Estimated reading time:7 minutes, 47 seconds
Everyone has a story. Islington Museum has a special way of capturing the stories of people and places in our borough. Meet their new curator, Roz Currie, who’s just opened a show about fire – Islington Burning – and is now researching a new exhibition about Holloway Prison (which closed this summer). Interview by Nicola Baird
Roz Currie was in Japan, making headway towards being an academic, when she realised that she didn’t want to be based in a university. At the same time she discovered that she loved teaching children, and old Japanese ladies, how to make apple crumble, what she calls ‘cultural learning’. So, instead of getting a PhD in Japanese archaeology she returned to the UK, partly because her mum was ill, and then looked for work in the heritage industry so she could work with people to tell their stories.
Since then Roz, 36, has worked at Chertsey Museum, the Fusilier Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Jewish Military Museum and Jewish Museum. But in spring 2016 she joined Islington Museum – as exhibitions and collections officer. It’s been an eventful year which has included a flood, “luckily none of our objects got actually wet,” she says. However there were issues with dehumidifying the building which had to be dealt with while working on the Islington Play Association exhibition, and preparing for the Islington Burning exhibition which opened on 22 September and runs until 26 November.
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Islington Burning charts the story of fire fighting in our borough, inspired by the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London (1666) and 150 years passing since the London Fire Brigade was founded. Highlights of the exhibition include an ink written donation of £17.19 from St Mary’s Vestry on 10 October 1666 to aid the people whose homes had been destroyed by fire. This was a lot more generous than it sounds – but came a month after the houses burnt down.
You can also see a picture of St John’s Priory in Clerkenwell in flames, which was burnt during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. It was targeted because the Prior was also the treasurer of the Bank of England.
There’s also plenty of information about Islington’s fire stations, original photos and modern fire fighter kit that you can dress up in. “I went to visit Holloway Fire Station at 262-268 Hornsey Road and Islington Fire Station at 278 Upper Street and at both they were called out with sirens and blue lights going while I was there. They are really busy,” says Roz.
- Places Roz Currie likes in Islington
“As a student I really used to like the Indian Vegetarian restaurant on 92-93 Chapel Market which did all you can eat buffet for £2.99 (it’s £6 now). It’s got amazing posters inside saying things like ‘tomatoes cure impotence’.”
- “I love the Union Chapel. I’ve seen a lot of comedy, music and recently went to the organ reframed concert – the noise flows so beautifully. Because you can’t drink in the church I like the way you take a mug of tea and a Tunnock’s teacake.”
- “I’m a big fan of the 153 bus which goes past Islington Museum and then meanders across Islington past Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and up near Caledonian Park where the cattle market was. I love the history of the drovers who worked at the market. The drovers meant inns, cattle, entertainment and cows and sheep in Islington. Imagine the bustle.”
- “I like to walk from the museum to Bank tube and go through Clerkenwell Green past the Marx Memorial Library. It has the best ladies’ toilets in London – they are decorated with Soviet slogans. And I like the Lenin Room with all the busts of Lenin. The house is where Lenin worked. The museum is doing a joint exhibition with them on the Spanish Civil War in summer 2017.”
- “Posh Exmouth market is just around the corner and you have to go through a housing estate to get there, reflecting the many different sides of Islington. They have really good food stalls – I always get a delicious West African dish – jollof rice with chicken and peanuts. I also really like the DIY hardware shop in Exmouth market – we always use it whenever an exhibition is being installed.”
All about Holloway Prison
“The only women’s prison in London, HMP Holloway closed this summer,” explains Roz – it is due to be demolished and turned into housing.
“I went in before the last prisoner left in June 2016. It’s a really interesting place and I went to collect stuff – we got the loan of a prison bed, a prison key cabinet, and donations of pottery made by the prisoners and ephemera including a ‘Fit to Quit’ poster made by the prisoners (a portcullis of cigarette ends) encouraging the women to give up smoking. I spent two days taking photographs and asking one of the Governors, a million questions.”
It’s clear that Roz is very interested in HMP Holloway. She plans to put in a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to uncover the voices of the women who were there. “The prison is a microcosm of Islington – there are all these different stories going through Holloway, but we don’t have the voices of the people who were there,” she says.
To help Islington Faces readers, Roz provides a potted history of HMP Holloway on the museum blog. She explains that it was “founded in 1852 as a debtor’s prison. Oscar Wilde was there on remand. Then it was a traditional Victorian prison – with two giant pillars, each with a winged griffin holding a giant key. The griffins are still there, but rather dilapidated next to the vegetable gardens.
Roz explains: “It became a women’s prison in 1902 so was where:
- The Islington baby farmers were sent and hanged in 1903.
- Most of the high profile Suffragettes were imprisoned there. Many were force fed having gone on hunger strike to protest being held as non-political prisoners
- During the First World War women were imprisoned there whose only crime was to be married to German men. If they were caught without their paper they became ‘enemy aliens’.
- During World War Two Diana Mosley (the Mitford girl whose second husband was Oswald Mosley – they married in Goebbels’ drawing room in 1936 with Hitler as a guest) was kept there as a fascist under Defence Regulations 18B.
- Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, in 1955, and was buried in the grounds.”
Holloway Prison was rebuilt in the 1970s-1980s. “It’s quite harsh, all red brick,” says Roz, “but the idea was to go from a brooding, foreboding prison to a more humane, friendly atmosphere with cosy spaces,” adding that it looks a bit like her primary school in Otley, North Yorkshire.
Well-known women who have been locked up in the modern Holloway include:
- Vicky Price who took her MP husband Chris Huhne’s speeding points.
- Police brutality victim Sarah Reed, who killed herself (January 2016, see newspaper report).
Middlesex University will be doing an academic study of Holloway’s passing, and the Museum of London seems certain to add some elements of the prison’s hardware to its collection. However Roz has high hopes that her research will lead to “a legacy for Islington Museum which reflects this borough.” You can help her. If you have a story about Holloway prison (as prisoner or visitor) contact Roz on her email, email@example.com, ideally before January 2017.
- Islington Local History Centre & Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1V4 NB is open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm (closed Wednesday and Sunday). @IslingtonMuseum islington.gov.uk/heritage
- Islington Burning exhibition runs until 26 November. It celebrates the story of fire fighting in Islington.
- Roz Currie has written about HMP Holloway on the Islington Museum blog, see this link
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.