Sisters Uncut ‘Reclaiming Holloway’ Workshop

Volunteer Meg Deschamps writes about her experience of attending a workshop led by Sisters Uncut in 2018: 

As part of the Echoes of Holloway Prison exhibition events programme, a North London Sisters Uncut representative ran a ‘Reclaiming Holloway’ workshop at Islington Museum, to address issues surrounding women’s prisons, as well as the group’s occupation of Holloway Prison Visitor’s Centre in May 2017.

The workshop explored the purpose of the week-long occupation, which was to protest government cuts to domestic violence survivors’ services and to urge that the site be used as a safe space for women and the local community. By hosting a community festival at the site, activists hoped to show that a community space was not only feasible but also popular in the area.

The session also provided a chance to see plans showing the community’s vision for the site, which offered a fascinating insight into the needs and wants of the local community.

To end the workshop, Sisters Uncut facilitated a wider discussion about what can be done to stop the cycle of women being held in prisons. The varied group of criminal justice and architecture students, community members, and museum staff and volunteers shared stories and ideas about ways in which women could be better supported.

Items from the occupation, including banners hung from the prison, were displayed in the Echoes of Holloway prison exhibition (13 July-8 October 2018).

Exhibition Events Programme

The Echoes of Holloway Prison Exhibition ran at Islington Museum, from the 13th of July to the 8th of October 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a varied events programme.  

View our 2018 Echoes of Holloway Prison Events Programme below, and discover more about each event on our blog.

Walk: Winning the Vote: Islington Women

Islington has been a key battlefield in the fight for women’s rights. This 90-minute walk, led by a local Islington and City Guide, introduced visitors to the suffragettes held at Holloway in their campaign for the vote, their attempt to blow up the prison and the site of the first birth control clinic for women.

 Staged Reading: Constance and Kelly                               

Constance Markievicz: Suffragette! Socialist! Soldier!
Pardoned from a death sentence after the Irish Easter rising in 1916, Constance is sent to HMP Holloway where she meets Kelly McCoy.  It’s 2015 and Kelly got 3 months for stealing baby milk…She’s off the drugs and away from her abusive boyfriend and alcoholic mother. What can these 2 women do for each other? 
Written and directed by Laura McCluskey, this piece includes graduates of Clean Break and was performed at Islington Museum.

Workshop: Writing Holloway Prison

Resident artist and musician Hannah Hull led a writing workshop based on her creative process, producing poetry and music inspired by the stories of Holloway Prison. Visitors were invited to use the images, objects and stories of the exhibition to inspire their own creative writing.

Discover more here.

Talk: Freedom fighters or Bad Girls?

Caitlin Davies, novelist, non-fiction and award-winning journalist, gave two talks at the Cat and Mouse Library and Finsbury library in August 2018. Her recent book, Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades grew out of her long-standing interest in Holloway Prison.

On 21st June 1906 the first suffragette was sent to Holloway Prison, the most infamous jail for women in Europe. In total, around 1300 suffragettes were arrested between 1906 and 1914, with the majority ending up in Holloway. In this talk, Caitlin explored what ‘crimes’ they committed, how they resisted prison discipline, and whether imprisonment strengthened their cause.

Talk: Minnie Lansbury

Minnie Lansbury was an East End Suffragette, socialist,school teacher, champion of the victims of war, and rebel councillor. She was held at Holloway Prison for six weeks following the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921 which won its fight to redistribute funding from rich to poorer boroughs. Janine Booth shared her story with an audience at Finsbury Library.

Workshop: Walking Holloway Prison

Resident artist and musician Hannah Hull led a tour around the outside perimeter of Holloway Prison. Visitors joined her to explore the physical and social relationship between the prison and the local area.

Workshop: Protest! Screen-printing.

Holloway Prison has always been a site of protest, from the imprisonment of the suffragettes to the recent protests around its closure.Visitors joined us to discover more about the prison’s relationship with protest and to learn how to create their own screen-printed protest banner.

Workshop: The Empty Space of Holloway Prison

Led by Carly Guest and Rachel Seoighe of Middlesex University, this workshop explored photographs taken of Holloway Prison after it closed. Investigating the images, we discussed what we can learn about prison life and how women held at Holloway made the space their own. The group spoke about institutional spaces, women and punishment, memory, the potential and limits of photography, and visual research methodologies.

Workshop: Reclaiming Holloway

In May 2017, North London Sisters Uncut occupied Holloway Prison’s Visitors Centre, claiming the space for the local community. In this session, a representative from Sisters Uncut spoke about the act of reclaiming Holloway Prison and explored ways to create radical community spaces.

Discover more here.

Under 5’s Storytelling: Suffragettes!

