May Doris Charity Taylor

Published 4th September 2018
May Doris Charity Taylor (nee Clifford) was the first female prison governor in England and Wales.

Born in Woking, Surrey, on 16th September 1914, Taylor qualified in medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London. She later joined the Prison Commission during WW2 because she felt that her skills as a doctor should be used to help with the war effort.

She was appointed Assistant Medical Officer at Holloway Prison on 1942, a women only prison since 1902, before which time all the Medical Officers had been men.

In 1945, at the age of 30, she was appointed Governor of HM Prison Holloway, becoming the first woman appointed to the position. Whilst in post, she reformed the way prisons approached female inmates, focusing on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. The prison throughout Victorian and Edwardian times had been incredibly punishment-focused, and behind closed doors women were made to do menial labour. Her goal was to better equip women for leaving prison. She said, at her appointment to governor, that tThe thing is to give some of these people the hope that they will become decent citizens again. Severe punishment is not always the way to prevent an individual doing something wrong.”

She allowed women to wear their own clothes, makeup, and the biggest reform of all, to keep their babies in prison with them after they were born in the prison hospital. She also broadened the education experience in Holloway, introducing classes in first aid, typing and home nursing as well as more traditional types of learning like English literature and current affairs.

Her time as Governor oversaw the last hanging of a woman in the UK on 23 July 1955, when Ruth Ellis was hanged for shooting her boyfriend dead.

In 1959, she was appointed as Assistant Director and Inspector of Prisons for Women. She spent much of her time training staff and lecturing at the Prison Staff Training College at Wakefield. She was evidently passionate about ensuring standards at women’s prisons throughout England and Wales, visiting them regularly, ensuring the tough but caring system of rehabilitation.

She married the physician Stephen Taylor (later Baron Taylor) in 1930. In 1966, she retired and moved to Canada with her husband when he was appointed as President and Vice-Chancellor of the Memorial University of Newfoundland. Here, she became President of the Social Welfare Council. When her husband retired, she moved back to Britain in 1973.

Charity Taylor died in West Sussex on 4th January 1998. Taylor’s obituary in the Independent credits her with always remembering that “the prisoners were there to be helped back successfully into society”.

Written by Caroline Dix, Project Coordinator for First 100 Years