Holloway Unlocked

Holloway Unlocked

My criminal investigations often end up in Holloway and at last I’ve been able to glimpse inside its walls, through Caitlin Davies’ new book, Bad Girls. HMP Holloway opened its doors in 1852, as a mixed prison. Its female population at that time was about 20 inmates but, in 1902, it was re-categorised a women-only prison and became the largest and most famous women’s prison in western Europe. It closed in 2016. In her fascinating and shocking book, Caitlin Davies explores women’s lives and their rights, through the history of Holloway and its dark past.     Early Victorian female prisoners at Holloway included petty thieves, sex workers and the nefarious baby farmers. Amelia Dyer, who murdered hundreds of babies in her care, was transferred to Holloway from Reading Prison, on 2 May 1896, to await her trial at the Old Bailey. During the next two weeks she appeared ‘quite broken down in health and spirits’. According to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, she aged considerably and her hair became whiter. She wept constantly and threatened to take her own life.     On the second day of Dyer’s trial, the medical experts were called to the stand to give evidence about her mental health. One was Dr James Scott, Holloway’s medical officer. He had observed the prisoner closely since her arrival and concluded: ‘I consider she has not been insane during the time she has been under my observation.’ When the defence counsel suggested that it was possible ‘for a lunatic suffering from homicidal mania to be free from excitement’, Scott denied such behaviour, saying that Dyer had not even...
How to Get Away with Murder?

How to Get Away with Murder?

How to Get Away With Murder is one of my favourite Netflix shows, and if the ‘enterprising’ law students had been disposing of bodies in the 19th century, they might have tried quick lime to remove traces of human remains. I mixed crime history and chemistry to find out if this would work…     In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote about the burial of trooper Charles Wooldridge, the subject of his poem:   For where a grave had opened wide, There was no grave at all: Only a stretch of mud and sand By the hideous prison-wall, And a little heap of burning lime, That the man should have his pall.   As was the custom with executed convicts, Wooldridge was buried in the precincts of the prison. He was wrapped in a shroud and placed in a shallow grave, filled with quick lime to accelerate decomposition. Wilde describes how the ‘burning lime eats flesh and bone away’. This method of burial was also used occasionally in an attempt to conceal a murder. Did it work, or was it a myth? Now for the science…     Commonly used in construction, limestone was readily available in the 19th century. When it is heated, limestone (containing calcium carbonate) breaks down into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide. The calcium oxide is the quick lime. This unstable compound is a highly-caustic alkali, which burns yellow when hot and is white when cooled down. It reacts with the carbon dioxide in air to create heat energy, known as ‘limelight’. ‘Slaked’ lime also appears in accounts of criminal body disposal...
Silent Witness

Silent Witness

Silent Witness is one of my favourite TV shows and although I have to cover my eyes during the gruesome bits, I love the pathologists’ puzzle-solving detective work. Autopsies have been carried out for centuries but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that standardised procedures were developed.     The earliest known book on post-mortem examinations dates from 13th century China. Until the late 19th century, ascertaining the cause of death was a haphazard and individual process, with surgeons following their own course of forensic investigation. In 1876, Austrian doctor Rudolf Virchow published a treatise on autopsy techniques. Celebrated as ‘the father of modern pathology’ (and ‘the Pope of Medicine’ by his colleagues!), Virchow used his knowledge of cellular pathology to standardise post mortems with an emphasis on examining abnormalities, which would become vital evidence in criminal trials. (Virchow was also the first person to analyse hair in crime investigation.)     William Augustus Guy, professor of forensic medicine at King’s College London set out detailed guidance in his later editions of Principles of Forensic Science, stating that the medical examiner should begin with any evidence that could identify the victim, followed by the time of death, before moving onto any external injuries. The face should be checked for bruising or wounds, and the neck, back and legs for fractures and dislocations. Wounds and lacerations should be measured. Next, the examiner should compress the chest and check the mouth cavity. When the external assessment is complete, it’s time to conduct the internal examination. According to Guy, the golden rule for autopsies is ‘examine every cavity and important organ’. Bearing in mind...
The Dark Side of Dickens

