Police Work to Find the Real Story Behind Tasmania’s First Female Police Officer

Who was Tasmania’s first female police officer and why did she only stay in the job for three months before leaving to live in a small town in Western Victoria?

The story of Constable Kate Campbell, who joined Tasmania Police in 1917, is a mystery but her legacy has lasted a century.

Senior Sergeant Brenda Orr from Tasmania Police has been working with Victorian historical societies to fill the gaps in the story of Ms Campbell and her brief dalliance with law enforcement.

But so much about the island state’s first female officer — like what she looked like, and why she moved to St Arnaud, in the northern Grampians — remains mysterious.

“I don’t know whether it was for work or other family we don’t know about — we don’t know anything about her external family either and we know she had a twin sister, but we don’t know where she lived,” Sergeant Orr said.

Ms Campbell died in 1936 at the age of 49

Serving in a male-dominated area

Sergeant Beth Ashlin pointing a pistol taken in the 1970s.

A widow and single mother Ms Campbell was “brave, daring and bright.”

“She must have been quite strong willed to come into what was a male dominated area,” Sergeant Orr said.

Police Memorials Committee Chair Ralph Staveley, a former police officer turned police historian, involved in restoring Ms Campbell’s grave at St Arnaud cemetery could only guess at her motivations.

“One of the first things you’d say was, she had courage — she had a spirit of adventure, she was heading off into unknown territory,” he said.

Having worked in the police force for more than 40 years Mr Staveley remains committed to finding out about Tasmania’s first policewoman.

“There hadn’t been a police woman in Tasmania before,” he said.

“So she’s a bit of an exemplar of what was good, and what we continue to look for in people.”

Handbag carrying policewoman

Most of what’s known about Ms Campbell life in the force is drawn from old newspaper articles — historians are yet to find a photo of her.

Even though little is known about the policewoman Sergeant Orr was able to find out Ms Campbell worked mainly with women and children.

A grainy black and white picture from the 194os showing two female police officers in plain clothes.

Eschewing a uniform, she instead served in plain clothes, carrying a handbag where she hid her police ID.

“She had a badge but that was discreetly tucked away under the lapel of her jacket,” Sergeant Orr said.

“She was issued with a handbag apparently, and she had a police warrant and other accoutrements secreted away in her handbag,” Mr Staveley said.

One of her areas of investigation was to police fortune tellers who sprung up during the First World War, taking advantage of women whose husbands and sons were fought at the front.

Policing for women has changed

Most of the graves around Ms Campbell’s site are featureless red mounds, marked by identical metal crosses.

The committee has left the original marble stone — which puts her at 60 at the time of her death — missing the mark by more than a decade.

“Unfortunately she’s left no close descendants, we’ve only found a few distant relatives so we weren’t able to get descendants here,” Mr Staveley said.

Tow policewomen at a typewriter.

This week Tasmania’s Police Commissioner Darren Hine and Victorian Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton paid tribute to Ms Campbell at a graveside ceremony.

Chief Commissioner Hine said policing had come along way since Ms Campbell joined the Tasmania Police 100 years ago.

“It was a very gender specific role that she had to play and thank goodness that policing has changed now so women do all sorts of roles within policing,” he said.