Echoes of Holloway Prison


Holloway Prison has been an important landmark in Islington for over 100 years. Until summer 2016 it was the largest women’s prison in Britain. Many well-known prisoners have passed through the prison, but there are diverse voices which remain unknown and unrecorded. The Echoes of Holloway Prison project at Islington Museum has captured stories of this highly significant place so its voices can never be forgotten.

Holloway Prison has a long and complex history. Women including suffragettes and thieves; murderers and freedom fighters; refugees and fascists have all been held at Holloway.

The prison first opened in 1852. Built as a ‘terror to evil doers’, it dominated the landscape. The gateway had a huge griffin each side clutching a key and leg irons in their talons. It became a women’s prison in 1902 and became infamous for the force-feeding of suffragettes. The prison was rebuilt on a more human scale in red brick from 1970 to 1985, and its long brick wall can still be seen running along Camden Road. The prison closed in 2016 and the site is currently being redeveloped into flats and public spaces.

Prison is the ultimate sanction of our Criminal Justice System. When someone is convicted of a crime they may be fined or put on probation, or they may be sent to prison. HM Prison Service states, ‘We keep those sentenced to prison in custody, helping them lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released.’

The project has sought to understand the individual experiences of those who lived and worked at Holloway Prison, and allow us to see beyond the walls.

This virtual exhibition explores the main themes uncovered in the Echoes of Holloway Prison project  at Islington Museum. It traces the story of the prison from its beginnings to its closure in summer 2016 through the voices of those who were held and worked there.

Highlights include the welcome mat that marked the point at which women lost their freedom, and features the Holloway Griffin; a newspaper article recording the bombing of the prison by suffragettes in 1913; and a cookery book full of recipes women could learn in the education block.  Many women held in prison are mothers –and many lose their children as a result of going to prison. The exhibition reflects their story, including a letter from an eight-year-old girl whose mother was held at the prison and a small pottery jar made by a prisoner for their child which was never collected. Everyday objects from the modern prison to bring into focus the lives of prisoners -a bed, a tube of toothpaste and repurposed sanitary towels. To really understand the personal experience of a prisoner is hard –what does it mean to lose your freedom? Holloway Prison has long been a place of protest and the site often contested which is reflected in pamphlets and posters that tell this story, from the suffragettes to Sisters’ Uncut.