"The March of the Women" was a song composed by Ethel Smyth in 1910, to words by Cicely Hamilton. "The March of the Women" was first performed on 21 January 1911, by the Suffrage Choir, at a ceremony held on Pall Mall, London, to celebrate a release activists from prison. A famous rendering of it took place in 1912, at Holloway Prison, after many women activists were imprisoned as a result of a window-smashing campaign. Smyth's part in this had been to break the window of Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The conductor Thomas Beecham visited Smyth in prison and reported that he found the activists in the courtyard "...marching round it and singing lustily their war chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush." While Emmeline Pankhurst undertook her hunger strike which she did not expect to survive. She told Smyth that at night she would feebly sing "The March of the Women".

The March of the Women

"Dedicated to the Women's Social and Political Union”

Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.
Song with its story, dreams with their glory
Lo! they call, and glad is their word!
Loud and louder it swells,
Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!

Long, long—we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven,
Strong, strong—stand we at last,
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty,
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!)
These, these—beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.

Comrades—ye who have dared
First in the battle to strive and sorrow!
Scorned, spurned—nought have ye cared,
Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,
Ways that are weary, days that are dreary,
Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;
Hail, hail—victors ye stand,
Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn!

Life, strife—those two are one,
Naught can ye win but by faith and daring.
On, on—that ye have done
But for the work of today preparing.
Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end)
March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend

With thanks to Caitlin Davis 



During the campaigning of the Suffragettes for votes for women in the early twentieth century, several of their number were imprisoned, in prisons including Holloway. In order to further their cause, and to protest at not being afforded the status of political prisoners, they went on hunger strike and were force fed by the prison authorities. They would later use this treatment to demonstrate the effects of the prison upon their health. But, crucially, the imprisonment of the Suffragettes in Holloway afforded the prison a place in this important period of the history of the fight for women’s rights. The site of the prison as the location of the incarceration of the suffragettes is perhaps the most accessible point of connection for the public between the prison and the women’s movement.

The importance of this cannot be undervalued, particularly given the centenary year of voting rights for some women will be in 2018. While most people might know that the suffragettes were imprisoned in Holloway, many might not recognise the impact their actions had on political struggles into the future. Christabel Pankurst was arrested with fellow suffragette Annie Kenney in 1905 for interrupting a Liberal Party meeting to demand voting rights for women and was sent to Holloway for refusing to pay the fine. Her sister Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in 1906, for starting a protest in the lobby of the house of Commons. Holloway was central to their story, and it was the prison that held the largest number of women. A frequent campaigning rally cry being ‘remember our sisters at Holloway'. Convicted in 1912 for conspiracy to commit property damage Emmeline Pankhurst staged her first hunger strike to improve conditions for other suffragettes in nearby cells. Marion Wallace Dunlop – a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike on 5 July 1909. Sent to Holloway for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the house of Commons, she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) By that September forcible feeding was introduced, justified as ‘ordinary hospital treatment’ to save the women’s lives. ‘Over the next five years, this vicious circle of events was to shape the representation of the suffragette movement for years to come. Forcible feeding became particularly cruel and dangerous after the notorious Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 which allowed a hunger striking suffragette who became ill to be released into the community, in order to regain her health, only to be re-arrested when she was well enough to complete her sentence. The process often extended the period of the sentence. Many women, such as Grace Roe and Kitty Marion, were force fed more than 200 times. Some wrote accounts of their horrendous experiences for the WSPU organ the Suffragette or the few sympathetic newspapers that would print their story.’ Emily Wilding Davidson was sentenced to 6 months in prison at Holloway for arson. During this time she threw herself down a staircase in what she later described as an attempt to divert harm from her fellow suffragettes. Constance Lytton was a suffragette who campaigned for votes for women during the early twentieth century. The daughter of Lord Lytton, she was a member of Britain’s ruling class but was an avid suffrage campaigner who later also campaigned to improve the conditions of women in prison after she herself had been imprisoned in Holloway, Newcastle and Liverpool’s Walton gaol. She was imprisoned in Holloway in March 1909. During her incarceration she had attempted to carve the phrase ‘Votes for Women’ onto her skin, beginning over her heart and ending on her face. But, fearing blood poisoning, she was not able to complete this protest. She stated that she intended to show the part of the inscription she had done to the prison doctors as “appearances were respected by officials.” Her actions were thus an important example of how women in Holloway used their bodies to make political statements that communicated prison conditions but spoke to a much wider issue over women’s rights more generally. She was later arrested for further suffrage activities and imprisoned in Liverpool’s Walton gaol. She gave the name Jane Warton and thus her true identity, and social standing, were not known to the prison authorities as they had been during her time in Holloway. She went on hunger strike and, like several other suffragettes, she was force fed. Constance later recounted her prison experiences in detail in Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences, By Constance Lytton and Jane Warton (London: 1914). The suffragettes bombed Holloway Prison in 1913 “It is commonly assumed that suffragettes were middle-class women, “the educated and well-to-do”.Obviously working-class women, especially in comparison with leisured middle and upper-class women, would have less time and money to give to ‘The Cause’… Yet despite such difficulties, a number of poor WSPU women, like Minnie Baldock, served prison sentences. Indeed, even by 1912, 9 years after the WSPU was founded, Ethel Smyth found in Holloway more than a hundred women, “rich and poor ... young professional women ... countless poor women of the working class, nurses, typists, shop girls, and the like”. These working-class women would have to rub shoulders with their more elevated sisters, such as Miss Janie Allan, a millionairess of the Allan Line, Lord Kitchener’s niece Miss Parker, several cousins of Lord Haig’s, Mrs Barbara Ayrton Gould (daughter of Hertha Ayrton, the scientist who invented the safety lamp for miners) and Alice Morgan Wright, an American sculptress.”

