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 by the CETS in 1876 and began in London; offenders could avoid punishment by being placed under the supervision of court missionaries, for practical support and guidance and were also encouraged to sign the temperance pledge to abstain from drinking. These Police Court Missionaries were effectively early Probation Officers and as legislation moved on during the early part of the twentieth century, so some court missionaries were given official status as ‘Officers of the Court’, and later official Probation Officers.

Our records from the late 1800’s show that the British Women’s Temperance Association became involved in this area of work having recognised the need for ‘Women for Women’ within courts, police stations and prisons. The catalyst to expand upon this work was most likely due to their affiliation with The Manchester and Salford Women’s Christian Temperance Association and also Lady Henry Somerset, who viewed this work as of ‘supreme importance’ and that reform was much needed for freer access to prisoners. Manchester and Salford WCTA already had established links to the CETS Police Courts Mission. It was in the late 1800’s that the Manchester and Salford WCTA and the PCM petitioned for female police matrons and better treatment of arrested females. Our Annual Reports from around 1890 mention a small number of other branches already undertaking visitation of police court cases by a missionary, but once Lady Henry Somerset was elected as President in 1890, she spoke regularly about extending this area of work, having acknowledged the ‘noble’ work that Manchester had already been doing with Police Court Missionaries.

Annual Reports after this date go on to record progression in this area of BWTA work. One branch report tells us that their Missionary was employed 3 days per week and was given the names and addresses of suitable cases for visitation on their liberation from prison. There is a brief account of a woman who, having been arrested on a charge of attempted murder of her child, was eventually persuaded to take the temperance pledge of abstinence, following visits from the missionary and other ‘ladies of the Committee’. This was alongside other missionary work of visiting homes and distributing tracts. It is reported that during the year the missionary had visited over 2000 homes.

The affiliated Liverpool Ladies Temperance Association also had 3 missionaries employed, and one had undertaken Police Court work for 16 years prior to 1890. She had attended the City and County Police Courts 237 times that year to support women and girls with some being taken to rescue homes or ‘provided for’. Some of the 20 cases admitted that year to Vergmont, the Association’s Home for Inebriates, may have been admitted via the PCM route.

We hear for the first time in the 1893/4 Report of the confirmation of Florence Balgarnie as Superintendent of the Department for the Appointment of Police Matrons. This was another important department of work running alongside the Court Missionaries. In 1897 there was a detailed explanation of the role of The Police Court Mission Department, ‘It is, in brief, to visit the women and girls in the cells of the police court prior to their examination before magistrates, to stand by them during that examination, and afterwards to help them by getting them to sign the pledge, placing them in homes, restoring them to friends, meeting them as they come out of prison, – just acting a sister’s part towards a sister in misfortune.’

Where missionary work was already being done by a man it was reported that this is was not good enough! ‘It is work for women to be done by women, and which is only seemly for women to do.’ A booklet was sent out to all BWTA branches in England, Scotland and Wales describing how the work was begun and how to start the work. Work then commenced in eleven courts and Magistrates were beginning to hear about the benefits of this work for women although not all could find a woman willing to take on this role with one Magistrate reporting ‘I am sorry to say that this court is still without a woman missionary, because we have not yet found anyone with sufficient leisure and courage to make application.’ It appeared that a certain amount of ‘courage’ was needed to apply for this position. We know from the reports that the missionaries were speaking directly with the prisoners, visiting the cells and in some cases taking charge of cases in their own homes. One missionary was asked by a prisoner if she could borrow a neighbour’s baby as she knew she would be lonely in Holloway prison! They would have come into contact with drunkards, prostitutes, and other criminals; therefore, a certain strength of character would have been needed to pursue this line of work.

