BROKEN eggs in the chicken house, a dead pony and rat traps deliberately sprung – the evidence seemed to be adding up for William Hamilton Broun that someone had it in for him.

Worse, a couple of the hired hands had started to talk back to him in a manner that was certainly far from acceptable.

But when a maid let slip that his wife’s reputation was being slandered around town, Mr Broun, of Haddington, decided that was quite enough. It was time, he concluded, to call in the detectives and, in particular, a woman detective.

The sleuth summoned to Colstoun House in East Lothian in 1897 was among what now appears to be a busy group of Victorian women who defied convention to put themselves in the front line of fighting crime, solving mysteries and catching red-handed all manner of straying husbands, deceitful wives or vengeful neighbours.

Often working uncover, usually at great personal risk to themselves, like real-life Sherlock Holmes figures albeit in long skirts as opposed to deerstalker hats, hunted down miscreants, uncovered wrong-doing and quite often got their man or, indeed, woman.

However, the covert nature of their work during an era when women’s achievements were already often hidden from view never mind celebrated, meant the daring exploits of Victorian female detectives have gone largely unnoticed and unrecorded for generations.

Yet, according to Dr Sara Lodge of St Andrews University, who is researching the exploits of real-life Victorian women detectives across the UK and their fictional counterparts, they were far more commonplace than previously thought.

“It has been just assumed there were no Victorian women detectives because there were no women in the police at that time,” she says. “In fact, women detectives existed for a long time and occupied roles that we might not have thought of.”

She has found at least 60 Victorian-era cases across the UK that involved the work of women detectives either working as part of a private detective agency, as solo operators, or called upon to support police by going undercover in ladies’ dress shops, behind the scenes in stately homes or anywhere that men might not be able to venture without arousing suspicion.

Some were engaged by authorities in daring roles that could have endangered their lives, such as infiltrating gangs and political groups to smoke out leaders – echoing an early storyline in TV series Peaky Blinders.

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While some rumbled duplicitous would-be suitors, conmen and cheating spouses – sometimes providing the vital evidence required to prove a case of bigamy, slander or, in the case of Mr Broun, uncovering nasty neighbours with an axe to grind.

The Broun case, explains Dr Lodge, took a strange turn and ended with the sleuth herself having to defend herself in court.

A gentleman of considerable status in the East Lothian town of Haddington, Mr Broun called in London-based detective agency Steggles & Darling as concern grew that he and his wife, Lady Susan, were victims of a string of unpleasant acts.

Horses had been disturbed at night – one found injured later died; rat traps were mysteriously found sprung; eggs waiting to hatch had been destroyed; servants were leaving the estate at an alarming rate while others were simply “insulting”.

Having heard his wife’s name had been sullied by slanderous comments, he engaged one man and one woman detective for the princely sum of £1 per day. The woman, Clara Lyat, would operate undercover as a housemaid, quietly gleaning information that would ultimately lead to the perpetrators.

“We have this London agency with Clara passing herself off as a maid in the household,” says Dr Lodge. “This is an aristocratic family being menaced and there’s a feeling that the local community has turned against them, but they don’t know who is behind it. They want someone to come to the house in a servant capacity to find out who has got it in for them.”

However, the case turns sour when the detective pair fail to come up with convincing evidence to match the gentleman’s suspicions. Within weeks they are sent packing, fees unpaid. “There is then a court case between the agency and the employer, who feels they didn’t fulfil their part,” Dr Lodge adds.

Two issues helped to drive Victorian women into detective roles, adds Dr Lodge, whose research includes looking into the impact the real and fictional detectives had on attitudes relating to gender and feminism at the time.

New divorce laws in the late 1850s had transformed the grounds for seeking a divorce, sparking a boom in private detective agencies and demand from women seeking evidence to snare a cheating partner. The establishment of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in the United States United States of America by the Gorbals-born detective and former spy, Allan Pinkerton, showed how women could help uncover wrongdoing.

Having gained fame for foiling an attempt on the life of US President Abraham Lincoln, Pinkerton’s agency went on to employ the country’s first professional female detective in 1856. He later established a force of women sleuths who befriended suspects’ wives, operated undercover as clerical workers, shop staff or housekeepers, and flirted with criminal gangs in order to crack crimes.

“It soon becomes a thing to offer the choice of a female or male detective and there are good reasons for it,” says Dr Lodge.

“Women can go places where men can’t go in the 19th century. If you suspect your spouse is playing around, then it’s much easier to place a woman as a housemaid or someone who might have access to the room where you think he is and catch him in the act or to follow him without suspicion.

“Suddenly there’s a long queue of very unhappy people wanting to ditch the person they are married to so they can hook up with someone else.” While many Victorian female detectives are employed tracking down bigamists, cheating spouses or gathering information on suspect suitors, others had less exciting cases to crack.

“Some were involved in what we might think were relatively trivial cases, such as bus conductors embezzling money or fishmongers overcharging.

“But in those times when people didn’t have much money, those things were really important.”

It was 1915 before Glasgow City Police appointed Emily Miller as its first female investigation officer, or “lady assistant”, charged with taking statements from women and girls “which men would have difficulty in obtaining”.

However, women already played a role within the force. According to Glasgow Police Museum, “Big Rachel” of Partick – recognisable thanks to her 6ft 4ins, 16-stone frame – who was a shipbuilders’ labourer and forewoman navvy at a brickworks during the 1870s, was enrolled as a special constable during the Partick Riots of the 1870s. Anyone who ignored her warnings – particularly for swearing – ran the risk of being dumped off the nearest dock into the River Clyde.

Dr Lodge also tells of one case reported in the Glasgow Herald in 1865 when the wife of a police officer was thrust into an undercover role that could easily have gone horribly wrong.

“There is a situation involving stolen clothing and other items, and she is asked to pose as a fence – someone looking to buy stolen goods.

“She actually manages to hold on to the criminals until police arrive. The criminals were armed, and she is a very brave lady.

“These are not women being asked to do little more than peek through keyholes,” she adds. “They are using deception, playing a role to incriminate the criminals and working in concert with the police.”

Dr Lodge is among 29 academics to receive a grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh that is aimed at intended to helping support research projects which have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.

Most of the 129 researchers who applied for a share of the £470,000 grant fund were women whose research projects were disrupted due to caring responsibilities, home schooling demands, or additional workload caused by shifting their work online.

In some cases, researchers had to abandon their projects and their laboratory-based trials completely.

Dr Lodge says uncovering the role of Victorian women detectives forces a rethink regarding the way women of that era lived.

Rather than being seen as typically timid victims, clutching their pearls in the face of danger, the image of women detectives jostling with armed criminals or going undercover to unravel misdeeds – even in fiction of the time – struck a blow for feminism and equality.

“Woman detectives were taking on roles that had been occupied by men, and it would have been liberating for women to read about women turning the tables on men,” Dr Lodge adds.

“The female detective – even when imaginary – brings a new power relationship.”