Rachel E. Bennett
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Contesting women’s health in the prison system

When they walked through the prison gates women brought with them a skein of stories and experiences. Some entered prisons to serve sentences of a few days. Others faced several years behind bars. Prisons for women accommodated the young and the old, the healthy alongside the sick, the first-time offender entering prison with trepidation along with the recidivist, perceived to be hardened to the toils of incarceration. The threads of this chapter are woven together to demonstrate that their experiences of health and discipline were impacted upon by their physical surroundings and the women around them and, crucially, were heavily regulated yet often contested by those tasked with their custody and care.

Prison reformer Mary Carpenter encapsulated a difficulty that has long faced the justice system when confining women, labelling it as ‘a subject of great importance and of peculiar difficulty’. 1 When they walked through the prison gates women brought with them a skein of stories and experiences. Some entered prison to serve a sentence of a few days. Others faced several years behind bars. Prisons for women accommodated the young and the old; the healthy alongside the sick; the first-time offender entering prison with trepidation, along with the recidivist, perceived to be hardened to the toils of incarceration. Some women began and ended their prison sentences without family, friends or character. Some began their sentence pregnant, hundreds of others left children and lives on the outside. Historically, mothers in prison have been doubly ostracised by society for their criminal behaviour and for their seeming failure as mothers, exacerbating the impact of the separation from their children. 2 This chapter demonstrates that for each one of them, their experiences of health and discipline were heavily regulated – yet often contested – by those tasked with their custody and care.

Exploring the creation of female prisons and female-only sections in mixed prisons in the mid-nineteenth century, this chapter argues that the physical prison spaces and penal regimes established in these institutions were designed by male prison administrators with the containment of men in mind. It uncovers the ongoing tensions in the century that followed between policy and practice when women were subjected to these regimes, exploring the equally problematic, but underexplored, question of providing for women's health behind bars. The chapter identifies chains of formal and informal decision-making processes that sometimes conflicted with prison policy and regulations and could have a major impact upon prisoners’ health. The people involved included the prisoners themselves, prison officers and medical officers as well as prison administrators. Health in prison was also shaped by discussions of the condition of the women who walked through the prison gates and ruminations about their appropriate treatment that were often steeped in gendered and class debates. Within a discussion of the importance of the staff who worked in women's prisons, the chapter introduces readers to the less familiar successors of eminent prison reformer Elizabeth Fry who continued to advocate for one of the core principles at the heart of her early reformatory efforts, namely that female offenders required the moral, educational and, eventually, medical guidance of members of their own sex.

A new departure? Establishing the female prison estate

Britain has a long and storied penal history in which the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries feature heavily, due to fundamental shifts in the infliction of punishment that occurred. Prior to their move behind the prison walls in 1868, those convicted of capital crimes could be publicly executed on one of the many scaffolds scattered across Britain. By the 1830s, the last punishment of the law was largely reserved for those convicted of murder. Thousands of others were transported to Australia, a penal option which had commenced with the sailing of the First Fleet in 1787. As discussed in the Introduction, old gaols and houses of correction were gradually replaced with prisons in the early nineteenth century as incarceration became a secondary penal option for serious offenders, alongside transportation, as well as a punishment for more petty offences.

The Gaol Act 1823 placed stricter restrictions upon local authorities regarding the administration of places of confinement. It directed that prisoners be divided by sex and required that every prison containing women should have a matron to maintain the female side of the prison. However, the mid-nineteenth century marked a seminal moment in Britain's penal narrative when transportation for women ceased to be an option in 1852 and the practice ended completely in 1868. The Penal Servitude Act 1853 replaced sentences of transportation with those of penal servitude. Initially, the minimum length of a sentence was four years, but, following the passing of the Penal Servitude Act 1857, sentences ranged between three years and life. They were served in a government-controlled convict prison.

The Surrey House of Correction was purchased and adapted by the government in 1852 to create Brixton, Britain's first female convict prison. Two wings were added to each end of the old crescent-shaped building along with a new chapel, laundry and accommodation for staff. Separate cells, punishment cells and association rooms were adapted within the buildings. It was designed by the Chairman of the Directors of Convict Prisons, Sir Joshua Jebb, who was often consulted by the Home Office in matters of prison construction in the mid-nineteenth century due to his prior positions in the Royal Engineers and as Inspector-General of Military Prisons. At the outset of this new penal regime in November 1853, 75 prisoners were transferred in from Millbank, and by June 1854 there were over 550 prisoners incarcerated in Brixton. However, overcrowding prompted the decision to reallocate one of Millbank's pentagons to women in February 1855.

In the initial decade following 1853, it was intended that women would undergo the probation stage of discipline and the third class in Millbank before progressing on to Brixton to complete the second- and first-class stages. The classes began with the probation stage, for prisoners beginning their sentence. As women progressed through the classes they would receive additional privileges such as an improved diet or more regular letters. Prisoners would be lectured on the nature of classification and the means of progression by showing industriousness and maintaining good behaviour. Fulham Refuge was opened in 1856 to receive those women who had shown impeccable behaviour and to provide them with industrial training in the final months of their sentence, with the aim of helping them to find respectable employment upon release, usually in domestic service. Additional refuges were opened as the nineteenth century progressed. However, my recent research elsewhere has shown that, while the early convict system for women did become a system wherein they were moved between prisons, it was not the efficient system initially envisaged by Jebb based solely upon progression as a result of compliance with the prison rules. Instead, the regime had to be negotiated and adapted by prison officials due to concerns about prisoners’ health. 3 Some women were deemed unfit for the discipline in Millbank and removed to Brixton despite their conduct not warranting such progression. In contrast, women who had earned their progression to Fulham Refuge due to good behaviour were deemed unfit for a place there, often due to age or debility, and were thus detained in Brixton until the expiration of their sentence, to be cared for in the prison's infirmary.

In 1864, in response to the issues of overcrowding and the pressures placed upon prisons for women, the Directors of Convict Prisons acknowledged, ‘it is scarcely possible to expect that the best results of prison discipline can have been as yet attained in prisons of a makeshift character’. 4 They were referring to the fact that prisons for women had not been specially constructed and were instead modifications of the arrangements in place for male convicts. Therefore, the Directors gained government approval to construct a new female convict prison at Woking. When reporting upon its progress in 1865, the Directors provided further justification for the closure of the other female convict establishments by stating that all due diligence had been exercised to ensure that the new prison addressed the ‘many deficiencies’ of the old system. 5 This included building an infirmary to cater for ‘all that can be desired for the reception and treatment of the sick’. 6 In December 1869 Brixton closed as an establishment for women and reopened in February 1870 as a light labour prison for men. From April 1869 Parkhurst, which had accommodated women for only six years, became a male convict prison for invalids. The female inmates of these two prisons were transferred to Woking, which served as England's main female convict prison. Fulham was redesignated as a prison in 1869 instead of a refuge. However, Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Societies continued to set up and manage refuges elsewhere.

Despite the convict prison estate often featuring at the centre of criminal debate in the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of prison sentences handed down to offenders were served in one of the country's local prisons. These sentences could be for a few days or for years. Zedner estimated that 98 per cent of prison sentences for women were served in a local prison in the second half of the nineteenth century. 7 In 1850 Westminster Prison, also known as Tothill Fields, was redesignated to confine women and juvenile boys (under the age of seventeen). After 1860 it was exclusively for women. Liverpool and Birmingham prisons also designated sizeable portions of their prison to women. Holloway Prison was opened in 1852 as a local prison for men and women. In 1902 it was decided that Holloway would become female-only to address the need for greater provision for female prisoners, which was partly exacerbated by the closure of Newgate Prison. Modelled on Warwick Castle, the prison gained the moniker of ‘The Castle’; it was an imposing structure in London's landscape and became a central location in the history of female imprisonment in England until its closure in 2016.

