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Behind the Scenes: Lucy Clark, the aspiring female detective

This International Women’s Day we tell the story of Lucy Clark, a bold young woman who in 1900 sought control of her future and a more exciting career.

Our Chief Secretaries Office collection constitutes one of the most valuable collections of original source material for research into Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, from the most seismic events of the day to the comparatively small desires of an ordinary woman. Within this collection is a very telling file (ref. CBS/1900/21340/5) which sums up the status of women in the early part of the 20th century.

This file in focus contains a letter from Lucy Clark, a modestly educated woman who works as a nurse at Kiltarrif Hall, County Down. On 27th February 1900 she writes to the Under-Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir David Harrel, seeking a post as a female detective. She explains that she is ‘a girl who has only received the education of a national school’ and now works as a nurse ‘but in such a situation can never either be happy or content’. It is a brief letter which expresses so much; a young woman who is unhappy in her job, a position which a girl with her level of education is expected to accept and appreciate. She has clearly thought about a role that may suit her character better, one that she might imagine to be more exciting and varied, away from the repetitive domestic sphere. She has clearly enquired as to who might be best person to approach seeking such a position but unfortunately, as we can see from the reply, Sir David Harrel is not receptive to her offer.

The curt draft reply that is also contained in this file reads ‘…the form of employment you suggest is not resorted to by the Irish Government’.  One can only imagine Lucy’s feelings when receiving this response from Sir David Harrel, by saying that the government wouldn’t resort to employing a woman in such a role comes across as a pointed barb ‘this is not a job for you girl’. One can only hope that Lucy got over this rejection and kept her resolve to pursue a more personally satisfying career, one which made use of her intelligence and daring spirit. Without knowing more of her story we can only imagine the turn she may have taken, perhaps, after all, she might have pursued this field of work as a successful amateur sleuth a la Miss Marple!

You can view the full file, including a draft of the negative reply, here.

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