Rachel E. Bennett
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Born in prison
A heritage of woe?

A question that has confronted the modern prison system since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century is whether prison was, or could ever be, an appropriate place for the birth and care of infants. Several voices have long debated the subject, some focused on the issue from the perspective of the institution, including the maternity provisions in place and the impact of infants on the discipline of the prison. Others have focused more upon the benefits for the mothers of having their children with them during their sentence instead of being forced to be separated. As the period progressed, voices claiming to advocate for the infants of prison mothers also became louder. This chapter examines recurring arguments supporting and opposing prison births and reveals how they were interleaved with questions of health, discipline, stigma and choice.

In 1903 Arthur Griffiths lamented that to be born in prison carried with it an ‘inalienable heritage of woe’. 1 Griffiths had been a British military officer before joining the prison service. He served as a governor in several prisons before his appointment as an Inspector of Prisons in 1878. Describing Wormwood Scrubs Prison, he focused especially on those inmates he encountered who were of an ‘entirely distinct class … detained within the walls, and for no fault of their own … the poor, blameless infants who have drawn their first breath in the prison or are so young that they cannot be separated from their mother, and are thus cradled in crime’. 2 Despite the initial pessimistic tone adopted by Griffiths, he captured a long-standing contradiction within debates about prison births and the presence of infants in prisons when he added that, in many cases, ‘the prison born are better off than the free born’. He detailed the care provided to prison babies and the influence of the institution in allowing the development of ‘purer maternal instincts’, facilitated by there being ‘no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray’. 3 While Griffiths’ comments would not have been out of place within the commentaries on domesticity and mothercraft discussed in Chapter 3, they also encapsulate a much deeper, and more contentious, question that has long faced the prison system, namely, whether prison was, or could ever be, an appropriate place for the birth and care of infants.

The nineteenth century witnessed intense debate about providing for the children of the poor and destitute in public institutions and in the community. The workhouse was often at the centre of discussion and has been richly explored in the scholarship examining contemporary questions of state responsibility, parental agency and the development of child welfare agencies and legislation. 4 Those who advocated admitting children to the workhouse argued that their care and upbringing could be properly regulated by the state, but others pointed to the negative physical and moral influence of the workhouse environment and instead supported alternatives such as emigration abroad or boarding out to families in the community. 5 However, the institutionalisation of the children of female prisoners within prisons during the same period has received very minimal examination. This chapter demonstrates that similar debates played out in prisons. There were those who argued that they were places where mothers and their babies could receive medical care, refuge and education as part of heavily regulated regimes. Others warned of the dangers of the moral contamination of children by the physical prison space, their criminal mothers and the other women they would encounter. Nowhere were these debates more intense than when addressing the question of whether babies should be born in prison.

Throughout this period, several voices expatiated on the question of prison births. Some focused on the issue from the perspective of the institution, including the maternity provisions in place and the impact of infants on the discipline of the prison. Others focused more upon the benefits for the mothers of having their children with them during their sentence instead of being forced to separate. As the period progressed, voices claiming to advocate for the infants of prison mothers also became louder. However, it is important to acknowledge here that the mother's voice was often lost within debates about the conditions in which they would give birth. There were some who argued that their prison sentence equated to a forfeit of their right to choose, a question which the chapter delves into in greater depth in relation to the mid-twentieth century. Recurring arguments supporting and opposing prison births were interleaved with questions of health, discipline, stigma and choice. Within this, the use of language was important. As in Griffiths’ commentary, babies born in prison were often described as innocents who found themselves as inmates, not convicted of any crime but destined to be tainted by association with the criminal justice system.

When Brixton was opened as a female convict prison, there were provisions for more than thirty mothers with children. This included babies born in the prison and children brought into prison with their mothers. While babies continued to be born in Brixton until its closure for women in 1869, there were efforts to prevent women taking their children into the prison with them when they were transferred from local prisons. This was most likely to address the issue of limited space to accommodate them and the additional considerations required for their containment. Research has also shown that within his annual reports to the Directors of Convict Prisons, Brixton's Medical Officer, James Rendle, often spoke of how the poor health of many women who entered the prison put pressure on the institution's already stretched resources, as it meant they required accommodation in the infirmary and could not be subject to the ordinary rigours of the prison regime, something which also applied to mothers with babies. 6 In 1854 the Home Office issued instructions to local prisons that no female prisoners with children should be sent to Brixton unless ‘circumstances render it necessary that the mother and child should not be separated’. 7 By the early 1860s, if women were transferred to Brixton from other prisons, older children were to be given to relatives or put into the care of the parish. However, those already in the prison often stayed with their mother until the end of her sentence. When Mayhew and Binny visited Brixton Prison, they met a four-year-old child with his mother who knew no other life beyond its walls. 8

Following Brixton's closure as a female convict prison in 1869, women serving sentences of penal servitude were sent to either Woking, Millbank or Fulham instead. It appears that after the closure of Brixton, in most cases where women were identified as being pregnant at the time of sentencing to a term of penal servitude in a convict prison, they would be held in a local prison until they gave birth and to nurse the child, likely up to the age of nine to twelve months. Helen Johnston identified cases where women who had commenced their sentence in a convict prison were sent back to a local prison to give birth when it was discovered that they were pregnant. 9 Following the birth and nursing period, the women would then be transferred to a convict prison to serve their sentence and their children would be handed over to relatives or sent into the care of the parish in which their mother had been arrested. In local prisons, such arrangements would be made by the matron upon receiving a written certificate from the prison doctor stating that a child could be safely removed from its mother. 10 However, a reading of the available records indicates that the age, and circumstances, at which it was deemed that children could be separated from their mothers varied between different prisons and across this period. An account by a ‘prison matron’, which was likely written by Frederick William Robinson using accounts from those who had worked in the prison system, spoke of children remaining with their mothers beyond infancy, rather than being given over to the care of the parish. The account mused that for these ‘prison flowers’ it was difficult to say which course of action was the more merciful. 11

This contentious question of whether babies should be born or accommodated in prisons was grappled with from social, ideological and medical standpoints by those administering and working in prisons, those advocating for their reform and observers beyond the confines of the prison system. While this chapter examines the arguments levied for and against prison births, it is too simplistic to suggest that there was a clear line separating the opposing sides. Instead, a reading of the myriad of medical, social and ideological justifications and rejections of prison births reveals that the issue posed something of a Gordian knot in a system that sought absolute uniformity but was faced with distinct challenges in containing and caring for this part of the prison population. The chapter examines how those responsible for the management of prisoner health and institutional discipline on a daily basis, and observers both within and beyond the prison service, attempted to untie this often contradictory and contentious knot when justifying and rejecting the practice of prison births, and how these efforts impacted upon the experiences of mothers and their babies in prison.

Prison births and the question of health

Cicely McCall, a psychiatric social worker who worked as an officer in both Holloway and Aylesbury prisons, argued in 1938 that instead of focusing upon the question of a prison address on the birth certificate, the questions of real importance with regard to births in prison were the vital ones of health and the impact of the prison environment upon a mother's personal relationship with her child both before and after birth. 12 Across the period under examination here, many of the women who entered an English prison either pregnant or with infants came from the poorest sections of society. In February 1851, John Lavies, the doctor in Westminster's Tothill Fields Prison, informed the prison's Visiting Justices of the case of a woman who had arrived in the prison dangerously ill, malnourished and close to her confinement. She gave birth only days after commencing her sentence. Lavies reported that the care she had received in the prison had very likely saved her life and that her health had gradually improved. He used her case to stress the need for greater provisions to be put in place to care for the health of people who entered into the prison. 13 Although occurring during the infancy of the modern prison system, the argument made by Lavies in this case captures a question that permeated its subsequent development. Namely, the role, if not obligation, of the prison to provide for the health of those confined within its walls and its ability to do so.

Olwen Purdue has highlighted the medical arguments made against admitting children under the age of five into workhouses, which were deemed to pose a danger to the health of very young children in terms of the development of their teeth, bones and general constitution. 14 However, Lara Marks found that by the 1890s attitudes towards unmarried and poor mothers giving birth in public institutions, including workhouses, had shifted somewhat among Poor Law guardians. They increasingly argued that detaining them for weeks after the birth was beneficial to the mother's health, and also that of her infant. Marks found evidence to suggest that although sanitary conditions remained poor, rates of maternal morbidity were lower, thus justifying the mother's place there for the birth of her child. 15 This positioning of public institutions as places to offer maternity care to the poorest sections of society had already been used in the debate about prison births.

