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Archway’s Cat and Mouse Library, named in honour of Islington’s Suffragette heroes, launches history exhibition

PUBLISHED: 16:36 12 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:38 12 January 2018

Children enjoy the new Cat and Mouse Library in Holloway. Picture: Steve Bainbridge

Children enjoy the new Cat and Mouse Library in Holloway. Picture: Steve Bainbridge

2017 Steve Bainbridge

There are no pets in Islington’s newest library, despite its name. Islington Museum curator Roz Currie tells Rhiannon Long where the Cat and Mouse Library got the title – and how some Suffragettes got the upper hand using martial arts

The site of Cat and Mouse Library. Picture: Islington Local History Centre The site of Cat and Mouse Library. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

The now-empty Holloway Prison is Islington’s most coveted development spot – and the site that could do most for the borough’s social housing crisis. But in the early 1900s, the battle on its grounds was slightly different.

From 1903, Holloway was the first female-only prison in England.

It was hunger strikes at Holloway – and other prisons – that led to the introduction of the so-called “Cat and Mouse” law. It was a cruel cycle that saw women temporarily set free from jail when they starved themselves, only to be jailed again when they started to recover.

Most of Holloway’s inmates were working-class women forced to make their money through prostitution.

But a large proportion were activists for feminist movement the Suffragettes.

The Suffragettes, or Women’s Social and Political Union, habitually went on hunger strikes in prison, leading to force-feedings that outraged the public.

“They would force a metal tube down their oesophagus and pump a milk and egg mush into their stomachs,” said Islington’s Local History Centre’s Roz Currie, who has curated an exhibition on Holloway’s Suffragettes at the new library in Camden Road.

Cat and Mouse Library: poster at exhibition. Picture: Islington Local History Centre Cat and Mouse Library: poster at exhibition. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“It had never been used on people before except in asylums, so there was this huge outcry in public,” she said.

In response, the government introduced the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Health Act 1913, letting women become so hungry they became too weak to cause havoc once back in public.

They’d be released “on licence”, with the assumption they’d start eating and 
regain their strength. The women would then be re-incarcerated and the cycle would continue.

“It was like a game of cat and mouse,” said Roz. “The women would get released from prison just to be brought in again, and it was like the government cat-snatching these Suffragette mice, like a cat with its prey.”

One of the prison’s most infamous inmates was Dora Montefiore, who refused to pay income taxes to fund the Boer war.

Bailiffs seized her possessions – before she bought them back at auction.

In 1906, she was arrested during a Women’s Social and Political Union demonstration and sent to Holloway. While there, she wrote an account of her time in prison.

Cat and Mouse Library: Edith Garrud. Picture: Islington Local History Centre Cat and Mouse Library: Edith Garrud. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

It read: “The cells had a cement floor, whitewashed walls and a window high up so that one could not see out of it.

“It was barred outside and the glass was corrugated so that one could not even get a glimpse of the sky; and the only sign of outside life was the occasional flicker of the shadow of a bird as it flew outside across the window.”

Some activists avoided similar fates thanks to Edith Garrud, who taught jiu jitsu to women at a dojo in Holborn, helping them evade capture by fighting their way past policemen.

But not all women were so lucky – and, thanks to the act, were jailed repeatedly.

It was the outbreak of the First World War that finally broke the cycle.

“Some of their efforts were suspended during the war,” said Roz, “partly because suddenly women were being employed in men’s roles – but still for only half the salary.”

The movement continued, however, with a limited number of women getting the vote in 1918.

“Getting the vote was about becoming citizens,” Roz said.

“If you can’t vote, you’re effectively children.

“But as soon as women got the vote, they were able to be in the public eye.”

The exhibition is open now

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