Smaller local prisons were adapted to accommodate women but faced repeated difficulties in managing their incarceration, due to issues of space and provision. Some local prisons were so small that they may have only had a handful of women at any one time, meaning provision for them could be makeshift at best. Zedner argued that this could mean women suffered worse conditions than their male counterparts. 8 In Hull Gaol female prisoners were accommodated in a ward adjoining the debtors. Governor Neill remarked to the Gaol Committee in 1857 that this meant the noise in the yard and the daily visitors to the debtors’ part of the prison disrupted the orderly management of the female prisoners. It was proposed to alter another part of the prison to remove the debtors and thus double the accommodation available for the female prisoners. It was suggested that a work room be added, along with additional cells for the more effective classification of different groups of prisoners. 9

During the second half of the nineteenth century, women made up one fifth of those convicted of crime and accounted for approximately 17 per cent of the total prison population. 10 In 1870 they accounted for around 22 per cent of the population in local prisons. This fell to 16 per cent in 1895 and fell further still with the turn of the twentieth century. In convict prisons, women accounted for 14 per cent of inmates in 1878, dropping to an average of one in eight in the 1880s and just three per cent by 1912. 11 Around two-thirds of the women in Westminster Prison in the 1870s were committed for drunk and disorderly offences. 12 When the Prison Act was passed in 1877 to provide more central government control over local prisons, over half of the women entering Westminster were serving sentences of less than fourteen days. Only around one in ten had been sentenced to terms longer than six months. 13 By 1900, the average daily population in local prisons was 2,699 women, as compared to 11,795 men. In convict prisons the figures were 128 women, as compared to 2,588 men. 14 The daily average number of women prisoners in 1913–14 was 2,236 in local prisons and 95 in convict prisons. By 1920–21 the figure was 1,235, of whom 76 were in convict prisons. 15 In her work on the organisation of the prison estate, Johnston offers several reasons for the declining overall prison population in the first three decades of the twentieth century, notably a decline in recorded crime, a reduction in the minimum sentence lengths for penal servitude and an increase in non-custodial practices, including allowing longer for the payment of fines. 16

By July 1868 the total number of prisons had decreased from 113 to 69, of which 62 held women, although the size of the female portion of the prison and the numbers incarcerated at any one time varied greatly. Following the centralisation of prisons by the Prison Act 1877, the total number of prisons was further reduced. By 1901 there were fifty-two local prisons that held women, with one convict prison for women at Aylesbury. In his historical examination of the shifting policies and debates about rebuilding the physical structure of Holloway Prison, Rock stated that among the criticisms of the prison system in the early twentieth century, the prison commissioners presiding over it were ‘likened to slum landlords administering a dilapidated Victorian estate’. 17 Further closures and redesignations of prisons meant that by the 1920s there were only thirty local prisons accommodating women, along with the one convict establishment. The number was reduced further in the 1930s with the decline in the overall female prison population and only nine local prisons held women, along with convict prisons in Aylesbury and Liverpool. 18 Holloway remained the only local prison designated exclusively for women. Further closures of female wings in the second half of the twentieth century led to a broader geographical spread of prison provision for women across England.

Experience is wanting: women and the prison regime

The public nature of punishment had undergone significant changes between the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. 19 Foucault's opening chapter in his seminal study Discipline and Punish detailed the prolonged public execution by quartering of the would-be regicide Robert Damiens in 1757, contrasting this very public punitive spectacle with the heavily regimented running of an institution for young prisoners in Paris in the early nineteenth century. This formed the foundation of Foucault's analysis of the long-term shift from the public punishment of the body to the more regimented attempts to reform criminal behaviour in the prison system. 20 A persistent element running through Victorian penal policy was the imperative to remove uncertainty and variability from punishment. 21 During early discussions about the establishment of the modern prison system in the 1840s and early 1850s, reform was positioned as the central aim around which to build the system. However, in the 1860s, pressures on the prison service and intense debate about recidivism meant that Edmund Du Cane's Directorate of Convict Prisons between 1869 and 1895 was characterised by ‘an inflexible adoption of deterrence as the primary aim of punishment and a rigid adherence to its uniform enforcement’. 22

When reflecting upon his early tenure as Brixton's Medical Officer in 1856, James Rendle remarked that ‘the collecting of so large a number of female prisoners in a prison expressly prepared for women are circumstances altogether new in this country’. He continued, ‘a system of management is unknown, and experience is wanting’. 23 Within this system of management a recurring question was that of health. John Lavies, Westminster's Medical Officer, remarked in 1863 that women were less robust than their male counterparts and ‘are liable to many ailments peculiar to themselves’. 24 Despite acknowledgements that female prisoners posed specific questions within the higher echelons of the prison hierarchy, as well as within individual institutions, this chapter argues that there was limited impact upon actual policy. Forsythe labelled Brixton's regime as a ‘(mal)adaptation of prison regimes for men’ that was informed by male beliefs about female respectability. 25 Recent research has demonstrated that, despite this, the regimes for women in the convict estate were adapted by those working within them and that the disciplinary system was impacted upon by questions of prisoner health. The lack of official policy directed exclusively at women was also an issue raised within debates about the closure of Brixton in 1869, but one that remained in many ways unanswered with the opening of Woking convict prison for women thereafter. 26

An area of prison policy that attracted criticism and intense debate was the system of separate confinement. Reflecting upon his detention in Reading Gaol in the 1890s, Oscar Wilde wrote of the separate system, ‘the production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result’. 27 Sentences of penal servitude were for a minimum of three years and were intended to reform convicts before their release back into society. This process of reformation began with prisoners being placed in separate confinement. The separate system was based on the principle that inmates would spend a large proportion of their day alone in their cells and would have time for individual reflection. Incarcerated in isolation, they had no contact with fellow prisoners, minimal contact with prison officials and limited time out of their cells for the purpose of attending chapel and undertaking short daily exercise.

Based on the model set out in Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, the separate system was first introduced to Britain in Pentonville Prison, for male convicts, in 1842. Prisoners in Pentonville would be placed in separate confinement for eighteen months. Due to criticisms, this was reduced to twelve months and then to nine months in 1853. Cox and Marland have illuminated the difficulties of identifying and managing mental illness, especially alongside implementing this aspect of the carceral system. Several articles and their 2022 book each demonstrate that, while the separate system had many detractors from the time of its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, due to its association with cases of mental breakdown, its supporters pointed to this extreme form of separation as an indispensable step along the path to true reform. Cox and Marland's research explores the consequences of this upon provisions for, and the maintenance of, prisoner health. 28

Joshua Jebb, Surveyor-General of Prisons and the architect of Pentonville Prison, wrote that the separation of prisoners was the bedrock of a sound prison system, as discipline could be formed and contaminating influences deprived. 29 In evidence sent to John G. Perry, Medical Inspector of Prisons, in 1854 the chaplain of Stafford County Gaol expressed his confidence in the separate system for women. He expressed confidence that young, first offenders could be saved from the ruination that came with association with the ‘basest of their sex’ under the old system. They could be more successfully encouraged to seek the retrieval of their character. 30 He stated his belief that many of the women in his care, even those of the worst character, came out of their period in separation possessed of better moral principles and a desire to achieve respectability. 31

The separate system was established in female convict prisons, but from the outset prompted debate about the ability of women to withstand the full rigours of separation. In 1853 the Convict Prison Directorate issued instructions that women would spend four months in separate confinement, as opposed to the nine months specified for male convicts. 32 Officials working in the early female convict estate regularly reported upon the difficulties of containing some women in this way and the greater unsuitability of women to this system. 33 This acknowledgement of the potentially more adverse effects of separation upon women was also noted by officials in America's Virginia Penitentiary and actually led to directions that women received into the prison would not be subjected to initial months in separate confinement as male inmates were. 34 Florence Maybrick recalled in her memoir that in separate confinement, ‘all individuality, all friendship, all things that make human beings attractive to one another are absent’, describing how women would shriek loudly, tear their clothes and smash their cell windows when kept in such a condition. 35 There were also practical and logistical problems when confining women under the separate system.

A reading of the reports presented to the Visiting Justices of Westminster Prison reveals that there were not enough separate cells, and it was often the case that women were accommodated in dormitories. Officials regularly complained of persistent overcrowding and the resulting necessity to place prisoners in association, which undermined the separation of certain classes of prisoner, including first-time and habitual offenders, and rendered enforcing the rule of silence impossible. 36 This appears to have been particularly problematic in the case of women on account of the lack of space for their confinement, especially in mixed-sex institutions. Liverpool was designed based on the separate system when it opened in 1855, but officials regularly lamented the inability to fully implement the system due to overcrowding, especially in the female side of the prison. 37 Other prisons were adapted to implement the separate system, and parts of the prison were redesignated to increase the provision of separate cells. In addition, the women were in association for work and during chapel and exercise. Westminster's Matron reported to the Visiting Justices in 1869 that it was difficult to punish all infractions against the rule of silence. She stated, ‘I feel it is contrary to human nature to suppose perfect silence is observed where so many women of the lowest class are in frequent association.’ She continued that the only way to prevent communication would be for women to have separate pews in chapel and to never have more than ten women at a time exercising, but this would require at least three full-time officers to enforce it, which the prison did not have. 38

Figure 1.1 Mothers with their children exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, c. 1860s.

Susan Willis Fletcher mused that ‘no Home Secretary can absolutely govern the tongues of five or six hundred women’, as they found ways to communicate through ventilators or even during chapel. 39 Women were considered to be naturally more sociable and thus they would feel more greatly the deprivation of conversation, which was posited as potentially harmful but also as a useful disciplinary tool. In 1851, officials in Hull Gaol were questioned about the effects of the separate system upon the inmates. Mrs Silvester, the matron in charge of the small number of female prisoners, provided a robust approval when she stated, ‘I am fully convinced that nothing but the separate system will tend to prevent crime for at present they are not afraid of returning to gaol as they have sufficient food and congenial society.’  40 Despite stating that the separate system could not easily be surpassed, William Douglas Morrison, a chaplain in the prison system in the 1880s and 1890s, added that it was not effective in preparing prisoners for the duties of society. 41 This was perhaps a greater concern in the case of female prisoners if they were returning to homes and children, and is an issue to which the book returns in Chapter 3. However, the presence of mothers and babies posed logistical challenges to the separate system, as well as raising questions regarding the fundamental principle of silence that underpinned it.

