Caitlin Davies enthralled us all with a talk about Holloway Prison, ‘a terror to evil doers.’ When passing the prison as a child, she stopped to stare, seeing it as a fantasy castle—‘all that was missing was a moat and a drawbridge!’ In 2003 she returned to London, from a career in journalism in Botswana where she’d been taken to court twice herself, and began to investigate the history of Holloway.
A mixed prison when it opened in 1852, prisoners were isolated at all times. Men wore masks in the exercise yard, women were veiled. Often people were locked up for minor misdemeanours such as begging, and sentenced to hard labour. There was no equality—a woman got six months for ‘using threats while drunk at church,’ while a man received the same sentence for killing his wife. There were 41 different offences the prisoners could be further punished for, and if they became ill they had buckets of water tipped over them. By contrast, members of the ruling classes were ‘first division prisoners’. They could wear their own clothes, have visitors and receive letters. Some even sent out to Harrods for provisions.
In 1902, the female prison population had grown so the prison became women only. In 1906 the first suffragette was imprisoned, to be followed by many more. The suffragettes agitated for the status of political prisoner, and wrote letters which were smuggled out to the press. A brooch with an arrow on a portcullis was designed to celebrate their imprisonment. At one point, the women inside were able to organise dancing, sports, singing, storytelling and even an entire mock general election with canvassing and voting!
Gradually, Holloway became overwhelmed, and this was when Doctor Forward, who stepped up the force feeding of suffragettes, took over. He was attacked at home by three hundred women and men from the East End, who called him a ‘beast and a torturer’. He was whipped with a horse whip. Suffragettes also bombed the prison. Then, with the outbreak of war, the suffragettes were released.
It was heartbreaking to hear that as the Second World War loomed, 3600 Jewish women and their children, fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany, were imprisoned in Holloway. By the 1970s the regime saw women prisoners as ‘mad not bad’, and this led to three-quarters of them being drugged, often with strong, mind- altering drugs. Eventually, in 2015, the prison was closed and the site left derelict. Local people protested that it should not be sold to private developers, and so the site will be used for community housing, and a women’s building where women can receive help with drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues.
After Caitlin’s enjoyable and informative talk, we had the extra treat of Joy Bounds talking about the suffragette movement in Ipswich, and particularly Constance Andrews who spent a week in Ipswich Gaol. She was another woman who was prepared to risk her liberty for the freedom we enjoy today.
Thank you to Caitlin and Joy for a wonderful start to our Book Talk events this year, and for your fascinating answers to so many audience questions.
Bad Girls (2018) is published by John Murray.
Written by Tricia Gilbey