The Dark Side of Dickens

Christmas isn’t Christmas without Dickens, and with a new film out about his creation of A Christmas Carol, attention is once again on the author who is universally celebrated at this time of year. However, not all Charles Dickens’ tales had the festive feel-good factor. Much of his writing had a ‘dark’ side, revealing his obsession with crime, a fear of which had haunted him from his earliest days.   Charles Dickens was born in 1812, in Portsea near Portsmouth. He was the second of six surviving children. At the age of ten, the Dickens family moved to London, where their fortunes began to take a downward turn. Two years later, young Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory on the Thames. His job was to seal the boot blacking into pots and to stick on the labels, all for just six shillings a week. Soon the family was plunged further into despair, after Charles’ father John was arrested for debt and interned in Marshalsea prison. Dickens’ precarious childhood led to fears of being destitute or, worse still, turning to crime, which he later explored in his fiction.     After completing a shorthand course, Dickens, aged 19, became a political reporter and was plunged into the noisy and chaotic world of parliament. A short while later, he started to write short observations of urban life which, in 1836, he published in Sketches by Boz. In this collection, his interest in crime was revealed for the first time through his descriptions of the crime-infested rookeries of Seven Dials, the criminal courts and the infamous Newgate prison. He...
Remembering the Manchester Martyrs

Remembering the Manchester Martyrs

On 23 November 1867, William Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien were hanged in Manchester – they had been convicted of the murder of Sergeant Charles Brett on 18 September. Whilst researching my book Who Killed Constable Cock? I delved into the history of the Irish community in Manchester and I was shocked by what I discovered. This sensational and highly emotive case of the Manchester Martyrs cast a long shadow on the city, and had a drastic impact on the outcome of PC Nicholas Cock’s murder almost a decade later.     Between 1841 and 1851, Manchester’s population rose by some 73,000, with a third of the new citizens being migrants from Ireland. By the 1850s, 15 per cent of the city’s residents were of Irish origin, and a decade later they made up a fifth of the inhabitants. Despite their hopes for a better life, the migrants suffered high unemployment and dire poverty, making the Irish the largest and poorest ethnic minority at that time. Many were forced to live in the notorious cellar dwellings on the banks of the river Medlock, which became known as ‘Little Ireland’. Some 20,000 people barely survived in these cramped, humid and almost subterranean rooms, with several families packed together in the worst conditions. To make matters even worse, the knowledge that one third of those receiving poor relief in the city were Irish migrants, fuelled the undercurrent of hostility and prejudice against the community. By the late 1860s, anti-Irish hatred was fiercer than ever following the fatal shooting of Sergeant Charles Brett by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also...
Happy Birthday to Reading Police

Happy Birthday to Reading Police

Reading Borough Police Force was formed on 21 February 1836. It was one of the earliest borough forces created after Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829. At its inception, 180 years ago, Reading police force had 34 officers: 2  inspectors, 2 sergeants and 30 constables, for a local population of about 18,000. The constables were paid two shillings a day, which was less than a factory worker’s wages. Their basic equipment was a bull’s eye lantern, a rattle to summon assistance and a staff to deal with unruly individuals as they patrolled the streets of the town. Reading’s first chief constable was Henry Houlton, of the Metropolitan Police, who was appointed in 1839. Shortly after, the police station moved from 6 Friars Street, near to the town hall to The Forbury, close to Reading Gaol. This was a good move for prisoners, as up until then they’d been held in very poor conditions in the nave of Greyfriars Church, whilst awaiting trial, where they slept in straw and were fed only bread and water. The first police doctor was engaged in 1840, and a drill sergeant for keeping the bobbies in line, in 1855. In 1862, the new police station, and coroner’s court, opened in High Bridge Street, near the River Kennet. A ‘large and commodious’ building, it had a suite of charge rooms, offices and a waiting room for witnesses which, according to the Berkshire Chronicle was ‘not superfluously comfortable for witnesses waiting to give evidence’. On the first floor was the magistrates’ court, with a public gallery that was ‘inconveniently narrow for the obese...