THE BOBBY GIRLS’ WAR by Johanna Bell
1916. Poppy is being transferred to an enormous new munitions complex in Gretna, on the Scottish border. Even though it means moving far away from her best friends Maggie and Annie, she is excited for the challenge.
As a member of the Women’s Police Service, it’s her job to maintain law and order so that the factory workers can safely carry out their vital war work. She soon makes friends, and even starts to open herself up to the possibility of love.
But then she sees something in the dead of night, and suddenly the dangers of the war are no longer far away on distant shores. With the enemy hot on her heels and no idea who to trust, can Poppy save herself – and avert disaster for her country?
Brunswick Square Gardens, Holborn, London, September 1916
Walking through the gardens in the early autumn sunshine, Poppy Davis rubbed her hands together to warm them up. The mornings were getting chillier despite the sun and she wasn’t looking forward to patrolling London’s streets through another tough winter. As soon as the thought entered her head, she chastised herself. Poppy’s mind quickly became filled with images of brave British troops on the front line suffering through icy cold conditions while fighting to stay alive and protect everyone at home – including herself. At least she had a cosy room to return to after her shift, and a kitchen where she could rustle up a tasty, comforting stew – even if she did share the cooking space with twenty policemen. Not that any of them ever seemed to bother making anything.
‘Should we go and see if Sara’s around?’ Maggie asked as they approached the Foundling Hospital.
‘Good idea,’ Poppy replied. ‘They’ll be doing breakfast for the little ones about now so she should be free to talk.’ The pair had just moved on a group of young boys they had caught throwing stones at cars, and Poppy quite fancied a hot cup of tea and the company of some well-behaved children. Poppy had become firm friends with Maggie Smyth through their work for the Women’s Police Service, or WPS, and they had been patrolling their Holborn patch together as a pair for the last six months. They often checked in with the staff at the Foundling Hospital to see if they’d heard about any youngsters they could help. The home for abandoned children and babies was always over capacity, and it broke Poppy’s heart to think of youngsters in need being turned away.
As Poppy and Maggie approached the Foundling Hospital’s main entrance, the door flew open and Sara bustled out.
‘What’s the rush?’ Maggie giggled as Sara bounded past.
She was so distracted that she hadn’t even noticed the pair of them, despite their striking WPS uniforms and riding-style
‘Oh! Goodness!’ Sara cried as she spun around, flustered.
She tucked her wayward blonde hair behind her ears and rubbed her right temple. ‘I was just on my way to the police
‘Well, here we are.’ Poppy smiled. ‘How can we help?’
‘Yes, I couldn’t remember when you were next on patrol . . .’
Sara mused, rubbing her left temple.
‘Why don’t you give us the note?’ Poppy asked with a friendly but firm tone, gesturing at the scrap of paper crumpled up in Sara’s hand. She was fond of Sara, but she found her to be rather scatty and prone to rambling on if she wasn’t encouraged to get to the point quickly enough. Poppy wasn’t quite sure how Sara managed to keep things in order at the Foundling, but it always seemed as if everything was under control when they visited.
‘Yes, of course,’ Sara replied, snapping to attention and handing over the scribbled note.
Baby left on doorstep. Is there space at Annie’s?
Let me know,
Their friend and colleague Annie Beckett had paused her life on the beat with them to focus on setting up a WPS baby home, after discovering that she was pregnant last Christmas. She’d been almost six months gone when she’d realised she was in the family way. Having lost her fiancé in the War, she’d thrown herself into her police work, becoming embroiled in a secret mission to bring down a trafficking ring. She’d been so caught up in exposing the culprits and their well-known clients, as well in as her own grief, that she’d missed all the signs that she was pregnant with her late fiancé’s baby.Now, her daughter, Charlotte, was six months old.
A WPS benefactor named Lady Wright had allowed Annie to use her home in Hampstead to temporarily house vulnerable pregnant women and new mothers, as well as abandoned babies, until a permanent building could be found. But when Lady Wright had died unexpectedly a few months later, she had left her home to the WPS in her will and Annie now had it up and running as a permanent retreat. With the Foundling Hospital frequently over-capacity, it had been a relief for Poppy and Maggie to finally have a safe place to send vulnerable pregnant women with nowhere else to go, as well as abandoned illegitimate babies they came across during their police work.
