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Holloway Prison entrance, 1914

​Holloway Prison entrance, 1914

​Holloway Prison for women, 1902-1945

Yvonne Jewkes and Helen Johnston (Universities of Leicester and Hull)

History and research

Holloway prison was originally built as the New City of London Prison in 1852. At that time it was a local prison holding both male and female prisoners and run by the local authorities; it was not until 1877 that the Prisons Act transferred the administration of all local prisons to central government.

In 1902 Holloway was re-designated and became the first female-only local prison in England. In 1968 it was decided that Holloway should be rebuilt as a local prison and psychiatric institution and it eventually re-opened in 1983. Today, Holloway holds around 500 women either on remand or under sentence and is one of the largest women's prisons in Europe. It is surprising then, that relatively little is written about the history of Holloway prison. So what kind of evidence is available about the day-to-day administration of the prison and those who were confined in Holloway?

Our research, funded by the British Academy, has begun to uncover the history of Holloway from 1902 until the end of the Second World War. In the early 20th century, the female prison system in England and Wales was significantly altered; reorganised from 62 local prisons holding women in 1878 to only seven female prisons by the 1930s. As London's only female local prison, the largest prison for women and the prison which has held many of the most well-known female criminals, Holloway has always held a significant place in the British psyche and has become, for various reasons, one of the most recognisable prisons in England, at least by name.

The records

Records for Holloway prison can be found at three sites; London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the National Archives and a small amount of material at HM Prison Service Museum at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham.

The LMA records offer us insight into those who lived and worked in Holloway (see CLA/003): convictions 1910-14; nominal registers 1917-64; calendar of prisoners 1905-37; register of officers, 1900-79; matrons journals 1933-54; rules and orders, 1937-51 (although some of these are still closed).

The 'Convictions Book' for Holloway (CLA/003/PR/01/001) appears to be a register of the women who entered the prison between 1910 and 1914. It gives basic information; their name, known aliases, age, height, the police court from which they were committed, the sentence given by the magistrate. Similar to other local prison records, there is often little information that would help us to trace these individuals unless they are 'lucky' enough to have particularly unusual names. 

A prisoner's experience

Let us take one prisoner listed as an example. Maggie O'Brien (alias Mary O'Brien, Mary Freeman, Bridget McCarthy) was 31 years old, five feet in height and was convicted at Clerkenwell Police Court on 2 November 1910 for drunkenness and sentenced to a fine of 40 shillings or one month's imprisonment. During the next five years, Maggie is convicted of a further 21 offences, regularly finding herself in Holloway, serving short sentences for minor offences such as drunkenness or petty disorder.

From the late 19th century onwards, there was a great deal of concern about drunkenness and this resulted in the passing of a number of Acts relating to the problem of inebriacy. The Inebriates Act 1898 set up reformatories to which offenders with multiple convictions for drunkenness or drink-related offences could be sent for up to three years. Maggie's numerous convictions for drunkenness meant that she fell under this legislation and on 19 November 1912 the London Sessions sentenced her to three years in an inebriate reformatory and she was sent to Langho Reformatory in Lancashire.

Unfortunately, three years and one week later Maggie is back in Marylebone Police Court for drunkenness. By 8 January 1916 she was again in Clerkenwell Police Court sentenced to 40 shillings fine or one month in prison for insulting behaviour. Whilst this snapshot demonstrates basic information about one woman's criminal record, the limited information makes her difficult to trace more fully. For example, we do not know where Maggie lived. She is convicted at Clerkenwell (see LMA, PS/CLE, 1893-1987), Marlborough Street (see LMA, PS/MS, 1896-1991) and Marylebone Police Courts (see LMA, PS/MAR, 1905-1994) which may help narrow it down, but there is still a large population in these areas.

Registers from the police courts may mean we can chase up the court appearance, but often these records contain little information and probably not more than we already have here. Maggie has numerous 'aliases', but one of these could be a maiden name or perhaps an 'adopted' surname of a partner with whom she was co-habiting. We do not know if she is married or not and all of these issues make women, in general, harder to find in historical records. We are also between Census years, although it is possible that Maggie was convicted of an offence before the first one listed here; her age and criminal record does suggest this was probably not her first conviction. If she happened to be in Holloway when the 1911 census was taken then there is a chance to confirm or dismiss information about her life. 


Maggie and the many other working class women sent to Holloway for short sentences for minor offences (and who made up the majority of the prison population) might be difficult to trace, but other women held there have made a greater mark on history. Suffragettes were imprisoned at Holloway during the early 20th century, the Prison Commission force fed some women who engaged in hunger strikes and later used the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act 1913 known as the 'Cat and Mouse' Act to discharge the hunger strikers. Holloway also held women condemned to death. Fifteen women were executed in England in the 20th century.  Five of these women were hanged at Holloway, including Ruth Ellis, the last woman executed in July 1955. Prison Commission and Home Office records are held at the National Archives.


You can find more images of Holloway Prison on the LMA Collage website.

You can search the Holloway Prison archives, as well as the other sources mentioned in this article in our online catalogue using the following references:

You can find out more about records relating to justice, crime and the legal system in our collections pages.

29 January 2013
Last Modified:
29 August 2018