Women in Westminster Prison worked in association but had to follow the rule of silence. Mothers in the prison's nursery were expected to follow the same rules. They were permitted to speak to their babies but not to communicate with each other, and only the prison children were allowed to talk to each other. Following their visit to the prison, journalists and social commentators Mayhew and Binny stated that ‘even compared to the disciplinarian folly they had witnessed in their tour of the London prisons’ they could scarcely believe that prison regulations could be carried to ‘so wicked and unfeeling an extreme’. They added with consternation that even the sternest of observers must feel some compassion for the ‘wretched mothers caressing the little things as if they were the only bit of all the black, blank world’ that made life bearable to them. 42 The Gladstone Committee found that special consideration was needed in the treatment of female prisoners admitted with infants. At the time of the Committee in 1895 they were excluded from associated labour as they were caring for their babies, but their presence ‘destroys discipline as they will talk, they cannot be punished’. 43 By the early twentieth century several larger prisons that contained women, including Holloway, Liverpool and Durham among others, established crèches where prison staff would care for the children of prisoners during the day so that they could go to work and be more subject to the ordinary prison discipline. Women would be allowed to visit the children through the day if they adhered to the prison rules.

Even after the relaxation of the separate system as the twentieth century progressed, pregnant women and new mothers were still locked in their cells for long periods of time, separated from their peers but given limited activity to occupy them. Barbara Roads served a sentence of one month in Holloway Prison during her pregnancy in the 1940s. She recalled having minimal interactions with the medical officer and spending up to twenty-three hours a day in her cell, pacing up and down due to the lack of meaningful occupation. 44 Women had long challenged the terms of the separate system. For some, this resulted in punishments such as a diet of bread and water or containment in a dark cell. For others their actions led to some amelioration or adaptation of the regime on the grounds of health. 45 Months after the crèche opened in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in 1896, the 350 women incarcerated in the prison broke the rule of silence to protest against the texture and colour of the official prison pinafore for the prison babies. Several women tore up their bed sheets to make white pinafores and the women in the laundry embroidered the names of the babies onto their clothes. 46 For many women, the prison babies brought a touch of something tender to what could be physically tough environments. The babies provided some prisoners with an opportunity to show care and to bond with the other women around them, including by making them clothes. For others, they were a painful reminder of their separation from their own children whom they had been forced to leave behind on the outside.

A delicate and worn-out constitution: women entering the prison system

Mary Size commented upon the diversity of the prisoners she encountered in her four decades in the prison service, ‘each one was a problem carrying a badge of shame, heartbreak, unhappiness and frustration’. 47 In 1909 Dr Smalley, Medical Inspector of Prisons, reported that prisons were largely populated by ‘the very poor, the very ignorant, the physical and mental weaklings, the unemployable and the unskilled, to say nothing of the drunkards’. 48 Sarah Amos summed up the plight of many women who entered prisons in the second half of the nineteenth century, stating, ‘the crying children cling to the mother for food; the starving baby hangs at her breast, and almost drives her to theft. The hellish gin shop appeals more temptingly to the worn child-bearer, the weary char-woman, the cruelly abused wife.’  49

For much of the period under examination here, the male breadwinner ideal, where the working husband provided for his dependent wife and children, was viewed as a source of familial and national stability. However, state policy took little account of the economic or social realities facing many families, and mothers were often castigated for the conditions in which they lived. 50 In her examination of early twentieth-century debates about child welfare, historian of maternity and motherhood Jane Lewis argued that working-class women posed more needs than the often middle-class reformers could address, namely those of poverty and poor living conditions. 51 Similarly, in her study of the history of women's prisons since the mid-nineteenth century, Zedner pointed to the dichotomy between the high moral standards expected of women and the paucity of moral powers they were believed to possess. 52 This was also something noted by prisoners themselves. Prisoner memoirs reveal complaints of having only coarse cloth and a very limited amount of soap to wash and note the difficulties of maintaining high personal standards and reclaiming respectability once lost in an environment that did not facilitate this. 53

Liverpool's chaplain, James Nugent, stated that as many of the women he ministered to in the prison came from the lowest quarters of society, self-respect and morality were severely wanting and in their place was drunkenness and its associated vices, thus making prisons the ‘best schools to study the weakness of poor human nature’. 54 This was a recurring lament identified in the records of several of England's prisons. Nugent regularly bemoaned the overcrowded nature of the female side of the prison and complained that it was owing to the number of women regularly recommitted to the prison for drink-related offences. He stated that many were scarcely thirty years of age but had been in and out of the prison fifty or sixty times. He cited one case of a thirty-one-year-old woman who had been in prison eighty-one times between 1855 and 1870 and had predominantly served sentences of between fourteen days and three months. He used her case as an example of the ineffective nature of short sentences, but to also complain of the cost morally and financially to society. 55 In 1854, Brixton's chaplain, John Henry Moran, claimed that 453 of the 664 women admitted during the year could trace the causes of their imprisonment to drink and keeping bad company. 56 Similarly, in 1856, Captain O’Brien, one of the Directors of Convict Prisons in charge of the female estate, consulted with the medical officer at Brixton and Miss Dyer, the Deputy Superintendent at Millbank, about the condition of the women in their prisons. Their reports acknowledged that some were deserving of pity, due to the impoverished conditions from which they had come, but almost half had either served previous prison sentences or were suspected to have been prostitutes and brothel keepers. 57 These were factors believed to have contributed to their poor health upon reception into prison. 58

Henry Roome, Medical Officer in Parkhurst Prison, acknowledged in 1865 that placing a large number of women, many of whom were not in robust health when they entered prison, together ‘under circumstances of a depressing character’ with little occupation meant that it was to be expected that diseases arising from debility would occur. 59 In 1860, William Guy, Millbank's Medical Officer, noted the high proportion of women who had entered the prison as invalids. In that year alone, it had been deemed necessary to remove twenty-three women to Brixton's infirmary. 60 In 1868, Francis Archer, Liverpool's Medical Officer, reported that there had been an increase in the number of deaths in the prison in recent years, but hastened to add that this was not due to the spread of any disease or epidemic and was instead due to the circumstance of a larger number of persons ‘of a delicate and worn-out constitution’ being sent to the prison. 61 Despite the initial intention to send only healthy women to Parkhurst when it was made a women's prison in 1863, the medical officer commented upon the aged and debilitated condition of the women transferred there from Millbank. 62 Between 1853 and 1869, 138 women were moved to Brixton from either Millbank, Fulham Refuge or Parkhurst on medical grounds, including pregnancy cases. 63

Quarterly returns made by Brixton to the Home Office provided brief notes on the condition in which women entered the prison. They have been used to glean a greater picture of the health of the prison population and to further understand laments by the prison's officials regarding the pressures that prisoner health posed to the institution. An average of 80 per cent of the women in the prison between 1853 and 1869 were deemed to be in ‘good’ health. However, the remaining 20 per cent were variously described as being in ‘delicate’ or ‘bad’ health. This included labelling them as ‘feeble’, ‘not strong’, ‘weak-minded’, ‘insane’ or ‘invalids’. In some of the reports, up to 10 per cent of Brixton's total population were described as ‘invalids’ who not only required adaptations to the prison regime, such as a more substantial diet and an exemption from certain labour tasks, but actually required accommodation in the prison's infirmary, putting additional pressure on the infirmary which also had to accommodate other cases of illness as well as births and lying-in women. 64

Prison authorities in Brixton, including the medical officer and the lady superintendent, repeatedly complained to the Convict Prison Directorate of the additional logistical pressures women in poor health could present, and also the disruption some of their number caused because they had not spent the requisite time in the probation stage of discipline, nor could they be subject to the full rigours of prison discipline on account of their health. One such example was in 1858 when Lady Superintendent Emma Martin reported that some of the women knew that they could not be subject to the strictest discipline and were thus ‘deliberately defiant’. 65 Similarly, Rendle remarked in 1859 that ‘the most troublesome prisoners … are young women who know that their ill-health will shield them from punishment, however bad their conduct.’  66 The maternal body could also be a barrier to punitive treatment for infractions of the prison rules. A prisoner named Jones was transferred from Millbank to Brixton shortly after the latter's opening in 1853, as she was close to the date of her confinement. She was disruptive in the infirmary and refused to follow the rule of silence. She demanded a different bed and often argued with the matron. She threw a cloth cap made by the matron for her infant into the fire in the presence of other prisoners, but the prison authorities had limited recourse to means of punishment for these infractions. 67

In addition to the maternal body posing physical challenges to the prison regime, the hundreds of mothers and their children who walked through the prison gates required adaptations to the prison both spatially and also in terms of the regime. During her correspondence with Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament, in the 1920s, social reformer Dorothy Thain expressed frustration for the unwed or the poor working mother as there is ‘only the workhouse or death, and when her trouble is over there is always the awful shame to endure.’  68 Historians of crime including Dobash and others have since gathered more evidence of the circumstances from which women came and found that the majority of the women convicted of theft had largely stolen clothes, food and household provisions such as coal. 69 Shortly after Westminster's redesignation in 1850, due to the large numbers of committals of women with babies and young children Governor Tracey asked permission from the Visiting Justices to adapt part of the prison into a nursery to tend to their ‘peculiar treatment and wants’. An average of between twenty-five and thirty were committed each quarter, and Tracey added that he expected a considerable increase as the winter advanced. 70 The medical officer, John Lavies, reported that between January and March 1854 seventy-three young children, including very young infants, had been admitted to the prison with their mothers. 71 Despite repeated concerns raised about the increase in the number of committals in the colder months, provision for the additional space and care required for these infants was not forthcoming from the Visiting Justices. Instead, their care and accommodation had to be managed by the prison staff, and put additional pressure on the prison's already overcrowded infirmary.