When Poppy had been sent to join Annie and Maggie on their London beat for the WPS the previous May, the three of them had quickly bonded. Poppy had been worried at first: both girls were in their early twenties, making them a good ten years younger than she was. Furthermore, she had replaced their colleague Irene Wilson – even moving into her old bedroom in their shared flat. It was immediately obvious to Poppy how close the three girls had been, before Irene had been transferred to a post in Grantham. They had even nicknamed themselves the Bobby Girls. Poppy had been anxious about fitting in with two women so much younger than herself, but they had welcomed her with open arms and, before she knew it, they had even started classing her as a fellow Bobby Girl. She had unintentionally slipped into a sort of mother-figure role with them both, but it seemed to work for everybody.
‘Poor thing.’ Poppy sighed after reading Sara’s message.
‘Was there a note or anything from the mother? Do you know if she’s okay?’ As hard as it was for her to accept women could give up their children in this way, Poppy knew the baby’s mother must have been in a desperate fix to take such action. They had come across women who had been so anxious to keep their illegitimate babies secret they had lived in agony in corsets for the last few months of their pregnancy before scurrying off to a back alley to give birth away from prying eyes – and ears. One unfortunate soul had lost so much blood during the labour that she’d almost died.
She would have done if Poppy and Maggie hadn’t reached her in time.
‘Nothing,’ Sara replied. ‘The little blighter didn’t even have a blanket, but thankfully whoever left him knocked on the door before scarpering, so he wasn’t out in the cold for very long. He’s just the loveliest little thing.’
‘We’ll come and collect him at lunchtime when our shift is over and we’ll take him to Annie,’ Maggie offered. Poppy’s heart skipped a beat. She was always glad of an excuse to drop into the baby home. She loved babies, but Charlotte had stolen her heart the very moment she had met her as a wrinkled, helpless little bundle of flesh, just hours after her birth. Poppy had always longed to have a baby of her own, but since losing her husband John on the front line she had accepted it would never happen for her. At thirty-five, she was realistic about the fact that if the time ever came when she was ready to move on from John then it would surely be too late for her to start a family. Poppy was so close to Annie that she felt like Charlotte was related to her. The same went for Maggie. The two of them were like extra aunties to the tot, who already had Annie’s three sisters on hand to look out for her. But whenever Poppy spent time with Charlotte, her joy was tinged with sadness at the reminder that she would never have a daughter of her own.
Seeing how busy Sara was, Poppy and Maggie decided not to bother her for a cup of tea and continued on with their patrol. Maggie made her way to King’s Cross Station while Poppy carried on patrolling the nearby gardens. King’s Cross had become a regular spot on their beat following Annie’s discovery that the leaders of the trafficking gang she had been investigating had been using it as a prime location to pick up their victims. The men had preyed on refugees fresh off the trains into London and so Poppy and Maggie had made sure they regularly met such trains once they’d started patrolling as a pair. They then escorted the women and children to the staff waiting to take them to dispersal centres before anyone could intercept them and coax them away.
Maggie had taken over the charge against the slavery ring on her own in recent months. It was such a big, time-consuming task that the girls found if they dedicated as much time to it as they needed to, in order to save as many women as possible, then the other areas on their patch became neglected. It was simply impossible for them to cover everything. So, for the last few months, Maggie had been spending a lot of time watching over the refugees at King’s Cross on her own while Poppy patrolled the rest of their patch on the lookout for prostitutes and drunken soldiers to help or move on.
Poppy was happy with the set-up, but she was starting to feel as though she might enjoy a bit more of a challenge. Annie had the baby home to focus on and Maggie was pouring most of her energy into protecting refugees. Poppy was content patrolling solo when Maggie was at the train station, and she knew she’d helped a lot of women. The fact that prostitution was dwindling in the area was testament to what a good job she and her fellow Bobby Girls had done. But because of that, she couldn’t help but feel in need of a bigger task. She had always enjoyed pushing herself to achieve, and life in Holborn was beginning to feel a little repetitive now things were relatively under control.
Back in April, when the WPS headquarters had been placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Munitions and the organisation had agreed to provide policewomen to patrol at factories and munitions areas, Poppy and Maggie had both been terrified at the prospect of being separated. But their sub-commandant Frosty – affectionately nicknamed by Maggie for her apparent icy demeanour – had recognised how well they were working together as a pair in Holborn and kept them where they were. But the more Poppy heard about the recruits sent to patrol at the munitions factories popping up all over the country, the more her feet itched to get involved herself.
