‘Miss, you’ve forgotten to lock us in!’

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Volume 27

Mary Size (1883–1959)—forgotten Irish pioneer of British penal reform.

By Ruairí Ó hAodha

Myra Hindley claimed that she was glad that it was dark when she was driven through the gates of Holloway Prison, London, in 1966, as she avoided having to view its forbidding Victorian façade. Hindley had narrowly avoided the hangman for her part in the notorious Moors Murders of 1963–5, as the death penalty had been abolished in England a few months before her conviction. She died in 2002, having spent her imprisonment launching appeal after appeal for parole, to the immense enjoyment of the tabloid press. Successive home secretaries regularly used her case to burnish their credentials as ‘tough on crime’. Opinion regarding her remained starkly divided. Some prison governors believed that she was truly contrite, and the Irish peer Lord Longford thought her conversion to Catholicism genuine. Other prison visitors, however, like Lady Anne Tree, regarded her as dangerous, ‘not highly intelligent, but arrogant and extremely devious’, and urged that she never be released.

Holloway Prison

The recent closure of HMP Holloway, Europe’s largest women’s prison, makes the subject of the present article timely. Holloway was initially opened as a mixed-sex prison in 1852, but as Britain’s prison population rose it was made female-only in 1906. Its history casts an important sidelight on the changing status of women within society from the second half of the nineteenth century. In its earliest period, it frequently acted as a place of last resort for those who had lost out socially, many of whom, unsurprisingly, bore Irish names. Poverty, abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, prostitution and infanticide were frequent factors. Holloway has a special place, too, in the story of the Suffragettes. The strategy of imprisoning Suffragettes backfired badly on the governments of the day and generated huge publicity for the cause; many Suffragettes looked upon imprisonment as a badge of honour and urged the judges at their trials to send them to Holloway.

Above: Holloway Prison, initially opened as a mixed-sex prison in 1852. As Britain’s prison population rose, it became female-only in 1906. (Illustrated London News, 1853)

From the late 1920s to the early 1940s the deputy governor of Holloway was Mary Size, a native of County Galway. Much of what is known of her career can be derived from a memoir she wrote upon her retirement, Prisons I have known (1957). Searching for references to her in Irish national newspapers of the day is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. Although she received occasional mention in local west of Ireland newspapers, she appears to have been deliberately overlooked owing to her rise to a position of significant prominence in Britain in the years immediately following the foundation of the Irish state. That an Irish Catholic woman rose so high within British society is a testament to her singular vision, determination and hard work.


Above: Mug-shot and details of Countess Markievicz taken in Richmond Barracks before she was ‘removed to Aylesbury Prison, England’ on 7 May 1916, where Mary Size described her as ‘a good prisoner, but a queer, eccentric woman’. (Clare County Museum)

Mary Size was born in 1883 in the townland of Ratesh, Kilconly, near Tuam, and attended the local Tubberoe national school. Wanting to be a teacher, she spent some time as a monitor at nearby Cloghan’s Hill national school. She had an interest in the education of troubled youths and upon the advice of a friend sought a teaching role within the prison service. In 1906, at the age of 23, she began her probation at Manchester Strangeways, the beginning of a career in British prisons that lasted over 40 years. She worked in Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, and was governor of the women’s Borstal at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, before her appointment as deputy governor of Holloway. As an Irishwoman and a Catholic, her appointment raised objections in the House of Commons, ironically enough from Britain’s first (sitting) female MP, Lady Astor. Yet it was clear to the authorities at the time that out of the 134 individuals who had applied for the job Size was the best candidate.

