Our First Female Prisons Inspector: Airbrushed From Inspectorate History

Dr Mary Louisa Gordon – HMP Holloway 1914

[From the ‘Dedication’ of The Prisons Handbook 2022]

The Prisons Handbook 2022 is proudly dedicated to Dr Mary Louisa Gordon.

This truly extraordinary woman was the first female Prisons Inspector and while 2021 marks both the 80th anniversary of her death and the centenary year of her retirement, you will not find a single word about her on the website of HM Prisons Inspectorate – a fortiori therefore as to why I am proud to acknowledge her vital work for women prisoners here, by dedicating this edition to her.

Mary Louisa Gordon was born on 15th August 1861 in Seaforth, Lancashire and studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, qualifying as a doctor with the Triple Qualification in 1890.

After graduation, she worked part-time as the librarian and curator of the school and later as a clinical assistant at the East London Hospital for Children and at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital. Gordon joined the Association of Registered Medical Women (ARMW), a precursor to the Medical Women’s Federation, in 1891.

During this time, she contributed a number of publications and public addresses regarding a variety of topics including the effects of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), prostitution, and alcohol dependence on women.

This included writing a letter which had been signed by 73 members of the ARMW in 1898 to Lord George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India, to criticise measures enacted in the previous year to combat the spread of STDs in the British Army stationed there – measures that included mandatory medical examinations of women suspected of carrying an STD living near a military building; if they refused they were evicted from their homes.

In March 1908, Gordon was appointed as a Prison Inspector and she was the first woman to hold the position. Her role involved the inspection of the female wings of 47 prisons, and the training of female prison officers. She had no formal training prior to being appointed therefore Gordon visited prisons in Europe in order to learn best practice. She soon identified that the majority of female prisoners had short sentences with high rates of recidivism.

Gordon supported a rehabilitative approach in prisons to combat this, organising prison labour so that menial tasks such as cleaning were assigned to short-term inmates, while more productive roles were given to long-term inmates such as training for jobs when released. Gordon is also credited with physical improvements in conditions in British prisons, such as better lighting in jail cells with the use of clear glass windows and introducing notebooks to HM Prison Holloway.

Gordon was a supporter of the British suffragette movement, and she secretly communicated with Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) about the state of prisons, and by reaching out to imprisoned suffragette leaders such as Emmeline Pankhurst. When the WSPU headquarters was raided by the police on 23 May 1914, this correspondence was discovered and she was asked by the Home Office to renounce her association with the movement; she categorically refused to do so.

During the First World War, she served from July to December 1916 with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service in Macedonia. By the end of her career, she was marginalised and isolated for her association with the suffragette movement and the “feminist” approach that she took to her role. When she asked for an increase in her salary in 1919, an official replied by describing her appointment as a “sop to feminism” and a further increase would be “a concession to the claims of feminism”.

Her attitude towards and treatment of women prisoners as explained in her 1922 book Penal Discipline, available free to Enhanced members of The Prison Oracle – prisonoracle.com – stands in sharp contrast to that of her male contemporaries, and the categorisation of her approach as ‘feminist’ as reinforced by her connections with the suffragette movement has resulted in the marginalisation and dismissal of her work, such that Dr Mary Louisa Gordon and Penal Discipline are virtually unknown today – despite which her insights into the position and needs of women prisoners retain a striking contemporary relevance.

It is deeply regrettable therefore that not one single word is to be found about this remarkable woman on the prisons inspectorate website and, in 2021, my invitation to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charie Taylor, to mark her centenary retirement year on the Prisons Inspectorate website was casually waved away with the one line dismissive response: ‘Thank you for your interesting email’.

Editor: The Prisons Handbook
November 2021.

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

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