Storyteller Dani took four groups of under 5’s on a journey back in time to meet some real life heroines. In a playful and interactive session, children discovered the meaning behind the suffragette colours, how the suffragettes fought for their rights and learnt about the suffragette who knew jujitsu.

Family Day: Inside Out Holloway!

Inspired by the badge awarded to all suffragettes held at Holloway Prison, artist Alice May Williams led two family workshops exploring the history of protest at Holloway, inside and out. Families created their own protest banners, badges and flags, about issues important to them.

Object Focus

The Echoes of Holloway Prison project set out to collect and share the stories of Holloway Prison. Volunteers and staff collected oral histories from people with lived experience of the site, and curated an exhibition of objects, stories and video to share the history of the site with the public.

The project would have been impossible without the insight and hard work of our volunteer team, who researched, investigated and interpreted objects, images and stories throughout the project, contributing to the production of the exhibition.

The objects and stories had a profound impact on all of us and sparked many fascinating discussions. Keep an eye out on the blog for upcoming Object Focus posts, in  which volunteers  will  share  their  impressions  of  key  objects in the collection. 

Writing Holloway Prison Workshop

As part of the Echoes of Holloway Prison exhibition events programme, resident artist Hannah Hull led a writing workshop. 

Members of the public worked with Hannah 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.

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Hannah has written poems based on photographs of the prison, collected in her ‘Echoes’ Booklet available at Islington Museum. Following this, the group 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.


Poem -Elizabeth Uter

Young People’s Art Workshop: Who is Criminal Now?

‘We got to learn something new, and I don’t think it gets much better than that’

As part of the Echoes of Holloway Prison events programme, artist Alice May Williams and staff from Islington Museum led a two day workshop at Platform Youth Hub, with a group of young people.

The session began with a discussion about who and what behavior we criminalize. The young people explored the history of protest and social injustice tied up in Holloway’s story, pairing each discussion with a different creative response. The young women produced a range of protest art, poetry and manifestos to share the issues they care most deeply about. 

The final focus of the workshop was to explore the future of Holloway, in the context of its closure, the Reclaim movement and the personal testimonies collected by the Echoes of Holloway Prison project. The young people re-imagined the site of Holloway Prison, as they felt it should look going forward. Their particular focus was on offering a hub that could support local women and their families. 

The young artists produced a thoughtful display celebrating the DIY aesthetic of protest,  showcasing the issues they feel passionate about, which is currently on display at Islington Museum. 

Alice May Williams describes the experience of leading these sessions: 

As an artist who is interested in archival materials/local history and feminist social issues, it was a true honour to be asked to lead these workshops on behalf of Islington Museum. 

Through the localised lens of looking at the history of Holloway Prison we were able to explore such a rich and important gamut of ideas around women and incarceration, political prisoners, mental health and the wider question of who or what, is ‘criminal’ at any moment in time, and how that shifts with society.

My thinking around the issue was greatly informed by Caitlin Davies’ excellent book ‘Bad Girls’ along with recent activism by Sisters Uncut and Reclaim Holloway. Preparing for this workshop and making work with the young women at Platform has reinvigorated my interest in the subject and also led to some very inspiring creative outcomes from the group.

I look forward to delving deeper into the issues which sprang from this conversation and also to future workshops in collaboration with Islington Museum.’

The young people’s display accompanies the Echoes of Holloway Prison Exhibition at Islington Museum until the 8th October 2018.

Echoes of Holloway Prison Exhibition: Installation

Volunteer Rachel Job writes about her experience supporting the installation of the Echoes of Holloway Prison Exhibition at Islington Museum.

On 12 July 2018 it was all hands on deck to get the Echoes of Holloway Prison Exhibition installed. There was a real buzz in the Museum as staff, volunteers and work placement students worked together to get ready for the private view that evening.

I helped to frame some of the artworks and posters, ready for them to be put up on the wall. While staff installed objects and artworks in display cases and on the walls, I and other volunteers turned our attention to the captions which were to go alongside them. These had to be formatted correctly on the computer, printed out, and then installed in their frames and put on display.

In the corridor next to the exhibition space, I worked with another work placement student to install photographs taken by Roz Currie, following the closure of Holloway Prison. The idea here was to create an impression of the bleak space of the derelict prison.

My final task of the day was to mount two small objects onto Plastazote (foam board) using strips of Melinex (clear plastic sheets). This then allowed me to put the objects on the wall without doing any damage to them.

Looking around at 5 o’clock it was amazing to see how we’d transformed the space. The exhibition was ready and opened to the public the following day.

Holloway Prison Film Workshop

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.

Oral History Training

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.

Visiting Holloway Prison in 2016

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 entrance to ‘Holloway Castle’ (Islington Local History Centre)

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.

The entrance to the prison, summer 2016 (Roz Currie)

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.

Roz Currie -Summer 2016 

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