Bennett, R. (2017). Personal Correspondence 4

Purvis, J. (1995). The prison experiences of the suffragettes in Edwardian Britain. Women's History Review, 4(1), pp.103-133.


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.


 Opened in 1852, Holloway Prison was the City of London House of Correction and it accommodated both male and female prisoners. The prison’s turreted gateway and imposing structure earned it the moniker of ‘The Castle’ and it was to become a site entrenched within the local landscape.

Newgate Prison was closed in 1902 and the increasing pressure for prison space prompted the decision to make Holloway a female only prison in 1903. It was reported that, in addition to addressing the issue of prison space, this decision also met a broader aim of facilitating the “absolute separation of the sexes.” (Report of the Commissioners of Prisons and the Director of Convict Prisons, for the year ended 31 March 1902, Parliamentary Papers, p. 7). Holloway became the largest female prison in England but was quickly faced with overcrowding and a new wing had to be added in 1906. During the First World War the prison witnessed shortages in provisions and in medical staff and, in its wake, it became a site for enquiry and a subject for debate. It was a site for political protest, notably over the rights of women to vote in the early twentieth century, but also occupies an important place in the history of identifying and advocating for the specific health needs of women. 

For more information about the history of healthcare in prisons please visit

Heritage of Holloway & Women's Building

WHY HOLLOWAY? Holloway prison, since its inception has been a site for both political protest and resistance and women’s movement. There have been several campaigns, led by notable groups and charitable organisations as well as by prominent individuals that have centred upon issues surrounding the legal, social and health rights of women in Holloway. In addressing conditions within Holloway, these issues often transcended the prison walls and reinforced and invigorated wider debates surrounding women’s rights, health and social status outside the prison. The historic importance of Holloway as a site upon which these debates were centred, but also as a place where the need for change was identified and sometimes successfully enacted, provides strong justification of the need for a women’s building on the site. It demonstrates the importance of Holloway as a physical space for protest, debate, enquiry and change but also as a symbolic site of the fight for women’s rights. It would speak to the site’s heritage whilst also providing a contextual past to some the enduring themes within the history of women’s rights, both inside and outside of the prison.

We will be outlining through regular posts, with support provided by prison health historians, authors and organisations and women connected with the prison a brief history of campaigns, campaigners and organisations at Holloway prison.