Three Women who inspire us at Schillings Part 1: The fearless sleuth in disguise – Maud West

Phoebe Waters 8 Mar 2021

The 2021 theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge, highlighting the need for each of us to be responsible for calling out gender bias and inequality. But it isn’t down to this one day: every day we should encourage one another to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Today, I want to celebrate Maud West. 

Maud West = the fearless sleuth in disguise (1880 – 1964).

Who?

West was an enigma. She was a fearless and progressive international queen of crime, often in disguise to enable her to drop effortlessly into the lives of the indisputably dubious characters that were both her clients and targets. West’s expertise was wide-ranging: she unmasked jewel-thieves, tracked down gang members, and caught adulterers and spies alike.

At arguably the peak of her career in the 1920s, West shared insights into her exploits – potentially with some hyperbole – and posted adverts offering her investigative services in tabloid papers (such as Pearson’s Weekly and the Sunday Dispatch). One reads: “Every kind of Detective Work undertaken with Secrecy and Despatch. Divorce Shadowings, Secret Enquiries etc.

When? 

In 1905, at the age of 25, West formed her detective agency in London. She rose to fame across the globe and spent more than 30 years as a driven, bold leading female investigator. At a time when the investigations scene was supposedly a man’s world, she made herself indispensable in the art of uncovering the truth.

Ostensibly, West enjoyed a nonchalant attitude towards the asserted dominance of men in the early 20th century, once recollecting that a former subject of hers threatened: “I have just come to tell you that it is not safe for anyone — a girl especially — to go fooling around making inquiries about a man like me.” West’s fervour and determination, and the indifference towards her disbelievers, quite literally ooze out of the archived newspapers from my screen, dripping onto the desk around me.

Where?

West’s cases were predominantly focused within England and Europe, but the investigations often took her further afield, such as to the US and South Africa. She recounted one time in 1915 that on an adultery-evidence gathering mission (not entirely sure what that might have entailed) she tore through Russia, France, Belgium, Germany – all in one week.

What?

The cases that landed in front of West were naturally reflective of the social, political and commercial changes that were unfolding around her. West lived through the First World War, experienced the rise of the Suffragettes and was immersed in a global society punctuated by financial uncertainty and a shift in values. This extraordinary female was an industry expert who adapted to her climate and thrived. She also witnessed the evolution of nightclubs – my kind of woman.

Star quality:

The story goes that a (seemingly overly confident) fraudster stormed into her Bloomsbury office one day with the cry “I am fortunate in finding you alone Miss West.” West picked up her loaded revolver from her writing table, and proclaimed “Oh, not quite alone”. She reportedly raised the gun with a laugh.

Through the keyhole:

West was a costume-crazed star of investigations and took great satisfaction in telling the press that she was best in the business for penetrating gentleman’s clubs dressed in a dapper three-piece suit. It is contested however, whether West disguised herself as a man due to her proficiency in under cover source work, or due to her penchant for cross-dressing. Perhaps it was both.

West retired during the outbreak of World War II, vanishing from the London investigative scene. This commendable female chose to challenge for change, and in my opinion, she succeeded.