Our First Female Prisons Inspector: Airbrushed From Inspectorate History

Dr Mary Louisa Gordon – HMP Holloway 1914

Eighty-years ago today, on 5th May 1941, Dr Mary Louisa Gordon, 79, passed away quietly at her home in Crowborough, East Sussex.

Her death was an event that went unnoticed and, however much you think you know about our prisons, you can be forgiven for not knowing her name or the integral part she played in the development of what is today the Prisons Inspectorate of England and Wales.

In 1908 Dr Gordon was the first woman ever appointed as a Prisons Inspector, a post she held until 1921 and so today is not only the 80th anniversary of her death, but this year is also the centenary year of her retirement as a Prisons Inspector.

Dr Gordon’s attitude towards the treatment of women prisoners, as explained in her 1922 book Penal Discipline, (available free to Enhanced Members of The Prison Oracle) stands in sharp contrast to that of her male contemporaries, and the categorisation of her approach as ‘feminist’ is reinforced by her well-documented connections with the suffragette movement.

Yet it was her drive for equality, her acceptance of diversity and her feminist and suffragist associations that also resulted in the marginalisation and dismissal of her work, such that both Dr Mary Gordon and Penal Discipline are virtually unknown today; do a search of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website for Dr Mary Louisa Gordon and you will not find a single entry that bears her name.

Indeed so ingrained is her ostracisation that the current Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, who I invited to mark the centenary of her retirement on the Inspectorate website, responded to my invitation by casually brushing aside my request with a response from his secretary thanking me for my ‘interesting email’ but doing nothing more.

Nevertheless, despite the dismissal of her work by her contemporaries and lamentably her successors too, it is with enormous pleasure that I can announce today, on the anniversary of her death and in her centenary retirement year, that the 23rd annual edition of The Prisons Handbook, (the definitive 1,600-page annual guide to the penal system of England and Wales that will be published in November 2021) will be Dedicated to her memory.

So that, if nothing else, many people will continue to remember Dr Mary Louisa Gordon, her work, bravery and courage – and they will do so long after all those who have sought to airbrush her from Prisons Inspectorate history, have rightly been forgotten.

Mark Leech FRSA is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and other works.

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