‘Bad Girls’: the History of Holloway Prison

To be published by John Murray, February 2018

Holloway Prison in north London was, until recently, Britain’s oldest surviving prison for women and the largest in Western Europe. Built in 1852 as a House of Correction, initially for both men and women, its inmates had come from all corners of the UK – whether ‘witches’ and pacifists from Scotland, suffragettes from Huddlesfield, spies from the Isle of Wight, or protestors from Greenham Common. While their ‘crimes’ couldn’t have been more different, their treatment revealed the prejudices of the age.

Were they mad or bad? It was a question that applied equally to suffragettes at the turn of the century and to spies in both world wars. Were the women responsible for their actions, or deluded? And just as importantly, how should they be punished? Bad Girls will tell the story of the evolving nature of women and prison, crime and punishment over a 150-year period of UK history.

Today there are around 4000 women behind bars in the UK (five percent of the total prison population) and they are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. There have been calls to close Holloway down ever since the 1930s when one MP said it should be blown up and replaced with a new alternative. In the 1970s, campaigners argued the prison should be phased out altogether. In 2007 Baroness Jean Corston called for radical reform of the women’s estate.

But when in November 2015 the government announced that Holloway Prison would close, it came as news to the women and staff inside, many of whom were in tears. George Osborne explained that, ‘In the future, women prisoners will serve their sentences in more humane conditions, better designed to keep them away from crime.’

Did this mark a moment of real reform when it comes to imprisoning women, or was it more about turning 10 acres of prime real estate into luxury flats?

 My fascination with Holloway Prison

I was born and grew up just a mile from Holloway Prison, and it was a landmark that couldn’t be missed. As a six year old I would stand and stare at this Victorian castle, with high turrets and gothic battlements. To my childish eyes all that was missing were a moat and drawbridge, Rapunzel at a window letting down her hair.

It wasn’t the only local prison; Pentonville was half a mile away to the south. But that was for men, while Holloway was for women. I couldn’t understand it. Who were the women and what bad things had they done?

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In 1990 I returned to Holloway Prison, the castle had been torn down and replaced with a modern building designed to resemble a hospital. This time I went inside. I was training to become a teacher and about to start my work placement. The weeks I spent at Holloway gave me a whole new understanding of prison.

The summer over, I left England for Botswana, where I worked as a journalist for twelve years. During this time I was twice arrested, put on trial, and almost sent to prison.

I returned to London and once again found myself round the corner from Holloway Prison, when I moved into a house in Upper Holloway. Intrigued by its history I wrote a novel, The Ghost of Lily Painter (Random House, 2011), based on the execution of the first women to be hanged at the prison – Amelia Sach and Annie Walters (pictured below).

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While researching the book I met one of the women’s relatives who told me about the impact of the trial, imprisonment and execution on the rest of the family. Even today, she’d been advised never to say whom she was related to.

I also researched the prison’s early years and was surprised to find only one history book existed, written by John Camp in 1974. Then in 2014 I was interviewed by a TV company making a Channel 5 documentary on the prison. During filming I heard that the prison had recently unearthed boxes of previously unseen archives, such as the Governor’s journal from the 1940s when several women had occupied the condemned cell.

That was when I knew I had to write a book. And when in November 2015 the government announced that Holloway would close I saw the story had come full circle, I remembered the prison as a child, I worked there as an adult, and now I would be there when they tore it down.

So for the past two years I’ve been reading archive newspaper reports, diaries and letters, journals and books, tracking down former prisoners (some of whom can remember Holloway in the 1940s) and staff (whether governors, officers, chaplains, teachers, nurses or psychologists), interviewing the descendants of those imprisoned going back to the 1890s, attending memorial services for those who were executed, journeying to birthplaces and graves, touring archives and museums, interviewing penal reformers and charities.

I’ve been given access to the recently discovered archives, interviewed the last ever Governor of Holloway Prison, Emily Thomas, regularly toured the prison building as it closed down, and spent the day with National Prison Radio discussing the prison’s history with some of the last women ever to be imprisoned here. Because as famous as Holloway might be, no one has ever written the full story of all those locked up inside. I hope to do it justice.


Some selected Holloway facts & figures:

* Holloway opened in 1852 as a House of Correction for men, boys over the age of 8, and women.

* Its foundation stone contained the following: ‘May God preserve the City of London and make this place a terror to evil doers.’

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* In 1903 it became a prison only for women.

* Between 1902 and 1956, 47 women who had been sentenced to death in the UK were held at Holloway.

* Five were executed, one was found insane and 41 were reprieved, including the only two women to be sentenced to death for treason.

* In 1909 Marion Wallace-Dunlop from Scotland became the first suffragette to go on hunger strike, at Holloway Prison.

* During World War Two hundreds of ‘enemy aliens’ were locked up in Holloway, most Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany

* When Charity Taylor became Governor at Holloway in 1944, she was the first woman to run the prison.

* In 1971 the Victorian prison began to be knocked down, eventually replaced with a new building designed to resemble a hospital and a ‘tree-ringed campus’.

* Women from Greenham Common were jailed at Holloway in the early 1980s, many convicted of public order offences, just like the suffragettes.




Read more about the prison on Holloway Prison Stories, a project that ‘shares stories about HMP Holloway, collected and contributed by those who have known it.’



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