‘Mrs Sherlock Holmes’ and the other real female sleuths who were written out of history

<span>Private detective Annette Kerner in 1952.</span><span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
Private detective Annette Kerner in 1952.Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

From thrilling Edwardian short stories about Sherlock Holmes, to the jaded gumshoes of 20th-century American pulp fiction, the figure of the lone private investigator, who watches from a shadowy street corner, has been chiefly assumed to be a male role. But now a new historic examination, to be discussed at the London Library on Thursday, is changing all that.

Fresh research has revealed that, in real life, women have been at the sleuthing game for as long as men. And they were, in fact, often more sought-after due to their particular skillsets. Private Inquiries: The Secret History of Female Sleuths, published by the History Press, has assembled the recent work of historian Caitlin Davies, now newly qualified as a private investigator herself, to tell the story of leading British lights of this secretive trade.

Prominent among them is the trained opera singer Annette Kerner, who began her undercover career in the 1940s after flirting with a passenger on a channel crossing who turned out to be an intelligence officer observing a suspected spy. He asked her to get hold of the suspect’s suitcase, which Kerner claimed she calmly did.

Once established as founder of her Mayfair Detective Agency, Kerner became expert at donning disguises, transforming at will into a charlady, a society hostess or an opium addict, with the help of a few deft costume alterations. In 1948, Leader Magazine described her as “the woman of a hundred faces – at one moment she is a neat, matronly children’s nurse pushing a pram, only to confront a gentleman blackmailer, then she is an untidy waitress in a dingy backstreet restaurant mixing with fences.”

London-born Davies said she first became interested in the history of this shady trade when she was researching her previous book, Queens of the Underworld, which involved detailing the antics of shoplifting gangs and the women store detectives who were employed by department stores to defeat them. “I wondered who the store detectives were and what their lives were like,” explained Davies, 59.

She then wondered why it was that she could name a string of fictional female sleuths, such as Miss Marple, television’s Jessica Fletcher or writer Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, but none from real life. Davies discovered there had been plenty out there, but most of these real women were far from Miss Marple, the gentle amateur imagined by Agatha Christie. Instead, they often ran highly profitable businesses.

“We need to know that actually women have been doing this successfully since the 1850s,” said Davies. “In the 1920s and 30s, private detection was one of the best paid careers a woman could take up, and it was very accessible because you didn’t need any particular education or qualification, there was no age limit and it didn’t matter if you had children or not.

“But as the years went on, women started to get pushed out, and from the 20s and 30s up to now, women were excluded in various ways.”

In the 1920s and 30s, private detection was the one of the best paid careers a woman could take up

Caitlin Davies, author

Other notable female private investigators of the past include Matilda Mitchell, who left the pantomime stage to become head of Selfridge’s “secret service” on Oxford Street in 1912, and Liverpool’s own “Mrs Sherlock Holmes”, Zena Scott-Archer, known for her surveillance abilities. “She was honest. Of all the women I’ve written about in the book, Zena is the one I would hire in a heartbeat,” said Davies.

Starting in the early days of Victorian detective work, Davies’s book takes in the extraordinary career of Kerner, who ran her detective agency on Baker Street, just a few doors down from the famous, fictional 221b. The story culminates with a look at the current boom in the women’s end of the business. Despite the potentially unappetising nature of much of the work and the dubious reputation of private detectives, Davies discovered that women are a growing contingent in Britain, making up a third of new trainees.

“It’s incredibly important these stories are known, because if you don’t know someone has done something, you feel like you’re doing it for the first time,” said Davies. “If people tell you that you’re no good at anything and you have haven’t got anyone to point to, you can’t say ‘these people did it, so I’ll do it’.”