Holloway Prison in WW2 – Diana Mosley

Picture showing the original gatehouse of Holloway Prison
The Old Holloway Prison Gatehouse, picture by David Anstiss, Geograph

The Peabody Trust bought the site of former Holloway Prison from the Ministry of Justice in March 2019 and are committed to delivering 985 new homes, including 60% affordable housing. Their aim is to create a place that the whole community is proud of with new homes, community facilities, open space, and a Women’s Building.

But Holloway Prison has a rich and chequered history and the site will no doubt remain infamous for years to come.

One notable phase in the prison’s history was during WW2 when Nazi sympathisers and member of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) were detained there along with ‘aliens’ and suspected spies. It was particularly newsworthy at the time because some of the detainees were British aristocrats and well-known military figures.

By the end of the war there were over 1000 detained as ‘18B’ prisoners – i.e. prisoners detained under defence regulation 18B which effectively suspended the rights of the individuals and negated the need for them to be charged and convicted of a specific crime. The most famous of these prisoners was Lady Diana Mosley, one of the Mitford sisters and part of a social group of bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in the 1920’s. She was often in the press because of her decadence and lifestyle –she and her sisters were regarded as great beauties and people loved to follow the antics of her and her friends and family. She was also however, a known sympathiser of Adolf Hitler and  a supporter of the fascist movement. She was followed in the run up to the war because of her connections with the far right and deemed to be a ‘sinister and extremely dangerous young woman who should be detained as soon as possible’ by the head of MI5.  Diana Mosley was there from June 1940, her husband (Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists) was later allowed to join her in married quarters until they were both released in November 1943 to house arrest until the end of the war. 

Diana was incarcerated for ‘custodial purposes only’ but she very much saw it as a punishment particularly as she was separated from her 4 children, one of whom was only 11 weeks old at the time.

Diana who was very much used to the finer things in life was placed in a dirty cell with a tiny, barred window covered in rotting sandbags and a mattress on the floor. It would not have been a pleasant experience, particularly as she had been breast feeding and would was desperately missing her children. She wrote..there is a frightening look about the metal door of a prison cell because it has no handle on the inside.

However, despite harsh beginnings over time things got easier and Diana became friends with some of the wardresses. Indeed, eventually she was moved to married quarters with her husband (due to influence from her connection with Sir Winston Churchill!) and other friends where they created a communal vegetable garden for themselves and the other couples to supplement their rations and could cook their own food. Their accommodation at this time was described as containing cells but also a kitchen and two other rooms which could be used as a sitting room and dining room. They were cleaned by convicts from the main part of the prison. She also had weekly family visits and received gifts and provisions that provided a level of comfort not available to most inmates. It’s no surprise that the press of the time described their surroundings as relative luxury!

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This picture was taken summer 2022 after the prison was closed but it does show there was some greenery within the grounds.

Interesting Diana never seemed to understand why she had been detained, nor did she modify her views. She had family members who sympathised with her, including her mother and Unity Mitford who was very closely associated with Hitler before war broke out. However, it was in fact one of her other sisters who initially alerted the authorities about her worrying behaviours and another of her sisters was in fact in the Communist party. Prison life must have inevitably changed her but there is not much evidence to suggest that it made her more moderate or sympathetic to those less well off than herself and she was never again seen in a positive light by the British public. In her obituary in the Guardian in 2003 she was described as the most hated woman in England.

For more information contact Jane Scott, the author of this post.