An article in the White Ribbon periodical of 1898 – ‘In Court – A Practical Mission’- records Mrs Hughes who had been engaged in the PCM work of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Christian Temperance Association since its commencement in 1876. The work of the missionary was said to be very difficult and responsible, as many cases were ‘exceedingly perplexing’. ‘She must be a women of large experience and of great tact, full of motherly love and wisdom. The poor women know in a minute whether you really care for them….’. A personal touch was clearly needed as even a small gift of a handkerchief was hugely appreciated by a woman as it was nicer for her to cry into than her apron or skirt lining. It was claimed within this article that ‘many thousands’ of women were ‘reclaimed from drink and immorality’ going on to live reputable and happy lives.

The work continued to expand across the branches and by 1897 the PCM Department records that across the organisation there were 9 paid missionaries and 71 voluntary workers working in 19 Courts. They had dealt with 1391 cases, taken 631 pledges, placed 41 in homes, found suitable employment for 34 and 26 had been ‘restored to friends’. By the following year the number of cases dealt with had doubled to 2850. Cases dealt with were recorded from ‘gutter girls’ to school teachers and wives of professional men. The impact of drink had no boundaries just as today, it filtered through all of society. It was emphasised that social class made no difference, that it was not just servants and the poor but also wives of clergymen, officers, doctors and merchants that were arrested for drunkenness and cruelty to their children.

Magistrates were said to have consulted with the missionaries on decisions to be taken and ‘generally accepted her suggestions regarding the disposal of the women.’ Prisoners friends were communicated with and often the case was remanded for that purpose. Missionaries sometimes accompanied ‘a fairly decent mother’ home, with expenses frequently met by the magistrates. It is reported that the magistrates understood the futility of imprisonment for these women and were willing to cooperate with remedial measures. It may seem very harsh in today’s terms that a young girl could be sentenced to 7 days imprisonment for a first conviction of drunkenness. ‘She was seen in prison sobbing bitterly in her fright and desolation, with the arm of another woman prisoner round her neck, who was trying to whisper words of comfort and consolation to her.’ The aim of the department was that ‘through the presence of a motherly woman in every police court…such girls should never be sent to prison’. The problem was though that at the time in many instances magistrates had no other alternative although sometimes there were other options available for these women, to go into a suitable home for a while, such as a Catholic home or young girls to a Preventative home, whilst others were sent to the Workhouse or hospital. In Manchester some women were sent to the Society’s Retreat for Inebriate Women at Fallowfield ‘The Grove’.

By the 1899/1900 Annual Report the Superintendent of the department speaks of the work being carried out with ‘enthusiasm’ and Plymouth even had a furnished room set up and available at the court where cases could be taken.  A case is recounted of a middle-aged widow who came to London with 35 shillings in her pocket hoping to find work but failed as she had no references. Her money was spent, and she was found sitting on a church steps having had no food for 3 days. She had not yet sold her clothes as she knew this would stop her finding a position. She sat with her ‘bundle’ and an umbrella looking very forlorn. A passing man took her into a public house and gave her a drink, but she felt ill and dizzy and fell cutting her face. As she was bleeding a policeman marched her off to the cell. A surgeon had to be called to attend to her injuries and because of this expense she had to pay a fine or be imprisoned for a week. The Missioner said ‘Never was there a sorrier state than that poor shaking woman with blackened face, still grasping bundle and umbrella.’ The missionaries were not allowed to pay fines, but she told the woman to come to her when she was released and she would help her. The woman was then ‘taken to the Home, fed and lovingly tended, and is now in a situation doing well.’ The superintendent writes that this is only one of hundreds of sad cases, many ‘too sad’ to put into print.

As the year 1903 passes and Lady Henry Somerset’s Presidency ends, so detailed PCM department reports are not included in the Annual Reports again until 1907. We do know however, that this department was still operating each year alongside the Police Matron department as it is listed annually within the Programme of Work and by 1907 at least 24 branches of the organisation were undertaking some form of PCM work, 3260 cases had been dealt with in that 12 months and 7460 home visits had been made to the women met at court!