In the year that she began working for it, the British penal system oversaw the incarceration of about 40,000 women annually, though most of those were serving short terms for relatively minor convictions like drunkenness, petty theft and prostitution. She began her career on the bottom rung of the prison ladder. At Manchester she was engaged in general duties that included serving prisoners at mealtimes and securing them in their cells. Other than mealtimes and slopping out, there was only one hour per day of extra-cell ‘leisure’ time. She recounted that she was shocked to discover that prisoners at Leeds were never offered a cup of tea with their meals, a scandal by Irish standards which, when she questioned it, ‘brought a titter from the women, and a look of scorn from the officer’. Her relative youth had prisoners commenting on her sympathetically: ‘She is only a lass and knows nuthin’ … she didn’t orter to be a screw—can’t see her staying long’. 

Collaboration with Lillian Barker

Above: ‘… her face was rather stern, but when she laughed she really laughed’—Mary Size enjoying a lighter moment at Askham Grange open prison, 1948.

Two months into her probation she was transferred to the Aylesbury Convict Prison for Women, where she was appointed schoolmistress and gained considerable medical experience from working alongside the only nurse within the prison service at that time. Strongly influenced by the writings of the nineteenth-century Quaker reformer Elizabeth Fry, at Aylesbury Size formed a long-lasting connection with Lilian Barker, who in 1935 became the UK’s first female assistant prison commissioner: ‘For the first time in penal history, a woman in charge of women prisoners could discuss their problems with a woman commissioner and be free of male influence. There was much to be done.’ The two women continued to collaborate closely throughout Size’s governorship of Holloway. According to prison historians, all reform for the betterment of women’s prisons, prisoners and staff in Britain during the first half of the twentieth century can be attributed to the initiatives of Lilian Barker and Mary Size.

Size was a firm but fair governor. In all the prisons where she worked she moved life towards a more open regime, whereas before women had been locked in their cells for most hours of the day. Her background in rural Galway and her local education proved significant. A stickler for order and cleanliness, she encouraged prisoners in education, crafts, vegetable gardening and poultry-keeping. She believed that handicrafts were ‘the greatest blessing bestowed on women’s prisons in modern times’; they created a healthier atmosphere where ‘the old fashioned harsh discipline that bred hatred and distrust was replaced by a friendly cooperation’. So successful was Size at sustaining trust between officers and inmates that on one occasion she had to be reminded by a prisoner to secure the wing before lights-out: ‘Miss, you’ve forgotten to lock us in!’

She saw to the updating and expansion of libraries in the prisons in which she worked, liberalising regimes of literary censorship and encouraging reading and writing. She designed and built the first ever Catholic chapel for Holloway, in ‘a disused ladder shed’. Size made frequent return visits to her family home in Galway. She visited local schools, distributing books as well as clothes made by the inmates at Aylesbury. She was a committed Catholic. According to James Chuter Ede, Labour MP and Britain’s longest-serving home secretary, Size’s place in the annals of penal reform is ‘secure’; everything she did arose from ‘the absolute certainty springing from religious conviction’. A large window in the parish church of Kilconly was gifted by her.

Countess Markievicz

In her memoir, however, Mary Size made no mention of her Irish background. She changed the names of all the inmates with whom she had ever interacted, bar one—a detail that more than any other may account for her absence from the Irish historical record. That prisoner was Britain’s first (non-sitting) female MP, Countess Markievicz, who was imprisoned in Aylesbury following her leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Considered by other prisoners as a scruffily dressed ‘eccentric’ who annoyed them by singing loudly in her cell, according to Size the rebel countess was an early riser, clean, helpful and creative—in short, a model prisoner. Despite her description of Markievicz as the ‘notorious Irish rebel’, one can detect more than a hint of regard for her compatriot in her careful account:

‘The prison authorities thought that this fearless, impulsive and adventurous woman might create trouble among the convicts, or might try and escape. So, it was deemed advisable to keep her for a period under observation. She was placed in a cell with a door and an iron gate, where she could be closely supervised.

