criminal class….”. It is interesting to note that he talks of “straining them to breaking point”. Can you imagine the circumstances facing these women visiting the courts?! We know from the reports that they were speaking directly with the prisoners, visiting the cells and in some cases taking charge of cases in their own homes. They would have come into contact with drunkards, prostitutes, and other criminals. You would certainly need strength of character to pursue this line of work, even more so during this period of time. I am not sure that I would have ever been able to volunteer for this line of work today or back then!

I will be doing some further reading from the reports and publications in our archive about the work that these women did as ‘early probation officers’ and hope to be able to share more information with you. I hope you will agree that it is another fascinating part of the story of The British Women’s Temperance Association!


(1) House of Lords – Motion for A Select Committee – 30 June 1876 vol 230 

Sources of Information – 

White Ribbon Association Archives 

A Companion to the History of Crime and Criminal Justice (Companions in Criminology and Criminal Justice) – Jo Turner, Paul Taylor, Sharon Morley, Karen Corteen

Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History – Jack S Blocker Jnr, David M Fahey, Ian R Tyrrell