Members of the public worked with resident artist Hannah Hull to write poems and prose inspired by the voices, stories and pictures of Holloway Prison. By exploring stories collected during the project we could get closer to understanding the experience of those held at the prison.
These poems were formed from words found in the graffiti of Holloway Prison.
Hannah has written poems based on photographs of the prison, collected in her ‘Echoes’ Booklet available at Islington Museum. Following this, the workshop wrote poems based on objects in the Holloway Prison exhibition. The below poem features the griffin doormat which was trodden upon by every new prisoner entering the prison.
‘We got to learn something new, and I don’t think it gets much better than that’
Holloway Prison has been an important landmark in Islington for over 150 years. Thousands of women have passed through the prison, but there are many voices which remain unknown and unrecorded. Islington Heritage Service has led a Heritage Lottery funded project to capture stories of this highly significant place.
As part of this project a group of young people at Platform Youth Hub have investigated these stories with artist Alice May Williams and staff from Islington Museum.
The young artists began by exploring the history of protest and social injustice tied up in Holloway’s story. They then produced protest art, sharing the issues they care most deeply about, and re-imagined the site of Holloway Prison for the future –in particular offering support to local women.
The young artists produced a thoughtful display celebrating the DIY aesthetic of protest, showcasing the issues they feel passionate about with flair and insight.
The young people’s display accompanies the Echoes of Holloway Prison Exhibition at Islington Museum until the 8th October 2018.
As part of the Echoes of Holloway Prison project volunteers have been creating films to help tell the story of the prison. Here, volunteer Yun Lu, describes his experience:
During the film workshops, we had the chance to learn how to operate cameras and took a glance at fascinating oral histories already collected for the project. Holloway Prison was a place full of memories, and it was inspiring to interview and film some of the people who had stayed or worked there.
Before conducting the filming process, we participated in a workshop led by two brilliant film-makers, Ruth and Jackie from Chocolate Films. They taught us the technique of using cameras and the aesthetics of visual composition.
When we started shooting the interviews, many touching moments emerged along the way. I remember one of the women who had been held at and later worked in Holloway Prison, telling us her feelings of home and stability in the prison, and at the same time the insecurity of the future when she had to leave. These personal experiences were so powerful, reflecting the women’s resilience and their passion in thinking how women’s prison and correction systems should be improved to suit their real needs.
Besides the human stories, we also photographed objects collected during the project, which revealed the hidden context of the lives and space of Holloway Prison and filmed in the area around the prison itself. Some objects from the collection will also be displayed in the coming exhibition at the Islington Museum. It will be great to see the collection with the film together telling more undiscovered memories of Holloway Prison.
As part of the Echoes of Holloway Prison project volunteers were trained to record oral histories with people linked to the prison. Jessie Goodison Burgess wrote about her experience:
On the last day of February, a group of nine women braved the cold snowy weather and gathered together in the Islington Museum education room, ready to learn about oral history.
The group varied in ages and professions, from historians and students, to artists and a member of the justice network. All had an interest in oral history, with different levels of experience in the field, and were excited to apply this form of documentation to the Echoes of Holloway Prison project.
The seminar, led by Jen Kavanagh, was a whistle-stop tour of the basics of oral history: how to conduct an interview, both ethically and technically, and how oral histories can be used as a form of historical documentation. The difficulties of using memory as a historical record were stressed. Oral History as a field relies completely on memory, and so can’t be treated as factual evidence. However, it can express a new level of emotion and personal experience that other historical documentation cannot achieve, which is exactly what we wanted to accomplish through the study into life around Holloway Prison.
The seminar summed up with a practice between ourselves, using open questions to find out small details about each other’s lives. This practice was a success, each interviewer satisfied with the detailed accounts that could be achieved through an open conversation. We all came out assured that together we could contribute a narrative to Echoes of Holloway Prison by leading interviews with those who had been involved with the prison.
Echoes of Holloway Prison aims to look beyond the stone walls of the prison building, and focus on the lives that were affected by the correctional facility over the 20th century. Oral history allows for this more humanising approach. In one-on-one conversational interview settings, our oral history volunteers will aim to document personal stories of life around London’s last women’s prison.
Holloway Prison affected many lives during its 164-year lifetime, from the inside and the outside, and undoubtedly has many stories to tell through those connected to it. These stories can become part of a valuable historical record of histories from below, as the importance of personal stories and remembrances will be emphasised and subsequently preserved for future generations.
Holloway Prison closed in summer 2016-the last prisoner left on 17th June 2016. Until May it was the largest women’s prison in Britain, holding around 450 inmates.
The prison was established in 1852 on Camden Road in Holloway, Islington, housing prisoners on remand, convicted women prisoners and debtors. It became female-only in 1902. Many well-known people have been held at the prison during its history, writer Oscar, suffragettes fighting for the right to vote, the British wives of German men interned as enemy aliens during World War I and Second World War fascists, including Diana Mitford and Oswald Mosely. In 1955 Ruth Ellis the last woman ever to be executed in the UK, was hanged at Holloway. In 2016, Sarah Reed, an inmate of Holloway, tragically died under suspicious circumstances.
The original Victorian prison ‘Holloway Castle’ was an imposing building with turrets and castellations, its entrance flanked by huge griffins seated on pillars and holding keys in their claws. The prison was rebuilt in the 1970s to 1980s, making the prison more like a hospital with small corridors and privacy for the inmates.
As the prison was closing I was able to visit several times, first while prisoners were still there and later when they had all been moved to prisons outside London. I was not allowed to take pictures inside the prison and all electronic equipment had to be handed over in the gatehouse.
Approaching the prison it is surrounded by blank brick walls with no obvious entrance. The reception is royal blue with a Holloway Griffin doormat. There are signs everywhere mainly to control keys leaving the building. All staff wear a belt and key-chain to which they attach their own bundle, and when going through the double air-lock to leave they have to show their empty key chain to the gate staff, and an alarm which sounds if they forget.
The staircases in the prison are wide and simple with jointed varnished wooden bannisters. Every door needs locking and unlocking, so by the time you’ve actually come into the main prison you’re behind at least 5 locked doors and feel like you might never get out.
The facilities at the prison include a beautiful wooden sports hall, swimming pool with a Holloway Griffin in blue tiles in its centre, an education department including a pottery studio and kiln around a central garden which was increasingly overgrown each time I visited, gardens and a henhouse and a chapel and smaller religious room used for other faiths.
The wings were much more cramped. I didn’t visit wings with prisoners still living there, so there was a strange air of dereliction with photos ripped off the walls, no bed linen or personal belongings. In each cell, whether a single, double or five-bed dorm (of which only four beds were ever used) was a sink or two and a toilet. Above the sink was a tiny plastic mirror 10cm a side. Each bed had a noticeboard above which was where inmates could put up their pictures, covered in drawings, bits of graffiti and toothpaste which had been used as glue. Association rooms in the wings had hairdryers and straightening tongs wired directly into the wall with the same tiny mirrors above.