The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
BAD GIRLS: A HISTORY OF REBELS AND RENEGADES
London: John Murray, 2018 www.johnmurray.co.uk www.caitlindavies.co.uk @CaitlinDavies2 hardcover & ebook 373pp; illus; notes and sources; index ISBN: 9781473647749 £20 hardcover & £13.99 ebook
Of all the books read this time round, Caitlin Davies’ Bad Girls was the most enjoyable, which surprised me because I really didn’t think it would be. But I settled on the couch, the dog snuggled in next to me, and I had a big mug of tea close to hand. I opened the book and the hours slipped by.
Holloway Prison is famous as a women’s prison. In fact, it was the largest women’s prison in western Europe. It had begun life in 1852 as a mixed-sex prison and remained as such until 1903, ‘a castle jail, with its high turrets and gothic battlements’ in the heart of London. It was rebuilt in the 1970s, apparently to make it less forbidding and less like a prison. This meant that the remains of the five women executed there had to be moved, four (Amelia Sach, Annie Walters, Edith Thompson and Styllou Christofi) remained together at Brookwood cemetery in Surrey. One (Ruth Ellis), was reburied at St. Mary’s Parish Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Holloway was closed in 2016.
In Bad Girls, Caitlin Davies expertly tells the story of Holloway Prison, largely through its prisoners and beginning with “The Duchess of Holloway Jail”, May Caroline, the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland. She had been the mistress of the Duke of Sutherland for some time and married him in February 1889, a matter of mere months after the death of the Duke’s wife in November the previous year. Marrying so soon after his wife’s death, a breach of convention, caused a sensational scandal. Not that she was a stranger to scandal; the death of her first husband, Captain Arthur Blair, was rumoured to be a suicide or even murder! She had ended up in Holloway, however, for destroying documents shortly after the death of the Duke of Sutherland in 1892. Nobody knows what was in the documents she destroyed, launching Davies book with a frustrating mystery.
The variety of prisoners and their crimes range from baby farmers – for whom it’s a struggle to find any sympathy, even when they pay the ultimate penalty, as did two of the five women executed at Holloway, Sach and Walters – to high profile prisoners like Myra Hindley and Rose West, along with the headline-making scandals associated with both.
The journey on which Davies is our always thoughtful, sometimes witty, and never judgmental guide, takes in the Suffragettes; Colonel Victor Barker, whose story I don’t recall having come across before. He was a she and had even married, ‘his’ wife claiming not to have noticed that he was deficient in certain areas; the notorious Kate Meyrick, nightclub owner and alleged drug dealer, who also did some time, as well as fascists (Diana Mosley), spies, and pacifists. There’s a chapter, ‘The Messalina of Ilford’, given to poor and silly Edith Thompson, essentially executed for having an affair, and Ruth Ellis, who, like Thompson, should never have been executed.
But the book isn’t just a catalogue of Holloway’s notorious or more celebrated prisoners, it looks at the staffing of Holloway, it’s governors, the prison routines, the prison’s failings (which are worrying), prison life (childbirth), racism (by the staff as well as inmates) and life after the nick (if there is one), and ultimately Davies asks whether a women’s prison is needed.
Most crime and nearly all violent crime is committed by men. Most prisoners who pose a threat to society are men. ‘Men are responsible for 88 per cent of crimes against the person, 90 per cent of murders and 98 per cent of sex offences.’ If you’re a man, that’s uncomfortable reading. ‘Eighty-four per cent of women sentenced to prison have committed a non-violent offence, often theft in order to support their families.’ Davies doesn’t go off on an anti-man tirade, but the statistics themselves raise the question whether the majority of women sent to prison really merited a custodial sentence. Would they be helped more effectively if other agencies provided help and support.
Caitlin Davies writes enviably well, and she interweaves her stories of the people who have populated Holloway since 1852 with descriptions of her research visits to the prison. I don’t feel that this review really does justice to what I thought was an excellent read.
Review by Paul Begg.