Holloway Prison and the Fight for Freedom

More than 300 suffragettes were incarcerated at Holloway prison during the early 20th century in one of the darker aspects of the campaign for the vote for women, and one that has historical and contemporary resonance for the women’s liberation movement.

Built in 1852, Holloway prison became a female-only site in 1903. The building, an imposing castellated structure whose entrance was flanked by huge griffins holding keys in their claws, covered 10 acres of land in north London. Six wings radiated from a central tower, allowing for accommodation for 435 prisoners.

After the suffrage movement turned militant and women were arrested for acts of vandalism and sabotage, Holloway became a focal point of the struggle.

The imposing castellated structure of Holloway prison covered 10 acres of land in north London.
A women only site from 1903, Holloway could accommodate 435 prisoners

Women behind bars

At one time or other most of the prominent suffragettes spent time at Holloway, including Christabel Pankhurst after she was arrested with Annie Kenny in 1905 for interrupting a Liberal Party rally to demand votes for women.

In 1906 her sister Sylvia Pankhurst was imprisoned after starting a protest at the House of Commons, and their mother Emmeline Pankhurst also served time there.

Many accounts have highlighted the presence of middle-class suffragettes at Holloway, but dozens of working-class women were incarcerated. Ethel Smyth wrote that she found,

rich and poor … young professional women … countless poor women of the working class, nurses, typists, shop girls and the like

Ethel Smyth
Black and white photo of woman with her hair up and wearing a jacket, shirt and tie.
Ethel Smyth

Neither were the suffragettes all young, single and childless; grandmothers and young mothers and wives were among the inmates. Personal testimonies point to solidarity among the women, despite their different backgrounds. All the suffragettes were supposed to receive preferential treatment to "common criminals", but women were generally treated according to their social class.

Hunger strikes

Jailed for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the walls of St Stephen’s Hall, artist Marion Wallace Dunlop was the first inmate to go on hunger strike in July 1909 to protest against conditions. As hunger strikes spread among the suffragettes, the Prison Commission responded with a regime of forcible feeding.

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested outside Buckingham Palace. A policeman has lifted off her feet to carry away. May 1914.
Emmeline Pankhurst's arrest outside Buckingham Palace where she was trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914 © Public domain

Some women were force fed more than 200 times. Among the many harrowing testimonies about the regime, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote:

My gums, when they prised them open, were always sore and bleeding, with bits of loose and jagged flesh … sometimes the tube was coughed up two or three times before they finally got it down. Sometimes, but not usually as I was generally too much agitated by then – I felt the tube go right down into the stomach; a sickening, terrifying sensation, especially when it reached the breast.

‘Cat and Mouse Act’

The forcible feeding was in part motivated by the government’s fears that a suffragette - especially a well-connected one – might fall ill and die. In 1913 the government introduced what became known as the 'Cat and Mouse Act', which permitted hunger-striking women to be released into the community only for them to be rearrested once they had regained their health.

Poorer women often had it harder at Holloway. This is borne out by Constance Lytton, daughter of Lord Lytton, who was jailed twice in 1909 after protesting at the House of Commons and claimed to have received worse treatment when she posed as a working-class seamstress than when her true identity was known.

Written on the skin

Lytton was also known for her attempt to mutilate her body for 'the cause'. Her plan was detected when she asked for dressings to avoid blood poisoning. In Prisons and Prisoners, she wrote:

I had decided to write the words, Votes for Women, on my body, scratching it on my skin with a needle, beginning over the heart and ending on my face. I proposed to show the first half of the inscription to doctors, telling them that, as I knew how much appearances were respected by officials, I thought it well to warn that the last letter and a full stop would come upon my cheek and be quite fresh and visible on the day of my release.

Black and white photo of a woman with hair up and wearing pearl necklace, taken in 1908.
Lady Constance Lytton, 1908

A hold on history

Holloway became a magnet for supporters of the suffrage movement, who held noisy protests outside and communicated with inmates from the roof of a safe house in nearby Dalmeny Avenue. In 2013 they set off two bombs outside. On release, a suffragette was taken to the nearby safe house and might receive a hunger striker medal or Holloway brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and featuring the House of Commons portcullis, convict’s arrow and hanging chains.

The prison has long been linked to the women’s liberation movement and modern-day feminists have claimed it as a proud part of their history. The future of the site has been contentious since the prison closed in 2016, as activists seek to secure its feminist heritage for future generations. Campaign group Sisters Uncut has occupied the derelict space to demand services for victims of domestic violence.

Oh, Holloway, grim Holloway,
With grey, forbidding towers!
Stern are they walls, but sterner still
Is woman’s free, unconquered will.
And though to-day and yesterday
Brought long and lonely hours,
Those hours spent in captivity
Are stepping-stones to liberty.

The Women in Prison by Kathleen Emerson (1912)
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  • Emmeline Pankhurst wearing large hat tied with ribbon under her chin, poses for the photo leaning out of a train window.

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