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 talked to herself in prison. He added that there was no evidence of suicidal tendencies and she had ‘not behaved in an insane manner’. This testimony would have had a direct impact on her conviction.
Six years after Amelia Dyer, Holloway Prison housed two more baby farmers: Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, who were charged with murder in January 1903. Sach ran a ‘lying-in home’ in Finchley, where women (usually single) could give birth and then have their child adopted. Amelia Sach worked closely with midwife Annie Walters, who would ‘dispose’ of the infants. The two women were convicted at the Old Bailey and hanged at Holloway.
Although, while reading Bad Girls, I was very interested in the Victorian inmates, I found the plight of those incarcerated during the 20th century even more thought-provoking and tragic. Following the recent commemorations of the beginning of women’s suffrage in the UK, when I read about the experiences of the suffragettes imprisoned in Holloway, I found their struggle deeply moving. I was horrified by the inhumanity and injustice of their treatment, which included straitjackets and force-feeding. When I voted in the local elections this morning, I thought of those women who endured so much to give me the privilege of being able to cast my vote a century later. Not only were suffragettes held at the prison, but also pacifists, ‘enemy aliens’ (members of my own Italian family were interned, but not at Holloway), and Greenham Common protesters.
One of the most poignant chapters in Caitlin Davies’ book was about Edith Thompson, who was executed at Holloway for the murder of her husband Percy, in 1923. Despite the fact that Edith’s lover had dealt the fatal blows, she was convicted alongside him, on the charge of having incited him to commit the act. In a tragic miscarriage of justice, Edith was hanged and buried alongside the Edwardian baby farmers. Holloway Prison certainly has its ghosts.