Arguments were repeatedly raised throughout the century following the 1850s that prison was used by the poorest sections of society as a place of refuge to gain food and shelter. Ex-prisoners, both men and women, testified to Hobhouse and Brockway that they sought short-term imprisonment, especially in the winter months. 16 In 1936, twenty-three-year-old May Amos was found guilty of stealing clothes and money from her employer and was sentenced by the Marylebone police court to six months in prison for the theft. She was pregnant at the time. One of the detectives in the case stated that May had seven previous convictions and she had met with difficulties at different hospitals because she was single, and he believed she had committed the crime to get back into prison for the birth of her child. The magistrate gave May an assurance that there were ‘adequate places in prison for looking after expectant mothers’. He added that he was sending her to prison for a period sufficiently long to allow the baby to be born and for her to ‘regain her health and strength’. 17

At the outset of the creation of the modern prison system, medical officers such as John Lavies in Westminster and James Rendle in Brixton had noted the frequency with which pregnant women and those with infants entered prisons, and the poor condition in which they often arrived. They had used this to argue that greater provision was not only required to care for this distinct group of inmates, but was also vital to ensure the more efficient running of the prisons on a daily basis. In the first few months following the allocation of Tothill Fields Prison in Westminster as a prison for women and male juveniles in 1850, Governor A.F. Tracey repeatedly reported to the Visiting Justices of the need to adapt the prison for the reception and containment of women. In a meeting in November 1850, he reported that, following consultation with the prison doctor, a large room had been allocated as a nursery. He added that the ‘probability of a very considerable increase as the winter advances’ in committals of women with infants rendered further adaptations an immediate concern. 18

David Morris, appointed chaplain in Liverpool Prison in 1874, dedicated a substantial section of his first report to the Visiting Justices in October to the condition of mothers bringing young infants with them into the prison. He attributed the crowded nature of the female side of the prison to the living conditions of the working classes in the surrounding community. He criticised the short sentences handed down for crimes such as drunkenness and the lack of any preventive effect on the criminality of these women. He complained that their entering the prison close to the date of their confinement and with young infants converted it into something of a hospital or a refuge, which exacerbated the issue of overcrowding and removed any semblance of deterrence. 19 Reports of a similar nature were repeatedly raised from within different female prisons, but were largely not properly addressed at policy level. However, alongside complaints and concerns about the pressures that containing this group of prisoners posed to the institution there were enduring arguments that prison played a vital role in caring for these women and their infants.

Even Griffiths, who viewed a prison birth as a ‘heritage of woe’, acceded that prison nurseries, ‘though no doubt still a cell’, were bright, clean spaces where prison babies were given wholesome food, received the care of matrons and visitors alike and were able to sleep in a comfortable cot – amenities they may not have had if born outside of the prison. 20 Writing of the many women she encountered serving sentences in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Holloway prisons, Mary Size stated that the women serving short sentences, often less than three months, brought ‘ill-nourished little creatures, bearing the stamp of poverty and neglect’ into prison with them. However, during their short confinement babies were given care and proper feeding and Size noted that their health often improved. 21 McCall wrote that in many cases it was likely that mothers and babies had better medical attention in prison than most of them would have at home. Although critical of what she believed were systemic missed opportunities to achieve effective reformatory intervention while women served their prison sentence, McCall praised the daily arrangements in place for mothers and their babies. Women did not have to do hard work during late pregnancy, as they may have done on the outside, they had time to recover from the birth and their children were looked after in the prison crèche while the women carried out their daily work. In the evening, babies slept in a cot beside their mother. There was also a sense of community within the prison, where every woman in the prison knew the names of the prison babies and when a mother walked down the prison corridors with her child, ‘every head is turned and every woman makes the same admiring comments that she would make standing at her own door in a back street tenement dwelling’. 22

In addition to those who stressed the role prisons played in providing at least some care to the pregnant women and those with young infants who entered them, others developed this point further to argue that prison sentences were opportunities for greater medical intervention in the case of mothers and their infants. William Sullivan, part of the medical staff at Liverpool's Walton Gaol and later the medical officer at Holloway, took great interest in the relationship between maternal inebriety and the health of children. In the late 1890s he undertook a study involving 120 female prisoners in Liverpool. Collectively they had given birth to 600 children, some during prison sentences and others in between shorter-term prison sentences. Of these 600 infants, only 265 had lived over two years. Sullivan lamented that the majority of women, including those who were pregnant, entered Liverpool to serve short sentences and thus there was limited time to exercise any perceptible influence on their inebriety. 23

Drunk and disorderly behaviour had accounted for around 22 per cent of convictions where women ended up serving shorter sentences in local prisons. This had risen to 37 per cent by 1890, around the time of Sullivan's study. 24 To support his argument for longer prison sentences to achieve intervention in cases of female inebriates, especially mothers, Sullivan detailed the case of a woman who had been an alcoholic for over ten years. She had served previous short prison sentences, in between which she had given birth to four children. However, they were all either stillborn or died in very early infancy. When she entered Liverpool Prison to serve a longer sentence, she was pregnant again. This time she spent the majority of her pregnancy in prison and gave birth behind bars, and the child survived. Sullivan claimed to have documented several similar cases to justify not only the practice of women giving birth in prison, but also the detaining of mothers and their babies beyond their immediate confinement so as to ensure provisions for their longer-term health. 25

The positioning of the prison as an institution to not only provide medical care to mothers and their infants in prison, but also regulate the relationship between them was an argument that developed further in the early twentieth century as the question of whether babies should be born and confined in prisons at all became more greatly contested. At the time of journalist Annesley Kenealy's visit to Holloway Prison in 1905, babies were generally handed out to family or friends, or into the care of the parish if no one could take them, when they reached the age of twelve months. However, if a child was deemed to be in ill health or malnourished or as having been subject to neglect before they entered the prison, the doctor could recommend that they be kept there for longer under medical supervision. Kenealy used this to further support her observation that caring for babies in prison provided them with an element of protection and, by extension, the regulation of their mother's interactions with them. 26 Well into the twentieth century, in some cases children as old as three remained with their mothers. 27

The medical officer in Lancaster's local prison recounted a case in 1910 of an unmarried woman who was serving a nine-month sentence for neglecting her infant. She had fifty-four previous convictions for drunkenness, theft and neglect. During her latest sentence her infant accompanied her into the prison and was taken into the care of the prison staff. 28 Similarly, the medical officer at Holloway Prison recalled a case in the early 1920s of a woman serving a sentence for neglecting her seven children. She brought the youngest infant into prison with her. The medical officer took the infant into the care of the prison as it was found to be underweight and malnourished. 29 Despite intervention in the care of these infants for the benefit of their health while in prison with their mothers, the influence of the prison was limited, because at the end of their sentence mothers walked back out of the prison gates with their infants. However, cases such as these provided further support to the arguments for greater education in domesticity and mothercraft, as detailed in Chapter 3. They also reveal how questions of providing for, and regulating, motherhood in prison intersected with issues of middle-class ideals of motherhood, a point to which the chapter now turns.

A touch of something human: the impact of babies on the management of prisons

In addition to addressing the question of prison births from the perspective of health and medical care, prison staff, reformers and commentators also spoke of the broader impact of babies upon the management of the prison institution and female prisoner behaviour. Thomas Carter, a chaplain in Liverpool Prison, commented in January 1872 on the hundreds of women who were committed to the prison time and again for short sentences. He contemplated that while ‘it may be just to drive them off the streets; it would be generous and humane to tell them what to do and show them how to do it’ in order for them to return to their lives upon release. 30 Chapter 3 explored the attempts to reclaim women, or ‘show them how to do it’, through education in domesticity and mothercraft during their prison sentence. The present chapter enhances this by demonstrating the importance placed upon the presence of babies and young children in the prison environment, including their ability to promote the more humane environment advocated by Carter.

In her evidence to the Departmental Committee on the Education and Moral Instruction of Prisoners in Local and Convict Prisons in 1896, Mrs Sheldon Amos, who for some time had taken a great interest in prisons and had visited several, stated that ‘it seems to me you should encourage the tender side in a woman instead of crushing it, and in this connexion I have been very much struck by the good effect of babies in prison’. Despite prison placing restrictions on womanliness, Amos talked about many women being better off there as ‘they are saved from bad and brutal husbands, they have not the worry of life, and they have quiet undisturbed nights’. 31 While of course we must acknowledge that for many women a prison sentence was not the beneficial respite suggested by Amos, the argument that caring for their babies behind bars was an opportunity to save mothers from themselves, and perhaps from their lives outside, is key to our understanding of the intersections between motherhood, criminality and imprisonment.

