Merseyside's real-life 'Mrs Sherlock Holmes'

| Author: Secretariat | Filed under: General News
Merseyside's real-life 'Mrs Sherlock Holmes'

ears before the tales of Sherlock Holmes even existed in print, there were many real-life female detectives doing the job across the UK.

In the late 19th century, some women started operating on their own and by the early 20th century, many had their own agencies. But here on Merseyside, one sleuth became known as one of Britain's leading private investigators, starting her long career in post-war Liverpool.

Born in Surrey in the 1920s, Zena Scott-Archer later moved to Wallasey with her family when her father, Sydney, left the Flying Squad and got a job working for the Littlewoods Pools company. It was Sydney who first set up his own detective agency, Scott’s Detective Bureau, in Cook Street in the city centre.

During the war, Zena was working as a secretary and later started helping at her dad's business, typing up surveillance reports. It was here that she got a taste for the job herself, with her first task being to track down a chief stewardess on a ship docked in the city and serve her papers.

Zena, sometimes known as "Mrs Sherlock Holmes" fast became the most famous female private eye on the world stage, known for her skills at shadowing, surveillance and disguise – as well as her oyster shell nail varnish and passion for hats. Author Caitlin Davies, from London, has researched Zena's career at length, a story which features in Caitlin's new book, Private Inquiries.

Caitlin, 59, told the ECHO: "Zena Scott-Archer - she was an incredible woman. It's amazing that a woman like her was so well respected at home and abroad and who was the leading British sleuth, man or woman, on the British stage in the 1980s.

"What was interesting about Zena is she had a very long career, she started in the 1940s and she continued well into the 1980s, if not the 1990s. She was a businesswoman and she was not like a lot of the women before her- she was not a crook and she was not a liar - she was professional.

"Just after the war, around 1946, she started doing a bit of typing for her dad. She realised that the male detectives who were working for him really weren't doing a good job. She was typing up their surveillance reports and she realised they weren't giving enough information, so she started going off and doing jobs on her own.

"She was honest, she was very well respected of all the women I've written about in the book, Zena is the one I'd hire in a heartbeat. She was a fascinating woman and she worked in a totally male dominated environment."

Despite her many disguises and working undercover, Zena was shadowed by the Liverpool ECHO, featuring in the paper throughout her career, as seen in photographs from our archives, Mirrorpix. When Zena's father died, she took over the agency and moved it to Dale Street, where they were handling around 300 matrimonial cases a year.

Receiving dozens of enquiries daily, Zena worked on many different cases across the city. Caitlin said in Zena's career, she did everything from observing management of a bingo hall to see if they were "ripping off" customers to being sent to a circus in Paris after a woman suspected her husband was having an affair with a trapeze artist.

Through the years, Zena also posed as a sales assistant in the lost Blacklers department store after it was suspected a staff member was stealing and also disguised herself as a nurse in the city to see who was robbing from a wealthy widow. Caitlin said: "She freaked out when doctor asked her to prepare a syringe - she didn't know what to do

"There was also a man with three wives and one of them hired Zena to follow the husband and she came fact to face with him on a train from London when he proposed to her. He wanted her to be wife number four."

In 1981, Zena was elected president of the ABI - association of British Investigators - and that same year, she also flew to Las Vegas where she became president of the World Association of Detectives. Caitlin said: "When you hear that you think - why don't we know about this woman.

"When she joined these organisations she was often the only woman. The organisation her father was head of, there were 300 men and one woman - Zena - and here she was in 1981, the head of the two most prestigious organisations in the world."

In Private Inquiries, Caitlin traces the history of the UK’s female investigators, uncovering the truth about their lives and careers from the 1850s to the present day. Caitlin also followed in the footsteps of her subjects, undertaking a professional qualification to become a Private Investigator, and meeting modern private investigators to disentangle fact from fiction.

Caitlin said: "The book is a history of female private detectives looking for the very first women who worked in undercover jobs and taking it right up to the present. I think it's incredibly important that these stories are known because if you don't know someone has done something, you feel like you're doing it or the first time and if people tell you you're not good at anything and you haven't got anyone to point to, you can't say these people did it, I'll do it.

"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 it didn't matter if you had children or not - you could work around that. But as the years went on, women started to get pushed out and from the 20s, 30s to now women were excluded in various ways, so we need to know actually women have been doing this successfully since the 1850s."

Caitlin said she was lucky enough to work closely with Zena's family for the book and that coincidentally, one of Zena's relatives, Lyndsay Burd, has also released a novel based on Zena's real life detective cases.

Source:  Liverpool Echo

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