Myra Larcombe has a special place in history as Northland's first female policewomen. It was a tough job in a male-dominated organisation but this feisty farmer's daughter, raised in the Bay of Islands, showed she had the qualities needed to be a trailblazer. Northern Advocate police reporter Kristin Edge gets the good oil on what it was like investigating undie thefts, being mistaken for a tram worker and the mental fortitude required to make it on the beat.
Myra Larcombe from Opua, was the first female police officer in Northland. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
Myra Larcombe from Opua, was the first female police officer in Northland. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

Myra Larcombe's house, perched in bush overlooking Opua wharf, is brimming with mementos of her 88 years of adventure and achievements.

In the cosy lounge, family photos hang on the wall along with her own artwork, trophies line the window pelmet and certificates acknowledging outstanding volunteer work also find a place.

As the morning winter sun streams through the window, the melodious voice of 1950s pop music singer Patti Page drifts from the stereo, singing I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine. Perhaps it's an appropriate song to be playing as Myra, a woman who was ahead of her time, starts to speak of her five years in the police.

Sitting on her couch covered with cushions, sheepskins and blankets, Myra freely admits it was her rural upbringing and attitude to get things done, combined with her sporting talents, that gave her the confidence a woman needed back then to join and survive in the police.

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But it was her older sister, Veta, who spotted a newspaper advertisement recruiting female police officers, filled out the application and sent it off.

"She decided I could do that and reckoned I'd be able to run faster than than the crooks," Myra says with a smile.

Police officials were impressed and waived the fact she was "1/4 of an inch" under the height requirement.

So she shelved her dreams of becoming a jockey and started at Auckland central police station in 1951, at the age of 23.

Male-dominated

"It was a totally male-dominated workplace. To survive, it paid to be fitter than the men and to have acerbic wit. A number of new recruits left in a flood of tears. I was okay, could answer back and was extremely fit, being a strong swimmer."

While the police force had decided to recruit woman, their role was somewhat in limbo, recalls Myra. There was no training or six months spent at Police College, as is mandatory these days. It was straight into the back offices to do paper work and if you were lucky you might get a crime to solve.

The policewomen were classed as 'temporary', did what they were told and were given swags of minor offences. For Myra, one of those was investigating the theft of three pairs of panties off a washing line in Grafton.

Myra Larcombe's first police notebook recording the theft of knickers in 1952. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
Myra Larcombe's first police notebook recording the theft of knickers in 1952. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

Myra flips the cover of one of the first black notebooks she used on the job, revealing her neat swirling script and a record of the undie heist.

It's a detailed entry with all the information any investigation would require: date, time, location, facts and, of course, a description and value of the stolen items.

"Complainant hung panties on the line at 7.30pm. Discovered gone at 10.30pm. Gate unbolted and left open by thief."

The undies were never recovered.

While those on the thin blue line are now equipped with the latest iPhones and technology, new policewomen in the 1950s were required to buy their own typewriters. Myra invested in an Imperial portable that she lugged all over Auckland on buses and trams to take statements from complainants.

For the record, the typewriter lasted until 1986 when it died while Myra was writing the 100th anniversary book for Opua School. She now attends computer classes to learn how to work the machine that came with no instruction manual.

Making her mark

Myra Larcombe, Northland's first policewoman, was a woman ahead of her times who wasn't afraid to speak her mind. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
Myra Larcombe, Northland's first policewoman, was a woman ahead of her times who wasn't afraid to speak her mind. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

Myra's steely determination to do things right saw her make her mark. She was seconded to the 'Aliens Office' which completed all the paper work for immigrants coming to New Zealand after World War II. She dealt with people from Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Holland.

"I became quiet adept at sign language and pidgin English."

But it was the archaic method of registering those people that irked Myra. She ditched the massive bound volumes and set up a card system - in her own time as per instruction by the senior male sergeant, with the cards paid for out of her own pocket.
The successful system drew attention from the officer in charge of the firearms office who enlisted her help to restructure his department's filing system.

A directive in 1952 required women to attend a six-week course in Wellington, where they would all wear uniforms and participate on the beat. A number of women protested, preferring to remain typists and clerks, but for Myra it was why she had joined. Their male counterparts were required to complete a three-month training course at Trentham.

"Only three of us attended the self defence training, the other refused point blank, but I was in my element.

"Even as a kid I was a stubborn little bugger and I was tough. These days they would have diagnosed me with ADHD."

She passed the self defence course with flying colours and got a commissioner's comment for getting the top mark in the law exam.

After the crash course they were back to Auckland as New Zealand's first uniformed female officers on the beat.

In their lined, black serge tunics with big pockets to stash their notebooks, skirt and white long-sleeved shirts with detachable collars, black tie, leather gloves and black slouch hat, they were often mistaken for tram conductors and offered money.

Needless to say, they were quickly set straight.

Six o'clock swill and other hazards

On the streets Myra soon started arresting drunks and patrolling during the "6 o'clock swill" where many of the 'wanted' women could be found drinking with seamen.

Policewomen were not kitted out with handcuffs or batons so their power of persuasion was their main weapon.

"I had no fear of going into situations."

Women were not permitted to drive police cars so for the years Myra served, she was never behind the wheel.

"I retaliated by driving them up the wall," she chuckles. "I was an expert back-seat driver."

When she attended her first death - a woman run over by a tram in Queen Street - she was issued a car and driver to take her to the scene.

In 1954 Myra moved to Whangarei, but not by choice. She wanted to work in Tauranga, telling officials she knew too many people in Northland and it would make policing there difficult.

"It was as I predicted. During the first few weeks I arrested a friend's husband for drunk and disorderly and she has never spoke to me again."

A newsclipping from the Northern Advocate published in 1954.
A newsclipping from the Northern Advocate published in 1954.

The historic moment was recorded by the Northern Advocate in February 1954, with the journalist noting a "trimly-uniformed, athletic policewoman" had joined Whangarei police.

The news report continued: "Duties will consist mainly of investigating complaints affecting women and the young, and their work will be confined largely, but not exclusively, to their own sex."

The public were reminded female officers "possess the same authority as male constables and, if need be, can arrest a man".

"The fundamental principle of their work will be to help, protect and comfort their fellow citizens, not to excite them or stir up endless hue and cries. Fulfillment of many of their duties will cause less embarrassment, both to officers and members of the public concerned."

Setting standards

Back on local turf, Myra engaged in her favourites sports and played basketball, netball, rejoined the swimming club, was a member of the underwater spearfishing club and continued to go dancing.

Enduring the Northland summer heat dressed in the black uniforms was painful and letters of complaint were quickly fired off to Wellington but it wasn't until after she retired that women were issued with a summer uniform.

It was the lure of home waters in the Bay of Islands and the chance to work with her dad on a boat he had purchased that made her leave the police in 1956. She was married, had one daughter, divorced, and now has four grandchildren.

Reflecting on her five-year policing stint, Myra reckons she approached the job in a calm and collected way and never let her emotions get in the way.

"Women, at that time, bought more logic and we didn't stick with the old ways. Us women felt if something should be changed, we did our darndest to change things. We set a standard and I think we changed things for the better."

She feels for the officers of today.

"Oh, my god, they have a hard time. The uniform now is like a red flag to a bull ... society has changed, and not for the better. Today's policewomen are doing a great job."

Myra rises from the couch and guides her guests to the front door. She informs us that tomorrow she's off to Kaikohe to "teach the oldies aqua aerobics".

With this zest for life and her feisty attitude there's sure to be plenty more mementos to hang on the walls or stack into the china cabinets of her small home.