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Holloway Prison’s place in the struggle for the women’s vote

‘Suffragettes made the most of their prison experience – it was a powerfully run PR campaign’

09 February, 2018 — By Emily Finch

Women take to the streets to demand the vote. Photo: Museum of London

“IF you are not a rebel before going into Holloway, there is no reason to wonder at your being one when you come out,” so said suffragette Edith Whitworth upon her release from the former women’s prison in Parkhurst Road.

The now-empty 10-acre site was once the hub of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century and played a pivotal role in the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, giving some women the vote for the first time.

A surveillance photograph of suffragette prisoners taking exercise in the yard of Holloway Prison. Photo: Museum of London

The 100th anniversary is marked by our special front page and supplement this week.

Upper Holloway author Caitlin Davies, 53, has spent five years researching her new book, Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades, and has gained unprecedented access to the prison’s archives where she collected stories of the women who for stretches called Holloway Prison their home.

“A lot of the women weren’t militant suffragettes but certainty were when they came out,” said Ms Davies.

“The prison was hugely important to the suffrage movement. Women from all corners of the country and all social economic backgrounds spent time in Holloway.”

The most notable suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst, were force fed by medical officers, and Constance Markievicz became the first woman MP elected into the House of Commons while still imprisoned.

Holloway Prison in 1896. Photo: Wikipedia

While the prison is remembered in the popular imagination as the site of punitive violence, any suffragette who spent a stretch inside was greeted with respect by their peers and was given a brooch featuring the House of Commons portcullis under a prison arrow.

“The suffragettes made the most of their prison experience and it was a powerfully run PR campaign. They also had fun inside. They organised and played games, and even had a mock general election. They kept themselves as busy as they could,” said Ms Davies.

A home a stone’s throw from the prison was rented out by the suffragettes hoping to show solidarity with their locked-up peers.

“From the home they would hold vigils day and night. They would pass along messages, shout messages, hold up banners and would play music to the women inside. And when the women came out they held a massive procession with a welcome breakfast and speeches.

“Going into prison for upper-class and middle-class women was a glorious thing to do in some ways,” said Ms Davies.

Caitlin Davies

Ms Davies, a former teacher who worked at the prison 25 years ago, hopes the site will be turned into affordable housing alongside a women’s centre that will house a domestic violence refuge.

She said: “It’s a scandal that it was closed two years ago this summer. Women should be treated more humanely but they’ve been shipped out miles from their families, from their solicitors and health workers.

“It beggars belief. In my book I wanted to tell the history of Holloway through the story of the women. People in the present would tell me their experiences or that of their relatives.”

Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades. By Caitlin Davies, John Murray, £20. It will be published on March 8 – International Women’s Day.
• Votes for Women, a free exhibition dedicated to the women who fought for the vote, runs until January 6, 2019, at the Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2.

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