1907 became a significant year with the introduction of the Probation of Offenders Act and missionaries were given official status as ‘Officers of the Court’ and by 1908 in nine of the courts the Missionaries had been appointed Probation Officers. Once the Probation of Offenders Act came into force it is documented that this altered the character of the work but at the same time it had ‘given it a wider scope and deeper significance’. Magistrates now had the power to appoint a woman to look after women offenders and children, instead of sending them to prison. Branches still considering starting this work were advised to do so as soon as possible before all the Probation Officer roles were appointed. 1908 provides us with the first details regarding salary – ‘The salary should never be less than a pound a week, but no monetary payment can ever be equivalent to such high service. All the Missioners time should be given, and the duties are comprised in one word “mothering”’. Cases dealt had nearly doubled since the previous year to over 7500!

The writer of the 1910 department report states that the department was thriving. Police court reform was moving on and so too efforts to prevent the first offender from becoming a habitual criminal, in line with what today we might class as early intervention. She states that a large percentage of crime was committed by a comparatively small percentage of criminals, returning to prison repeatedly, with the writer acknowledging that ‘there is a terribly sad side to Police Court work’. However, when 350 cases were put on probation in 1911 it is recorded that there was only a ‘very small percentage of failures’.

It is interesting to note that there were still some Magistrates who would only appoint a male Probation Officer, whilst others valued highly the help and knowledge of the women missionaries, with one London Magistrate speaking of the workers as “Physicians of the Soul”, who did their ‘whole-hearted loving service to the down-trodden and often broken-hearted sisters who come within the precincts of the Police Courts.’ We even hear of the help given to the workers by the Magistrates and Officers who made ‘difficult and depressing work comparatively easy and hopeful…’.

The advent of the First World War brought drink restrictions, convictions for drunkenness fell and alcohol consumption declined and with these cultural changes and restrictions, so began the decline of the temperance movement. However, the NBWTA 1920 Police Court Work report included branch figures supporting an increase of charges of drunkenness coincident with the relaxing of the drink control following the war. Amidst these changes the department continued to be recorded until the end of the Second World War. The 1920’s brought further changes and was also a significant time for women, the first female magistrate had been appointed and Women Police were now firmly established. With the introduction of The Criminal Justice Act of 1925, the Police Court Missionaries became servants of the State and a comprehensive system was established. In many of the larger towns the Missionary work previously done by the Branches, was being transferred to the Local Authorities or the Bench of Magistrates, the Missionary being made Probation Officer. Probation work was now well established throughout the country. Branch reports refer to a decrease in the charges for drunkenness and extended use of the Probation Act – the prison population continued to fall.

By 1926 it had been 50 years since 1876 when the early workers of the Manchester and Salford Police Court Mission began to visit the Police Courts wishing to help and support those women who had fallen into the hands of the law through drunkenness and alongside them following on from their example, were the women of the British Women’s Temperance Association urged on by Lady Henry Somerset. A marked decrease in conviction of women for drunkenness was reported by the department Superintendent, compared to pre-war years and a steady decrease in crime. 25 prisons were reported to have been closed down since the war. The Sup reported that it was difficult to suggest of methods for this work now as ‘the conditions vary so much in different districts’ confirming the now official established Probation system and perhaps the limitations of philanthropic bodies involvement. She was still encouraging those who felt the call to ‘give sympathy and help to some of those who sorely need it’. She believed that it shouldn’t be underestimated that for some of the women helped during those 50 years, it led to a complete change of life.

The final detailed PCM report of 1930 quotes the Chairman of the Prison Commission of England and Wales ‘that the great decrease in women prisoners is due to fewer cases of drunkenness and street offences, and to the Probation Act.’ The BWTA Superintendent goes on to pose the question – ‘Can we not also say that the patient unselfish work of many of the members of our Branches has contributed to this decrease…? We are now reaping from the seed that has been sown for many long years.’

Following the Home Office assuming control of the Probation Service in 1938 and introducing a wide range of modernising reforms, the Department of Police Court Work appears for the last time in the Annual Report of the National British Women’s Total Abstinence Union in 1944/45 following 50 years of this noble work.

Click HERE to view our booklet ‘Police Court Mission and Police Matrons’