H. Waddington, one of Westminster's Visiting Justices, finally raised the difficulties this caused to the prison with the Home Secretary in 1855. However, his concern was largely couched in terms of the question of discipline more than that of health. He wrote that mothers having their children in prison with them ‘interferes with prison discipline, encourages deception and causes trouble’. He further complained that prison was not a place to send these children just to relieve unions and parishes of their maintenance. He added that many mothers were practising a ‘deception’ by claiming that their infants were still at the breast or were misrepresenting their ages and condition in order to bring them into the prison. Waddington claimed that these actions were often motivated by women being aware of the ‘indulgences’ afforded to a breastfeeding mother and stated that it was difficult to ascertain a child's condition, owing to the ‘sickly and feeble state’ of many of those who entered the prison. 72 Following the birth of her baby on 1 January 1888 in what appears to have been an Aston police station, Elizabeth Cheshire was transferred to Birmingham Prison on the morning of 3 January in order to be placed in the prison's infirmary. The medical officer, H. Manton, wrote to the Aston magistrate to complain that the workhouse would have been a more suitable place to care for Elizabeth and her baby than the prison, which was currently overcrowded. 73

A recurring issue in debates about provisions in prison was the question of the conditions in which prisoners were contained and how they compared to conditions on the outside. The Report of the Committee on the Dietaries of County and Borough Prisons, published in 1864, stipulated that the prison diet was to be calculated with precision and set at a level just beyond the minimum limit at which ‘loss of health and strength’ might result. 74 However, the physical health of many of those who entered prisons meant this was difficult to quantify. In Brixton, prisoners placed in the infirmary and those convalescing, including new mothers, were given additional provisions to the ordinary prison diet, including cocoa, tea, bread, cheese, fish and eggs. This could be amended at the discretion of the medical officer. When they visited the infirmary in the early 1860s, Mayhew and Binny noted that it was ‘plain the majority of the poor creatures fared more sumptuously under their punishment than they possibly could have done outside’. 75 The ‘nursery breakfast’ each morning was a pint of milk for each child and tea for the mothers. 76 The Middlesex magistrate Sir Peter Northall Laurie wrote to the Chairman of Westminster Prison's Visiting Justices in February 1864 about the women in the prison's nursery. Rather than commenting upon the recent adaptations that had been made to improve and expand provisions, he complained that ‘a mother in your prison is practically a lady and far better off than an ordinary prisoner. I think if this could be altered you would stop some of these ladies making the prison a convenience.’  77

The Holloway Discharged Prisoner's Aid Society was established in 1904. One of several branches attached to the central Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, it was certified by the Prison Commission and subsidised by the Treasury, along with charitable donations. Agents from the Society visited women in Holloway and helped to make arrangements for them upon their release. The ‘typical cases’ detailed in their annual reports show the wide range of women they helped, but also reveal commonalities in terms of their living conditions on the outside and the obstacles they would face upon release. A woman with the initials F.C. was listed among these ‘typical cases’ in 1928. She was a first-time offender who had given birth in Holloway. The Society helped to secure her a place in Dalmeny Hostel upon release, which had its own matron and staff to support mothers to find employment. She later wrote to them to state that ‘life will be bright once again for me, and just when I thought life was not worth living’ she had found support. 78 A report in 1929 stated that the worst part of the punishment for women was not the period of detention but the ‘haunting dread of the future’ without character, means or influence. This was a gulf the Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society sought to bridge, and one that was not properly considered or addressed by the criminal justice system for the mothers entering and leaving prison with children. 79

Despite this chasm at policy level, this study has also found that female members of the prison staff acknowledged and, in some ways, attempted to address the specific issues facing women due to the conditions in which they lived on the outside, but had to do so within the boundaries of an often obstinate prison regime. Mary Size spoke of prison officials as custodians of the women who had been forcibly separated from their lives outside. She commented that in observing the different ‘sorts and conditions’ of women in prison she observed the importance of showing them kindness and interest, as the absence of ‘gratitude and affection’ earlier in life had contributed to their career of crime. 80 Size added that although using a prisoner's name instead of their number (which was based on their landing and cell number) was considered to undermine discipline, she found it was beneficial in managing and caring for the women. 81 Cicely McCall, a qualified psychiatric social worker, noted that professional social workers had years to train and craft their ability to interview and work with people facing complex conditions in life. However, when she entered employment in the prison system she found that prison officers were ‘bundled into this difficult and responsible position with little specific training’. 82 McCall also wrote that when training at Aylesbury she had asked to see the records of some of the girls so as to better acquaint herself with their individual circumstances. However, the governor refused on the grounds that this could lead to prejudicial treatment. McCall lamented that it was astonishing that within the prison system there were still people in positions of power who believed that ‘ignorance of facts makes for impartiality in treatment’. 83 While playing a part in shaping the history of penal policy, this debate, that equal treatment does not always lead to equal outcomes, is one that continues to permeate the criminal justice system today.

During an enquiry into the operation of the Penal Servitude Act of 1857, Millbank's Medical Officer, William Guy, was asked about how ill health among prisoners could be caused by grief and misfortune. He replied that women's domestic ties were often closer than those of male prisoners and thus were more broken down by imprisonment. 84 In their enquiry into conditions in English prisons in the early twentieth century, ex-prisoners Hobhouse and Brockway found evidence to suggest that women felt more deeply the deprivation of normal conversation as, for some, it was ‘the one relaxation in life’ and the pain of separation was made more acute due to the separation from their children. 85 However, such acknowledgements were rarely considered when deciding upon the imposition of prison policy.

Communication was not only limited among those incarcerated: the regulation of contact extended to a prisoner's family beyond the prison walls. Social and political commentator Sarah Amos was active in writing about the fraught position of women in prison, lamenting that there was not adequate opportunity to speak about the difficulties facing female prisoners. She highlighted the specific plight of mothers who were confined in prison with no way of knowing if anyone was looking after their children and their home. 86 Letters were restricted to one every six months, and as a prisoner progressed through the disciplinary stages they could gradually earn more regular opportunities to write to loved ones. Although they were entitled to a limited number of letters and visits, many women in prison received neither, even when they had family on the outside. Of the 288 female prisoners sampled in Johnston's study, 142 of whom were mothers, only 10 per cent received a visit and 30 per cent received a letter during their incarceration. This limited contact meant that women often found it difficult to obtain news of their children and this could have severe ramifications on their prison experience. Maria Cain had received no news of her children during her sentence and was anxious to gain some from a fellow prisoner recently admitted who lived in her neighbourhood, who informed Maria that one of her children had died. 87

The isolation and separation from their families could have a severe impact on the mental health of women in prison. In June 1854 a woman described as a ‘feeble invalid’ was transferred from Millbank Prison to be placed in Brixton's larger infirmary. She later received word of her daughter's death and could get no news about her son. In April 1855, the medical officer detailed how she began having delusions that the prison was keeping her children from her, and she claimed to hear them crying out. By June, her conduct in the infirmary had become so violent and difficult to manage that she had to be physically restrained. Her removal to Fisherton Asylum upon the recommendation of the medical officer was approved by the Home Office in July. 88

Walking the line: managing health and discipline

Within Britain's criminal justice history, several protagonists have shaped the experiences of the people who have served sentences in the country's penal institutions. The administration of the prison system has been debated, decided and directed by the Home Office, the Prison Directorate, local magistrates and others who designed prison policy. This policy has then been staunchly defended and ruminated over, rigidly administered, criticised and adapted by those who have worked in prisons on a daily basis, including by governors, medical officers, matrons, lady superintendents and prison warders. It is to those who were placed in charge of confining England's female prisoners that this chapter now turns to further explore their importance in shaping health experiences behind bars.