Accommodation in the prison nursery and having the opportunity to care for their children was believed to be a benefit, or perhaps even a privilege, for prison mothers throughout this period, and one that could be taken away if women did not adhere to the prison rules. Alongside this, the prison nursery was described as a place of care, if not a home, for prison babies. But it was also sometimes posited as a place to regulate motherhood and, where necessary, safeguard prison babies from their mothers. When journalist Annesley Kenealy visited Holloway in 1905, she remarked in detail on the prison crèche. She stated that while prisons would rarely be considered to be desirable places of residence, in the case of the prison babies it was the ‘only happy, comfortable home many of them are likely to experience’. The babies slept in cots in their mothers’ cells at night and spent their days in the crèche, where their mothers were permitted to visit them twice per day. They were well fed, regularly weighed to ensure they were putting on weight and provided with comfortable clothes, cots and bedding. They were also believed to benefit from the company of other infants and the care given to them by the prison staff. Crucially, according to Kenealy, prison crèches served as a vital protection for the infant prison population, not only from the often harsh realities they would face outside, but also from the neglect of their mothers in the prison itself. 32 Although accounts such as this one provide valuable descriptions of the daily running of prison crèches, we cannot accept the almost idyllic scene painted by Kenealy entirely at face value. Kenealy's observations come from a piece she wrote for The Lady's Realm, a contemporary illustrated magazine with a middle- to upper-class readership. Her article was written at a time when Edwardian health politics repeatedly raised concerns about the ability of poorer women to care for their infants, as discussed in detail in Chapter 3.

Throughout this period, treatises on the benefits of having babies in prisons were shot through with commentaries on class, gender and crime. Henry Maudsley, a psychiatrist who wrote widely on moral degeneracy as a cause of crime, argued that when a woman sank into criminality and ended up in prison she lost all sense of shame, modesty and womanliness. 33 The Reverend William Morrison, a long-serving prison chaplain, wrote that child-rearing among the poorer classes could actually mitigate against female tendencies towards crime and foster in women the qualities of compassion and altruism. 34 He went further, to argue that inculcating the qualities of motherhood in prison could be a check on the degrading effects of industrialism and poor living conditions upon their more feminine nature that women would face upon their return to society. 35

During their visit to Brixton, Henry Mayhew and John Binny remarked that the prison nursery was ‘the most touching portion of the female convict prison’ and a place in which tolerance and goodness could be learnt. 36 Upon witnessing the daily running of the nursery in Tothill Fields, they stated that even the sternest of observers would ‘tingle with compassion to note the wretched mother caressing the little things’ and that for many women these infants were the only thing that ‘made life bearable to them’. They continued, ‘the women in the nursery do not glory in their shame as some others do’. Instead, they argued, motherhood made them feel the degradation of their position and, perhaps, made them more malleable to reform. 37 Despite the importance placed upon motherhood as a reformatory tool, a reading of debates about having babies in the prison environment reveals that there was acknowledgement of additional benefits to the institution in terms of discipline and also the management of prisoner health.

Writing of her time in Holloway Prison following her involvement in the suffragette campaign for the right to vote in the early twentieth century, Constance Lytton spoke of a feeling that overcame many women in prison, namely that of being forgotten about and cut off from everyone outside. 38 This feeling of separation and being cut off was perhaps further exacerbated for mothers who gave birth in prison and for those whose children were taken away at a certain age, and for the mothers who left children on the outside. In 1895 Dr Robert Glover, Medical Inspector of Local Prisons and Superintending Medical Officer of Convict Prisons, gave evidence to the Gladstone Committee, an enquiry into issues such as accommodation, labour and discipline in prisons. Glover recounted reports of women who had given birth while in local prisons suffering from depression when their infants were taken away at around nine months of age. When asked about the power of the prison medical officer in such matters, he replied that in extreme cases they could recommend that the child remain in the prison for longer with their mother. 39 The present study has found evidence of some children remaining with their mothers beyond the age one year, but countless others suffered the pain of being separated from their children, either at the point of entering the prison or when their children were sent outside.

Basil Thomson, a former Deputy Governor in Liverpool Prison, remarked in 1925 that having babies in prisons caused disorganisation among the staff and the prisoners. He added that their presence could cause excitement, but also jealousy, among the other women prisoners, some of whom may have been mothers themselves with children on the outside. 40 However, in their extensive examination of conditions in English prisons in 1922, ex-prisoners and reformers Hobhouse and Brockway wrote of the potential remedial effects of having babies in the prison. They stated that the advantages to the mother of their presence in the prison were obvious, but added that ‘into the cold existence of other women too, the children bring a touch of something human. The crowing of a baby breaks the silence, a scrap of ribbon on its sleeve marks a touch of unwonted colour, and to many women the mere sight of a child is a relief.’  41 While this study is primarily focused upon the experiences of mothers who gave birth to their babies in prison or brought in young children with them, it is important to acknowledge that many women had been separated from their children on the outside. The impact of this separation has been examined in the more recent history of female imprisonment. 42 However, it has a longer history of impacting upon the experiences of incarcerated women and factoring into debates about the running of female prisons, including in terms of the management of female prisoner behaviour and health.

Mary, a woman serving a nine-month sentence in Westminster Prison in 1881, was placed in the prison's sick cells by the doctor after he concluded that she was suffering from temporary insanity due to the effects of being separated from her three children, who were outside. While in her infirmary cell Mary, like the other women in the prison, was supposed to spend a substantial amount of time picking oakum each day. However, she instead made toys for her children. Upon her return to her normal cell she was given another monotonous labour task, of sorting waste paper, but she managed to set a stack of paper on fire in her cell and was again placed in the infirmary for much of her remaining sentence. 43 Recent research into the management of female prisoner health in the convict prison estate in the mid-nineteenth century revealed that concern for their children on the outside, and the heavy restrictions placed upon communication, prompted violent conduct in some women. The research argued that a belief that this behaviour stemmed from the mothers’ pains of separation from their children, as opposed to deliberate infractions of the prison rules, meant that it was more likely to be responded to with medical treatment than disciplinary sanction. 44

In terms of the management of behaviour in female prisons, Kenealy observed the benefits offered by having babies and young children within the walls of the prison. Female prisoners could be placed on duty in the prison crèche to help care for the babies during the day while their mothers carried out their own prison labour. These women, Kenealy had been informed by one of the prison warders, were selected ‘by reason of their love for little children’, and, crucially, their good conduct. 45 A Lady Visitor recounted to Hobhouse and Brockway the case of a woman named Alice. She was twenty-eight years of age and had already served several short sentences for drunkenness. She was described as ‘a bright and pretty girl but unmanageable sometimes’. She was subject to ungovernable fits of rage where she screamed, sang songs loudly and banged on her cell door. She had been sent to a punishment cell and placed in a strait jacket, but to no avail. When attempting to identify a means to calm Alice, the matron found that she talked of longing to spend time with babies and young children. Following consultation between the matron and the medical officer, it was decided that Alice would be allowed to spend time with the prison babies. When an improvement in her conduct was noted, she was given the job of walking the toddlers around the exercise yard on certain days of the week. Alice told the matron that when she left prison she would have a child of her own. 46 Although Alice does not appear again in the records, and it is not clear whether she had children on the outside that she had been separated from, or perhaps had lost children prior to her commission of the crime that led her to prison, her case offers a valuable insight into the broader impact of children in the prison environment.

‘It is not the baby's fault’: balancing stigma and health

Alice Cook, of no fixed address, was sentenced at the North London Police Court in July 1939 to four months in prison for stealing clothing and £148 from her employer. During sentencing, the magistrate Mr Basil Watson stated, ‘you are going to have a baby and you must receive proper attention. Your baby will be born in prison. It is not a reflection on the baby. It is not the baby's fault.’  47 Watson's comments offer a glimpse into the complex and contradictory question of whether babies should be born in prison. He was acknowledging that Alice would receive medical care in prison, maybe better than she might expect outside, and perhaps using this point to justify the custodial sentence despite his reticence in condemning her child to a prison birth. Again, the use of language is important here, as Watson states that ‘it is not the baby's fault’, and stresses that the circumstances of their birth should not be a reflection upon them. However, this chapter demonstrates that the question of stigma was a vital one in shaping debates about prison births. For some, both within and beyond the prison system, it eclipsed considerations of medical care, maternal choice and the relationship between a mother and her baby.

