A Q&A with Mary Fraser

Read our exclusive interview with Mary Fraser, author of Policing the Home Front 1914-1918, discussing her inspirations behind the book and what she hopes her audience will take away from it. 

Congratulations on the publication of your book Policing the Home Front 1914-1918, what do you want your audience to take away from the book?
I’d like my audience to see what life was like for the policeman on the beat in Britain during the total war that was the First World War. He was left at home with very different roles imposed on him that were seen as essential to control the population and to focus them on producing sufficient men, armaments and food to win the war. He had to do this in a vastly changing police structure, as many younger colleagues were called to war while untrained part-time Special Constables replaced them, and older men were prevented from retiring. His and his family’s struggles, which included soaring food prices and pay that did not keep pace, make graphic and sometimes heart-breaking reading. The police as an organisation also had to cope with women who fought hard to undertake policing roles and duties, by streamlining them into what was seen as appropriate areas of work, with women and children.
What inspired you to write this book?

As a public service I was interested in how the police function and never having worked in the police service, I have a more dispassionate view. On starting to explore their history, I found them a fascinating group which I simply had to share with others. As a national service the police showed how they responded to government but were not always willing to carry out government requests if they felt it was not their role. At a local level each police force had different issues to deal with during the war, such as the tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers who resided near Folkestone from 1915, to the joy and challenge of the local population and police force.
What first attracted you to History as an area of study?
This is an interesting question because, like many others I find a sense of history comes with increasing age! I suppose this is because one has far more of a vision of how things have changed during one’s own lifetime, let alone further back. History gives one a sense of how and why we’ve reached where we are.
Two-part question: a) What are the main developments in research that you’re seeing in your subject area of expertise? b) How does your book relate to these recent developments?
Police history is a very under researched field and a growing one. With many new courses nationally at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in policing and criminology, the field is opening up to new methods and areas of enquiry. Therefore, the police service is becoming increasingly educated to graduate and postgraduate levels and is more open to academic enquiry. I want to be a part of this. The study of work-related journals which are/were widely read by practitioners is a rich source for historical research. They give insight into the daily work of these groups and show the ways they should behave and their struggles to achieve this. They also aim to educate the practitioners by appealing to their sense of a job well done. This method of researching history therefore speaks more directly to the practitioner.
What audience did you have in mind whilst writing you book?
I would like to be able to reach policemen and criminologists who are undertaking degree or postgraduate courses. I would also like all policemen interested in the history of their work to be able to read, enjoy and learn from this book. Many police museums and collections are now becoming established, the archivists could also well be interested in this book. It’s also written for a general readership who want to know more about the crisis in British history at a time of immense change and the part the police played in this.
What makes your book stand out from its competitors?
It gives the story of real policemen in their daily work showing the context of their conditions of service. It also shows the struggles that the government and authorities had in trying to galvanise the population to speedily turn them from peacetime traditions, with their prevailing morality and culture, into winning the war. The police were key in promoting these changes at home, while many of their comrades left to fight in the war.
Is there one piece of research included in the book which surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

The issue of the control of sexual morality was a real surprise. It was undoubtedly a moral panic including not only Britain but also nations worldwide such as Canada, Australia, America, India and New Zealand. Top leaders in these and other countries pleaded with and threatened the British government to do more to stop the spread of disease internationally. The police were tasked with trying to control solicitation and prostitution and claimed some success, but in times when there was no cure, the inevitable spread of disease continued unabated.
What did you enjoy about writing the book?
I loved it all! Finding all this wonderful material in the police journal and then searching the national archives and other sources led to many surprises and a frequent feeling of “well fancy that!” Uncovering this material was immensely exciting.

What is your academic background?
I started with nurse training in Oxford and London. At a time when the first degrees in nursing were being established, I was determined to secure my career against such competition and so began to study for a degree in Psychology part-time while still working full-time as a nurse. On graduation this gave me both practice and academic abilities. I gained a post in higher education and set up one of the first degrees for registered nurses in the UK. I was then encouraged to study for a Masters degree in Social Research for which I gained a Department of Health studentship, then a PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London - The History of the Child 1905 – 1980: How the child and the family are constructed in the Nursing Times developed the methodology that I’ve used in this book.
What is innovative about your research?
It uses the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault which shows how power circulates in society and how the best-laid plans can be overturned by struggle. By looking at the daily lives in the portrayal of the good policeman on the beat, I have shown the strategies and tactics used by individuals and groups in order to try to gain and maintain power over others.
Who has influenced you the most?
Undoubtedly my husband Colin. Because he knows little about the subject, this is his strength, as he has great insight into my writing and asks searching questions about it. This is most helpful in making me reconsider and explain what I have found and written.
What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments? 
Probably writing this book as I have set up links with many organisations and individuals involved in the practice and research of policing and criminology, who have all been encouraging, pleasant and helpful.
Tell us an unusual fact about yourself and your teaching or writing style?
I seem to be a natural teacher, as I love talking with people about my work and drawing them in to my enthusiasm for it. Many respond really well. I love enthusiastic people.

What advice would you give to an aspiring researcher in your field?

Find good people who are willing and able to help and support you and then go for it! It’s amazing what you can achieve with commitment.

Do you have plans for future books?

Absolutely! This has opened up a whole world of exciting opportunities – I have at least 4 areas I’m keen to develop, the only problem is which one to choose first! Also, whether to move onto the next period immediately post-war or whether to develop particular areas in this book further. Maybe I’ll do them all, given time.

What do you feel has been a highlight for you, in your career?

I don’t really see my life as a career. I just love what I do and want to develop it and share it with others who wish to be involved.

What do you see yourself doing in ten years' time?

I’d like to think I will still be interested and involved with history, searching archives and making the most wonderful finds and wanting to share them with others through writing and speaking.

What is the last book you read (non-academic)?

I love Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. It’s a suspense to the end.

Who was/is your role model who inspired you to pursue your career?
I don’t really see my life as a career. I have many role models and love the perspectives they all bring to my life.

What historical figures do you admire?

Lloyd George has to be among my top choices. His oratorical flair and his determination, even though it was often in self-interest, no doubt justifies his title as “the man who won the war”. But it was not a good idea to cross him or look weak, as he could swat even the most powerful out of the way like a fly! You’ve got to admire that kind of skill and tenacity.

Mary Fraser trained as a nurse in Oxford and London. Following a degree in psychology she moved to higher education, setting up one of the first three degrees for qualified nurses in the UK. She graduated MSc University of Surrey with a Department of Health Research Studentship, and PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is sole author of Using Conceptual Nursing in Practice: A Research-Based Approach published in 1990, reprinted 1993; a second edition was published in 1996. She is the author of over 50 peer reviewed journal articles.
She was Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government, University of Strathclyde and has held public appointments in healthcare in both England and Scotland. Her interest in how different professional groups talk about their lives and work through the pages of their professional journals both historically and in the present started with nursing. For the last 10 years she has been developing a similar approach with the police, another large public sector organisation with a remit of public service. She is an Associate of The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research (SCCJR).