Following the establishment of the Convict Prison Directorate in 1850, convict prisons employed doctors who worked full time in their respective institution. Prior to the nationalisation of prisons in 1877, a doctor would visit local prisons during the week to check on the health of inmates. The Prisons Act 1865 stipulated that an infirmary would be established in every prison and that all inmates would have a statutory weekly examination. Prison medical officers determined a prisoner's fitness for work and subjugation to the prison regime, including certifying them as fit or unfit for labour, dietary punishment and restraint. Wiener labelled this decision-making process a form of ‘moral categorisation’ that involved the interpretation of behaviour as well as the identification of ill health. 89 The prison doctor's statutory duty to distinguish between those fit and unfit for prison labour and punishment was a difficult one and, Watson argued, facilitated the production of knowledge and debates about categories of mental behaviour that were unique to the prison setting. 90

In his evidence to the Carnarvon Committee in 1863 regarding the role of the medical officer, William Guy, Medical Officer of Millbank between 1859 and 1869, stated his belief in their role of promoting the discipline of the prison but not interfering with it. 91 The medical officer at Dartmoor, a male prison, wrote in 1878 of the anxiety that none but a prison medical officer could understand of having in their charge everything relating to the health of the prison, including ventilation, diet, work and punishment. He commented that the latter in particular was the source of great anxiety and careful consideration, as the doctor had to regard the convict's health and yet not screen prisoners from or interfere with the duties and prerogatives of discipline. 92 However, this line between discipline, punishment and the maintenance of physical and mental health was blurred, and subject to shifting parameters across the period under examination here.

Davie argued that it was both practical and crucial for prison doctors to establish objective criteria to reflect upon the distinct nature and extent of physical and mental disabilities among prison inmates. This was not only to decide upon their fitness to undergo the full rigours of the regime, but to also pre-empt any challenges to their diagnoses from other quarters of the prison hierarchy. 93 Edward Parker, Liverpool's Medical Officer, reported to the Visiting Justices of the difficulties of exercising the discretionary powers invested in him, due to the need to avoid imposition upon penal authority on the one hand, and undue punishment on the other. Parker added that ‘whenever there has been doubt in my mind, I have not hesitated to decide in favour of the prisoner’. 94 However, several prisoners across the period recalled feeling that the doctor was more on the side of the system than of the patient.

Dr Mary Gordon lamented that during her service in the prison estate the prisoner had no right to their own confidence as ‘the doctor may take it away and may give it to the Governor, the police or the court’. In turn, when discussing the medical care offered to prisoners, Gordon made a key distinction that could impact upon medical treatment and health in prisons, namely, that ‘the prisoner does not consult the doctor, the state pays the doctor and consults him about the prisoner’. 95 Susan Willis Fletcher captured how decision making on the part of prisoners, warder and doctors could have a serious impact on prisoners’ health, observing that ‘the cunning may deceive even a very clever physician while the really sick and suffering may possibly, if under a hard warder, be neglected’. 96 A woman serving a sentence in Aylesbury in the 1920s reported that the medical officer was ‘very unsympathetic’ to the needs of prisoners. Instead, their primary concern was to ensure that the women remained subject to the prison regime, which involved ‘seeing how much you can stand without dying’. 97

Some medical officers viewed part of their role as not only providing medical care to those who needed it but also identifying instances where they did not. Prisons were unique sites in this sense, as prison doctors did not only need to examine prisoners to ascertain if and what treatment they needed. There was an additional layer, wherein doctors deliberated over the motives of prisoners in seeking treatment. Samuel Rogers, Birmingham's Medical Officer, reported in 1854 that he was pleased to report that cases of serious illness were low. He added that around one third of cases that came before him were ‘of a very trifling nature that no complaint would have been made had not the facility of obtaining medical assistance been constantly present’. He continued that some prisoners reported themselves sick in the hopes of obtaining a better diet and some exemption from labour, as well as from a desire to ‘create an incident in the day by being visited by the surgeon’. 98 Arthur Griffiths, the Deputy Governor of Millbank between 1872 and 1874, bemoaned the specific difficulties the authorities faced when making these judgements in the case of female prisoners. He stated that some women maintained ‘an unbroken warfare with authority’, adding, ‘it is often difficult to draw the line between madness and outrageous conduct’. 99 Research into the early female convict estate has demonstrated the difficulties faced by prison doctors when deciding upon the appropriate treatment of inmates, including balancing the management of behaviour and the maintenance of health. 100

In addition to the medical officer, several other members of the prison staff were required to walk this line and attempt the balancing act between discipline and prisoner health, notably the female warders and officers who were responsible for their confinement on a daily basis. Following their visit to Brixton, Mayhew and Binny commented that one of the main peculiarities of the prison was that the majority of officials were women. Even though the chaplain, medical officer and steward were men, Mayhew and Binny were at pains to point out the novelty of having women, especially the Superintendent, Emma Martin, in positions where they were invested with powers of governance. They mused that observing the maintenance of discipline and order was more interesting when it was the work of ‘those whom the world generally considers to be ill-adapted for government’. 101

Following a visit to Newgate Prison in 1813, Elizabeth Fry began her work to reform conditions for female prisoners in 1816. The initial aims of the Association for the Improvement of the Females at Newgate were to provide practical support such as clothing and employment alongside the teaching of good habits in sobriety, industry and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. A distinguishing characteristic of Fry's work was the emphasis she placed on the importance of gaining the cooperation of inmates if true reform were to be achieved. 102 The Gaol Act 1823 stipulated that female prisoners had to be supervised by women warders. Female warders would also be present when female prisoners were visited by the governor or the medical officer. This was in contrast to practices in some American prisons such as Virginia Penitentiary, which accommodated male and female convicts but where they were not entirely separated until 1931. It was also not until the 1880s that women in Virginia were supervised by female warders instead of the previous practice of having all-male guards. Coulson's historical study of the experiences of women in American prisons identified several cases of women becoming pregnant and giving birth years into their prison sentences throughout much of the nineteenth century, further illuminating the lack of proper consideration in confining women as well as potential abuses carried out within the prison by either male convicts or male guards and authorities. 103 Although this study has identified no evidence of similar cases of women becoming pregnant during their sentence in England, it does acknowledge that the nature of research into prison history means that we rely heavily upon records created by those in charge of prison rather than by those incarcerated within, which makes the unearthing of potential abuses committed against prisoners difficult if not impossible.

As well as answering criticisms by herself and others in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century of the moral and physical dangers posed to women who were imprisoned and managed by men, Fry also believed that the women who found themselves in prison were ‘persons of an abandoned character’. Thus, to place them under the care of men was injurious to both parties. Instead, they required female officers who exercised authority alongside providing a constant example of feminine propriety and virtue. 104 Zedner argued that this placed higher expectations upon female members of the prison staff than their male counterparts, as they were expected to be ‘guardians of their sex’. 105

Later in the nineteenth century, during debates about the efficacy of prison discipline, Arthur Griffiths, then an Inspector of Prisons, commented in 1894 that female prisoners were more troublesome because they could not be so firmly governed. He continued, ‘they require humouring, a lighter hand, the tact women can command while seeking to persuade’. 106 Elizabeth Little, Matron of Strangeways Prison, and Jane Taylor Gee, Matron of Liverpool, both advocated regimes based on more kindness and engagement with prisoners in their evidence to the Departmental Committee on Prisons in 1895. 107 However, reconciling their duties of locking and unlocking, watching and reporting alongside the expectation that they provide a moral example was a particular difficulty facing female warders.

In her article about the intersection of gender with debates about the role of prison officers, Johnston argued that female warders were often regarded as lower in status and not as worthy of the task of reformation as middle-class reformers and Lady Visitors. 108 Despite this, high expectations were placed upon these women. Emma Martin, Brixton's Lady Superintendent, expatiated on the role that her subordinate officers played in providing a good moral example to the women in their care. 109 Historical studies, including those of Zedner and Dobash et al., have since respectively argued that this additional layer of morality prompted greater intolerance of infractions of the prison rules among female inmates. 110 However, the current study has identified evidence to suggest that in some cases it also led to the paradox of female staff feeling constrained between the bounds of the institution and the desire to show humanity to those in their charge. This reinforces an ambiguity identified by Brown and Clare in their study of prisoner memoirs, namely that prison regimes placed staff in a predicament between power and powerlessness. 111 This study has explored this contradiction further in relation to those staffing the female prison estate, who were invested with the full weight of a powerful prison regime but sometimes struggled to enact it when faced with the daily realities of prison life. In addition, prison warders could play a crucial role in the decision-making processes that dictated the health and disciplinary experiences of women, especially mothers, in prison.