In her study of the social and legal impact of illegitimacy upon mothers and children in the late Victorian period, Ginger Frost argued that the ‘crimes’ of the mother, of engaging in sexual intercourse out of wedlock and bearing an illegitimate child, served to exclude that child from being part of the highly idealised Victorian notion of the family. 48 It was denied the name of its father, and the social and legal protections that accompanied this, and in many cases it was excluded from the broader family unit if its mother did not have, or was excluded from, her own family. For the children, both legitimate and illegitimate, of women who committed and were convicted of legally defined and punishable crimes by the courts, their mother's imprisonment impacted on them in a myriad of ways. Some children were left in the care of their fathers, the broader family or the parish; others were sent to the workhouse; while some younger children and infants accompanied their mothers into the prison. While each scenario arguably carried with it an element of exclusion from the Victorian family ideal, this chapter primarily focuses upon one group of children, namely those who were born behind bars, although some of the evidence presented also discusses those infants who were taken into the prison with their mothers.

In the 1860s and 1870s, social reformer Isabella Tod campaigned for legislation to compel the Boards of Guardians administering the Poor Law to remove children from workhouses as, she argued, containing them there was ‘an outrage on nature’ and a danger to their physical and moral health. 49 A case highlighted by the Birmingham Petty Sessions in April 1896 further illuminated this issue in prisons. Archie Callaghan, a child under the age of nine years, was convicted of the theft of a spade and sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment and then five years in a reformatory school. The Visiting Justices of Birmingham's Winson Green Prison argued that Archie should not be in the prison, as ‘there are no arrangements in the prison here for the care of children and the placing of this child in a cell by himself for the time of his detention could not possibly be adopted’. They recommended that Archie be transferred either straight to a reformatory school or to a workhouse instead, a recommendation that appears to have been upheld. 50 This case is interesting, as it demonstrates not only the importance of the use of language, referring to Archie as a child instead of a prisoner, but also the argument that the rigours and environment of the prison were not appropriate for someone of his young age. This argument was one that was even more pronounced in the case of the children of prisoners, but arguably more complex because the question of their containment was also bound up with issues of maternal health and discipline as well as logistical questions and those of choice.

Chaplain David Morris went beyond complaining of the spatial and physical challenges caused by the overcrowding of Liverpool Prison in the 1870s, to stress the moral danger to the young infants in prison with their mother. He particularly stressed the case of a woman who had frequently accompanied her own mother into prison as a child to illustrate the dangers of moral contagion. At the age of twenty-eight she had already been committed to Liverpool thirty-five times, bringing her own young children in with her on the majority of occasions. 51 Recidivism and the cyclical nature of short-term imprisonment were of great concern within commentaries on the efficacy of the prison system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. 52 While research has examined how habitual female criminality and inebriety were believed to pose especial danger to the family unit, debates about prison births and the impact of the prison environment upon infants, including the question of stigma, have been largely overlooked. 53

Mary Carpenter, an educational and social reformer who had visited women's prisons, provided a detailed testimony of her visit to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in 1862. She described feeling shocked that infants should be ‘bred in a gaol’. 54 Carpenter was a supporter of theories of physiognomy that explored the relationship between an individual's physical appearance and their criminal tendencies. 55 She spoke of the dangers of moral contagion where children were surrounded by faces exhibiting ‘every species of hideous vice and degradation’. Even when children experienced their mother's love, this was tainted by the wickedness of the other women, many of them mothers. She used these theories to argue that children were in danger of developing criminal habits if left under the care and influence of their mothers. Carpenter raised this concern, but recalled being assured by a prison officer that the children were not negatively impacted because they were not conscious of their position of being in prison. 56 However, even if the infants themselves were not conscious of the circumstances of their birth, those debating the matter pointed to the potential long-term impact in the eyes of others.

Following his visit to Brixton Convict Prison in 1856, Henry Mayhew wrote an article about the ‘convict nursery’ for the Cheltenham Chronicle. Upon meeting the mothers and their children living and working in the nursery, Mayhew praised the provisions for them and noted that the nursery was a place where toleration and goodness could be learnt. However, he questioned the lives the children would lead once they left the prison. He contemplated whether they would have the same opportunities as ‘the honest man's child’ or if they would meet with ‘gibes in years to come for their felon extraction’. He put it to his readers, ‘would you like to take them into your household and your family, when they grow up, to tend your own little ones?’  57

In 1901, in an attempt to avoid the stigma of a prison birth, the Home Office issued an order to all prison governors dictating that the prison address must not appear on a child's birth certificate. Instead, the street name where the prison was located would be used. This was referred to as a ‘pious fraud’. 58 This is an important moment in the history of prison births, as it marked at least some acknowledgement on the part of the prison hierarchy that to be born in prison had the potential to negatively impact upon the children of female prisoners. However, crucially, this harm was not believed to stem from the prison itself but, rather, from perceptions and attitudes beyond the prison gates. As the early twentieth century progressed, debates about the provisions in place to adequately care for mothers and babies continued, with additional measures being taken to improve this care. However, even when acknowledging, and even praising, improvements in the standard of care, and the fact that the prison address would not appear on the birth certificate, for many the stigma of a prison birth was inescapable.

Alice Hawkins, a suffragette from Leicester who served five terms in prison for acts committed as part of the Women's Social and Political Union's militant campaigns for the vote, raised the issue of prison births when chronicling the plight of women in prison. Writing of her time in Holloway in February 1907, she recalled observing women with babies in the garden. At this time babies born in prison remained with their mothers up to the age of twelve months. Hawkins acknowledged that they appeared to be well looked after but lamented that ‘a young life just born into the world should have to spend its first months of life in prison’. She added that this ‘was one more injustice added to our cry for the right to stop some of these horrible things being allowed’. 59 Hobhouse and Brockway included an account from an ex-prison matron in their examination of the prison system in the early 1920s. She recalled the case of a woman who brought a baby aged nine weeks into prison with her to serve a six-month sentence for fortune telling. The woman had another five older children who remained with their father on the outside. The matron felt it was ‘an abominable thing’ to condemn the youngest child to pass the first six months of its life behind bars. 60 She was alluding to a belief that the child would be marked out from its siblings due to its association with the prison system on account of its mother's criminality.

In 1937 Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, gave a speech at the opening of the Elizabeth Fry Exhibition in Norwich. A great, great nephew of Fry, and a long-term advocate for penal reform, he addressed the question of prison births. Hoare pointed to the fact that the prison address had not appeared on the birth certificates of babies born in prison for decades and that mothers themselves received a good standard of care, arguing that, on balance, the present policy was the best one. 61 When highlighting the standard of medical care, he captured a long-standing debate in the history of incarcerating expectant mothers, namely, whether prisons offered medical care women would not have had access to on the outside or if a prison birth could potentially cause harm to the mother and child.

One such case where these debates came to the fore was that of Florence Osborne. In March 1892 she pleaded guilty to larceny and perjury and was sentenced to nine months ‘with such hard labour as is consistent with her weak condition’. 62 She was weeks away from giving birth. Her husband, Captain Osborne, immediately began a petition for her release on medical grounds. He sent a petition to the Home Secretary stating that she was hysterical at the thought of giving birth in prison and submitted evidence of her history of being subject to attacks characteristic of a highly neurotic temperament and culminating in outbreaks of hysteron-epilepsy. Captain Osborne requested that the Home Secretary use his power to order Florence's release on medical grounds, as her ‘continued imprisonment might seriously imperil her life or the life of a child about to be born’. 63 In connection with her case, the BMJ published several reports which were used in support of Osborne's petition and were signed by many eminent leaders of the medical profession in London, attesting to the danger to life likely to accrue from the imprisonment of Mrs Osborne over the period of her confinement. An article on 16 April 1892 stated the belief that her further detention and the stress of a prison birth would expose her nervous system to such strain as might well terminate in puerperal mania and endanger her life and that of the child. Attesting signatures included those of consulting surgeons at St Bartholomew's Hospital, University College Hospital and St Mary's Hospital. 64

An order for Florence's immediate release on medical grounds was made in early May. Following her release, it was reported that ‘it will readily be believed that both the governor of the gaol and the infirmary department … are not sorry to be spared the responsibility’ attached to her case. The article continued that if her life and that of her child had truly been endangered by her continued imprisonment there was no complaint to be made. However, it stated that ‘something less than justice had been done’, and warned that if such releases became common practice where female prisoners could be relieved of a large proportion of their punishment ‘because they are in a certain condition, the results might be very undesirable indeed’. 65

The early twentieth century witnessed several cases where pregnant women in prison and their families petitioned the Home Office to be temporarily removed to an outside hospital for their confinement. These cases were comparable to that of Florence Osborne in that they sought to avoid a prison birth. However, the petitions primarily centred upon the question of stigma and were more overt in their opposition to this consequence of a prison birth than questioning the health implications for the mother, as in Florence's case, or offering criticism of the care the women would receive in prison.

