Women in Aylesbury Prison
Our reference: phAylesbury583
Between 1895 and 1918, Aylesbury Prison was a place of detention for adult women convicts from around the UK. This month we look at what life might have been like behind the walls from the perspective of four women: inmates Annie Smith, Violet Bland, Constance Markievicz and Prison Officer Mary Size.
Annie Smith (1903)
We do not know much about Annie Smith: what she was in prison for, or how long she spent at the institution. All that we know about her comes from two documents in our collection: HMP-A/1/2 – the Governor’s Journal 1897-1903, and HMP-A/2/2 – the minutes of the Prison’s Board of Visitors. The Board of Visitors acted as the ‘trustees’ of the Prison. Drawn from the great and good of the county, members included Lady Constance Battersea and Baron Fremantle.
I first saw mention of Annie Smith in February 1903 when the Governor mentions that she had been placed in a straitjacket as a punishment, but she shortly managed to release herself from the constraint. Annie Smith is mentioned again in March when she was placed in hobbles as punishment, but again she manages to release herself. Turning to the visitors’ minute book to continue the story, in April she was brought before the Board and sentenced to fourteen days close confinement on the Number 1 Punishment Diet, for assaulting an Officer.
Prisoners at this time in Aylesbury were often given similar punishments for breaking windows and crockery, and for theft. It is not unusual that we know so little about Annie Smith, for this period we do not have registers of prisoners in.
Mary Size (1906; 1912-1925)
Mary Size first started working in Aylesbury Prison in 1906, as a probationary member of staff, working in the Prison’s hospital. In her book “Prisons I have known”, Size reflects that when she first arrived at the prison she was lectured at length by the Matron against friendly relations with the prisoners, as it was easy to be manipulated by them into trafficking illicit goods and messages into the prison on their behalf. She reflects that the prison at this time had a wide range of ages with women as young as twenty-one, at one extreme, and women in their eighties, at the other extreme. She says of the social make-up that the prison community included the full range from ‘society women’ to ‘fortune –telling gipsies’.
After a few years in other prisons, Mary returned to work in Aylesbury in a more senior role in 1912. She describes a prison where women have access to books in a library, lessons are given in the main academic subjects to those who wanted them, and prisoners were given specific jobs to do, including twine making, needlework, laundry, cleaning and work in the kitchen. Prisoners rose at six-thirty, and meals were the same day in and day out. The uniform for most of the inmates was a grey dress with a red stripe, although after serving seven years this changed to a mustard yellow dress.
Mary left Aylesbury Prison in 1925, being promoted to a senior post in Liverpool Prison. By this time Aylesbury Prison was drastically different from the one she first encountered in 1906. In 1918 it had become a female borstal with women aged under twenty-one, which she felt operated more smoothly than the prison had done previously.
Violet Bland (1914)
Several women were imprisoned in Aylesbury during 1912 for militant actions connected to the Women's Social and Political Union, and the suffragette movement. Suffragettes that we know about include Dr Frances Ede, Grace Branson, Margaret Halley, Annie Humphreys, Oonah Caillagh , Charlotte Marsh, Brita Gurney, Violet Bland and possibly Aileen Connor Smith. We know these names because we have their remission warrants (pardons) in our collection (D-X 1150 and HMP-A/11/1), with the exception of Violet Bland. We have no documents that mention her, although her own memoir describes her time in Aylesbury Prison. She was arrested for throwing a rock through the windows of the Commercial Cable Company in Northumberland Avenue in London, during a demonstration organised by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1912. As a result, she was sentenced to four months in prison.
Whilst in Aylesbury Prison, forty-nine-year-old Violet, like many other members of the Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU, refused food. As a result, she was force-fed by prison staff:
“They twisted my neck, jerked my head back, closing my throat, held all the time as in a vice. I gasped for breath, and suffered tortures mentally lest the food which they were trying to pour down my throat should go into my lungs... They expect, and try, to perform the whole operation in two minutes. There were always six or seven to one, so that there was really no possibility of the victim doing much in the way of protesting”
Countess Constance Markievicz (1916-1917)
A few years later another activist for a different cause was imprisoned in Aylesbury. Constance Markievicz was involved in the drive for an independent Irish State, and was arrested and convicted for her involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. She spent time at Aylesbury Prison between 1916 and 1917. Again, like Violet Bland, we do not have any records by or about Markievicz, but her letters written to family and friends from Aylesbury Prison have been published, and they include verses in which she reflects on the prison:
“High walls hang round on every side
A cage of cruel red
The sickly grass is bleached and dried
As brick the flower bed
The fierce rays of the sun down beat
The burning flagstones scorch our feet
As in the noondays’ blighting heat
We walk with weary tread”
After her release, Markievicz remained involved in politics, becoming the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1918, for the constituency of Dublin St Patrick. Given the political situation between England and Ireland, Markievicz chose not to take up her seat.