Susan Willis Fletcher's account of her time in Westminster Prison in the late nineteenth century explored the importance of the character and disposition of the prison warders in shaping the experiences of the women in their charge. When recalling those she encountered, Fletcher mused that warders could be either very kind or very cruel, without breaking the prison rules. 112 Florence Maybrick similarly spoke of the importance of how female warders responded to the health of those in their charge. She described hearing women shrieking, tearing their clothing and bedding and smashing the furniture in their cells at night. Some prisoners rang their bell to alert the attention of the warder on duty. In many cases, these instances were met with little sympathy on the part of warders. 113 Cicely McCall spoke of the ‘dictatorial pettiness’ of some warders when attending to the day-to-day running of the prison and the need for prisoners to ask warders for any kind of medical or sanitary provision, which they sometimes faced difficulty in obtaining. 114 In some cases, warders played a crucial role in the decision-making process when it came to prisoners having access to medical care. Maria Clarkson complained to the Governor of Westminster Prison in 1853 about her treatment by warder Charlotte Howe. She had sent for a quantity of salt to rub onto Maria's lips to ‘ascertain whether she was in a fit or pretending to be labouring under one’ before calling for the medical officer. This was not the first instance of Howe being reported for her treatment of prisoners, a previous report having been made by the matron in May 1852. Following Maria’s case, the governor resolved that warders should not use such tests in cases of suspected illness and instead should apply to the proper officer for assistance. 115

Prisons were populated by a diverse range of women, bringing with them varied lived experiences which had led them to the gates of the prison. Although prison directors, inspectors and governors directed the terms under which prisoners would be incarcerated, it was female matrons, superintendents and warders who were tasked with enacting these policies on a day-to-day basis. Female warders came from a range of backgrounds, including domestic service and shop work. Some had families, including children, but many were either single or widowed. Debates about the staffing of prisons often placed higher importance on the morality and temperament of female warders than that of their male counterparts. In addition, their living arrangements were often more constrained. By 1911 it was a requirement that all female officers should live in the prison or in quarters assigned by the prison. 116 Hobhouse and Brockway noted that male warders were more likely to go home to their families after their day working in the prison estate but female warders were far less likely to have family lives. 117 Similarly, following her visit to women's prisons in the mid-nineteenth century, Mary Carpenter wrote of the long hours prison officers worked and the toll the role could take on them, which impacted upon their ability to closely watch and correct prisoner behaviour. 118

In addition to the impact that the logistics of the job, such as hours and living conditions, could have on prison staff, others spoke of feeling ill prepared or trained to confine and care for the women in their charge and of their frustrations with aspects of the system in which they worked. This was particularly evident in terms of the question of caring for prisoner health and mothers. Mary Size recalled the first time she was placed on hospital duty and having to sit by the bed of a woman who had attempted suicide. She stated that prison rules meant she was not allowed to talk to the woman and instead had to sit in silence for what she termed ‘the longest and dreariest four hours I had ever known’. 119 Training schools for prison officers were introduced following the Gladstone Committee of 1895. Between 1898 and 1907, 338 female officers undertook the four months of training required to become a permanent officer, this training for women largely taking place in Liverpool or Manchester before being moved to Holloway in 1911. 120 However, prison staff were often not trained in the care of the babies and young children who lived for varying periods of their lives within the confines of England's penal institutions. This could have an impact on the care they received. Betsy Jones, a warder in Westminster Prison, was fined in 1850 for ‘want of feeling’ towards the children in the nursery, as she had failed to provide them with their milk allowance on time. Betsy claimed in her defence that she had previously worked in Coldbath Fields and had not been in charge of the care of infants before, and that she was not yet fully acquainted with the requirements of this part of her duty. 121 Betsy was dismissed in September 1851 when she was found to be in breach of the prison rules, as she had talked with a prisoner and allowed her to do some knitting. 122

In addition to instances where female warders were ill equipped to enact the rules of the institutions in which they worked, the current study has uncovered cases where they were unwilling to do so. In her observations on the female prison staff, Maybrick described instances of warders showing kindness to the women in spite of the regime. She argued that this was evidence that for some their heart could emerge from ‘its official shell’. 123 A reading of cases where female prison warders were brought before the Visiting Justices of their respective prisons for breaking the rules associated with their position makes clear that these rules were adapted on a daily basis. In several cases, these rule breaks were to do with warders breaking the rule of silence or attempting to relax the limitation of communication in some way. For some this resulted in warnings, fines and even dismissals. The Matron of Westminster Prison reported warder Harriet Stevens for several infractions in the prison nursery. These included allowing a prisoner to share some of her child's clothes with another prisoner and allowing and partaking in ‘familiar conversation’ in the nursery. Harriet had been fined previously for similar infractions and was dismissed in October 1850. 124 Others gave up their positions. For example, Rachael Townsend was one of the warders moved from Coldbath Fields Prison to Westminster Prison in September 1850 when the latter became a prison for women and juvenile males. Among the list of officers, she was described as one of the longest serving, having been in the prison service for over seven years. In October, Rachael went before the Visiting Justices of Westminster to tender her resignation, stating she ‘declined to conform’ to the rules of the prison's regime. 125

A long-standing debate within the history of women's prisons has surrounded the consideration, or lack thereof, of the distinctions required within the women's system, from the physical buildings to the regimes enacted therein. A key element of this has been the appointment of women to positions of greater power within prisons such as governor and medical officer. In mixed prisons, lady superintendents or matrons would be placed in charge of the female portion of the prison but they were subordinate to the male governor. Even in Holloway, England's largest female prison, the positions of governor and medical officer were occupied by men, something that drew increasing criticism. Sarah Amos commented in 1898 that women prisoners often already felt a ‘deep sense of injury’ when they entered prison. Some had been led into crime by men, others were victims of a drunken and dissolute society and when they entered prison they were condemned, inspected and governed by men, which was a state ‘womanhood must resent’. 126 The need to increase the number of female warders and to have more women in positions where they could oversee the management of women's prisons was among the recommendations made by the 1895 Report of the Departmental Committee on Prisons. 127

Officials including Mary Gordon, Mary Size and Cicely McCall criticised the marks and stages that characterised the prison system and instead advocated for regimes that aimed not to entirely subjugate women but to provide them with a sense of agency for when they left prison. They argued that female members of staff in positions of greater influence would be more likely to achieve this. However, the appointment of women to positions of greater power in the prison hierarchy was not without resistance. Mary Gordon's appointment as an inspector of prisons in 1908 was met with opposition, despite the fact that women had been appointed to inspectorate positions in other sectors. For example, in 1904 the appointment of a female Inspector of Girls’ Schools was believed to be necessary, as she would notice matters connected to ‘domestic management that may escape the notice of a man’. Similarly, women had been increasingly appointed as inspectors of factories to minister to the needs of factory girls. 128 Despite Gordon's being a qualified doctor, Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, the Chairman of the Prison Directorate, opposed her appointment. Her support of the suffragettes, discovered following a raid of the Women's Social and Political Union offices in 1914, compounded the disapproval of her position. Gordon served in military hospitals abroad during the First World War but was reappointed by the Prison Commission at the war's end. 129 When she requested an increase in her salary in 1919 a Home Office reply labelled her appointment as a ‘sop to feminism’, continuing that any increase in wages would be yet another unwarranted concession. 130

In 1913 Reginald McKenna, Home Secretary, received a letter from Ida Smedley, Secretary of the Federation of University Women, regarding the staffing of women's prisons and the fact that the higher administrative offices in women's prisons were filled by men. The Federation members argued that a woman in power would be better placed to understand the needs of women prisoners and asked that, when vacancies appeared in these offices, suitable women be considered for the roles. 131 In response to this letter, McKenna stated that although the positions of governor and medical officer were occupied by men in Holloway and Aylesbury, the immediate control of female prisoners was entrusted to matrons. 132 However, there were continued debates about this issue. Dr Selina Fox was appointed to be Lady Superintendent and Deputy Medical Officer of Aylesbury Prison and Borstal in 1914. She became the first female prison governor in 1916. This position was subsequently taken up by Lilian Barker in 1923, before she later became the first woman to be an assistant prison commissioner in 1935.