The case of Ivy Cusden in 1924 provides an interesting case study of how health-centred debates have complex broader resonances, and reveals an important interplay between choice, medical care and entitlement to health as well as perceptions of the social ramifications of being born in prison. Ivy was twenty years old when she met Morris Jones, a man who promised to marry her when she announced that she was pregnant. However, it later transpired that he had married another woman, named Mabel, who found out about Ivy and began to spread ‘dreadful tales of her character’. Ivy threw sulphuric acid in Mabel's face and was sentenced to eighteen months in prison at the Berkshire Assizes. Ivy was around five months pregnant when she began her prison sentence.

Petitions were immediately sent to the Home Office following Ivy's sentencing in January 1924, asking for arrangements to be made to ensure that she would be removed to an outside hospital entirely disassociated from penal life for one month to allow for the birth and her recovery. The petition claimed to be signed by 53,000 people in support of Ivy's family and was sent to Home Secretary Arthur Henderson from the Reading Trades Council. It stressed that their chief concern in sending it was focused on the unborn child rather than Ivy herself. The petition stressed sympathy with Mrs Jones, the victim of Ivy's crime, but added that the child too was blameless in the crime. 66 Reporting upon the petition, one newspaper entreated the Home Secretary to show mercy to the unborn child, lamenting, ‘can there be any handicap in this life more cruel than the dreadful fact of being brought into the world by a convicted parent behind prison walls?’ The article continued by stating that English law forbids a child under seven being sentenced to prison under any circumstances, as children cannot judge between right and wrong and must therefore not be exposed to the stigma of life behind bars. 67

The Criminal Justice Administration Act of 1914 enabled the Home Secretary to order that a prisoner might be taken to an outside hospital if they could not be adequately treated in the prison. However, the usual reasons for removal on the grounds of health, namely urgency and necessity, were not believed to be readily applicable to confinements, although there was some precedent for releasing women early on the medical grounds of pregnancy. The evidence gathered in this research suggests that in the majority of cases such release was granted if the woman's expected date of confinement coincided with her release date, to avoid her being detained beyond her original sentence. This appears to be particularly evident in cases of advanced pregnancy where women had been sentenced to short sentences, usually of less than three months. In 1904 Durham Prison reported to the Prison Commissioners that in the preceding year they had released ten women on account of advanced pregnancy, all but one of whom had been sentenced to less than one month in prison, and it was believed to be expedient to release them early, in some cases after only a matter of days. In the same year Holloway Prison reported eleven such cases. 68

In the two years prior to March 1924, forty babies were born in the eighteen prisons that held female prisoners. However, an additional twenty-seven women were discharged on account of their advanced stage of pregnancy, because if their confinement took place within prison it was likely that they would be detained beyond the term of their original sentence. 69 In these cases it is clear that early release was more dependent upon the length of the original sentence and the timing of the woman's confinement, as opposed to more detailed examinations of her health or the issue of the stigma that many feared would be attached to a child born in prison. The medical report which would be completed by the prison doctor when pregnancy was identified would be sent to the Home Office only if it was deemed probable that giving birth during her sentence would mean a woman was detained longer than her original sentence.

In Ivy Cusden's case, despite it being clear that her sentence was long enough to cover the remainder of her pregnancy and her confinement, the public interest in the case prompted the Home Office to seek regular reports on her condition from Holloway's doctor. Shortly after her committal, he reported that he had every reason to expect a normal confinement. He added that Ivy had been placed in the lying-in ward of the prison hospital upon reception so that her weight, food intake and sleeping patterns could be closely monitored. 70 It was the usual practice that women would be moved to the prison hospital in the final month of pregnancy, if at all. Ivy was most likely placed there from the outset of her sentence due to the intense interest her case had generated. In March the Daily Mail reported that the petition was still under consideration by Home Secretary Henderson, due to the serious nature of Ivy's crime, but expressed hope that, although Ivy was reportedly being properly cared for in prison, the focus would be upon her child. 71 This is a crucial point to note because, while some of the correspondence sent to the Home Office mentioned how Ivy herself was anxious at the thought of having her baby in prison, the calls for mercy in the form of granting her temporary release for her confinement were centred on the innocent child, as opposed to the mother who had committed the crime. This marked a difference from Florence Osborne's case, where, although the health of her child was mentioned, it was Florence's own mental state that was more greatly highlighted. In April, the Home Secretary's office formally responded to the petition from Reading to state that the Home Secretary had no power to release Ivy temporarily in order that her child might be born outside of the prison and, after careful consideration of her case and the medical reports, he had concluded that it would be neither justified nor consistent with the public good to recommend the great reduction of her sentence which would be required to ensure her discharge before her confinement. 72 Ivy gave birth to a daughter on 20 May, with the mother and child reported to be doing well and released at the expiration her sentence. 73

A case that occurred in the early 1930s reignited the debate not only about prison births but also about the treatment of expectant mothers by the criminal justice system. Olive Kathleen Wise was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in January 1931 for the murder of her nine-month-old son Reginald. Olive had separated from her husband in 1928, and he had left her to support their three children. She later met Alfred Wheatley, with whom she had Reginald. Alfred stated his intention to marry Olive if she could prove that she was free to marry. However, in the meantime Olive had struggled to feed and care for her children. On Christmas Eve of 1930 she went to her neighbour's house and claimed that she had killed Reginald by placing him in the oven. He was found to have died from coal gas poisoning. At her trial one of the detectives in the case stated that when she was arrested, she stated that she ‘must have been mad to do it’. 74 Olive was found guilty and, despite the jury's recommendation to mercy, she was sentenced to death. However, Olive was around eight months pregnant at the time and thus, on her defence counsel's application, the judge stayed her execution and a jury of matrons was empanelled to ascertain her condition. It was reported that it had been many years since a jury of matrons had been empanelled at the Old Bailey. 75

Since the thirteenth century, women could be empanelled to sit on a jury of matrons. Their purpose was to discern whether a woman convicted of a capital offence was ‘quick with child’, that is, whether the child had started to move in the womb. If a woman successfully ‘pled the belly’ her execution would be stayed until after she had given birth. In many cases, the original death sentence would then be commuted to either transportation to America and, later, Australia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, or imprisonment thereafter. Kevin Crosby notes that there had long been a distaste among judges in criminal cases for formally sentencing a pregnant woman to death, knowing that the sentence would not be carried out. 76 Although rare, these cases continued into the early twentieth century.

Demands were made from several quarters for Olive's immediate reprieve. Mr Valentine La Touche McEntee, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, petitioned the Home Secretary on her behalf and stated his view that ‘it is really barbarous to sentence her at all, and if the law is as it appears to be from the action of the judge, then some amendment of the law ought to be made so that no woman could be sentenced until after she has given birth’. 77 Olive's capital sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life on 19 January 1931, three days after her original conviction. 78 This case is interesting for several reasons. It not only brought into sharp focus the need to change legal practices surrounding the treatment of pregnant women convicted of capital crimes but also reignited debates about the broader treatment by the criminal justice system of pregnant women and those who gave birth while in prison.

Olive's case prompted Edith Picton-Turbervill, MP for The Wrekin in Shropshire, to introduce a Private Member's Bill to abolish the death penalty for pregnant women. 79 During the second reading of the Bill, which would eventually become the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act of 1931, Lord Sankey, the Lord Chancellor, cited the case of Olive Wise as an example where the judge and all present had to go through the trying ordeal of formally sentencing the woman to death even though everyone in the court knew the sentence would not be carried out. He labelled this as a ‘solemn farce’ that brought no benefit to the administration of the law. 80 The Act ended the formal recording of the death sentence against pregnant women convicted of capital crimes. Where a woman convicted of an offence punishable by death was found in accordance with the Act to be pregnant, the sentence passed against her would instead be penal servitude for life. The Act also abandoned the empanelling of a jury of twelve matrons to ascertain whether a woman was pregnant. Instead, this would be decided by the jury in the case, based on expert medical evidence put before them. 81

Following the commuting of Olive's death sentence to one of penal servitude for life, public interest in her case did not wane. Instead, interest in the case refocused on the question of whether she should be forced to give birth behind bars. Mr McEntee asked the Home Secretary whether he would consider arranging for the removal of Olive to a private maternity home for the period of her confinement and whether he would also consider her early release from prison so that her child would not have the stigma of association with the criminal justice system. Mr Short, the Under-Secretary to the Home Office, answered that there was no power to order this removal, as proper provision was made in the prison for her necessary care. 82

Olive gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, on 6 February 1931 in Holloway Prison hospital. Miss Madeline Crisp, Olive's sister, told reporters that she and their father had been informed of the birth by the prison and intended to visit the following week. She added, ‘my father was naturally a little disappointed that the children were born in the prison hospital’ after all the efforts that had been made to have Olive removed. 83 The twins were baptised by the prison chaplain days later. 84 Mrs Clynes, the wife of the Home Secretary, visited Olive in Holloway the week after the birth. She described how Olive was ‘in a bright, cheerful room with about six other women’ and attested that ‘she is having every attention’ to meet her needs. 85 However, this still did not end calls for Olive's release.

