Poetic voices from inside Holloway prison

12th July 1955 London Ruth Ellis who is due to be hanged tomorrow at 9am at Holloway Prison for the

12th July 1955 Ruth Ellis who is due to be hanged tomorrow at 9am at Holloway Prison for the slaying of her lover David Blakely at Hampstead London - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

The notorious Holloway Prison opened in 1852 and closed five years ago this month.

In the intervening years, the Victorian jail has housed suffragettes, notorious murderers, and lesser known women struggling with mental illness, poverty and gender discrimination.

Drawing on archive material - including prison registers, conviction records, letters, diaries, articles and interviews - poet Natalie Scott has imagined their thoughts in her poignant collection: Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison. (Valley Press £12).

Through her verse she brings to life a chorus of witnesses to social history including prisoners such as Ruth Ellis, Edith Thompson, and Sylvia Pankhurst. She details hunger strikes, force feeding, and rousing songs as members of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's militant WSPU are jailed for political vandalism.

Surveillance images of suffragettes held at Holloway Prison and Manchester Prison

Surveillance images of suffragettes held at Holloway Prison and Manchester Prison - Credit: PA

Ellis' vivid description of her executioner Albert Pierrepoint meld with the voice of trans inmate Colonel Barker, physically examined and forced to go by his female name for his trial. Then there's Selina Salter, jailed for being a 'lunatic', or the inmate in 1919 who gives birth alone in her cell.

It wasn't always a women's prison. The foundation stone laid in September 1846 bears the inscription 'May God preserve the City of London and make this place a terror to evil-doers.' The original 'House of Correction' had capacity for 400 women, men and children aged over eight.

Second class prisoners lived on a diet of oatmeal gruel, soup and bread, while the upper class ate meat and potatoes. Women prisoners did needlework, knitting, laundry or picked oakum, while men worked the treadwheel which pumped water from a well. Indeed Scott conjures the punitive voice of hardline Governor John Weatherhead, who prescribed cold drenching and straightjackets for prisoners who claimed to have fits to avoid the treadmill.

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Oscar Wilde, who passed through while awaiting trial, is observed by a Victorian warder on duty, and there's the newspaper editor jailed for calling attention to child prostitution. But in August 1902, Holloway became a prison for women and girls, many serving time for petty crimes such as drunkenness, begging, and prostitution.

Inside HMP Holloway circa

Inside HMP Holloway - Credit: Archant

Scott draws out the stories of baby farmers Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, who were executed in 1903; Ethel Smyth who conducted her own March of the Women anthem from her cell with a toothbrush; Edith Thompson, who vainly hoped pregnancy would stay her execution for 'lethal incitement and conspiracy to murder' her husband, and Helen Duncan tried and convicted for Witchcraft as late as 1944.

Protestors marching on Holloway Prison to demand the prison site is replaced by council housing and

Holloway Prison - Credit: Archant

In the 1920s the first female deputy governor Mary Size and female inspector of prisons Dr Mary Gordon brought positive change - more exercise, better ventilation and wages for prison work. Later, education access to health and beauty products were introduced and brown and orange paint replaced with pastel colours and activity rooms.

During both world wars the cells were filled with conscientious objectors and German-speaking 'enemy aliens' who had received no trial or conviction including Jewish prisoner Ruth Borchard. Alongside them for three years was Diana Mitford Mosley, held without charge or trial for Nazi sympathies.

Echoes of Holloway Prison

Exhibits from Echoes of Holloway Prison at Islington Museum 2018. - Credit: Em Fitzgerald Photography

In 1945 Dr Charity Taylor became the first female governor but the prison housed Borstal girls many of whom had been victims of physical or sexual abuse and were recorded as having a 'criminal background'. Scott's thought-provoking and stirring book offers an empathetic history of a harsh and often discriminatory penal system.

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