The end of the First World War brought with it renewed debates about the staffing and conditions in women's prisons. At a conference organised by the Penal Reform League in June 1917, one ex-prisoner complained of the lack of attention to the specific needs of women during menstruation. She spoke of the embarrassment suffered by women when provisions were not readily available and the fact that male governors, doctors and chaplains could come into cells with no notice. 133 In June 1918 Ruggles-Brise wrote to the Home Office regarding the ‘great difficulty arising in carrying out medical examinations’ in female prison establishments. He attributed this in part to the prevalence of venereal diseases, but also to the growing disinclination among female prisoners and the press, in response to campaigns from different groups, for women to be medically examined by male doctors. Dr John Hall Morton was Governor and Medical Officer of Holloway Prison, but in response to this correspondence two female doctors, Dr Moss Rougvie and Dr Edith Hudgell, were appointed as deputy medical officers. 134

In 1921 an article in the Daily Herald posed the question ‘why should a man rule the castle?’ in relation to the question of Holloway's next governor upon the retirement of the current post holder. 135 The Women's Freedom League wrote to the Prison Commission regarding the matter, stating that they were continuing an argument made by the suffragettes following their imprisonment in Holloway before the war. The League's petition used the fact that there were women magistrates and women medical inspectors as further justification of the need for women governors in prison. 136 It was announced that the position would be filled by Mr Shortt, who was already a medical officer in the service, but that there would be two lady superintendents to take daily charge of the disciplinary side of the prison and the hospital respectively. In response, Florence Underwood, Secretary of the Women's Freedom League, wrote to the Manchester Guardian to state with consternation, ‘surely if a woman is needed anywhere, it is in control of a women's prison?’, adding that penal reform held little prospect for women for so long as the highest offices were reserved for men. 137

Mary Size, who had entered the prison service in 1906 and spent over four decades in the service as a warder, a school mistress and a lady superintendent, was appointed Deputy Governor of Holloway Prison in 1927. However, it was not until 1945 that Dr Charity Taylor became the first female governor of Holloway Prison, the largest women's prison of its time. She had been Deputy Medical Officer since 1942. In 1959 Taylor was appointed as Assistant Director and Inspector of Prisons for Women. During her time as Holloway's Governor, Taylor instituted several reforms to the prison's regime, notably in terms of the classes offered to instruct women and offer them more meaningful employment opportunities. She also made notable changes to the prison dress, including, along with several other prisons in 1949, introducing more practical maternity dresses, and allowed prisoners to buy make-up and hair products at the prison canteen as part of her attempts to foster the pride, self-respect and agency so long advocated for by officials working in women's prisons. 138 In 1946 Taylor appeared at the Conference of Women's Organisations alongside Teresa Billington-Greig, the first suffragette imprisoned in Holloway during the campaign for the right to vote, who later went on to help create the Women's Freedom League. Billington-Greig spoke of Taylor's concern with improving provisions for female prisoners and praised her commitment to humanising the prison system to allow women to ‘retain their dignity’ while behind bars. 139


In August 1855, Joshua Jebb declared that the different establishments in the female convict estate would be ‘components of the same system’, wherein the progression of prisoners through the classifications, from the reflection of their separate confinement to the reclamation of respectability by their release, would ‘work smoothly and well’. 140 A recent study of the early convict estate concluded that the challenges of reconciling health and discipline prompted modifications and negotiations of the terms of their incarceration by the women themselves, as well as by those tasked with their custody. In addition, this balancing act played a crucial role in the decision to rethink the arrangements in place for the incarceration of female prisoners when Brixton was closed for women in 1869. 141 This chapter has revealed that in the century that followed the aims set out by Jebb, the containment and care of women and their children continually challenged the principles of uniformity and deterrence underpinning England's penal system. Rather than producing the smooth system envisaged by Jebb, the application of central components of the penal regime, from accommodation to the rule of separation, required constant negotiation. To weave together the complexities of imprisoning mothers and children introduced in this chapter, the book now turns to examine how prisons and those who administered them, at all levels of the hierarchy, attempted to negotiate the perennial difficulties posed by the maintenance of their health.