‘You’ll be pleased to know you’ll be seeing the back of me soon enough,’ a voice bellowed out as Poppy walked through St Andrew’s Gardens. Poppy recognised the voice immediately. It was Alice, a prostitute she had come to develop a love-hate relationship with over the last year. Alice was rough around the edges and she was forever giving Poppy and Maggie the run around to try and get away with having illicit liaisons with soldiers from the nearby Gray’s Inn Barracks. She had even dressed two of them up as women to smuggle them past the Bobby Girls, back when Annie had been patrolling with them. But despite Alice’s determination to continue selling herself and her refusal to even try and find some honest work, she had a heart of gold and Poppy had
a real soft spot for her.
‘Oh, I would never be pleased to see the back of you,’ Poppy called back caustically as she headed in Alice’s direction with a slight spring in her step. Alice was standing at the entrance to the gardens with her mousey, scraggly hair blowing in the wind and her tatty green shawl wrapped tight around her body. Poppy knew exactly what she was doing there: she was waiting for a soldier to walk past who she could talk into dipping into a nearby alley with her for some ‘fun’ in exchange for a bit of money or even a few drinks in a local pub. The fact she had called Poppy over anyway demonstrated how brazen Alice was. Poppy laughed to herself. The conversation would be the same as always – Alice would be a little cheeky and then Poppy would move her on. It had become like a ritual they had to go through to get through every patrol.
‘I’m off to do munitions work,’ Alice boasted proudly.
Poppy couldn’t help but look shocked.
‘You? A munitionette?’ she asked, failing to hide the surprise in her voice. She immediately scolded herself for speaking before thinking. Thankfully, Alice wasn’t one to easily take offence.
‘I know, I know!’ she laughed once Poppy was standing next to her. ‘You girls have been trying to get me off the street for about a year now. Well, you’ve finally succeeded. Actually, not you, but my sister. She’s been working at Woolwich Arsenal the last few months and her latest letter convinced me to join her. I might have to put up with looking a little yellow but there’s some lovely-looking foremen there, according to her.’ Poppy had to laugh. Of course the pull towards a better life had involved men. But she was happy for Alice. Prostitution was no way to make a living. Munitions work might have been highly dangerous, but at least the women were making an honest living and they were helping Britain win the war.
‘I’m proud of you.’ Poppy smiled. ‘But I can’t say I’ll miss our daily run-ins,’ she added with a hint of sarcasm. ‘When are you off?’
‘My train is booked for this evening,’ Alice replied happily.
‘What are you doing here, then? You best get home and pack!’ Poppy exclaimed.
‘I wanted to say goodbye to you, didn’t I?’ Alice said coyly while staring down at the ground.
‘You silly so-and-so.’ Poppy laughed, but she couldn’t help but feel touched by the gesture. She suddenly felt bad for assuming Alice had been on the lookout for business. ‘Now you’ve seen me you can go and get ready,’ she added gently.
‘I also . . . erm . . . I wanted to say goodbye to Reggie, too,’ Alice admitted quietly. Reggie was a soldier Poppy had caught in a compromising position with Alice on more than one occasion. He appeared to have become a regular customer of hers since arriving at Gray’s Inn. Poppy couldn’t stop herself from rolling her eyes – a trait she had picked up from Maggie. It was just like Alice to flatter her to try and distract her from what she was really up to. She felt foolish for having fallen for it, but she had to admire Alice for keeping at it right until the end. Poppy took a quick look around to make sure the coast was clear.
‘I’ll turn a blind eye, seeing as this will be your last chance to see him.’ Alice’s face crinkled into a cheeky grin. ‘But if you get caught at it then you must promise to keep my name out of it,’ Poppy warned her. She would get into serious trouble with the WPS if she was caught letting a prostitute off like this, but she was often softer on the women of the night than her training had taught her to be. She couldn’t bring herself to take such a hard line with them, as she understood how desperate they must be to be selling themselves on the street. No one wanted to do it; they simply had to in order to survive.
‘I swear on my mother’s life,’ Alice said, making the sign of the cross over her chest. Poppy rolled her eyes again; she knew from their previous conversations that Alice’s mother was already dead.
‘I’ll miss you, Alice. It’ll certainly be quiet without you,’ Poppy called back as she walked off across the gardens. And as she pondered Alice’s new life in munitions, she couldn’t help but feel jealous of the woman’s fresh, exciting start.