Petitions were continually sent to the Home Office asking for her release, in a campaign led by McEntee and Olive's family. On 12 February 1931, only days after the birth of her babies in Holloway, Mr Greenwood, the Minister of Health, was asked in Parliament about Olive's plight in the months before she committed her crime. It was noted how Olive had previously been in receipt of indoor and outdoor relief but had been unable to obtain help in the days leading up to Reginald's death, which had prompted her to take such desperate action. 86 Alongside the circumstances surrounding the commission of her crime, the prospect of a better life thereafter was also levied in support of petitions for Olive's early release from prison, namely that Alfred Wheatley had visited Olive in prison and stated his intention to marry her and help to care for the babies.

Olive was released from prison in July 1932, having served seventeen months of her life sentence. 87 In September 1932, Olive married Alfred Wheatley in the Stratford Register Office. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported upon comments made by McEntee, who described how their romance and Alfred's determination to marry Olive had only been strengthened by the ‘terrible ordeal’ of her imprisonment and the birth of the twins behind bars. 88 Of course Olive was not unique in that the length of her prison sentence would inevitably mean she would give birth in prison. Similarly, hers was not the only case to attract the attention of the Home Secretary and require their office to justify a refusal to temporarily release women to give birth, on account that there was maternity provision in female prisons. However, the decision to release her after only seventeen months of a sentence of penal servitude for life was likely swayed by the wide publicity and attention that her case generated, and her place within public and parliamentary debate about the treatment of pregnant women convicted of capital crimes. Some of the coverage of the case was also shaped not by the crime Olive had committed but by the dire circumstances that had prompted it. In turn, reports on efforts to first prevent Olive's giving birth in prison and then secure her early release centred on the fact that Alfred wanted to marry her, and her twins, despite their prison birth, would have a respectable family unit.

Prison births: should the mother have the last word?

During the Second World War, the number of pregnant women released early on medical grounds increased. Although officially this was a practice intended to prevent women being detained beyond the expiration of their sentence, it may also have been the case that the shortages of staff and provisions in prisons during the war played a part in the decision-making process. In 1943 the figure was sixty-four women, as compared to the pre-war figure of twenty-eight in 1938. 89 The figure remained high in the wake of the war as conditions in women's prisons occupied a greater place on the agenda of the prison service and again prompted extensive outside commentary. Despite the efforts to improve the education and training of women in domesticity and mothercraft, detailed in Chapter 3, the contentious question of whether babies should be born in prison at all continued to rage on. Similar to earlier cases and debates, a reading of government and public discourse reveals that it was often the case that the standard of medical care in prisons was not at the centre of criticism of prison births. Rather, it was the issue of the right of the child not to be stigmatised. However, in the mid-twentieth century an additional question dominated the argument, namely the extent to which women in prison had the right to choose the conditions in which they gave birth.

In April 1948 Tom Garnett, a city councillor and Justice of the Peace in Sheffield, asked the question, ‘how long will the British public tolerate the brutal system under which children, born of mothers undergoing a prison sentence, are condemned to go through life carrying the stigma of their place of birth attached to them?’  90 In June 1948 in the House of Lords, Lord Llewelin argued for an extension to the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act of 1931 to now also allow the Home Secretary the power to release a pregnant woman from prison for the duration of her pregnancy so that the child was not born in prison; then, if necessary, the woman could be taken back to prison. 91 In answer to these debates, Section 60 of the 1948 Criminal Justice Act empowered the Home Secretary to authorise the temporary release to an outside hospital or maternity home of any pregnant woman who wished for her confinement to take place outside the prison. It would be the practice for women to be asked well before their due date whether they would prefer to be removed to an outside hospital so that suitable arrangements could be made.

Despite heaping high praise on the facilities in place to care for expectant mothers and mothers with babies in Holloway, Mary Size commented that, following 1948 Act, the majority of women were glad of the opportunity to save their children from the stigma of a prison birth. 92 This is interesting, as it was the birth itself that was the source of stigma, despite acknowledgements of the beneficial health care and provisions to be found in the prison. However, there continued to be some women who preferred to give birth within the confines of the prison. This prompted intense debate. A report from Manchester's Strangeways Prison detailed that since the Criminal Justice Act had come into operation, eleven women had stated their preference to remain within the prison for the birth of their baby, as they ‘had confidence in the prison staff’. In response to this, a meeting of Manchester City Magistrates in January 1949 stressed their determination to persuade the Home Secretary to take more urgent steps to prevent prison births. 93 In a letter to Home Secretary Chuter Ede in September 1948, Jean Hardy, secretary of the Farnworth Labour Women's Section, stated their belief that no baby should be born in prison. The letter stressed that ‘we are not concerned at this point with the comfort of the mothers and contend that all women should be removed from the prison precincts for the period of their confinement, irrespective of their desires’. 94

When refuting the argument that the stigma was obviated by the prison address not appearing on the birth certificate, Manchester Councillor Arthur Donovan recounted the case of a Manchester businessman who went to visit his birthplace, listed as No. 1 and 3 Southall Street, and how this was actually the address of Strangeways Prison. Donovan stated the man had been ‘mentally wrecked by the news’ of his start in life. 95 He told the Manchester Justices’ Annual Meeting in January 1950 that it was wrong for children to be born in prison and questioned the legality of a mother having the right to decide. An article reporting upon the meeting similarly asked the question ‘should the mother have the last word?’  96

One of the most significant problems facing mothers in prison, identified in Phyllis Baunach's research, is the question of loss. Whether women have positive relationships with their children or strained ones, a prison sentence engenders feelings of loss and failure. Baunach explores the importance of the belief that this loss and separation from their children is a consequence of their own behaviour in shaping feelings of ostracism and failure among mothers in prison. 97 Heather Cahill posits the history of maternity care as one in which women's ability to exercise real choice and make informed decisions is limited, and where questions of medical intervention and legal regulation have undermined the autonomy of mothers. 98 Despite being based upon research into more recent experiences of maternal imprisonment, their arguments are valid when considering the historic issue of maternal choice and agency in prison, especially in relation to the question of whether mothers in prison retained any right to make the choice of where they gave birth. This question was not only considered from a medical perspective but was also steeped in social and moral concerns.

In February 1949, Home Secretary Chuter Ede explained to the House of Commons that he was not prepared to take steps to force all women to give birth in an outside hospital, as the prison hospitals were fully equipped to provide all necessary care and attention in maternity cases as well as having experienced doctors, nurses and midwives on hand to attend all confinements. He added that it was ‘natural that some expectant mothers had come to trust these people and did not want to go outside’, and thus ‘to insist upon their removal from prison would, besides inflicting hardship, have a bad effect on the mother's mental and physical health or prove detrimental to the child’. 99

An article in The People in January 1949 lamented the ‘sentimental campaign’ against prison births. It also quoted Dame Lilian Barker, the first woman to become Assistant Commissioner of Prisons, who stated in relation to Holloway Prison that ‘some women are determined to have their babies in a prison hospital. And why not? The medical attention there is the best in the world.’ The women were supplied with advice, baby clothes, cots and toys and trained in babycraft. Barker added, ‘can you blame the poor girl who has no hope of getting a hospital bed, who cannot afford a nursing home and who cannot provide for her new baby, for committing a crime to have her child in prison?’  100 We must exercise caution against taking comments such as these entirely at face value, as the prison authorities themselves were anxious to avoid public criticism of conditions in prisons. In addition, previous chapters have shown how the standard of care given to women in prison continued to vary considerably; there were cases throughout the period of very poor standards and a lack of any consistent practices, which resulted in pregnant women being locked up in isolation for hours at a time and giving birth in their cells. Nevertheless, they do reveal the continuation of a historic question facing the prison system, namely, whether having maternity provision in place in prisons could ever obviate the stigma of a prison birth upon the child.

