DUCHESS OF BEDFORD & NATIONAL LADY VISITORS’ ASSOCIATION

Adeline Mary Russell, The Duchess of Bedford was a well-known philanthropist and, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was involved in several campaigns aimed at the moral and occupational improvement of women’s lives. For example, she had previously led a movement to rescue women working in prostitution around Victoria Station in London. She had also consulted with the Associated Workers’ League to improve the conditions of women at work. During the First World War she was the chair of the European War Fund. She also superintended over the requisitioning of buildings to act as wartime hospitals. In addition, she had already frequently consulted with Ruggles-Brise on the subject of women in prison. In the late 1890s she regularly visited Aylesbury, which had become a female-only prison in 1890, and worked to place women into ‘homes’ upon their release to help them to gain employment. In 1900, she became the president of the National Lady Visitors’ Association. The Lady Visitors visited women in Holloway and Aylesbury and sought to educate them and to help them prepare for life after their imprisonment. In February 1919 Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, the chairman of the Prison Commission, personally wrote to ask her to chair a committee of enquiry into conditions in Holloway prison. The enquiry was born out of contemporary concerns over the conditions facing women in Holloway but also the condition of women upon their release. In conducting the enquiry in March 1919, the committee examined several aspects of medical care in the prison including sanitary conditions, provisions for childbirth and maternity care, and the treatment of venereal disease amongst remand and convicted prisoners. Identifying and advocating for the specific needs of women in prison has a history stretching further back than the early twentieth century. However, the enquiry of 1919 specifically addressed the issue of medical care in female prisons. Important in itself, it also spoke to and provided a renewed rigour to wider longer-term health-centred debates. In utilising case studies that highlighted specific concerns, the enquiry advocated for changes in a direct rather than in an abstract way. This approach was particularly effective in changing policy related to the staffing of hospitals in women’s prisons. The enquiry offered an important emphasis of the entitlements of all prisoners to health, regardless of their crimes or status as remand or convicted prisoners. It spoke to the longer-term, and still ongoing, issue that incarceration itself was the punishment and thus the state still had a responsibility to maintain a prisoner’s physical and mental health. This narrative was to become further developed over the course of the twentieth century and fed into the argument that babies born in prison had their own entitlement to health. In acting as the site for the enquiry, Holloway was yet again at the centre of debates over the treatment of women in prison. But, again, several of the issues raised by the enquiry transcended the prison walls and spoke to broader issues and debates over things such as childbirth practices and women’s employment. Some of the issues raised long outlived the 1919 enquiry and continue to endure today, almost a century later, but serve to demonstrate the centrality of Holloway, both as a physical space but also as a symbolic one, in the history of the identification of and advocating for women’s rights. This is a legacy that could be continued on the site.

Bennett, R. (2017). Identifying & Advocating for Women's Health: The Duchess of Bedford's 1919 Committe of Enquiry into Medical Care in Holloway Prison.