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 CentreThe 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 CentreCat 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 CentreCat 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

Related articles

1 comment

  • Surely the headline should say Holloway not Archway?

    Report this comment

    Andrew S

    Friday, January 12, 2018

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

Latest Islington News Stories

Yesterday, 17:52

Building work on the historic Golden Lane Estate has been suspended after a gas leak caused dozens of families to be evacuated from their homes.

Yesterday, 16:04

A nurse was “nearly killed” when the ceiling of her housing association flat off the Holloway Road collapsed on Friday.

Yesterday, 14:48

A pregnant bulldog with life-threatening injuries was found covered in faeces and abandoned in a Finsbury Park alley on December 2.

Yesterday, 11:04

Elderly service users of a Highbury day centre set for demolition staged an impassioned and slightly surreal demonstration on the Town Hall steps last night.

Yesterday, 07:53

A drug dealer caught with £800,000 worth of cocaine in the boot of his car has been sentenced to 12 years in jail.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Islington became the first council to pass a motion of no confidence in the government’s flagship social welfare reform last night.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Councillors met with pupils from a Finsbury primary school to celebrate a commitment to resettle 100 asylum-seeking children over the next 10 years.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Marks and Spencer’s bid to sell alcohol every day from 8am at a new Archway store has angered police and Islington Council due to the high number of street drinkers in the area – but the shop says it doesn’t stock the kind of booze that attracts alcoholics.

Promoted Content

Fostering older teenagers means giving them the skills for life as an adult. Here, a supportive lodgings carer with Islington Council and young adult who has left care share their stories

Newsletter Sign Up

Islington Gazette twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Islington Gazette
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now