1 Mary Carpenter, Our convicts, Vol. II (London: Longman, 1864), p. 204.
2 Phyllis Jo Baunach, Mothers in prison (New York: Transaction Publishers, first published 1983, this edition 2020), p. 1.
3 Rachel Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body, worse for the health of the mind: Female responses to imprisonment in England, 1853–1869’, Social History of Medicine, 34:2 (2021), 532–552, https://doi.org/10.1093/shm/hkz066.
4 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1864 (London: 1865), p. 13.
5 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1865 (London: 1866), p. 10.
6 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1869 (London: 1870), p. 369.
7 Lucia Zedner, Women, crime and custody in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 131.
8 Zedner, Women, crime and custody, p. 137.
9 Hull History Centre [hereafter HHC], TCGL, Draft Reports for the Gaol Committee 1856–57.
10 Zedner, Women, crime and custody, p. 1.
11 Martin J. Wiener, Reconstructing the criminal: Culture, law and policy in England, 1830–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 309; Zedner, Women, crime and custody, pp. 100, 202.
12 Zedner, Women, crime and custody, p. 156.
13 Lucia Zedner, ‘Wayward sisters: The prison for women’, in Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (eds.) The Oxford history of the prison: The practice of punishment in Western society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 329–361, p. 341.
14 Helen Johnston, ‘Gendered prison work: Female prison officers in the local prison system, 1877–1939’, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 53:2 (2014), 193–212, https://doi.org/10.1111/hojo.12043, p. 195.
15 Stephen Hobhouse and A. Fenner Brockway, English prisons today: Being the report of the Prison System Enquiry Committee (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922), p. 336.
16 Johnston, ‘Gendered prison work’, p. 195.
17 Paul Rock, Reconstructing a women's prison: The Holloway Redevelopment Project, 1968–88 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 120.
18 Johnston, ‘Gendered prison work’, pp. 196–197.
19 Rachel E. Bennett, Capital punishment and the criminal corpse in Scotland, 1740–1834 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
20 Michel Foucault, Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (London: Allen Lane, 1977).
21 Wiener, Reconstructing the criminal, p. 103.
22 Victor Bailey, The rise and fall of the rehabilitative ideal, 1895–1970 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), p. 16.
23 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1856 (London: 1857), p. 338.
24 Bill Forsythe, ‘Women prisoners and women's penal officials 1840–1921’, British Journal of Criminology, 33:4 (1993), 525–540, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bjc.a048357, p. 530.
25 Forsythe, ‘Women prisoners and women's penal officials’, pp. 527–528.
26 Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body’.
27 Hilary Marland, ‘“Close confinement tells very much upon a man”: Prison memoirs, insanity and the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century prison’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 74:3 (2019), 267–291, https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrz027, p. 267.
28 Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, ‘“He must die or go mad in this place”: Prisoners, insanity, and the Pentonville Model Prison experiment, 1842–1852’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 92:1 (2018), 78–109, https://doi.org/10.1353/bhm.2018.0004, p. 81. See also Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, ‘Broken minds and beaten bodies: Cultures of harm and the management of mental illness in mid- to late nineteenth-century English and Irish prisons’, Social History of Medicine, 31:4 (2018), 688–710, https://doi.org/10.1093/shmhky038; Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, Disorder contained: Mental breakdown and the modern prison in England and Ireland, 1840–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).
29 Joshua Jebb, Modern prisons: Their construction and ventilation (London: John Weale, 1844), p. 6.
30 Nineteenth Report of the Inspectors appointed under the provisions of the act 5 & 6 Will. IV c.38 to visit the different prisons of Great Britain (London: 1854), pp. 107–108.
31 Nineteenth Report of the Inspectors, pp. 107–108.
32 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1853 (London: 1854), p. 308.
33 Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body’.
34 Hilary L. Coulson, ‘“In the care of the supposed powerful state”: Women and children in the Virginia Penitentiary, 1800–1883’, in Erica Rhodes Hayden and Theresa R. Jach (eds), Incarcerated women: A history of struggles, oppression, and resistance in American prisons (London: Lexington Books, 2017), pp. 17–36, p. 23.
35 Florence Elizabeth Chandler Maybrick, Mrs Maybrick's own story: My fifteen lost years (London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1905), pp. 67, 86.
36 London Metropolitan Archives [hereafter LMA], WA/G/008 Minute Book of the Visiting Justices, November 1855–November 1857, 22 December 1855.
37 Liverpool Record Office [hereafter LRO], 347 MAG/1/2/2, Minutes of the Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 28 July 1870.
38 LMA, WA/G/013, Minute Book of the Visiting Justices for the House of Correction, Westminster [hereafter Minute Book], May 1868–April 1871, 3 July 1869.
39 Susan Willis Fletcher, Twelve months in an English prison (New York: Charles T. Dillingham, 1884), p. 331.
40 HHC, TCGL 15 Gaol Committee Report, 1851.
41 William Douglas Morrison, Crime and its causes (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1891), p. 216.
42 Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The criminal prisons of London and scenes of prison life (London: Griffin, Bohn and Company, 1862), pp. 474, 475.
43 Report from the Departmental Committee on Prisons (London, 1895), p. 32.
44 Kathleen Lonsdale et al., with introduction by Ethel Mannin, Some account of life in Holloway Prison for women (London: Prison Medical Reform Council, 1943), p. 22.
45 Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body’.
46 Caitlin Davies, Bad girls: A history of rebels and renegades (London: John Murray, 2018), p. 268.
47 Mary Size, Prisons I have known (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 95.
48 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 7.
49 Sarah Amos, ‘The prison treatment of women’, Contemporary Review, 73 (1898), 803–813, p. 804.
50 Jane Lewis, ‘The working-class wife and mother and state intervention, 1870–1918’, in Jane Lewis (ed.), Labour and love: Women's experience of home and family 1850–1940 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 99–120, p. 100.
51 Jane Lewis, The politics of motherhood: Child and maternal welfare in England, 1900–1939 (London: Croom Helm, 1980), p. 61.
52 Zedner, Women, crime and custody, p. 42.
53 For examples of such complaints see Maybrick, Mrs Maybrick's own story, p. 180; Lonsdale, Some account of life in Holloway Prison, pp. 8–9.
54 LRO, 347 MAG 1/2/2, Minutes of Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 26 October 1871.
55 LRO, 347 MAG 1/2/2, Minutes of Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 28 July 1870.
56 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1854 (London: 1855), p. 390.
57 First Report from the Select Committee on Transportation together with the minutes of evidence and appendix (London: 1856), p. 68.
58 An extensive survey of the economic and social profiles of women suspected of prostitution in the Victorian period found that poverty was the principal cause for their entry into prostitution. See Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian society: Women, class and the state (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 14–19.
59 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1865 (London: 1866), p. 254.
60 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1860 (London: 1861), p. 72.
61 LRO, 347 JUS 4/1/2, Minute Book 1864–1870, 30 October 1868.
62 The National Archives, Kew [hereafter TNA], PCOM 2/164, Millbank Book of Questions and Suggestions 1855–1863, 6 February 1863.
63 These figures were compiled using returns made in the Reports of the Directors of Convict Prisons between 1853 and 1869.
64 The study consulted the returns made in September of each year. Records for Brixton were included in the returns from December 1855, therefore the figures cover the period from September 1856 to September 1869. See: TNA, HO 8/129, Quarterly returns of prisoners in hulks and convict prisons, September 1856; HO 8/133, September 1857; HO 8/137, September 1858; HO 8/141, September 1859; HO 8/145, September 1860; HO 8/149, September 1861; HO 8/153, September 1862; HO 8/157, September 1863; HO 8/161, September 1864; HO 8/165, September 1865; HO 8/169, September 1866; HO 8/173, September 1867; HO 8/177, September 1868; HO 8/181, September 1869.
65 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1858 (London: 1859), p. 311.
66 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1859 (London: 1860), p. 273.
67 Female life in prison, by a prison matron, Vol. II (London: Hurst and Blackett Publishers, 1862), p. 200.
68 Ginger Frost, Illegitimacy in English law and society 1860–1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 49.
69 Russell P. Dobash, R. Emerson Dobash and Sue Gutteridge, The imprisonment of women (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 90.
70 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 9 November 1850.
71 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 1 April 1854.
72 LMA, WA/G/008, Minute Book, November 1855–1857, 9 February 1855.
73 Library of Birmingham [hereafter LB], PS/B/4/5/1/1, Birmingham Petty Sessions, 1878–1892.
74 Helen Johnston (ed.), Punishment and control in historical perspective (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 184.
75 Mayhew and Binny, The criminal prisons of London, p. 185.
76 Mayhew and Binny, The criminal prisons of London, p. 191.
77 LMA, WA/G/011, Minute Book, November 1862–October 1865, 6 February 1864.
78 Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick [hereafter MRC], MSS/67/4/24/8, Holloway Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society Report, 1928.
79 MRC, MSS/67/4/24/9, Holloway Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society Report, 1929.
80 Size, Prisons I have known, p. 63.
81 Size, Prisons I have known, p. 68.
82 Cicely McCall, They always come back (London: Methven & Co., 1938), p. 19.
83 McCall, They always come back, p. 46.
84 Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the operation of the acts relating to transportation and penal servitude (London: 1863), p. 246.
85 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 345.
86 Amos, ‘The prison treatment of women’, p. 807.
87 Helen Johnston, ‘Imprisoned mothers in Victorian England, 1853–1900: Motherhood, identity and the convict prison’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 19:2 (2019), 215–231, https://doi.org/10.1177/1748895818757833, p. 13.
88 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1855 (London: 1856), p. 297.
89 Wiener, Reconstructing the Criminal, pp. 122, 126.
90 Stephen Watson, ‘Malingerers, the “weak-minded” criminal and the “moral imbecile”: How the English prison medical officer became an expert in mental deficiency, 1880–1930’, in Michael Clark and Catherine Crawford (eds), Legal medicine in history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 223–241, p. 224.
91 Report of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Gaol Discipline (London: 1863), pp. 399–400.
92 Anne Hardy, ‘Development of the prison medical service, 1774–1895’, in Richard Creese, W.F. Bynum and J. Bearn (eds), The Health of Prisoners (Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995), pp. 59–82, p. 75.
93 Neil Davie, Tracing the criminal: The rise of scientific criminology in Britain, 1860–1918 (Oxford: The Bardwell Press, 2005), p. 71.
94 LRO, MAG 1/2/2, Minutes of Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 28 October 1870.
95 Mary Gordon, Penal discipline (New York: George Routledge & Sons, 1922), p. 234.
96 Fletcher, Twelve months in an English prison, p. 330.
97 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 259.
98 LB, QS/B/23/3, Birmingham Quarter Sessions, October 1854–June 1859, 18 October 1854.
99 Arthur Griffiths, Memorials of Millbank and chapters in prison history (London: Chapman and Hall, 1884), p. 199, p. 208.
100 Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body’.
101 Mayhew and Binny, The criminal prisons of London, p. 178.
102 For further details of Fry's beliefs about the treatment of female prisoners see Elizabeth Fry, Observations on the visiting, superintendence and government of female prisoners (London: John and Arthur Arch, 1827).
103 Coulson, ‘“In the care of the supposed powerful state”’, pp. 17–36.
104 Fry, Observations on the visiting, pp. 26, 30.
105 Zedner, Women, crime and custody, p. 121.
106 Arthur Griffiths, Secrets of the prison house, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1894), p. 41.
107 Forsythe, ‘Women prisoners and women's penal officials’, p. 534.
108 Johnston, ‘Gendered prison work’, p. 194.
109 Report of the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year 1853 (London: 1854), p. 311. Elizabeth Fry was an early proponent of the belief that women required more feminine moral guidance. See Fry, Observations on the visiting.
110 Zedner, Women, crime and custody, pp. 209–213; Dobash et al., Imprisonment of women, pp. 84–88.
111 Alyson Brown and Emma Clare, ‘A history of experience: Exploring prisoners’ accounts of incarceration’, in Clive Emsley (ed.), The persistent prison: Problems, images and alternatives (London: Francis Boutle, 2005), pp. 49–73, p. 67.
112 Fletcher, Twelve months in an English prison, p. 329.
113 Maybrick, Mrs Maybrick's own story, p. 87.
114 McCall, They always come back, p. 110.
115 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 8 May 1852, 29 October 1853.
116 Johnston, ‘Gendered prison work’, p. 198.
117 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 379.
118 Carpenter, Our convicts, Vol. II, p. 215.
119 Size, Prisons I have known, p. 19.
120 Johnston, ‘Gendered prison work’, p. 200.
121 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 16 November 1850.
122 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 27 September 1851.
123 Maybrick, Mrs Maybrick's own story, p. 87.
124 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 26 October 1850.
125 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 12 October 1850.
126 Amos, ‘The prison treatment of women’, p. 807.
127 Report of the Departmental Committee on Prisons (London: 1895).
128 Deborah Cheney, ‘Dr Mary Louisa Gordon (1861–1941): A feminist approach in prison’, Feminist Legal Studies, 18:2 (2010), 115–136, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-010-9151-4, p. 118.
129 Clive Emsley, Crime and society in twentieth-century England (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 210.
130 Cheney, ‘Dr Mary Louisa Gordon’, p. 117.
131 TNA, HO 45/24643, Prisons and Prisoners: Prison Governors and Medical Officers, appointment of women (1913–1938), letter from Ida Smedley to Reginald McKenna, 25 February 1913.
132 TNA, HO 45/24643, Prisons and Prisoners: Prison Governors and Medical Officers, …, letter from Under Secretary of State to Ida Smedley, 23 April 1913.
133 Joe Sim, Medical power in prisons: The Prison Medical Service in England 1774–1989 (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1990), p. 149.
134 TNA, HO 45/19977, Prisons and Prisoners: Women Medical Officers at Holloway and Aylesbury Prisons (1918–20), letter from Evelyn Ruggles-Brise to Under Secretary of State, 19 June 1918.
135 ‘Women's gaol governor’, Daily Herald (29 July 1921), p. 3.
136 TNA, HO 45/24643, Prisons and Prisoners: Prison Governors and Medical Officers, …, Minutes of the Prison Commission, 26 July 1921.
137 ‘Letter from Florence Underwood’, Manchester Guardian (1 August 1921), p. 4.
138 For details of the introduction of maternity dresses in several prisons see TNA, PCOM 9/1443, Women prisoners: Introduction of maternity dresses.
139 Davies, Bad girls, p. 166.
140 TNA, PCOM 2/164, Millbank Book of Questions and Suggestions 1855–1863, 12 August 1855.
141 Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body’, p. 552.
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Motherhood confined

Maternal health in English prisons, 1853–1955


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