Friday, January 13, 2017

Rebellion Against Tyrants: Suffragette Graffiti in Holloway Prison

The closure of Holloway Prison in July 2016 prompted many people to remember some of the women imprisoned there since it opened in 1852, amongst them militant suffragettes. Some of the most well known were Women’s Social and Political Union leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; Ethel Smyth, who composed the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women; and Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby. Many of these women went on hunger strike in support of their claim for political prisoner status, and were forcibly fed.

Although the hunger strike was the most extreme, there were many other ways in which suffragette prisoners could defy the prison regime. They talked in spite of the silence rules; sang suffragette songs; and refused to do the work, such as making men’s shirts, allotted to them. And like prisoners before and since, they scrawled messages on the prison walls.

Discovering graffiti by a suffragette who had previously been in a cell lifted the spirits of women who came after them. In 1909, after smashing the windows in her cell, Emily Wilding Davison (1872–1913) was moved to a cell which had been occupied by Bristol suffragette Lillian Dove Willcox (1875–1963). Here she found the words “Dum spiro spero” on the walls: While I breathe, I hope. Emily Wilding Davison later wrote, “In the dark punishment cell, to my delight, I found on my wall Mrs Dove-Willcox’s name and ‘Dum spiro spero’. I added mine and ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God’.”

Suffragette Vera Wentworth (1890–1957) was a London shop assistant and trade unionist. In 1909 she was the WSPU organiser in Plymouth. She was an active militant who was arrested many times for breaking windows and heckling politicians, serving prison sentences in Exeter as well as Holloway. Vera Wentworth also campaigned in Bristol: in March 1909, she accosted Liberal MP Augustine Birrell at Temple Meads railway station to ask him when the Government would give women the vote. She was arrested in Bristol on 12 November 1909 during disturbances associated with the visit of Winston Churchill to the city, when she broke windows at the Liberal Club. She went on hunger strike in Horfield prison and was forcibly fed.

In 1908 she and other women were arrested when they attempted to approach the House of Commons in a delivery van. Vera was sentenced to six weeks in prison. She was sent to  Holloway, where she was kept in prison for an extra day for carving “Votes for Women” on the wall of her cell. She told the Governor of Holloway “that in years to come, when Holloway is in disuse and is one of the sights of London, visitors will be shown the inscription, and women, then with the glory of the vote, will shudder and thank providence that they did not live in these days”.

Sadly, this cannot be. Holloway prison was rebuilt between 1971 and 1985, and the suffragette graffiti, if it still existed at that time, was lost for ever. So too was the turreted gateway from which released suffragettes used to emerge to a heroine’s welcome: parades, music, banners and flags. But though that Holloway has gone, we can still be thankful that the days when women were thrown in prison and tortured with the forcible feeding tube and gag simply for demanding the right to vote, have gone. 

Find out more about Vera Wentworth, Lillian Dove Willcox and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in the Suffragette Spotlight On...Archive at

Reclaim Holloway: The government is planning to sell Holloway to private developers. The publicly-owned site’s estimated redevelopment value could reach £2.5 billion. The Reclaim Holloway project has been set up to campaign for the site to be used instead for council housing and community projects. Find out more about the campaign at


No comments:

Post a Comment