Saturday 29 July 2017

Madge Connor

There has been quite a bit of publicity recently surrounding the 100th anniversary of women in the police force in Victoria, the poster girl being Boroondara Cemetery's very own Madge Connor. We have often feature Madge on our walks as she was and I think still is an inspirational woman.

Understandably the papers aren't able to publish her full story, so we'd like to do so here, acknowledging her groundbreaking appointment and her work in paving the way for women in the police force.   She was a true 'force' to be reckoned with. 

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Madge Irene Connor was born possibly on 14 November 1874 at Waterford, Ireland, only child of John Edward Howard McCarthy, master mariner, and his wife Mary, née Barron. By the time she retired, however, Madge had eight recorded variations of her name and four dates of birth. She claimed that after her father was lost at sea, when she was aged 2, she went with her grandmother and mother to England, then the United States of America where they stayed for two and a half years before moving to New Zealand. Her mother died when Madge was 7, leaving her upbringing to an aunt. Aged 16, Madge eloped to Australia. Life in Melbourne with her husband Edward Connor (O'Connor), an English-born labourer, and two children was difficult.

Edward died suddenly in 1916, and it is possible that the police constable informant for Edward's death registration brought Madge to the attention of detectives. She started working undercover for the Victoria Police later that year: by her account obtaining evidence against 'many subtle craft people and illegal bettors' and taking up residence in a boarding house with a hardened criminal and 'his woman' in order to obtain evidence against him.
This work stood her in good stead when, following campaigns by women's groups, the Victorian government appointed female police agents. Connor was the first of two, selected in July 1917, on half the pay of a policeman, with no powers of arrest or rights to a pension. They did not wear uniforms.  In 1922 she helped in undercover surveillance of a witness in the case against Colin Campbell Ross. Quickly accumulating commendations for her work, she was stationed at Russell Street and Fitzroy for most of her career. 

As early as 1920 Connor led deputations of female police and watch-house matrons to the chief secretary, arguing for an increase in their salaries. She described the often distasteful duties they had to undertake for seventeen shillings and sixpence per week. Successful in obtaining a small increase, Connor made further representations in 1923. 

Unrelenting in pursuit of equality, she wrote several reports, insisting that a 'stroke of the pen' would solve all problems.  Connor proved correct. On 12 November 1924 the by then four policewomen were sworn in, becoming the first women to obtain equal pay, nearly half a century ahead of women in other occupations in Australia. Then 5 ft 6 ins (167 cm) tall, with grey eyes, light brown hair and a fair complexion, Connor gave her religion as Church of England. Because of a technicality in the police seniority system, she lost her place as 'senior in service', becoming 'junior in number'. She continued to bring petty criminals, fortune-tellers and bookmakers before the courts until she was forced to retire on 14 November 1929.

Ineligible for a police pension, having not completed the necessary fifteen years as a sworn officer, Connor operated as a private detective. She died on 12 October 1952 at St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, and after a Catholic service was buried in Boroondara Cemetery, Kew, survived by her daughters. 

Source:  Australian Dictionary of Biography

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