It is clear that while the Act of 1948 did not end the practice of women giving birth in prison, it was a notable shift in policy and led to a distinct decline of prison births as the 1950s progressed. For example, in the year preceding the Act, of one hundred women imprisoned during their confinement, twenty-two were granted early release and three were temporarily removed on medical grounds, but seventy-five gave birth in prison. 101 However, in March 1951 Ede noted in the House of Commons that since the Act came into force in December 1948, fifteen babies had been born in prison in England and Wales compared to ninety-two confinements taking place in outside hospitals. 102 Despite petitions against prison births from several quarters and a decline in prison births in practice, the government was reluctant to change the legislation to ensure that there were no prison births at all, as politicians such as Ede were aware not only of the potential difficulties of finding suitable hospital places for the women but also of the possibility that they could not be removed in time, especially if labour came on quickly or prematurely, which could result in greater censure on the prison system.

Joan Henry served an eight-month sentence in Holloway and Askham Grange in the early 1950s, during which she spent time in Holloway's hospital for treatment on her foot. She recounted her observations of the experiences of some of the other women she met in the hospital. Her account demonstrates that pregnant women expressed different desires for the conditions in which they would give birth. Pat, a woman whom she described as a prostitute and as having an ‘aggressive and difficult personality’, wanted to have her baby in the prison hospital. 103 There were other cases where women had expressed a desire to give birth in an outside hospital and arrangements had been made. However, the date of their confinement was miscalculated, either by the prison doctors or due to irregular menstruation, or they went into premature labour. In the early 1950s Betty, a young woman confined in Holloway's hospital due to advanced pregnancy, went into labour earlier than she or the prison staff had expected. One night, when locked in the ward with fellow prisoners, Betty began to cry out in pain. Joan Henry rang the bell to alert the attention of the night sister, who examined Betty and found it to be too late to transfer her to an outside hospital. She gave birth to a baby boy in Holloway's labour room. 104 Issues of logistics and consistent practices in place in maternity cases continued, and still continue today, to impact upon the ability of mothers in prison to exercise control over the conditions in which they gave birth.

The decline in prison births in the early 1950s was due to a combination of factors, including maternal choice and more consistent arrangements being made by prisons themselves to facilitate the removal of women to outside hospitals. By the end of the Second World War, the majority of births in the community took place in a hospital for the first time, reaching 63.7 per cent of all births by 1954. 105 Angela Davis has demonstrated that, within the spheres of pregnancy and childbirth, there was no one unified position among general practitioners (GPs), midwives and other practitioners about best practice for mothers. 106 In addition, with the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, it initially seemed as though the role of GPs would be central to maternal care. Despite this, by the 1950s hospitals had become the locus for childbirth and antenatal care. 107 Although prison births declined significantly as the 1950s progressed, they did not end entirely. Despite the intention that women will give birth in outside hospitals, today there continue to be babies born inside prisons if mothers are not transferred to hospital outside on time. The standard of mothers’ care, including their treatment in outside hospitals as well as when they return to prison, with and in some cases without their babies, continues to garner intense debate.


Should babies be born in prison? Have prisons ever been, and could they ever be, suitable places for the care of expectant mothers and their infants? These are questions that have faced the modern prison system since its creation. While they evolved with changing circumstances and policy shifts throughout the century following the 1850s, they remained without definitive answers. The commentary by Griffiths quoted at the beginning of this chapter highlighted the contradictions that permeated debates about prison births and the suitability of the prison environment for mothers and their children. Those within the prison system questioned whether babies should be born there at all, at the same time justifying the provisions in place for their care. Prison staff, administrators and external commentators stressed the role motherhood could play in offsetting the criminal tendencies of those who walked through the prison gates pregnant and with young infants, while also lamenting their potential to negatively influence them.

The chapter has demonstrated that there was not a clear dichotomy between the arguments for and against prison births. A deeper examination of the material gathered reveals that it was not the case that prison births were consistently opposed on moral grounds but justified on medical grounds or vice versa. Instead, the requirements of containing this distinct group of inmates prompted debate interleaved with questions of discipline, care, health, supervision and choice. There were those who vehemently opposed on the grounds of the stigma to the child and the danger of its moral contagion, but did not address, or in some cases dismissed, the issues of separation and choice for the mothers themselves. Others ardently defended provisions in place in prisons to care for this group of inmates but complained of the pressures this could place on their already stretched resources and the impact their presence could have on the efficacy of the disciplinary requirements of the institution. Some pointed to the role the prison could play in offering care and regulation of criminal mothers which was not likely available elsewhere, while questioning the potentially negative impact on prison babies and the disruption of a system striving for uniformity.

By the end of the period under examination here, women were predominantly transferred to outside hospitals for the birth of their babies. As the second half of the twentieth century progressed, Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) replaced prison crèches as the part of these penal institutions reserved for the containment of mothers and their children. There are currently MBUs in six English women's prisons. They are a separate part of the prison, enabling women to have their children with them in prison. Women need to apply for entry to the MBU and each application is considered by a board. MBUs usually have accommodation for up to twelve prisoners, the intention being that, following the birth of their babies in an outside hospital, women will be able to be accommodated with their babies up to the age of eighteen months. However, there are still instances of women giving birth alone in their cells due to the historic logistical and practical challenges and inconsistences of their care.


