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Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison

by Natalie Scott

An epic journey, in poetry, through a hundred years of history at London's Holloway Prison.

Rare Birds creatively re-imagines the rich and gripping story of Holloway Prison through the voices of prisoners, staff and others connected to its history, in order to explore some of the injustices of the penal system during its first hundred years. Natalie Scott's meticulously researched, moving and lyrical poems bring to life well-known voices such as Ruth Ellis, Sylvia Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison and Edith Thompson, plus a host of lesser-known names, to tell Holloway’s story in a truly unique and fascinating way.

Hear inmates at their most vulnerable moments: Ruth Ellis in the last few minutes as she stands at the scaffold describing her executioner; Edith Thompson believing she will be given a stay due to her pregnancy; Selina Salter on her return to prison after being recorded as a lunatic. Join in with rousing suffragette songs composed whilst in prison; hear the testimonies of hunger strikes and forcible feeding; and learn about the shocking differences in treatment shown towards 1st and 3rd division inmates.

Despite Holloway Prison’s notoriety as a women’s prison, the poems voice women in roles other than that of criminal: there are social campaigners, comrades, as well as sisters, daughters, mothers, wives, lovers and companions. The collection explores many topics which are still just as relevant today: human rights, gender, sexuality, mental illness and socio-economic status, with some of the problems women faced in the 19th century being not so different from the issues they face now.

Praise for Rare Birds:

Rare Birds is one of the most extraordinary poetry collections I’ve ever read. Dozens of inhabitants of Holloway Prison – and the building itself – come to life as we’re led through a dizzying, exhilarating, dazzling cacophony of voices. There is a baleful beauty to their resulting angry music which will go “on and on and on and on and on” as a lyrical, life affirming counterpoint to the power games which provoked it.’ Kate Fox

‘A rare bird indeed, Natalie Scott’s extraordinary aviary houses the plaintive, broken, cackling birdsongs of a century’s-worth of Holloway’s inhabitants, from sensational cases of the day – Ruth Ellis, Edith Thompson, the Mosleys – through career and petty criminals, to the otherwise lost-forever-in-the-vaults – beggars, prostitutes, the written-off as mad. Rising above the self-exonerating wails of hangmen and clergymen, these fragments of female suffering grow from their separate arias of misery to a marvellous common chorus of witness and defiance.’ Glyn Maxwell

Rare Birds may have a single focus, but it is a book of unusual scope and power. Working with original documents and an unerring, uncompromising humanity, Scott finds the voice in all stories, and the song in all voices. There’s skill here, in bucketloads, and there’s knowledge, veracity, hard labour – but most of all, there’s a deep passion for the subject at hand.’ Clare Shaw

‘In this rich and resonant collection, Natalie Scott unlocks the prison doors and leads the reader in among the cry and chatter of diverse voices that have been echoing through its cells and corridors, largely unheard, for so long. Convicts and commentators, warders and reformers, the devout and the damned: all emerge into the light to tell their stories. Deftly written with robust sensitivity, these are characters who will remain with you, with all their flawed and vigorous humanity.’ Oz Hardwick

‘Each poem stands alone, with its own tale to tell, but the cumulative effect is extraordinarily powerful. Rare Birds will, I’m sure, find its way onto academic syllabuses, but for me its major value is the extraordinary act of sensitive ventriloquism by the poet, who is to be congratulated for an awe-inspiring achievement.’ Carole Bromley

‘Rare Birds combines linguistic finesse with painful honesty: the descriptions of the brutality inflicted on the occupants of the cells, from slapping to restraining to the horror of force-feeding, bring to life what the women endured. Scott does not present them as martyrs, however: she always looks for the human quality, even the flaws in these extraordinary women.’ Jo Colley

‘Riveting … an essential read for everyone interested in the shocking history of women in prison.’ Caitlin Davies

‘Touching and shocking in equal measure, Natalie Scott expertly captures the hopes, fears, pride and fury of an extraordinarily diverse array of characters. A history lesson made very human.’ Bob Fischer (BBC Radio Tees)

‘This book could so easily make you feel angry, but the resilience and courage demonstrated here gives a feeling of hope in an era of political turmoil … A very powerful read.’ Julie Donaldson (Zetland Radio)


Natalie Scott is a poet and educator from the North East of England. She is the author of Berth: Voices of the Titanic (Bradshaw Books, 2012), and two pamphlets: Brushed (Mudfog, 2009) and Frayed (Indigo Dreams, 2016). Her second full-length collection, Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison, was published by Valley Press in March 2020.

Both Berth and Rare Birds received Arts Council England funding to be adapted for the theatre: the latter was workshopped with an award-winning team of West End actors and composers, and showcased at the Soho Theatre in London.

Natalie shares her working time between the north and south, as a freelance writer for community projects and Creative Writing Lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth. She has a cat called Fizban (the Fabulous) and once folded Sir Peter Ustinov’s pyjamas.


Edition: First

Date Published: 2020-03-08

ISBN: 9781912436255

Catalogue Number: VP0145

Number of Pages: 146

Cover design by Jamie McGarry

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