Born in Jamaica in 1939, Sislin Fay Allen changed the future of British policing. As a black woman who had travelled to London in 1961 as part of the ‘Windrush Generation’, Commonwealth citizens who were invited to help rebuild post-war Britain, Allen would undoubtedly have faced racial prejudice just by moving into historically white areas.
Nonetheless, knowing she would stand out among her peers, Allen graduated into the Metropolitan Police force in 1968, making history as the first black female police officer.
Here’s the story of Sislin Fay Allen.
Becoming Britain’s first black female police officer
One day in 1968, during her lunch break, Sislin Fay Allen was flicking through a newspaper when she saw an advert recruiting both men and women to the Metropolitan Police. She had always been interested in the police, so cut out and saved the advert to read and reply to when she finished her shift.
The Metropolitan Police had a complex relationship with Britain’s black and other minority communities. In 1958, London’s Notting Hill had become a battle ground when a mob of young white ‘Teddy boys’ had attacked the area’s West Indian community.
While the police arrested some 140 people during the riots, this figure included both white rioters and black men who had been found carrying weapons. There was a wide feeling among London’s West Indian black community that the Met could have done more to respond to reports of racial attacks.
At the time Allen was working as a nurse at Croydon’s Queens Hospital. There were also no black female officers. Undeterred, she sat down to write her application, including that she was black, and within a few weeks had been offered an interview.
Her husband and family were shocked when she was accepted.
Rita Marshall, a reporter writing for The Times, asked for an interview with the young black police officer, describing how she wished to ask Allen “on the real problems which will face her … without being the slightest bit sensational”.
Marshall recognised the significance of Allen becoming a police officer at a time when racial tensions were inflamed by far-right groups such as Oswald Mosley‘s Union Movement and the White Defence League, who demanded discontented white Brits to stop racial mixing from happening. Indeed, Britain’s first black police officer since the 19th century, Norwell Roberts, had only joined the Metropolitan Police the previous year.
D. Gregory, the Metropolitan Police’s Public Relations Officer, suggested Marshall hold off until Allen had had time to experience life as a police officer; at the time of writing she was still in training at Peel House.
However, Marshall was not the only journalist who saw Allen as an important news story. Shortly after starting her new position, Allen dealt with numerous reporters wanting to do a story on her, describing how she almost broke her leg running from the press. She also received racist hate mail, although her seniors never showed her the messages. At the centre of the media attention, Allen understood more than anyone what her decision meant. “I realised then that I was a history maker. But I didn’t set out to make history; I just wanted a change of direction”.
Her first beat in Croydon went without incident. Allen later described being asked how she could have chosen to leave nursing to join an institution that had come into conflict with the black community. Nonetheless, she remained part of the British police until 1972, only leaving because she and her husband returned to Jamaica to be closer to family.
PC Sislin Fay Allen died aged 83 in July 2021. She had lived in both south London and Jamaica, where her work as a police officer received recognition from then Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, and in 2020 a lifetime achievement award by the National Black Police Association.
Allen’s part in the history of British policing cannot be underestimated. The courage that individuals such as Allen display, knowing they could be faced by discrimination and violence, opens the door for others to see themselves in roles previously withheld from them.