1 Major Arthur Griffiths, ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’, in George Sims (ed.), Living London: Its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes, Vol. III (London: Cassell, 1903), pp. 126–131, p. 127.
2 Griffiths, ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’, p. 126.
3 Griffiths, ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’, p. 127.
4 For select key works see Jane Humphries, ‘Care and cruelty in the workhouse: Children's experiences of residential poor relief in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’, in Nigel Goose and Katrina Honeyman (eds), Childhood and child labour in industrial England: Diversity and agency, 1750–1914 (London: Routledge, 2013), pp. 115–134; Alysa Levene, The childhood of the poor: Welfare in eighteenth-century London (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Lydia Murdoch, Imagined orphans: Poor families, child welfare, and contested citizenship in London (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006).
5 Olwen Purdue, ‘Nineteenth-century NIMBYs, or what the neighbour saw? Poverty, surveillance, and the boarding out of Poor Law children in late nineteenth-century Belfast’, Family & Community History, 23:2 (2020), 119–135, https://doi.org/10.1080/14631180.2020.1920719, p. 120.
6 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.
7 For an example of this letter see LMA, WA/G/007, Minute Book, December 1852–November 1855, 9 September 1854.
8 Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The criminal prisons of London and scenes of prison life (London: Griffin, Bohn and Company, 1862), p. 191.
9 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. 222.
10 LMA, WA/G/P/1866/001, House of Correction Westminster Regulations and Rules, 1866, p. 42.
11 Female life in prison, by a prison Matron, Vol. II (London: Hurst and Blackett Publishers, 1862), p. 10.
12 Cicely McCall, They always come back (London: Methuen & Co., 1938), p. 107.
13 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 1 February 1851.
14 Purdue, ‘Nineteenth-century NIMBYs’, p. 122.
15 Lara Marks, ‘Medical care for pauper mothers and their infants: Poor Law provision and local demand in East London. 1870–1929’, Economic History Review, 46:3 (1993), 518–542, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0289.1993.tb01347.x, p. 540.
16 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. 15.
17 ‘Mother sent to gaol’, Daily Herald (25 February 1936).
18 LMA, WA/G/006, Minute Book, September 1850–December 1852, 9 November 1850.
19 LRO, 347 MAG 1/2/2, Minutes of Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 24 October 1874.
20 Griffiths, ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’, p. 127.
21 Mary Size, Prisons I have known (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 72.
22 McCall, They always come back, p. 107.
23 William Sullivan, ‘A note on the influence of maternal inebriety on the offspring’, Journal of Mental Science, 45 (1899), 489–503, p. 492.
24 Lucia Zedner, Women, crime and custody in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 220.
25 Sullivan, ‘A note on the influence of maternal inebriety’, p. 496.
26 Annesley Kenealy, ‘Prison babies: Holloway's comfortable provision for its child population’, Daily Mirror (28 November 1905), p. 11.
27 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 347.
28 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 17.
29 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 17.
30 LRO, 347 MAG 1/2/2, Minutes of Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 25 January 1872.
31 Report of the Departmental Committee on the Education and Moral Instruction of Prisoners in Local and Convict Prisons (London: 1896), p. 120.
32 Kenealy, ‘Prison babies’, p. 11.
33 Henry Maudsley, ‘Review of female life in prison’, Journal of Mental Science, 9 (1863), 69–87.
34 W.D. Morrison, Crime and its causes (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1891), p. 152.
35 Morrison, Crime and its causes, p. 158.
36 Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The criminal prisons of London and scenes of prison life (London: Griffin, Bohn and Company, 1862), p. 189, p. 191.
37 Mayhew and Binny, The criminal prisons of London, p. 475.
38 Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Prisons and prisoners: Some personal experiences (London: William Heinemann, 1914), p. 103.
39 Report from the Departmental Committee on Prisons (London: 1895), p. 46.
40 Quoted in Zedner, Women, crime and custody, p. 147.
41 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 347.
42 Phyllis Jo Baunach, Mothers in prison (New York: Transaction Publishers, first edition 1983, this edition 2020); Lucy Baldwin (ed.), Mothering justice: Working with mothers in criminal and social justice settings (Hampshire: Waterside Press, 2015).
43 Susan Willis Fletcher, Twelve months in an English prison (New York: Charles T. Dillingham, 1884), p. 353.
44 Bennett, ‘Bad for the health of the body’, pp. 546–547.
45 Kenealy, ‘Prison babies’, p. 11.
46 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 17.
47 ‘Baby will be born in prison’, Gloucester Citizen (25 July 1939), p. 9.
48 Ginger Frost, Illegitimacy in English law and society, 1860–1930 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 50.
49 Isabella Tod, ‘Boarding-out of pauper children’, Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, 7:5 (1878), 293–299, p. 297.
50 Birmingham Library, PS/B/4/5/1/2, Birmingham Petty Sessions 1896–1906, letter from Mr Stone, Chairman of the Visiting Justices Committee to the Visiting Justices, 11 April 1896.
51 LRO, 347 MAG 1/2/2, Minutes of Visiting Justices 1870–1878, 24 October 1874.
52 Neil Davie, Tracing the criminal: The rise of scientific criminology in Britain, 1860–1918 (Oxford: The Bardwell Press, 2005); Victor Bailey, The rise and fall of the rehabilitative ideal, 1895–1970 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).
53 See in particular Zedner, Women, crime and custody. For case studies of female offenders who entered into cycles of recidivism and the types of crimes they committed see Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey, Criminal women 1850–1920: Researching the lives of Britain's female offenders (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018). For an early twentieth-century commentary on the issue of female inebriety and the family see Mary Scharlieb, ‘Alcoholism in relation to women and children’, in T.N. Kelnack (ed.) The drink problem of today in its medico-sociological aspects (London: Methuen & Co., first published 1907, revised edition 1916), pp. 128–156.
54 Mary Carpenter, Our convicts, Vol. II (London: Longman, 1864), p. 266.
55 Russell P. Dobash, R. Emerson Dobash and Sue Gutteridge, The imprisonment of women (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 104.
56 Carpenter, Our convicts, Vol. II, p. 266.
57 ‘The convict nursery at Brixton’, Cheltenham Chronicle (1 July 1856), p. 4.
58 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 346.
59 Quoted in Caitlin Davies, Bad girls: A history of rebels and renegades (London: John Murray, 2018), p. 269.
60 Hobhouse and Brockway, English prisons today, p. 11.
61 ‘Mothers appreciate their treatment’, Western Daily Press (2 August 1937), p. 4.
62 Florence Ethel Osborne, Reference Number t18920307–337, oldbaileyonline.org.
63 ‘Case of Florence Osborne’, Lakes Chronicle and Reporter (22 April 1892), p. 2.
64 British Medical Journal, 16 April 1892, p. 830.
65 ‘Release of Mrs Osborne’, Henley Advertiser (7 May 1892), p. 2.
66 TNA, HO 144/3982, Prisons and prisoners: Childbirth in prison. Memorandum on existing practice and the arguments for temporary removal 1924, Ivy Cusden petition, 26 March 1924.
67 ‘Ivy Cusden’, John Bull (9 February 1924), p. 3.
68 Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and the Directors of Convict Prisons for the year ended 31 March 1904 (London: 1904), p. 157.
69 TNA, HO 144/3982, Prisons and prisoners: Childbirth in prison. Memorandum on existing practice.
70 TNA, HO 144/3982, Prisons and prisoners: Childbirth in prison. Memorandum on existing practice …, statement from the Medical Officer at Holloway Prison, March 1924.
71 ‘Ivy Cusden petition’, Daily Mail (25 March 1924), p. 4.
72 TNA, HO 144/3982, Prisons and Prisoners: Childbirth in prison. Memorandum on existing practice …, letter from John Anderson, Undersecretary of State, to G.W. Goodwin, 1 April 1924.
73 ‘Ivy Cusden’, Daily Mail (21 May 1924), p. 2.
74 ‘Trial of Olive Kathleen Wise’, Leeds Mercury (27 December 1930), p. 4.
75 ‘Olive Wise’, Dundee Courier (17 January 1931), p. 4.
76 Kevin Crosby, ‘Abolishing juries of matrons’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 39:2 (2019), 259–284, https://doi.org/10.1093/ojls/gqy037, p. 276.
77 ‘Olive Wise’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (21 January 1931), p. 6.
78 TNA, CRIM 1/534, Defendant: Wise, Olive Kathleen. Charge: Murder. Session: January 1931. For Olive's pardon see CRIM 1/584/99, Pardon: Wise, Olive Kathleen.
79 Crosby, ‘Abolishing juries of matrons’, p. 279.
80 Hansard HL Deb. 18 June 1931, vol. 81, col. 292–4.
81 TNA, HO 45/24517, Capital Punishment: Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931.
82 Hansard HC Deb. 23 January 1931, vol. 247, col. 511–2W.
83 ‘Olive Wise gives birth in prison’, Portsmouth Evening News (9 February 1931), p. 8.
84 Davies, Bad girls, p. 270.
85 ‘Visited in prison by Home Secretary's wife’, Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser (18 February 1931), p. 4.
86 Hansard HL Deb. 12 February 1931, vol. 248, col. 611.
87 TNA, HO 144/17929, Criminal Cases: Wise, Olive Kathleen, convicted at Central Criminal Court on 13 January 1931.
88 ‘Romance that began when woman was in prison’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph (5 September 1932), p. 8.
89 Report of the Commissioners of Prisons for the year 1952 (London: 1953), p. 99.
90 TNA, RG 48/1882, Registration of births occurring in prison 1948–51, Tom Garnett, ‘Removing the stigma’, The Observer (22 April 1948), p. 5.
91 TNA, RG 48/1882, Registration of births occurring in prison 1948–51, extract from a House of Lords debate on prison births, 15 June 1948.
92 Size, Prisons I have known, p. 125.
93 ‘Magistrates urge: No prison babes’, Dundee Courier (4 January 1949), p. 2.
94 TNA, HO 45/23580, Birth of children in prison 1924–1949, letter from Jean Hardy to Secretary of State's office, 4 September 1948.
95 ‘Prison births’, Daily Express (4 January 1949), p. 3.
96 ‘Should the mother have the last word?’, Manchester Evening News (2 January 1950), p. 4.
97 Baunach, Mothers in prison, p. 1.
98 Heather A. Cahill, ‘Male appropriation and medicalisation of childbirth: An historical analysis’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 33:3 (2001), 334–342, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2648.2001.01669.x, p. 334.
99 TNA, HO 45/23580 Birth of children in prison 1924–1949, letter from J. Chuter Ede to Arthur Donovan, 19 December 1949.
100 TNA, PCOM 9/467, Births and infants in prison 1930–1949, Peter Forbes, ‘Waste no pity on these babies who are born in prison’, The People (30 January 1949).
101 TNA, HO 45/23580, Birth of children in prison 1924–1949, memorandum on prison births, 7 July 1948.
102 TNA, RG 48/1882, Registration of births occurring in prison 1948–1951, extract from a House of Commons debate on prison births, 1 March 1951.
103 Joan Henry, Women in prison (London: White Lion Publishers, first published 1952, this edition 1973), p. 56.
104 Henry, Women in prison, p. 91.
105 Angela Davis, ‘Wartime women giving birth: Narratives of pregnancy and childbirth, Britain c. 1939–1960’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 47:2 (2014), 257–266, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.11.007, p. 265.
106 Angela Davis, Modern motherhood: Women and family in England, c. 1945–2000 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p. 209.
107 Davis, Modern motherhood, p. 84.
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Motherhood confined

Maternal health in English prisons, 1853–1955


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