She was then 48 years old. It was feared that inactivity and humdrum routine of the prison following on the activity and excitement of her life might undermine her health. The medical officer gave her a searching examination and recommended that she could be employed on useful work, but that she must continue to occupy the same cell and sleep there. She was sent to the workroom, where she made prisoners’ night-gowns and various articles of underwear from coarse unbleached calico. Sitting still on a hard chair all day stitching calico garments did not suit her. She was moved to the kitchen, where she scrubbed tables and the floors of the kitchen and the bakehouse.

She had little aptitude for work of this kind; it repelled her. The officer in charge of the kitchen complained frequently about her work and repeatedly sent her back to do it over again. Her thoughts were far away, and she did not appear to be able to concentrate on anything that did not interest her. She never grumbled nor did she try to justify her actions when reprimanded, but simply carried on in her own way and at her own pace.

Constance Markiewicz, who was endowed with keen artistic ability, felt the need for exercising her talent. She used the notebooks issued to her for sketching, writing poetry, and French translation. She loved horses, birds and flowers, and drew them on any blank pieces of paper she could find—often on pieces of toilet paper—when she had exhausted her supply of prison notebooks. A craving to do some embroidery overtook her, and to satisfy it selected the best odds and ends of material, which were given to her for cleaning purposes and washed them carefully. She drew her designs on the pieces of white material and patiently drew threads of red, blue, grey and any other colours she could find amongst the rags, and used these instead of embroidery cotton. In this way, she managed to produce some beautiful little pieces of embroidery. One day I found one concealed in her library book; it was a picture of the Madonna and Child so well executed that it was difficult to believe it had been made from such poor materials.

Early rising did not worry her. She told me that she did her embroidery in the morning before the first bell rang and when she heard the jingle of the officer’s keys she carefully folded up her treasures and hid them. If they had been found on her she would have incurred a disciplinary report and perhaps forfeited her privileges. Such as being reduced to the first stage, with loss of books for a period or the forfeiture of her notebooks …

… Constance never tried to stir up trouble. She was well liked by her fellow prisoners, and was regarded by staff as a good prisoner, but a queer, eccentric woman. Orders for her release were received and she was discharged from Aylesbury Prison on June 17th, after the signing of the amnesty. The day before her release she drew a picture of a bird in an open cage with wings outstretched in readiness for flight …’ 

The image of this heir to an Anglo-Irish estate in Connacht, weeks after fighting the British on the streets of Dublin, being watched over in an English prison by the daughter of a Connacht tenant farmer must be amongst one of the more paradoxical in the long history of Anglo-Irish relations. Significant, too, perhaps, is the claim that Markievicz’s experiences in Aylesbury ‘hastened’ her conversion to Catholicism some months later.

Askham Grange ‘open’ prison for women

In 1941 Mary Size was awarded an MBE by George VI. She retired in 1942 but was called back four years later to oversee the establishment of Askham Grange, an experimental open prison for women in Yorkshire. It opened its doors in 1947 and is still operational to this day. A former inmate, Joan Henry, in her memoir Women in prison (1953), remembered that Mary Size had the reputation of being ‘the best of all prison governors’:

Above: Askham Grange open prison, still in operation today.

‘She sat very upright in the chair behind the desk in a well-cut tweed suit. Her graying hair was drawn back in a bun. She wore glasses. She exuded that air of authority natural to those who held positions over a long period of time. She spoke kindly but firmly about the rules. In repose, her face was rather stern, but when she laughed she really laughed, and her eyes twinkled so that her face was at once transformed.’

Size finally retired as governor of Askham Grange in 1952. The night before she left she was presented with a scroll bearing the signatures of all 71 inmates of the house and one baby’s thumb mark. The following morning, ‘like the Arabs, I folded up my tent and silently stole away’. She died seven years later, in 1959. The 60th anniversary of her death should not pass unnoticed.    

Ruairí Ó hAodha works for Galway Public Libraries and is editor of the Journal of the Old Tuam Society.


J. Camp, Holloway Prison (Newton Abbot, 1974).

J. Henry, Women in prison (Garden City, NY, 1952).

M. Size, Prisons I have known (London, 1957).


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